(Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23)
January 21, 2006
Isaiah, like many of his fellow prophets, felt compelled to rail against what we would call the hedonistic excesses of some in his generation. It particularly appalled him that these excesses were often found amongst those who were supposed to be the elite of society: the political and religious leadership of the nation. Isaiah\’s critique was biting in its vivid descriptiveness: \”But these are muddled by wine and dazed by liquor: Priest and prophet are muddled by liquor; they are confused by wine, they are dazed by liquor; they are muddled in their visions, they stumble in judgment. Yea, all tables are covered with vomit and filth (literally – feces), so that no space is left (b\’li makom).\” (Isaiah 28:7-8)
The second verse quoted here was meant to illustrate the obscene results of these excesses and perhaps to rattle those involved into realizing the error of their behavior. It is one thing to practice excessive behavior; it is another to be able to picture the results of said conduct and Isaiah spares nothing in his description – a table so completely filled with vomit and feces so that there is no place on its surface left untouched. This image is magnified because the tables being talked about were likely those of cohanim – priests, whose tables would otherwise be filled with sanctified things. The contrast is startling and appalling. (See Rabbi David Kimche.)
This verse was transformed into a different kind of critique in the Mishnah: Rabbi Shimon said: \’Three who eat at a table and do not speak words of Torah there, it is as though they had eaten sacrifices of the dead, as it is said: \’For all tables are filled with vomit and filth, when God is absent (b\’li Makom).\’ (Isaiah 28:8) (Mishnah Avot 3:3)
Notice how Rabbi Shimon reinterprets the end of the verse from Isaiah. The pshat or plain meaning of the text renders \”makom\” as \”space,\” but for the rabbinic Jew the word \”Makom\” has already come to be understood as a name for God, the Omnipresent. Consequently, Rabbi Shimon renders this verse: \’In a place where God is not mentioned (absented), anything that happens at that table is an abomination.\’
Rabbi Shimon\’s use of this verse is based on certain ideas that are quintessentially rabbinic. As Professor Gerson Cohen has noted, in his definitive essay \’The Rabbinic Heritage\’, Rabbinic Judaism made each Jew an active participant in the religious life of the people. No longer were priests the sole arbiters of religion. Every Jew had responsibility. Also, the study of Torah became a primary avenue of religious experience not just for the elite but for all Jews. This democratization of religious life serves as the background for Rabbi Shimon\’s teaching.
Consequently when Jews join in a meal and introduce words of Torah to that meal, the meal itself becomes a means of worship of God and a place of Divine revelation. The journey from abomination to revelation is as simple as that – from self indulgence to sacrifice and inspiration.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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