One of the joys of Shabbat preparation is laying the Shabbat table. Just as halacha includes guidance for Shabbat attire, prayers, leisure and rest, there are rules regarding the Shabbat table. A special tablecloth, usually white, is used, and today some tablecloths (or table runners) are embroidered with Shabbat motifs. Often a flower vase is placed on the Shabbat table to enhance its beauty and allow us to appreciate the fantastic wonders of G-d's natural world.
The pair of challahs, a remembrance of the double portion of manna that fell from heaven on Fridays in honor of the coming Shabbat, are placed on the table. The term "challah" is derived from the mitzvah to separate a portion of the bread dough.
A special challah cover is placed over the two loaves. "Here," writes Rabbi Berel Wein, "as with the tablecloth, much room is left for the artistic expression of the Jewish heart. The variety of challah covers that exist today is almost infinite, as is the pleasure and beauty that each one of them brings to the Shabbat table. Usually a special breadboard and bread knife, again reserved for Shabbat, also find their place on the table under the challah cover."
The Kiddush cup is also placed on the table. This is usually silver and, again, is an individual expression of Judaic art. Today there are elaborate stands that serve as fountains to automatically fill the smaller cups for the guests at the table. There is no end to the innovation and creativity in Kiddush cup design. Some people collect unusual or antique Kiddush cups, while others have a single, prized kiddush cup, sometimes a heirloom to be passed on to later generations. They would continue to be used to sanctify the Sabbath, the wine, the table and the family itself.
There is nothing as precious in a Jewish home as a Kiddush cup from a grandfather or great-grandfather. It is as though the family elder is still present at the Shabbat table, reveling in the joy of the successful transmission of Jewish tradition in his family. It is customary for those who possess many Kiddush cups to rotate their use over the year so that even the inanimate ritual objects will not be shamed by being overlooked. Not shaming anything in G-d's world is a cardinal Jewish value.
The table, which commands our finest silverware and plates, is set well before the onset of Shabbat, preferably before noon on Friday. Napkin rings or other objects of beauty and good taste may enhance the table, and most homes have booklets that contain the blessings and the beautiful poems and songs (zemirot) pertaining to the Shabbat.
In some homes the Shabbat candles are placed on the table, while others place their candles on the sideboard in the dining area. Just as the Kiddush cup is the male heirloom in the Jewish home, the Shabbat candlesticks may be handed down from mother to daughter, continually shining with the light and holiness of the many Shabbat days that have passed.
With the Kiddush wine and a special meal, the table brings a holy beauty and royal splendor. The beauty of the Shabbat table, the emotional tug and the feeling of serenity that it generates, is unmatched in Jewish life. The Jewish home that experiences the Shabbat and its glorious table, week after week, is truly blessed and rewarded.