Terumah: The most extraordinary custom I’ve ever heard of!
It’s the most extraordinary custom I’ve ever heard of. I’m referring to a comment by Rabbeinu Bachaye, the great 13th Century commentator, who mentions a practice of the Chassidim of Medieval France. When someone in their family sadly passed away, they would take wood from the person’s dining room table and with it, they would make the coffin. The idea here is that the merit of everything that we do around our tables accompanies us into the world to come.
Rabbeinu Bachaye mentions that this is all based on a passage in Parshat Terumah. There the Torah introduces us to the shulchan, the holy table which was used in the sanctuary and later on, in the temple, and it was upon that table that the shtei halechem, the showbread, would be brought as an offering before Hashem. That table was made of ‘atzei shittim,’ acacia wood, and Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a midrash explaining that the four letters of the word ‘shittim’ (שטים) stand for the attributes of that table. The shin (ש) stands for shalom meaning peace, the tet (ט) for tova, goodness, the yud (י) for yeshua, salvation and the mem (ם) for mechila, forgiveness.
Indeed, this is exactly what we find with regard to our tables today. First of all, the table is a place for family togetherness. There, we have shalom – shalom bayit, serenity – our tables bond us together as families and give us many memorable experiences.
There, we have tova – so much goodness happens around the table thanks to hachnassat orchim, hospitality, and bringing needy people to have their meals with us.
All of this then contributes towards the yeshua, the salvation of our people.
Finally, mechila, atonement: it was through the shulchan, the table, in the sanctuary and later the temple, that God gave mechila, forgiveness, to our people, and so too it is thanks to the precepts we perform, the blessings we recite before and after we eat, the special mitzvot relating to food which we have at the table and the kedusha, sacred nature, of our meals, all of this will hopefully prompt God to forgive us for our sins. And all of these precepts accompany us well into the afterlife. Therefore, while we readily recognise that we cannot take any of our worldly possessions with us when we go into the world to come, one thing we can ensure – all of our good deeds around our table and wherever we are will never depart from us.