This week, Moses is on Mount Sinai beginning the Forty-day period of receiving the Torah. God starts with the design plan of the Mishkan, the portable temple that will be the center of Israelite practices until the time of Solomon. God starts holy and works his way out, giving plans for the Ark of the convenant, noting about the Ark: .
And there I will meet with you, and I will talk with you from above the cover, from between the two kerubim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the people of Israel.[Ex 25:22]
It is from here that all divine revelation of the prophets comes. When the temple is destroyed divine revelation disappears. God continues our parsha with the plans for the Table, on which would be put what is usually translated the shewbread.
23. You shall also make a table of shittim wood; two cubits shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 24. And you shall overlay it with pure gold… 30. And you shall set the bread of display upon the table before me always.[Ex: 25:23-30]
We read much later in Leviticus 24:5-9, what this shewbread is and how it is used. The shewbread was loaves of bread that were placed on this table sitting in front of the Ark. They sat there for a week, from one Shabbat to another. At the next Shabbat, they were replaced and the old loaves were eaten by the Priests at this table. The Talmud mentions a miracle about this bread. The bread was as fresh as when it came out of the oven the entire week. On Yom Kippur, part of the service was to lift it to the crowds and declare [Yoma 21a-b] “Behold how beloved you are of God, for it is as fresh when it is taken off as it was when put on, as it was said: 'To put hot bread in the day it was taken away.'(I Sam 21:7)”
I once came down with a stomach flu. The evening I got sick I was sitting an Italian restaurant and a weird thought popped into my head. There is a quote in the Mishnah I have been quoting a lot lately, and thinking a lot about.
If three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, Blessed be He
However, I could not remember the proof text. For those not familiar with rabbinic logic, nothing exists unless it has some quote in the Tanach to back it up. As I left the restaurant, I stopped at a bookstore that was across the parking lot to see if they happened to have a copy of Jacob Neusner’s translation of the Mishnah, or some other translation of Pirke Avot which would have the proof text. Oddly enough, for a predominately Jewish neighborhood, they didn’t. While in the bookstore, my tummy rumbled, and went to the restroom. The beginnings of my flu erupted in Diarrhea. I got home, and spent most of the night with something coming out of one end or the other. By the morning, decimated, dehydrated, and exhausted, I was sitting in bed and that thought about the proof text popped up again. Being the Torah geek I am, it just so happens that I have a copy of the Mishnah by the bookshelf next to my bed. Although the book seemed to weigh a million pounds I did get it off the shelf and looked up the full quote
Mishnah Avot 3:3. R. Simeon said: if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead, for [of such persons] it is said, ‘for all tables are full of filthy vomit, [they are] without the all-present.’(Isaiah 28:8) but, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the all-present, blessed be he, as it is said, ‘this is the table before the Lord’.(Ezekiel 41:22)
I looked up the quote in Ezekiel 41:22, which actually wasn’t a lot of help, though it was related to this week’s portion.
The altar of wood was three cubits high, and its length two cubits; and it had corners; its length and its walls were of wood; and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord.The table, though twice as tall as the Mishkan’s, is the table for the shewbread. Ezekiel was getting a preview of the third temple, the one to be built in the time of redemption, and here was the shewbread table in this temple.
That was nice but meant nothing to me, so once I felt better, I started digging. It turns out there was an oft quoted saying of two great rabbis in the Talmud who explained that verse:
[Berachot 55a] ‘The altar of wood three cubits high . . . . and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord’ [Now the verse] opens with ‘altar’ and finishes with ‘table’? R. Johanan and R. Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man's table atones for him
Where the Shewbread table used to be our connection to God, since the destruction of the Temple it is our own dining room tables, indeed anywhere we sit down and have a meal. As our text this week says, the shewbread table is before the Ark, where God meets with us. Therefore the shewbread table is God’s dining room table, and every meal we are invited to dine.
But the beginning of the verse interested me as well, which seems a little graphic, and given my illness, a little personal as well. Its proof text is Isaiah 28:8, which one needs a few more verses to get the context:
8. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that there is no place clean. 9. To whom shall one teach knowledge? and whom shall one make understand doctrine? Those who are weaned from the milk, and removed from the breasts. 10. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; 11. For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. 12. To whom he said, This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing; yet they would not hear. [Isaiah 28:8-12]
Even with small pieces of study building on one another, no one in the Northern Kingdom listened. It would be like being invited to someone’s house, grabbing some food, and never speaking to the host, let alone thanking or acknowledging his or her presence. It’s mind bogglingly rude, as rude as intentionally puking and defecating on the table. R. Simeon was outraged that people would behave that way at God’s table.
Therefore, for one to say words of Torah at the table is to be God's personal guest and honor your host, to not say words of Torah is to insult your host. But why did I need that quote from the Mishnah? In Sannhedrin 37a, there is parable related to why life is so precious. Most people who mint coins mint them with a face of a king, and every coin has a face of that king. But the King of Kings, when he mints coins, “Fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.” And of course of the first man, he “fashioned in his image.”(Genesis 1:27) We all are the faces of God, yet completely unique. It is interesting that the word in Hebrew for Shewbread is lechem panim. Literally this means the bread of faces. Since no translator can figure out whose faces, the usual translation in English is to revert to the verb, which means to turn. One turns to show the bread thus Showbread. Panim can also mean face to face. It could also mean the bread was face to face, lfnei Elokim, before God. What if those faces are the faces of those eating it? All faces are unique expressions of the God-image. When they sit eating bread, and discuss words of The Lord of Hosts the divine in each of us to combine to form a more complete connection to God, and as our portion says “And there I will meet with you, and I will talk with you”. In a collective we find divine revelation.
There is the old expression “Two Jews, three opinions” Often taken as sardonic humor one must ask where the third opinion comes from. The third is the synthesis of the two, the one that comes out of holy discussion, not a discussion of “I’m right your wrong” but of “Here is one case” and “here is another.” Together they make a third, one that we could easily call God’s opinion. When two Jews sit down at a meal, and talk words of Torah, there will their own opinions and together they will reveal the opinion of the Holy One Blessed Be He.
May your tables have holy conversations