Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher, Shulhan Shel Arba
[“The Table of Four”]
©2010 Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus
Selections translated by Jonathan Brumberg Kraus, based on the critical edition in Kitve Rabenu Bahya , edited by Charles Ber Chavel (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kuk, 1969) pp. 453-514. The numbers in brackets in the translation correspond to the page numbers in Chavel’s edition of the Hebrew text of Shulhan Shel Arba.
Introduction to the Translation
If three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of the Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written (Ezekiel 41.22) “He said to me, ‘This is the table which is before the LORD.’” (m. Avot 3:3)
Taking this rabbinic saying to heart, R. Bahya ben Asher’s Shulhan Shel Arba is an example of Jewish literature meant to be read at the table. It and books like it provided certain talking points, in words, and sometimes in pictures, for words of Torah relevant to the meals at hand, divre torah al ha-shulhan : words of the Torah both “about” ( al ) and literally “over” ( al ) the table. 13th and 14th century Spanish Jews produced some of the most outstanding examples of books for the table. Probably the most well-known are the illuminated haggadot, the Sarajevo Haggadah; the Golden and Barcelona Haggadot in the British Library, and the John Rylands Haggadah.
Less well-known now (perhaps because no pictures accompanied its text like those of the haggadot), but quite popular in its day and several subsequent centuries, especially in Hasidic circles, was the Shulhan Shel Arba (”The Table of Four“) by the famous Spanish Jewish preacher, kabbalist, and Biblical commentator Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher Hlava. I’d like to think of Rabbenu Bahya as a sort of medieval Jewish Brillat-Savarin. Like Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, R. Bahya elegantly analyzes the ways his culture (i.e., Torah culture) transforms eating into dining, something that elevates human beings to their highest potential. In his four-part book (he calls the parts four “Gates”), R. Bahya catalogues and explains 1) distinctive Jewish meal rituals (blessings and handwashing); 2) the “physiology of eating” (really more a kabbalistic, mystical interpretation); 3) table manners ( derekh eretz ); and 4) the Messianic Banquet reserved for the righteous at the end of time.
I’ve posted my English translation and commentary of Shulhan Shel Arba on this website to make this book more available to a wider audience, since it neatly summarizes and articulates classic Jewish religious views of eating. In what appears to be a medieval revival of the ethic of Greco-Roman symposium literature, R. Bahya encourages his readers to keep this book by their side at the table while eating, to evoke the appropriate Torah verses suited to the particulars of the meal.
The translation is accompanied with original illustrations by Rosemary Liss, who graduated Wheaton College in Massachusetts with a major in Studio Art in 2011. They are kind of 21st century “visual midrash” which particular passages or sections of Rabbenu Bahya’s text prompted her to compose. Her illustrations for this project were made possible by a Wheaton College Mars Grant for student-faculty collaboration in 2010.
Click on the links below for the selections I have translated. This is a work in progress which I will update periodically to correct and supplement it.
Rabbenu Bahya ben Arba, Shulhan Shel Arba [“The Table of Four“] selections:
I.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
II. 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
III. The Third Gate: An Explanation of the ethics and etiquette with which a person is required to behave at the table
IV. The Fourth Gate: An Explanation of the meal prepared for the righteous in the future to come