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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse four

Last week, we saw that Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion begins with two sitting together and concludes with one. The verse that follows appears to be going backwards.

R. Simeon said:—Three who have eaten at one table and have not said over it words of Torah are as if they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead, as it is said For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness without Gd. But three who have eaten at one table and have said over it words of Torah are as if they had eaten from the table of Gd, as it is said: And he said to me This is the table which is before the Lord.

Now, this is the Rashbi, Reb Simeon bar Yochbai, who was an extremely pious, rather cranky wonder-worker and sage. There are many, many stories about him. Many, many, many. The Zohar is traditionally attributed to him, so all of the Kabbalah stories are the grandchildren of stories about the Rashbi. But even about Simeon himself, there are no end of stories. And his sayings are legion. Why this one? Why not the one about it being forbidden for a man to fill his mouth with laughter in this world? Or perhaps the bit about how croup is caused by neglect of study? Although not on the part of the croup sufferer necessarily.

Or in the tractate Sukkah, appropriate to this week, he is quoted by Hezekiah as saying I see the greatest men in the world are very few. If they are a thousand, I and my son are included; if they are a hundred, I and my son are included, and if they are only two, they are I and my son.

And those quotes are certainly saved and available for perusal and whatnot. But here in Pirke Avot, we get that three people should talk about the Divine when they eat.

When they eat. That’s what’s going on here, I think. Because I think (I think) that this verse is all about the table, the shulchan, which we now have on authority can be made the shulchan shel-makom, the table with a Presence, by saying words of Torah over it. And what is the Shulchan shel-makom? It is the shulchan asher liphnay adonai, the Table before the Lord, which in the first half of the Ezekiel verse is the mizbeach, the Altar. And in the first half of the Rashbi verse, it is the mizb’chay matim, the altar of the pagans.

There are two lessons here, both very important. First is this: The Altar in Jerusalem is gone; now we must take the kitchen table as an Altar to the Divine. The Machsor Vitry (compiled by Rashi’s students) makes this point: that in Temple times, we could atone for our sins with sacrifice at the Temple. Now, we achieve atonement at the table, by giving food and drink to the poor. The lesson about charity is very important, but it is Schenectady for the entirety of Torah (as well it might be) and our relationship to the Divine. Rashbi is telling us that we are not Temple Jews (thank the Divine), but that doesn’t mean we are to become synagogue Jews. We are to be kitchen-table Jews.

Digression: Speaking of charity and food, I know some Gentle Readers will be making charitable donations towards the end of the calendar year. There are always many, many things that money can help with, and you need to make your own decisions, and that’s all good. But y’all should know, and probably already know, that food pantries and direct food assistance are hurting, and hurting badly. Temple Beth Bolshoi does a food drive on Yom Kippur every year, and we have been filling two trailer-trucks in recent years. Not this year; our membership is hurting. And that meant less food for the pantries in Greater Hartford, which were already hurting, as I say. They are squeezing turnip juice from rocks, at this point. So if you are considering where to send money this year, please at least call over to local food pantries and see if they are hurting as badly as ours are. And think about diverting some of that money to the (very worthy) political, environmental, social, and educational stuff that is also hurting very badly. Not easy choices to make, eh? But remember the immortal words of the Fiddler on the Roof schnorrer, who said So you had a bad week, why should I suffer? End Digression.

There is a political metaphor of the kitchen table that my Party used to tremendous effect (I think) in the recent elections, and which I would like to see them continue to bang away at. There is something very powerful about the dinner table, whether it is in the kitchen or a dining room or a breakfast nook. And I think it’s fair to say that what you do (and with whom) at the dinner table says as much about what kind of person you are as what you do anywhere else.

And what, then, is the difference between a kitchen table that is a replacement for the Destroyed Temple and a kitchen table that is an Altar to profanity? Between the mizbeach l’adonai and the mizbechay matim? Or even a mizbeach mi bal’aday mizbeach adonai elohenu, an altar beside the altar of the Divine? Words. Just words. But not just any words. Words of the path of the Torah. Not the ritual blessings, although of course the blessings are words of the path of the Torah, but the precepts and regulations, restrictions and obligations.

Suitably revised for the world we live in, of course, says YHB, before he goes off to have pasta carbonara for lunch.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.