Like a Set Table

(Originally appeared in the KC Jewish Chronicle)

One memory from my childhood that stands out is the sweet aroma from my mother’s kitchen on Friday afternoons and on the eve of Jewish festivals. For me, being a Jew was certainly linked to the successful adaptation of the fine kosher cuisine of 19th century Eastern Europe to our home on the western Canadian prairie. So much was my Jewish identity wrapped up in the enjoyment of our ethnic food, that my initial exposure to Rabbi Joseph Caro’s magnum opus prompted me to make the culinary connection. Why else would he call his Code of Jewish Law – “The Shulchan Aruch” – “The Set Table” – unless he, too, was keenly aware of the Jewish people’s appreciation of fine food?

A careful study of our classical sources indicates that the term “Shulchan Aruch” has slightly different origins: In Parshas Mishpatim, G-d issues the following instruction to Moshe: “And these are the laws that you should place before them.” This headline is followed by a smorgasbord of mitzvos, ranging from correct courtroom procedure to tort law and even the complex laws of the Sabbatical year in the Land of Israel. Why, asks Rashi, does the Torah use the expression “Ta-sim Lifneihem” – “You should place before them”? G-d should simply have told Moshe to “command” or “teach” the Torah to his fellow Jews!

Rashi’s answer: G-d is cautioning Moshe not to settle for a comprehensive review of the mitzvos until people grasp their content. “Don’t think you can get by without conveying the details and reasons behind each mitzvah. These are the laws that you must place before them – like a set table, the food ready to be consumed by anyone who wishes.”

With these comments, Rashi shows his clear understanding of the nuances of the Hebrew language. A quick scan using modern-day Torah software reveals that conjugations of the Hebrew infinitive “to place” throughout the Bible, Prophets and Writings consistently refer to the placement of a ready-to-eat meal in front of a guest. In Bereishis 24:33, for example, as Eliezer meets Rivka, the bride-to-be of Yitzchak, we are told “Vayusam lifanav le’echol” – the food was placed in front of Eliezer to eat. The same is true of Samuel 9:24, where King Saul is served a piece of meat – and the Hebrew reads “Sim lifanecha le’echol..” – “Place it in front of yourself to eat.” To be applied in day-to-day life, Torah must be served up in a way that it can be digested and absorbed.

The great German-Jewish luminary, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, takes this idea one step further. He notes that dozens of mitzvos are dispersed over Parshas Misphatim’s 118 verses. As a result, no one issue is communicated in a way that it can be practically applied. So although we are bidden by our parsha to consume only matzah during Pesach, not one detail is provided to explain just how matzah is to be baked in a way that would make it kosher for Passover. Similarly, the intricacies that one would expect from the laws of bailment are hinted to in broad, sweeping strokes of the Biblical pen. Our Torah portion seems to be the antithesis of a “Shulchan Aruch”!

This is precisely the point, Hirsch explains. From the outset, G-d urges Moshe to articulate these elusive principles in the form of a Living Torah that will practically guide the Jewish people to live its national life in keeping with G-d’s will. The written law, as it stands, is virtually incomprehensible unless accompanied by a Divinely-given “Torah She Be’al Peh”, or an Oral Torah.

It may sometimes be difficult for us to discern how the final formulation of the halacha derives from the wording of the Biblical text. But then again …. I could never figure out how, within a short time, my mother was able to transform those bland, raw potatoes into the perfectly-spiced crispy latkes that left us all hungry for more.

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