Some of my favorite childhood memories are of setting our seder table. In addition to laying out the embroidered damask tablecloth with its matching napkins, and the handsome fine china, freshly polished silverware, and exquisite crystal wine glasses—all of which, after the two seders, would be stored away till the following year—there was the classic seder plate with its special ceremonial foods, the ornate Elijah’s cup, the bowls of salt water, and an assortment of other silver and crystal items, each with its special place on our table. As soon as guests arrived, before any words had been spoken, they understood that this night was different from all other nights. The set table served as an overture to the forthcoming evening’s symphony
My table looks a good deal like my mother’s, though over the years some new items have enlarged the story our table tells. Among these are a set of dangling mirrors that we added some two decades ago, shortly after Avivah Zornberg introduced us to the tale of the mirrors of the women in Midrash Tanḥuma Pekudei 9. Alongside many items on the table recalling the bitterness of slavery, the mirrors joined Miriam’s cup in recalling the agency of the women of the Exodus as well as their faith in a future
The midrash describes how, as Pharaoh’s decrees became increasingly harsher leading the Israelite men to despair, the women used their mirrors to ignite in their husbands both passion and hope. “The women would take mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ As a result they would accustom themselves to desire and they were fruitful and multiplied.”1
These same mirrors, the midrash tell us, would later be contributed by the women for the construction of the laver, the basin in the Tabernacle in which the priests had to sanctify themselves before making their offerings on the Tabernacle’s altar or table (Exodus 38:8). 2
The connection of the women’s mirrors with the Tabernacle extends the symbolic meaning of our dangling mirrors to the set table upon which they sit, creating a link between our seder table and the Tabernacle. A central furnishing in the Tabernacle, second only to the ark in holiness, is the set table — “bring in the table (shulḥan) and lay out its due setting (vearakhta et erko)” (Exodus 40:4). This “due setting” includes a special blue cloth, a variety of dishes (bowls, ladles, jars, and jugs), all of pure gold, and twelve freshly baked loaves of bread known as the “bread of the (Divine) Presence” or “showbread (leḥem panim)” (Exodus 25:30). Aaron and his sons would place the loaves of unleavened bread (akin to matzah) on the sacred table, where they would sit in the presence of God for the whole week. On the Sabbath, they would eat the loaves they had laid out for God the week before, and replace them with newly baked loaves (Leviticus 24:6-9). Each Sabbath, God’s table became a shared table— the food offered to God, a shared meal.
The kind of closeness between humans and the Divine that the Tabernacle in general is intended to foster, and that the shared set table within it symbolically represents, is at the heart of Psalm 23, where we once again find the phrase “shulḥan orekh”. The psalmist, confident of God’s presence and protection, imagines himself seated in God’s house, at a set table overflowing with food and drink. “You spread a table for me—ta’arokh lefanai shulḥan” (Psalms 23:5). The pronouns—You, me—bespeak a personal relationship, while also pointing to a crucial difference between this set table and the one in the Tabernacle: rather than priests setting the table for God, the table in Psalm 23 is set by God for the psalmist.3
Shulḥan Orekh, the siman (signpost) for the seder meal, recalls these two spaces in which God’s presence resides and to which we are welcomed as God’s guests. Many of us expend a good deal of time and effort planning and preparing the seder meal. Yet all too often the meal, in spite of its inclusion in the simanim, is experienced as a break or rest from the evening’s ritual
A poignant reminder that, far from being a break, the meal is an integral part of the ritual, is the phrase chosen to mark the meal: “shulḥan orekh.” In addition to underscoring the sanctity of the meal, the phrase suggestively foregrounds the set table upon which the meal is served and around which all, or most, of the seder ritual takes place. A central rather than peripheral component of the evening’s ritual, the table functions as the stage on which the drama of the Exodus is played out. Often the first thing seder participants see, the set table instantly communicates the spiritual journey ahead. Like Maggid, which tells the story of that journey, the set table invites expansiveness. On a night of questions, thoughtfully chosen objects placed on the table alongside more familiar ones can prompt new questions. On a night of storytelling, they can add layers of meaning. And on a night in which we are enjoined to see ourselves as coming out of Egypt, they suggest new ways of connecting to the Exodus.
We look to add to the table objects that carry memories and stories, that point towards hidden aspects of the Exodus story, and that allow us to tell a more expansive story—“And everyone who enlarges upon the telling of the Exodus story is praised—vekhol ha-marbeh lesaper biyetziat mitzrayim harei zeh meshubaḥ.” We choose the objects with care, understanding that how we decorate is integral to how we celebrate
1Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Schocken, 2001), 57-80.
2See Tanḥuma Pekudei 9, discussed by Zornberg (above). See also Rachel Adelman, “A Copper Laver Made from Women’s Mirrors”, https://thetorah.com/a-copper-laver-made-fromwomens-mirrors/
3For a fuller discussion of the psalm see Edward Feld, Joy, Despair and Hope: Reading Psalms (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 63-70.