>In the lead up to Rosh Hashannah and Pesach a gentle negotiation always takes place in my parents’ home. The fact that they will be hosting an erev Rosh Hashannah dinner and a Pesach seder is not up for discussion, that is a non-negotiable. The debate is always about how many people can be hosted comfortably around the table. My mother seems to believe that our dining room possesses a ‘ Tardis’-like quality and will expand to fit everyone who is invited. On the other side my father wants to make sure that every guest has enough space both to their right and their left. A compromise is always found and the festivals are always celebrated around the dining room table in their home.
When I began working at WLS, our family erev Rosh Hashannah practice was challenged, as I was expected to be present in the synagogue for the service. Growing up, I must confess, I had never been to a service at the synagogue on erev Rosh Hashannah because that was an element of the festival we celebrated at home. We were always in synagogue for the morning service, but the evening was marked around the dining room table. Thankfully, since working at WLS, dinner was delayed and a way was found for me to be both at the synagogue and at home. However, it did demonstrate the potential rivalry between our two Jewish centres: the home and the synagogue.
This week we read the description of how the Tabernacle will be built and what items and utensils will be required within it. Amongst the items to be constructed we are told: ‘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’ (Ex. 25:23). This is the dining room table of the Tabernacle, and eventually the Temple. The accompanying vessels leave us in no doubt about its purpose: ‘And you shall make its dishes, and its spoons, and its covers, and its bowls, to cover it with; of pure gold shall you make them’ (Ex. 25:29). This is certainly an ornate (and expensive) set of crockery and cutlery, but at its core, this is what it is.
We all know the power of sharing a meal with someone as a way of getting to know them and finding out more about them. Inside the Tabernacle there was a table across which God could be encountered, and upon it there was always to be bread; ‘and you shall set the bread of display upon the table before me always’ (Ex. 25:30). This essentially gave the image of a laid table ready for the people and God to share a meal at any time both day and night.
The synagogue rituals of our festivals are important, but the celebrations in the home, especially those which take place around the table, also present us with an opportunity to gain a glimpse of the Divine. One of the wonders of Judaism is the way in which our religion has survived despite the absence of a Temple, which at one time was viewed as a necessity for Jewish observance. The survival of Judaism was because the synagogue was not the only successor to the Temple, we also made the home into a sacred space.
Rabbi Lionel Blue wrote that in the absence of a Temple: ‘The father became a priest, and mother a priestess, and the dining-room table an altar … In the world of rabbinic Judaism, the synagogue emphasised doing and knowing, but the home was concerned with being, with memory, and experience (To Heaven with Scribes and Pharisees, p.38).
As we read about the items and utensils from the Tabernacle we can see the way in which they are shared between the home and the synagogue. Today, Judaism exists in the home and the synagogue, both spaces are necessary for a full and complete Jewish life. When my mother and father debate erev Rosh Hashannah and the Seder they are involved in a dispute lashem shamayim – in the name of Heaven, finding a way to make the home and the dining room table into sacred space.