The Altar at Home

Vayikra By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 20, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

I have a deeply personal attachment to parashat Vayikra. Many years ago it was the parasha on which my son celebrated his bar-mitzva. Though he attended a day school, I prepared him for the occasion as my father had once prepared me, and as my son will one day prepare his children. For half a year, I would corral him regularly to teach him the Torah portion according to the eastern European cantillation common in American and the haftara according to the uncommon German cantillation on which I was raised. Far more musical than I, my son learned easily and rendered both on his bar-mitzva at high speed without a hitch. The ritual added yet another bond between my son and me and between my son and his grandfather. For on that Shabbat morning it was my father who addressed my son with words of prophetic intensity. To me the joining of the generations symbolized the renewal of an ancient covenant.

At first blush, our parasha seems to bear little relevance to contemporary Jews or their families. To be sure, it deals with the hunger for the holy of the individual Israelite. The Tabernacle is more than the domain of the priests and the official cult. It is also the sacred space in which a grateful or troubled Israelite might seek God’s blessing or forgiveness with a voluntary sacrifice, even as paltry as a grain offering bereft of all meat. Indeed, with great sensitivity, the Talmud opines that the grain offering (minha)was instituted to give the poor access to the holy. If every sacrifice required an animal, how many Israelites of modest means would ever be able to approach the altar! It is for this reason that the Torah noticeably chooses to employ the noun “nefesh” [soul] and not “adam” [person] in the case of a grain offering: “When a person [nefesh] presents an offering of grain to the Lord (Leviticus 2:1)….” Because of the heavy cost, the grain offering of a poor farmer is accepted by God as the veritable offering of his soul. It is the equivalent of a meat sacrifice (B.T. Menahot 104b)!

What interests me for the moment, however, is what became of the altar in Jewish consciousness after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Rabbis transposed it metaphorically into another sacred key: the Jewish home. The altar became the table at which the family gathered to eat its common meals. It is the consumption of food which connects the two institutions. Thus Rabbis Yohanan and Resh Lakish in third century Palestine conceived it to be a locus for reconciliation. “In the days of the Temple, the altar served to atone for us; now it is our table that atones for us (B.T. Hagiga 27a).” Rashi, in his comment on their assertion, suggests that the atonement is effected by inviting guests to our table, that is, in repairing our relations with people outside the family.

But I suspect that there are enough strains and rifts within the family fabric to warrant repairing. Atonement begins at home. I take the counsel of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish to mean that mealtime is to be used to reach out to loved ones, to share ideas and experiences, to show understanding and compassion.

It is even a time to bring God into our frenetic lives. The conversation around our surrogate altar is to be illumined with flashes of eternity. According to Rabbi Shimon: “Whenever three people dine at a table without any words of Torah, it is as if they had consumed the meat of the dead [i.e. a sacrifice to a false god] (Pirkei Avot 3:4).” Again the link between the Temple and our table is alluded to. A meal stripped of Torah remains a purely physical activity.

The link is still more concrete. At our tables we never break bread without a tad of salt. After the motzi we sprinkle a few grains of salt on the bread before eating it. The custom, which seems to be of medieval Ashkenazic provenance (Shulhan Aruch O.H. 167:5), rests on the ancient practice of applying salt to every sacrifice offered in the Temple, even a grain offering, as we read in our parasha: “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt (Leviticus 2:13).”

Professor Jacob Milgrom points out in his endlessly fascinating commentary on Leviticus (Anchor Bible, p. 191) that “salt was the preservative par excellence in antiquity. A figurative extension of its preservative properties is the reference to the apostles as ‘the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:17),’ in other words, teachers who guard the world against moral decay. Moreover, its preservative qualities made it the ideal symbol of the perdurability of a covenant.” By the Middle Ages, Ashkenazic Jews saw in the salt on their tables not only a symbol of the Temple but also a protective agent against Satan and his minions.

But an altar needs to be set in sacred surroundings. If our homes are saturated with mundane and material concerns, our meals will never be touched by the holy. The basic creed of Judaism, the Shema Yisrael, mandates parents to be the primary religious teachers of their children by word and example, formally and informally, at any time of day. Beyond articulating the task, the Shema also sets forth a program by which we can prepare ourselves.

First, we must come to love God. Without that emotional underpinning, we can transmit nothing effectively. Our passion is the seedbed of our persuasiveness. Second, we must take God’s words to heart intellectually. Through study and reflection, we will come to understand the protean texts, ideas and practices of Judaism. We can teach cogently only what we have internalized, subjected to our own insights and formulation.

And finally, our emotional and intellectual preparation must be complemented by performance. This is the force of the injunction to “bind them as a sign on your hand…inscribe them on the doorposts of your house (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).” If our homes reverberate with Jewish art and music, with Jewish deeds and ritual, with Jewish books and videos, then not only will our tables be an altar but the repeated moments of our teachings, laden with warmth and wisdom, will stand a chance of transforming our children into lifelong Jews.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.