July 14, 2024
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An Insight Related to the ‘Shalom Aleichem’ Prayer

The idea for this prayer is based on a baraita at Shabbat 119b (in the name of the tanna Rabbi Yose bar Yehudah) that states that two “malachei ha-sharet” escort a person home from the synagogue on Friday night. If there is a lamp burning, a set table and a mitah prepared (“מוצעת”), the good angel says: “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the evil angel is compelled to answer: “Amen.” If the three above items are not prepared, the evil angel says: “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the good angel is compelled to answer “Amen.”

The “Shalom Aleichem” prayer, inspired by the above passage, was probably composed by a kabbalist from Tzfat in the early 17th century. When I previously wrote about this prayer, I was focused on many issues related to its text. I did not focus on the baraita in the Talmud above. But now, the issue for this column is: What does “מטה” mean in the above Tannaitic passage? The ArtScroll Talmud translates it as “bed.” This translation is also found in the Complete ArtScroll Siddur, page 355. I also checked other Talmud translations and saw “bed.”

But is “bed” the proper translation here? A very knowledgeable friend in Israel, Michoel Chalk, pointed out to me that “couch” is almost certainly the correct translation here. The reference is to the couch (or cheaper substitute, see my discussion at the end) that people would recline on while dining. (The object reclined on would have a small table next to it with the individual diner’s food.) That is what needs to be set up to pass angelic inspection. One can see that “couch for reclining” is the proper translation in our passage, because of a certain passage in Tosefta Shabbat. The passage is found in the standard printed edition, end of chapter 13, in brackets and beginning with “מציעין” : “matziin eser mitot she-im yirtzeh meisev be-achat meihen.” (The chiddush here is that even though it could be considered forbidden exertion to set up 10 mitot, it is nonetheless permitted since it might be of benefit for the same day.) We see from this passage that the “mitot” are for “heseibah,” not for sleeping on. See similarly Jastrow, page 827 (right side, end of first entry.)

Another case involving “matziin et ha-mitot” on Shabbat is found at Mishnah Shabbos 15:3, but there are not enough clues to determine the precise meaning of “ha-mitot” there. The ArtScroll Mishnah commentary adopts a “beds for sleeping” interpretation. But it also has the following comment: “In those days, it was customary to recline on beds while dining.” Also, Jastrow, at page 589, defines them as “couches.” Perhaps, he means “dining couches,” the phrase he uses at page 827.

At Beitzah 2:7, the case discussed is sweeping between the “mitot.” All agree that the meaning of “mitot” here are couches that people reclined on while eating. The issue was the permissibility, on Shabbat and Yom Tov, of sweeping up the small pieces of food that ended up on the floor between the “mitot.”

——

Now, let us discuss the etymology of the word “מטה” (“mitah”). It has to be analyzed as if it was written “מנטה,” as practically all agree that its root is “נטה.” The main meaning of the root “נטה” in Tanach is “extend, stretch, spread out.” (A common phrase is English is “stretch out on the couch.”)

In Tanach, it has both the “bed” and “couch” meanings. It may even have been the same object, just that whether we call it a “bed” or a “couch” depends on how it was being used in the verse.

In the Torah, the word appears only four times: Genesis 47:31, 48:2 and 49:33 and Exodus 7:28. It is, perhaps, best translated as “bed” on all these occasions.

But in the Neviim, in the 8th century BCE, we already have an example of people eating while lying on “mitot.” This is at Amos 6:4, where we have a reference to individuals who live a too decadent life: “They lie on ivory ‘מטות,’ lolling on their couches (‘ערשתם’), feasting on lambs from the flock and calves from the stalls.” Similarly see Ezekiel 23:41 (6th century BCE).

Moreover, we all know Esther 1:6 which refers to gold and silver “mitot” at the “mishteh” of Achashveirosh. These “mitot” were for reclining while eating and drinking. The word also appears at Esther 7:8: “Haman prostrates himself on the ‘mitah’ which Esther is on.” Until I wrote this article, I did not realize that the reference here was to Esther on a couch in a reclining-feasting mode. (Of course the fact that “mitah” also means “bed” helps to further allude to the impropriety of Haman’s behavior.)

Finally, at 1 Samuel 28:23, we are told regarding Saul: “va-yeshev el ha-mitah.” Here, we see that a “mitah” in Tanach can even be something that one sits on.

——

Returning to our passage at Shabbos 119b, probably many Jews did not have dining couches in Tannaitic times, but probably many did. We should be able to accept that the Tannaitic baraita quoted at 119b might include a dining couch case in a paradigm of proper behavior.

Alternatively, many Jews would have used cheaper substitutes to recline on. The words “mitah” and “mitot” can also include those cheaper substitutes. Every time Tannaitic literature refers to reclining, we should assume that some type of object to recline on is implied (so that one would be lying essentially horizontally). (Of course, I am not denying that there were very poor people who had nothing to recline on.)

(The root “סבב” expanded over time in the eating context from a “sitting in a circle” meaning to a “reclining” meaning because “reclining” became common in these gatherings. For the original “sitting in a circle” meaning, see 1 Samuel 16:11.)

For further evidence of reclining by ordinary people in Tannaitic times, see, e.g., Beitzah 2:7 cited above. See also Berachot 6:6: “If they are eating in the reclining manner (‘הסבו’), one recites the blessing on behalf of all.” (The blessing referred to is both the initial blessing and the Birkat Hamazon. By eating a meal with bread in a reclining manner, they are indicating that their eating is not just quick and individualized, but that they are eating as a group.) See also Mishnah Pesachim 10:1 and the suggested explanation in the post at balashon.com of 4/13/08 on “mesubin.” (“עד” means “until,” not “unless.”) This entire post is very illuminating.

Finally, I admit that my approach to the baraita in Shabbat 119b is not the approach that the Rambam took. Rambam mentions the three items in Hilchot Shabbat 30:5. He writes that they are all “li-chevod Shabbat.” It is unclear how he understands the “mitah” of Shabbat 119b from this brief passage. But from another passage, 23:7, it seems that he views it as a bed. (This is probably why he writes “li-chevod Shabbat,” as opposed to something like “in honor of the meal.”) Of course, Rambam was writing many centuries later, in a non-reclining era.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Like all of you, he reclines on a couch and only after the meal. He thanks Michoel Chalk for the fundamental insight of this column and for many of the references. P.S. I have a new book: “Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy.” It is available at kodeshpress.com and at Jewish bookstores.

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