July 10th, 2020


Is Your Table an Altar?

Dr. Erica Brown

By Dr. Erica Brown

Published Oct. 8, 2014

Is Your Table an Altar?

“When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now it is a person's table that atones for him.”

                        —  Talmud, Chagiga 27a

This busy holiday season is full of references to the Temple and the way that these days were celebrated there. In the absence of sacrifices, there is prayer today. In the absence of an altar, there is a table today --- our tables.

This notion that we repent through our tables suggests that the table not only be a place to eat and gather with friends and family but a place where repair is performed. We think about where we have fallen short and how we can make up for it by the way we treat others who we bring close to us, close enough to speak to across a table.

The connection between the table and the altar of old is discussed in the Talmud and made through a rabbinic literary referencing system employed by our sages. They took a biblical verse, in this case one from Ezekiel, and connected two words in it: "The altar, three cubits high, and its length two cubits, was of wood, and so its corners, its length and its walls were also of wood, and he said to me: This is the table that is before the Lord" (41:22).

If an altar is like the Divine's table then when there is no altar our tables must serve in its place. "The verse began with 'altar' and ended with 'table,'" taught both Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. These were noted sparring partners, but there was something that the two agreed upon: this teaching.

The foremost commentator, a medieval French sage known as Rashi, says that we achieve atonement through our generosity at the table. Rabbi Samuel Edels, or the Maharsha, of the sixteenth century interprets this differently. Because the term atonement is used, he believes we treat our table as an altar when we limit what we eat in memory of what was offered in the Temple: wine, meat and bread. We might want to extrapolate that a good way to atone for sins of excess is to engage in greater restraint in what we eat and how we speak with those at our tables. Still others believe the altar and table come together when we teach Torah at a meal, as we learn in the third chapter of Ethics of the Fathers:

                      "Rabbi Simon would say: 'Three who eat together at a table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten sacrifices to idols, as it states: 'All tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of G0D' (Isaiah 28:8). But when three people eat at a table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G0D's table, as it states, 'This is the table that is before G0D' (Ezekiel 41:22)."

Every time we eat, we can sanctify it through blessings, holy conversation and intentional eating or we can profane the moment. Seeking atonement means using each food opportunity as a chance for improvement generally. The table is the place where most families gather daily. It's a time when we can engage our hearts and minds or merely engage our mouths. Since many nutritionists believe that we have about 20 "food encounters" a day, we have multiple opportunities all of the time to do this better.

This reminds me of a Miss Manners column where a woman complained about being a dinner guest at a home with her husband and son where the host complimented what she was wearing, saying "it accentuates the right places." This was most embarrassing for her and she was not sure how to respond to this inappropriate remark. The situation was made worse when the hostess -- who was herself upset about the comment -- was short with the guest instead of being short with her husband. What, Miss Manners, should she do if such a situation arises again?

"Considering that the husband was lewd and the wife snippy" Miss Manners doubted that the situation would happen again since they should be crossed off the visiting list. She did, however, make this recommendation: "Should you encounter such a remark again, you could exclaim, 'I didn't know that you used to be a tailor!'"

The table is an altar for atonement when we can use it to change a dynamic that is not healthy or happy to one that engages everyone in a spirit of mutual respect and curiosity. And it's a great way to take Yom Kippur into Sukkos. The table we use to greet our many guests becomes a way for us to improve our manners, heighten our generosity to strangers and elevate the conversation.

How can we all make our tables altars of atonement?

What will you do to enhance your dining experience spiritually this Sukkos?

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Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest. She is scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, DC and a consultant to other Jewish organizations. Dr. Brown is the author of Confronting Scandal, Spiritual Boredom and Inspired Jewish Leadership and co-author of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood. Her "Weekly Jewish Wisdom" column has appeared regularly in The Washington Post. She lives with her husband and four children in Silver Spring, MD.