Shulhan Shel Arba: Preface

Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher,  Shulhan Shel Arba: Preface


Son of Man who’s made from four,

Do taste my bread, calm your belly’s roar.

Hark and hear, speak I secret lore.

Hold it well, a peg in your tent’s floor.


But only a wise pilgrim the depths can endure;

No witless fool, who’ll stray from shore.

Then like at dawn, the sun’s shining core

Emerge your Light! From the book, this Table of Four.


[457] “This is the table which is before the Lord,[1] who spreads the heavens like a canopy for a tent [2] sets earth over water [3] and feeds the creatures of His home in three divisions: “the bottom, middle, and topmost decks.”[4] In the highest realm are the ministering angels nearest to Him: the cherubim, the seraphim, the ofanim, and the arielim.  They are attendants in His palace; in legions they feast on the light of His presence, from the flowing light of His own radiance.  The middle realm is the “vest of the heavens,”[5] an assembly of fire and water –rains constraining and constrained – by day and night God restrains them.  The eyes of their minds see [tzofim] their Master’s delight as their food, far sweeter to them than choice honey [tzufim]. They hunger for the Cause of their existence;[6] the pillars supporting their realm are suspended by the arm of His wisdom, and quake at His rebuke.[7] But the lowest dwelling, a circle radiating from its midpoint, has measurable dimensions.  Our food is not their food. Their food is conceived in their mind, when they see the face of their Maker. Our food is meager bread, water, and tears,[8] gotten by hard work and toil.

For so the King ordered how we are to live because of the first sin on the day the smooth talker deceived our first father.[9] On the day Adam was ensnared by his enemy, it was decreed for him that he would earn his bread only by the sweat of his brow,[10] and that man be humbled [458] and brought low.[11] He traded pleasure [‘oneg] for plague [nega’], got hard work instead of rest. His wisdom spoiled and his stature was diminished. It caused him weakness instead of strength; instead of wheat, thorns came forth. Instead of eternal life, death; instead of light, the shadow of death.  With all this the Lord raised the power of the upper beings, and worsened the power of the lower beings.  For the upper beings were fed without toiling, while the lower ones had to make do with pain and suffering. He gave the upper beings on high eternal life for all their generations, but to the lower ones short lives, days flying swifter than a runner.[12] This is the striking parable that our rabbis brought in Bereshit Rabba on the verse: “the earth was unformed and void [tohu ve-bohu].”[13]

It is like a king who acquired two slaves, both with one and the same contract and price. He decreed that one would eat from the king’s stock for free, and that the other would have to work for his food.  So the latter sat wondering and confused [toheh ve-boheh].[14] He said, ‘Both of us were acquired by one and the same price and contract, yet that one is fed from the treasury. But I, if I don’t work, I don’t eat.  I am astonished!

Likewise the earth sat wondering and confused.[15]


The word timyon means treasury, and the two servants are the heavens and the earth.   And when it is said, “maker [koneh] of the heaven and earth,”[16] it means they were acquired with one and the same contract and price, that is to say by one bill of sale and one lump payment; the parable refers to a single substance.  This interpretation presumes that both were created from a single substance. And in a similar vein there is another interpretation: “The upper and lower beings were created in a single instant.  The upper beings feed on the radiance of the Shekhinah, while the lower beings – if they don’t toil, they don’t eat.”[17] And if so, this is why the composer of the second interpretation said “the radiance of the Shekhinah” instead of timyon, which is where the king stores his goods. Another interpretation says,  “The upper beings live, the lower ones die; thus there was wondering and confusion.”[18] While considering the quality of its own existence, man looked at the lives of the upper beings. Those lives are sweet-they last forever. He looked at all the seas that stand before the Lord, and the earth, considering the quality of the Lord’s creation, and complained about how bad his own portion was. With all of this, man really wondered and was confused. And so this is the inheritance of the human race that we cannot be freed from the prison of man’s first crime. Our existence is meager because we haven’t been purified of this crime. So we shall wait for the angel of the covenant comes to refine and purify us, [p. 459] the lord whom we seek, the messiah of the Holy of Holies.  As all the children of Adamchildren of the man who sinned, we are stained, our souls are sick –our nation is no better than all the rest of the nations; like us, like them – under the same sentence of Eve.

However, we are distinguished by our regimen of pleasures [dat sha’ashu’im] from the nations who err, rebel, and sin.  For we found our Rock in the desert in the land of souls, and there He set for us a table against the nations, and thus David, said, ‘Set before me a table against my enemies’ [Ps 23:5).  There the Lord gave us an abundance of charity and good things.  There He gave us a marvelous portion of the bread in our law, bread from heaven through no toil.  There He showed us through great love something like the world to comewhere the divisions of His marvelously formed angels are fed without toil, hewn from flames and awesome fires; and the planting of the Lord of Hosts. Our holy race is lovely because our heart was tested in the desert. We rose up like sweet-smelling incense to thank the Lord and said a blessing over the table. As it is written regarding the manna: “In the morning you shall have your fill of bread and you shall know that I the Lord am your God.”[19] Even while we were in the land of our enemies bearing our punishment, the manna soothed our dry and shriveled gullets,[20] while the flowering vines of our enemies spread heavy on the ground.  Even without temple or altar, no medicine-making; the Torah of the Lord with us will save us from breaking. Marked as we are by our circumcision, fringes, and shavingthe food on our table will help us recognize and remind ourselves to respect His greatness.  Let us bless over the table of Him whose food we have eaten.[21] It is not so with the wicked, whose sins have earned them an inextinguishable fire;[22] their table lies before them like mire. Rising early in the morning they devour food and they do not call to the Lord; their hearts and eyes they raise to what delights them, but toward the One above not even the slightest look. Such is the sentence of the nations, that they are a vile and foolish nation filled with folk devoid of sense. Unlike those other nations is Jacob, for he will bless the sacrifice and then eat it.[23] All his fruit shall also be set aside for jubilation before the Lord;[24] he will withdraw his right hand until the blessing is drawn back into the ‘palace that is before Me.’[25] This is among the ways of wisdom to keep the heart of man straight upon the path of the Lord’s bright lights, to prevent one straying from the service of his God; so that the temptations of pleasure would not draw our purpose away from being drawn to Him, nor our sinful instincts seduce us from serving our Creator,[26] from waiting for Him at the doors of His gates.[27]

Typically, when people recline at the table and enjoy themselves eating and drinking, isn’t temptation exactly what tricks their instinct by its crafty power to make their nature too proud and make their heart haughty?  Because when they eat they’ll be sated, and when sated they’ll be wicked.  They’ll throw off any discipline; their tastes will grip their sense, and will pull them [p. 460] by “the cords of falsehood.”[28] They won’t distinguish between the sacred and the profane, nor between the cheap and the priceless; they’ll drink and forget what the point was. And thus the prophet, the son of Beeri, when at the Israelites he was piqued and shrieked, “When they were sated, their hearts grew haughty and they forgot me.”[29] And in the Torah it is written, “[When] your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the Lord your God.”[30]

It is well known that the majority of the children of Adam have sleeping hearts and they slumber; they eat with the blood and they spill blood themselves.[31] Like an ox eats straw they eat their bread, and their souls are wasted and devastated, drunk from the wine of lust and not of the wine of intellect; their drink turns on them.[32] In their quest for more intense stimulation of their senses, their souls are far from the way of truth. There are some, witless and ignorant, or capricious, who enjoy without blessing or neglect blessings. There are some fools who spit the good of the world into their vessels; if they drink from their bowl, they will forget the point of their eating at their tables, and the light of their calm will flash away like lightning.  But unique is the one who fears and delights in the Lord even over a dinner of vegetables.[33]

And because I saw that this was how things were, as someone bereft of knowledge a sad and worthless worm, a trampled doormat,[34] my heart compelled me to write about this in brief in a book, and to include in it some sacred words so that it could be at your table, by your right hand, for you to read in it all that is required at your meal.  And if at the time you are eating, your faith is reassured by this book of mine, and according to its words, you will be sure attain the level of the pious ones who are perfect in their qualities, who wage “the wars for the Lord” and stand up against all their desires.[35] And because it’s through my lips that the topics of the table and its requirements are expressed; the title “The Table of Four” is how I think my book should be addressed  – and this is for several reasons:

The first reason is because the food on a table is the cause of the sustenance of the body, which is composed of four elements.  If one were missing or were more dominant than its fellows, a person would sicken immediately and be unable to eat or drink, or serve the Lord.  The heart would be terrified and the mind afraid at the overturning of the equilibrium of the organs, which are the vessel of the soul. The soul cannot act without its vessel.  If so, the table then is the foundation of the four elements, and they keep the body standing just as the four poles in the four rings used to hold up the table [in the Tabernacle], which is why Scripture said, “By these [the poles] the table shall be carried.”[36]

[p. 461] The second is because we have been commanded to make ourselves holy over the table with four different scriptural mentions of “holiness,” [37] as our rabbis interpreted:[38] “’You shall make yourselves holy’ – this refers to the hand-washing before a meal; ‘You shall be holy’ – this refers to the hand-washing after the meal; ‘For holy’ – this refers to the fragrant oil;[39] and ‘I am the Lord’ – this refers to blessing.” And of these four “holinesses,” two are for the purification of the body, and two for the purification of the soul.  Our souls take pleasure in the scent [of the oil] and rejoice, and expand – making our souls then capable of blessing the Holy One Blessed Be He.

The third is because I have divided this book into four “gates,” corresponding to the four blessings in the grace after meals – three from the Torah, one from the words of the scribes.

And the fourth is because the perfect table “which is before the Lord” is the upper level where the soul is nourished. There are four upper levels which, like the four animals of “the chariot” among the upper beings, correspond to the four winds of the world, and to the four elements in the beings below in the lower world.  These levels are the intellectual banquet which is called “the life of the world to come.”  And our rabbis before us called it “the table of three legs,” as it is said in the Talmud, Massekhet Ta’anit.[40] And why didn’t they call it “the table of four legs”?  It was their way of referring to the three patriarchs, and that’s why they said “of three legs;” and they were concealing the fourth.  Likewise Ezekiel concealed the place of the eagle, as it is written, “Each of the four had the face of an eagle;” he did not specify what its position was.[41] And from his example our sages z”l learned to conceal an implied fourth when they just said, “The patriarchs are indeed the chariot”[42] and “one refers to the patriarchs only as three.”[43] But it is well known that no chariot has less than four wheels.  For this reason one saint used to say while reciting the Amidah, “the God of David and Builder of Jerusalem,” to mention in his prayer the whole chariot in all its completeness.[44] And therefore I call this book “Table of Four” for that level where our souls are attached: where they are nourished and take pleasure to the degree appropriate to their level.  This is the perfect table for the righteous one. Completing the chariot makes it a table of four, for there the souls of the patriarchs are hidden away.  And accordingly, having achieved this status, the place where the vessels [of their souls, i.e., their bodies] are buried is called Kiryat Arba’ (“The City of Four”), that is, Hebron.[45] So when a person is eating and drinking at his table to sate his soul to sustain his body with its four elements, his mind should ramble about upward onto the pure “table which is before the Lord,” that is, the four levels which hover over the refined soul who merits each and every one according to her level.  There is no doubt that by this, all of his bodily activities are accounted to a person as if they were intellectual ones, that he himself be counted among the elite, and his soul [p. 462] “be bound up in the bundle of life”[46] even while he is still alive; fit for the whole world to be created for his sake.  As our rabbis z”l taught in a midrash: “’For this applies to all mankind,’[47] that is, all the world in its entirety was created only in conjunction with this man.”[48]

These then are the four gates into which this book is divided:

The First Gate: An explanation of the blessings that a person is obliged to bless over the table, and the other obligations of the table

The Second Gate: An explanation of the nature of eating: What it is and how a person through it should prepare himself for the proper purpose in life required of him.

The Third Gate: An explanation of the ethics and etiquette with which a person is required to behave at the table

The Fourth Gate: An explanation of the meal prepared for the righteous in the future to come.




[1] Ez 41:22.

[2] Is 40:22.

[3] Ps 135:6

[4] An allusion to Noah’s ark in Gen 6:16.

[5] Chavel (457): the realm of the planets.

[6] Wonderful but untranslatable wordplay: sibat sivuvam sibatam nekhsafim.

[7] Allusion to Job 26:11.

[8] Cf. Is 30:20, Ps. 80:6.

[9] I.e., the serpent.

[10] Gen 3:19.

[11] Is. 2:9.

[12] Job 9:25.

[13] Gen 1:1.

[14] A pun on the Hebrew tohu ve-bohu “unformed and void” in Gen. 1:1.

[15] Ber. R. 2:2.

[16] Gen 14:22, playing on the double meaning of koneh as both “who makes” and “who acquires.”

[17] Ber. R. 2:2

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ex. 16:12.

[20] Nu. 11:6.

[21] An allusion to the wording of the grace after meals.

[22] Ps. 14:4.

[23] Jer 10:16; I Sam 9:13.

[24] Lev 19:24.

[25] I Kg 6:17 [heykhal lifnay], usually translated as ‘the front part of the House’ (i.e., the Temple).  Bahya reads lifnay as “before Me,” in order to allude to the mystical idea that saying a blessing returns the vital energy in what is eaten back to its source in the heavenly realm.

[26] An untranslatable wordplay here on yetzer and yotzer.

[27] Prov. 8:34.

[28] Is 5:18.

[29] Hos. 13:6.

[30] Dt. 8:13-14.

[31] This whole paragraph, which in Hebrew is all rhymed prose, is a remarkable pastiche of Biblical allusions; nearly every phrase has a Biblical source. See Chavel, who lists as sources Is 11:7; Hos 4:18;  Prov 23:30; Ez 48:20; Prov 16:28; Nah 2:5;  and Ps 37:4. There are others, including Prov 15:17 (see next note).

[32] Hos 4:18.

[33] An allusion to Prov 15:17: “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love, than a fattened bull where there is hate;” and Midrash Mishlei 15:1 (on it), which R. Bahya quotes and discusses at length in his commentary on the Torah (Be’ur, 2:376-7). The midrash’s point is to teach derekh eretz – “good manners.” Even a poor host, who invokes the blessings of God, can make his “meal of vegetables” more palatable to his guest, than a rich host who says the wrong thing, though serving his guest a sumptuous meal.  It is worth quoting the whole midrash:

“BETTER A MEAL OF VEGETABLES WHERE THERE IS LOVE, THAN A FATTENED BULL WHERE THERE IS HATE.”  (Prov. 15:17)  R. Levi said, “About whom did Solomon say this verse?  About two men who met him after he had lost his kingdom and was wandering from door to door looking for a job. Two men met him, who recognized him. One of them came up, prostrated himself before him, and said to him, “My lord the king, if it pleases you, take a meal with me today.”  Immediately he went with him. He had him go up to the best seat, slaughtered a bull, had many delicacies brought to him, and began to recite to him all the things having to do with his kingdom.  He said to him, “Remember how you did such and such a thing on such and such a day when you were king.”  But as soon as he reminded him of the days of his kingdom, he began to cry and moan.  And so it was for the whole meal until he got up and left having cried himself out. The next day, his host’s companion met him.  He began to prostrate himself before him, and said to him, “My lord the king, if it pleases you, take a meal with me today.”  He said to him, “Perhaps you seek to do for me as your friend did yesterday?”  He said, “My lord, the king, I am a poor man, but if it pleases you, take a meal with me today of the little bit of vegetables I have.”  At that very moment he went to his house.   The man washed his hands and feet, brought him a little bit of vegetables, and began to console him.  He said to him, “My Lord the king, the Holy One Blessed Be He surely swore to your father that the monarchy will never cease from your line, as it is said, “The Lord swore to David a firm oath the He will not renounce, ‘One of your own issue I will set upon your throne’” (Ps. 132:11).  It’s just the way of the Holy One Blessed Be He to rebuke and then repent from rebuking, as it said, “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father the son he favors.” (Prov. 3:12).  But He will restore your kingdom to you.

R. Hiyya said…when Solomon got his kingdom back, he wrote in his wisdom, “’BETTER A MEAL OF VEGETABLES WHERE THERE IS LOVE’ which I ate at the poor man’s home, ‘THAN A FATTENED BULL WHERE THERE IS HATE’ which the rich man who reminded me of my sorrow fed me.”

[34] Jer. 10:14.

[35] “Wars for the Lord:” the whole phrase is Ha-lohmot milhamot Ha-Shem – idiomatically, “those who wage holy wars.” However, R. Bahya has chosen this expression for its multiple connotations. Though this is a technical medieval Hebrew expression for “holy war,” R. Bahya also plays on the pun between lehem – “bread” or food in general, and the Hebrew noun for war – milhamah – and the verb “to wage war” –  That these “holy wars” are directed internally against one’s animal desires is strikingly similarity to the idea in Islam of “the greater jihad.”  See for example Ghazz¯al¯i, “An Exposition of the Merit of Hunger and a Condemnation of Satiety,” the seventh chapter in On Disciplining the Soul = Kit¯ab Riy¯adat Al-Nafs, & On Breaking the Two Desires = Kit¯ab Kasr Al-Shahwatayn: Books XXII and XXIII of The Revival of the Religious Sciences = Ihy¯a’ ‘ul¯um Al-D¯in (Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995).


[36] Ex. 25:28.

[37] In verse 11:44 of Leviticus: “For I am the Lord your God.  You shall make yourselves holy and you shall be holy, for I am holy.”

[38] B.Ber 53b.

[39] According to Chavel, quoting Rashi’s comment to this midrash: “It was customary to bring fragrant oil at the end of the meal to pour on one’s hands after the hand-washing after the meal removed the dirt from them.”

[40] B. Ta’anit 25a: “In the future the righteous will eat at a table of gold which has three legs.”

[41] Ez. 1:10.  In his prophetic vision of the four heavenly creatures, the prophet specifies that each had four faces: a human face, a face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle.  But unlike the other faces, Ezekiel does not state specifically where on the creatures’ bodies the eagle’s face was.

[42] Ber. R. 47:8.

[43] B. Berakhot 16b.

[44] In other words, he added the Messiah, the descendent of King David and rebuilder of Jerusalem, who has yet to come and complete the four.

[45] R. Bahya is probably also suggesting that the name of the patriarchs’ burial place not only alludes to the number four as a symbol of perfection and completion, but also to the re-union of the soul with her source implied in the word “Hebron.”  Hebron sounds like the root of the Hebrew word for “to unite” or “to attach” that R. Bahya just used to refer to the place “where the soul is attached,” “sham hithabrut ha-nefesh.”

[46] I Sam 25:29: tzurah be-tzror ha-hayyim, an expression which has come to mean “eternal life” as in the prayer for the dead El Male Rahamim.

[47] Eccl. 12:13.

[48] B. Shabbat 30b.

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