The Shabbat Table
By Varda Branfman
My first glimpse of a Shabbat Table was in a book of photographs taken of Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. There was a man sitting alone at a tiny wooden table cramped into the space underneath an overhanging bed. This was the space he had carved out for himself in a room shared with other working men who were separated from their loved ones while they saved up to bring them over to America.
The table was bare except for two small loves of bread. The caption read: "A poor laborer at the end of the week sits at his table and celebrates the Sabbath day."
The photograph affected me powerfully. I sensed in that old photo a certain majesty and definite transcendence in the face of the man where he had set up a porthole to Eternity.
It took many years after I saw that old photo for me to actually sit at a Shabbat table. I was visiting Jerusalem with my mother. A friend from the Old Country who was newly observant invited me to spend Friday night in the Jewish Quarter.
It was a card table with the addition of a coffee table to fit the extra guests. I was squeezed into a corner with my mother at my side. I can't remember what we discussed or what we ate. Only the Shabbat melodies stand out in my memory as hauntingly beautiful. And the weariness I carried with me to that table had vanished by the time I made my way back through the Old City Gate and the long trek to my hotel at the bottom of King George. It was after 3 A.M. by the time I got to bed, but I was kept awake by my mind trying to process my experience.
I had finally made my way to a real Shabbat table, and there was no turning back. Less than one year later, I was Shabbat observant, married, and savoring the privilege of sitting at my own Shabbat table with my husband and guests.
What happens at the Shabbat table that can infuse even old planks of wood with a quality of the sacred?
After we sit down at the Shabbat Table, we begin by welcoming the angels who have come to join us. Is there nothing in all the celestial worlds to rival the beauty of Shabbat? Apparently not.
We, ourselves become Elevated Beings with the Divine mission to proclaim the purpose of earthly life and acknowledge the Creator of the Universe. We do this by saying Kiddush which blesses the Seventh Day and proclaims its purpose in Creation in the blessing we say over a raised cup of wine.
We pour water over our hands and sanctify them for their service in the Sabbath meal. This eating is like no other eating. We are honoring G-d, thanking and praising Him with each bite. The challah, the fish, cucumber salad, chicken soup, and all the other foods laid out before us. And if, for some reason, there is only bread or only beans, as in a famous Baal Shem Tov story, then even these simple foods can taste like the greatest delicacies when a person is infused with the Shabbat spirit.
The Shabbat table heightens all the senses. As we look around the table, it is possible to see the souls within the faces. The clanking of the silverware against the plates sounds like celestial bells.
The Shabbat table is a raft boat bringing us safely through the stormy waters. It anchors us all to a point of interface with G-d, with the Creator of the World and all worlds. Here we remember our true identities as beloved children sitting at our Father's table. Children, even the ones of us with white in our beards and faces that tell of journeys lasting thousands of years.
Varda Branfman offers Virtual Writing Retreats by e-mail. The retreats are custom-designed for individuals who wish to charter a journey to greater emotional and spiritual awareness while developing their creative writing voice. For more information, contact Varda at firstname.lastname@example.org where you can also order her book "I Remembered in the Night Your Name."
from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine