The following is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller posted on Aish.com this week, under the headline "The Meaning Behind Shabbat Dinner Rituals."
Shabbat is often called “the Shabbat Queen” and is compared to royalty. Just as we’d clean our houses and set a beautiful table if a real-life queen was planning to stop by, it’s customary to prepare for Shabbat as for exalted guests. Even if it’s just us and our kids sitting around the Shabbat table, there’s something lovely and magical about sitting down to a beautifully-set table and eating a meal that’s more formal than we’re used to. Shabbat meals have a very different feel than week-day meals and give us a chance to interact with one another in a different setting and on a deeper level.
Covering the challah
Two loaves of challah (or any bread) adorn the table at Shabbat dinner and brunch, symbolizing the double portion of mannah that God gave to our ancestors in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Because our Jewish ancestors could not gather new mannah on Shabbat, the day of rest, each Friday they were given a double portion.
The loaves of challah also recall the bread loaves that were displayed on the table in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Today our own homes are considered mini-Temples where we worship God and live Jewish lives. Our Shabbat tables still carry some vestiges of the glory of the Temple in Jerusalem, the focal point where all Jews used to pray.
Another symbol on the Shabbat table also recalls the Temple: the salt that we dip the challah into. Just as sacrifices to God were sprinkled with salt in our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, so too today do we sprinkle some salt on our challah before eating it on Shabbat. Salt is a preserver, symbolizing the elevation of the physical meal into a spiritual realm, giving it eternal meaning.
The challah cover has multiple symbolic meanings. Just as the mannah in the desert was covered with dew, we recall this by covering our challah with a cloth. Covering the challah also has a practical lesson to teach us. On Shabbat, we make Kiddush over wine before saying a blessing over the challah. One beautiful interpretation of covering the challah is to remind us to spare the challahs feelings: by being covered, it can’t see that it’s not honored first. Of course, challah loaves don’t really see or feel, but being sensitive to their supposed “needs” reminds us of just how crucial it is that we guard against hurting people’s feelings.
It’s said that once the great Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, was visiting a home as a guest on Shabbat. The father of the house said the blessing over the challah then went to sprinkle salt on it. Looking in vain for the salt shaker, he turned to his wife and yelled at her for forgetting the salt. Humiliated, his hapless wife hurried into the kitchen to retrieve the salt.
A short time later, the Chofetz Chaim asked, “Why do we cover the challah?” His host was perplexed at being asked such a simple question: “To spare the feelings of the challah,” he explained. “Exactly,” said the Chofetz Chaim, “and if we take such pains to shield the feelings of loaves of bread, who cannot feel, how much more careful should we be not to embarrass real, living human beings.”
To read the full article, click here>>
Dr. Yvette Alt Miller lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her book Angels at the table: a Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat takes readers through the rituals of Shabbat and more, explaining the full beautiful spectrum of Jewish traditions with warmth and humor.