A Jewish Table vs. Achashverosh’s Table
If you are like me, sometimes you neglect to sing zemirot and include a dvar Torah at Shabbat and Yom Tov meals. While we have a long list of excuses, I, for one, am resolving this Tishrei season to put an end to this bad habit. The following Gemara (Megillah 12b) drives home in an unforgettable manner home how Zemirot and divrei Torah are a crucial component of every special meal:
The verse states: “On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine” (Esther 1:10). The Gemara asks: Is that to say that until now his heart was not merry with wine? Did it take seven days for him to achieve merriment? Rava said: The seventh day was Shabbat, when the difference between the Jewish people and the gentiles is most apparent. On Shabbat, when the Jewish people eat and drink, they begin by occupying themselves with words of Torah and words of praise for God. But the nations of the world, when they eat and drink, start only with licentious words.
The Gemara continues to detail what occurred at the feast. So too, at the banquet of that wicked man, Ahasuerus, when the men began to converse, some said: The Median women are the most beautiful, while others said: The Persian women are the most beautiful. So Ahasuerus said to them: The vessel that I use, i.e., my wife, is neither Median nor Persian, but rather Chaldean. Do you wish to see her? They said to him: Yes, provided that she be naked, for we want to see her without any additional adornments (slightly modified translation and elucidation from the William Davidson edition of the Talmud).
A Pit Filled With Water or Snakes and Scorpions
Chazal are teaching that the very hallmark of a Jewish gathering is that we sing praises to Hashem and share Torah thoughts. Moreover, they teach that this practice is not a “luxury.” If we do not share spiritually wholesome thoughts and activities, our tables will descend to noxious chatter. While we certainly do not engage in the sort of vile talk that occurred at Achashverosh’s feast, our conversation can easily slip into lashon hara, talk about business and investments, or politics (and don’t we want and need a break from this on our holy days?!).
Chazal (Shabbat 22a) famously teach:
What is the meaning of the verse written concerning Joseph: “And they took him, and cast him into the pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it” (Genesis 37:24)? By inference from that which is stated: And the pit was empty, don’t I know there was no water in it? Rather, why does the verse say: There was no water in it? The verse comes to emphasize and teach that there was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it (slightly modified translation and elucidation from the William Davidson edition of the Talmud).
If we do not fill our lives with positive content, malevolent material will quickly come to fill the vacuum. If there is no water in the pit, snakes and scorpions are soon to follow. The choice is stark; either we fill our tables with quality content, or negativity will rapidly arise.
Mi SheTarach B’Erev
Shabbat Yochal B’Shabbat
Proper and effective divrei Torah do not appear magically at a Shabbat and Yom Tov table. They require preparation just as do our meals. From childhood we are taught that “one who makes an effort on Erev Shabbat will eat on Shabbat” (Avoda Zara 3a). The same applies to divrei Torah. No matter how busy, we always find time to make Shabbat and Yom Tov meal preparations, even if it is high-quality “takeout” food. At the least, we can take advantage of the plethora of brief “takeout” divrei Torah available on the internet.
I share divrei Torah with my TABC students each Friday and Erev Chag and offer generous incentives for those who share them with their families. I suggest other educators follow suit. Rav Yosef Adler set the bar by introducing a dvar Torah every Friday night upon his founding Congregation Rinat Yisrael. Every rabbi should follow this example and arm congregants with divrei Torah for their families.
Reb Chaim Adler, zt”l, and
Rav Moshe Twersky, HY"D
I will never forget when I approached an elderly rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, the legendary Rav Yosef Weiss. My cousins told me that he worked for my grandfather and namesake Reb Chaim Adler as a teenager. After informing Rav Weiss that Reb Chaim Adler was my grandfather, he broke out into a big smile and said, “Your grandfather knew the entire zemirot collection by heart.”
I was not at all expecting to hear this answer. I was expecting to hear what my relatives have been telling me about my namesake for decades—about the incredible chesed he extended at his grocery for starving families during the Great Depression, his love for Torah learning, and his dedication for Shabbat and Yom Tov observance at a time when it was exceedingly difficult to do so. I was surprised to hear that zemirot stood out in Rav Weiss’ memory of Reb Chaim Adler. Upon reflection, I realized that zemirot could be, and perhaps even should be, a defining mark of our legacies.
In the must-read biography of Rav Moshe Twersky Hy”d, Rebbetzin Miriam Twersky fondly recalls that even when all their children were away from home for Shabbat, Rav Moshe sang zemirot and shared well-prepared divrei Torah. Rebbetzin Twersky rightfully saw this as an expression of Rav Twersky’s love and esteem for her.
The Mountain of Hashem
Both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Yomim Noraim liturgies highlight Tehillim Mizmor 24. This perek includes the powerful metaphor of our “scaling the mountain of Hashem.” This phrase is an apt summary of how a Jew should view his life. In business, either we improve or we fail. The same applies to our spiritual lives. We must always be scaling ever higher on Hashem’s mountain or else we descend into the abyss.
As for me, I resolve to recall another business maxim—“either you can make excuses or you can make money, but not both.” No more excuses. No matter how tired or busy, I resolve to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and Rav Moshe Twersky. Everyone is invited to join me as I set forth to journey upward on Hashem’s mountain.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.