In the aftermath of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (temple), the Beit Knesset (synagogue) and the Beit Midrash (house of study) took the place of the central place of worship.
Our sages add a third setting to the sites that serve the functions of our lost Temple; a somewhat unexpected locus of sanctity - the dinner table (B. Berachot 10b).
The Bible relates that a Shunamite woman recognized the holiness of the prophet Elisha, and hence encouraged her husband to build a small room with a bed, table, chair and lamp for this pious person, so that when he would pass through the area he would have comfortable lodgings (II Kings 4:8ff).
Our sages query: What indicator did the woman spy, that led her to the conclusion that the sojourner Elisha was a holy person? The first piece of evidence offered by the Talmud is that she never saw a fly pass over the table of the prophet. This indicator reminds us of another talmudic statement, that no fly was ever seen in the Temple slaughtering area, though it was awash with the blood of slaughtered animals (B. Yoma 21a).
Further in the passage, we are once again reminded of the connection between the home and the Temple altar. The Talmud declares that those who host Torah scholars in their home are considered by Scripture as if they have sacrificed a tamid offering - the twice daily sacrifice offering in the Temple. This connection is surmised from another statement of the Shunamite woman, who described Elisha as "passing tamid (regularly) among us" (II Kings 4:9).
Elisha did not visit at regular intervals, rather he stayed with the Shunamites when he perchanced in the area. The sages therefore surmise that the Shunamite woman was not describing the habitual nature of Elisha's visits, rather she was referring to their import: Elisha's calls gave her the opportunity to offer a virtual tamid sacrifice (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland).
Why is providing sustenance for a pious person akin to offering a sacrifice in the Temple? One authority describes a holy person as one who acts entirely for the sake of Heaven, even when engaged in routine activities such as eating. When we offer such people food, we are not merely proffering physical rations, we are in effect tendering a sacrifice to God (Mesillat Yesharim, 18th century, Italy-Acre).
Though this explains the connection between serving food to a righteous person and Temple sacrifices, it does not furnish a specific connection to the morning and evening tamid offering.
Relating specifically to this point, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935) offers a number of parallels between providing sustenance to Torah scholars and the tamid sacrifice. The tamid was a communal sacrifice offered from communal funds, and not a personal endeavor. Similarly, the responsibility to raise Torah scholars and support such leaders is not a private enterprise but a communal undertaking. Even when individuals provide for a Torah personality, they are doing so as representatives of the community.
Furthermore, Rabbi Kook stresses that habitual service of God is a greater expression of devotion than periodic demonstrations. Similarly, sacrifices offered with regularity - such as the tamid - express far deeper commitment than sacrifices offered from time to time. When people provide a Torah scholar with food, they are dedicating their worldly possessions to the service of God, and in this way they express fidelity to the Almighty even when they are engaged in mundane activities.
This analogy goes further - the responsibility of the Torah scholar to the nation is also not one bound to a specific season; those who are dedicated to Torah are expected to provide continual light for our nation.
Finally, elsewhere our sages declare that it is incongruous that a person's sacrifice should be offered without that person being present. With regard to the communal tamid offering, a rotation system was employed where different Israelite families would be present at the offering, and they would serve as representatives of the entire nation (B. Taanit 26a). It is insufficient to merely send food to Torah leaders; hosting such people in our homes is comparable to standing next to our offering in the Temple.
Following on from this notion, later in our tractate the Talmud tells us that even if you are not the provider of the meal but you partake of a meal where a Torah scholar is present, it is as if you have benefited from the divine radiant presence (B. Berachot 64a). The sages derive this conclusion from the biblical verse: "And Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law, before God" (Exodus 18:12). Didn't they eat before Moses, not "before God?" From here the sages deduce that dining with Torah greats is akin to dining before the Almighty.
In a similar vein, the sages tell us that when three dine together and share words of Torah, it is as if they dined at the Almighty's table. Conversely, three who eat without Torah, it is as if they partook of invalid sacrifices (M. Avot 3:3).
The comparison between table and altar has a further dimension. Our sages assert that the dining table is comparable to the Temple altar, as both surfaces are used for atoning for sins. During the Temple period, criminals atoned for their crimes when bringing sacrifices; nowadays we can atone for our wrongs through our table (B. Hagigah 27a). Although the sages do not explicate how the table can be used to atone for offenses, we can understand that by inviting guests to our table and sharing precious words of our tradition we turn the table into an altar.
When we sit down to eat we are not merely satisfying our worldly need for food. We are sitting down next to an altar. How we eat, what we eat and with whom we eat can make this table into a replica of the Temple altar, and may not only provide us with physical sustenance, but also with spiritual nourishment. Perhaps we can take the parallel further: if our dining table is comparable to an altar, then our homes in which this table is placed may have the sanctity of the Temple.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.