The last Mishnah of the masechet (3:8) mentions that after Yom Tov, utensils from the Beit Ha’Mikdash would be immersed in the mikvah for purification. The reason being that during the festival, kohanim that were amei ha’aretz came in contact with these vessels. Even though during the festival these kohanim are assumed to maintain level of purity (see 3:6) after the festival we are concerned about the utensils’ purity. The shulchan (table) however was not allowed to be removed (see Shmot 25:30). The Mishnah therefore explains that they directed the kohanei amei ha’aretz to refrain from touching the shulchan during the festival.
The Gemara (Chagigah 26b) questions how it attracted impurity at all. The shulchan was constructed from wood and wooden utensils can only attract impurity if they exhibits the same attributes as a bag (sak), i.e., carried either empty or with contents. Since the shulchan rested in the heichal it should not attract impurity. The Gemara responds that indeed it was carried with its content – the show bread. A miracle occurred with the show bread that even though it rested on the shulchan for a week, when it was removed, it was as hot and fresh as when it was placed there. During the festivals, the shulchan was carried outside and displayed to the nation to demonstrate this miracle.
The Gemara then asks why we even need this reason that it was carried out during the festivals; the shulchan was coated in a metallic substance which would define it as a metallic utensil. Consequently it could attract impurity even if it was never moved. The Gemara responds that despite being coated in metal, the Torah calls it a wooden utensil:
The mizbeach (alter), three amot high, and two amot long was of wood, and it had corners; and its length and its walls were of wood and he said to me, this is the shulchan that is before Hashem. (Yechezkel 41:22)
The reference of the shulchan as a mizbeach led the Gemara to provide another lesson:
R’ Yochanan and Reish Lakish both say: At the times of the Beit Ha’Mikdash the mizbeach atoned for a person. Nowadays a person’s table atones for him.
How exactly does a person’s table atone for him? Rashi explains that it is the vehicle for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (attending to guests). It appears that one can explain the chesed that can be performed with one’s shulchan is the current avenue for atonement.25
The Maharsha (Menachot 97a) however quotes a Mishnah from Avot (3:3) that suggests a different reason:
… but three people that eat on one table, and say words of Torah it is as if they have eaten from the table of HaKadosh Baruch Hu as it says “…this is the shulchan that is before Hashem.”
It appears then that it is the Torah learning that is the source of kapparah.26
This second reason presents a problem. Why is the Torah learning at one’s table better than any other place? The Tiferet Yisrael explains that it is a matter of focus. When one sits down to a meal there can be two intentions. It is well known that a human being needs to eat in order to live – and this should be the focus. Food is a necessary prerequisite for our Avodat Hashem. However some people live in order to eat – or other purely materialist pursuits. Therefore when one learns as part of the meal, it reveals what one’s attitude is to food and the material in general.
Perhaps this reason is not so distant from Rashi’s reason earlier. When someone sits down to a meal, which could potentially be a base and animalist act, yet elevates it in the performance of a mitzvah it is tantamount to offering korban on the mizbeach.
With all the above said, we may be able to suggest a final reason. As we know, there are three things that can annul a negative heavenly decree – teshuva (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tz’daka (charity). The shulchan is a place where all three are performed. Firstly tz’daka - through mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. Teshuva – learning at one’s meal demonstrates and even realigns one’s direction in avodat Hashem. And finally tefillah - with birkat ha’mazon, one of the only biblical commanded tefillot.
25 See Tosfot there. Also see Brachot 55a where Rav Yehuda lists “extending the length of one’s meals” as one of the things that extends ones life as a longer meal increases the chance that a poor person will come and be provided for.
26 The Bartenura explains that this idea is hinted two in the beginning of the pasuk. The dimensions of three “amot” should be read as three “imot” (authorities) referring to either Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim or Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara. This is how a table is measured!
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