What's in a Word?

For the week ending 17 February 2024 / 8 Adar Alef 5784

Terumah: A Table for Thee

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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One of the most important components of the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple was the golden shulchan, upon which the twelve loaves of the weekly shewbread (also spelled showbread) were placed. The word shulchan is commonly translated as “table,” and refers to a flat surface upon which food is put down. In the 21 times that the word shulchan appears throughout the Pentateuch, it always refers to the ritual shulchan found in the Tabernacle. However, in the other 50 times that this word appears in the Bible, it can also refer to a general “table” upon which a king or important person eats and feeds the members of his household. In this essay, we encounter three words in Rabbinic parlance that also mean “table” and are understood to be equivalent to the Biblical Hebrew shulchan petora, taka, and tavla.

Ibn Janach (990–1055) and Radak (1160–1235) trace the word shulchan to the triliteral root SHIN-LAMMED-CHET (“to dispatch,” “to send away,” “sword”), but exactly how it connects to the meanings derived from that root are not readily apparent. Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in Machberet Menachem sees shulchan as derived from its own quadriliteral root SHIN-LAMMED-CHET-NUN. Either way, the Targumim consistently render the Hebrew word shulchan into Aramaic as petora. Conversely, Rashi (to Beitzah 29b) defines the Aramaic word petorah (when it appears in the Talmud) as shulchan.

There is another parallel between shulchan and its Aramaic equivalent petorah: In Mishnaic Hebrew, the term shulchani refers to a “moneychanger” (Maaser Sheini 4:2, Bava Metzia 2:4, 3:114:6, 9:12, Shavuot 7:6, Meilah 6:5, Keilim 12:5), as those who served in that occupation typically worked from behind a shulchan (“table/desk”), upon which they would place the money. Just like petorah in Aramaic means the same thing as shulchan in Hebrew, so does petora’ah in Aramaic mean the same thing as shulchani in Hebrew — “moneychanger” (see Rashi to Chullin 54b).

When Balak sought out the services of the evil sorcerer Balaam to put a hex on the Jews, the Bible relates that Balak sent messengers “petorah” (Num. 22:5), which literally means “to Pethor.” In line with the above, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §20:7, Tanchuma Balak §4) and Rashi (to Num. 22:5) explain that when the Bible associated Balaam with petorah, this means he functioned, after a fashion, like a moneychanger, as all the different kings ran over to Balaam to “do business” with him, just like those involved in commerce might chase after a moneychanger to “do business” with him. The Matnot Kehunah explains this connection by noting (as we already explained) that petora in Aramaic means “table,” and the Hebrew term for moneychanger in the Mishnah is shulchani, which derives from the Hebrew word shulchan.

Rabbi Avraham Menachem Rappaport (1520–1596) in Minchah Belulah (to Num. 22:5) offers two more exegetical ways of interpreting the word petorah used in connection with Balaam: Firstly, he connects petorah to the word pitaron (“interpretation/explanation”) as a reference to Balaam’s occupation as a “dream interpreter.” Secondly, he sees the word petorah as related to the Aramaic word petora for “table.” The way he explains it, Balaam’s pagan practices included idolatrous rites like “setting a table [shulchan] for Gad” (Isa. 7:5). Just as in the Holy Temple, there was a ritual shulchan set up for the holy worship of Hashem, so did idolators also set up a ritual table for their unholy worship of their deities. This is because the acts of the holy and unholy often parallel each other in mirror images.

Either way, it is interesting that the Talmud (Shabbat 36a) states that the word patora and its diminutive form patorta respectively once referred to a “big table” and a “small table,” but that after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the meanings of those two words switched.

Our second word for “table” in rabbinic literature is taka. Indeed, Rashi (to Brachot 46b, Gittin 67b, Kiddushin 81a) defines the Aramaic word taka as shulchan. This word appears many times in the Talmud, but I will only cite a few colorful examples: The Talmud states (Brachot 42a) that once the table (taka) has been removed at the end of a meal, one has essentially declared intent to recite the Grace after Meals, and is therefore no longer allowed to eat until after doing so. Yet, the Talmud records a story wherein Rava once ate at the exilarch’s house and even after Rava’s table (taka) had been removed, Rava continued to eat food sent to him by the exilarch. When questioned about this behavior, Rava remarked that even though his table had been removed, he did not yet intend to recite the Grace after Meals because he relied on the exilarch's table (taka), which had not yet been removed.

Similarly, the Talmud (Yevamot 63b) cites two descriptions of how the archetypical “bad wife” treats her husband, with Abaye saying “she adorns for him a table [taka], and [until mealtime] she adorns for him her mouth [i.e., she curses him out]” and Rava saying “she adorns for him a table [taka], and she turns her back on him [i.e., refuses to eat with him].” In all of these Talmudic passages, the word used for “table” is taka. [See Nedarim 20a-20b, in which the term shulchan is used euphemistically to refer to marital intimacy.]

Although the Aramaic word taka does not seem to appear anywhere in the Bible, there is one particular verse in which some commentators explain a word that is similar to taka as referring to our word. When describing theJewish People’s relationship with Hashem, Moses described their servility by stating, “…and they are tuku to Your feet.” The meaning of the word tuku in this passage is obscure and various explanations have been offered throughout the generations. In particular, Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865) and Rabbi Ezra Reuven Dangoor (1848–1930) write that the word tuku is related to the Aramaic taka, explaining that tuku refers to the act of "sitting a table." The way they explain it, Moses' description refers to the Jews as though they sit at Hashem's "table" to accept His directives and receive His blessings, like a guest who sits at their host’s table.

Now that we have established that petora and taka both mean “table,” we can start discussing the interplay between these two words and whether or not they are truly synonymous.

The Talmud (Pesachim 115b) relates that one Passover Night, Abaye was hosted at Rabbah’s house, and upon the onset of the Maggid portion of the Passover Seder, the “table” was lifted up in order to be removed, as though the meal had already been finished. Abaye was surprised by this irregularity, which prompted him to ask why the “table” was removed if the meal had not yet even been served. His teacher Rabbah responded that Abaye’s question exempted the sages from asking the Four Questions.

In our printed versions of the Talmud, the word used for “table” in this anecdote is the Aramaic word taka. However, when Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (1013–1103) cites this story (Pesachim 25b in the Alfasi pagination), his version of the story uses the word petora in both instances. A third version is found in Rabbi David Abudarham’s commentary to the Haggadah Shel Pesach, according to which the word used by the narrator for the “table” that was removed is petora, but when Abaye asked about this occurrence, the word for “table” used in his dialogue is taka. All three of these variant readings of the Babylonian Talmud are also attested to in manuscripts of the Talmud available on the Hachi Garsinan website. For our purposes, it seems that the interchangeability of these two Aramaic terms points to the notion that they are indeed synonymous.

The famous Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534–1572), often known as the Arizal, wrote a series of liturgical poems in Aramaic. Each poem begins with the words Atkinu Seudata and is supposed to be recited at a different meal. In referring to the “Shabbos Table” in these Kabbalistically-infused poems, Arizal uses two different Aramaic words for “table.” In his poem for the Friday Night meal, he refers to a petora chadatah (“new table”) and in his poem for the Shabbat Morning meal, he refers to l’ater petora (“to adorn the table”). Yet, in his poem for the Third Meal on Shabbat, Arizal refers to “this table” (hai taka), replacing the Aramaic word petora with taka. But do petora and taka actually mean the same thing?

Rabbi Mordechai Dov Yudelovitch of Lida (d. 1951) — whose surname is also spelled Judilovitz — would say no. He writes that petora refers to a “large table,” while taka refers to a “small, private table” upon which people would customarily eat on festive occasions or in the presence of esteemed guests. In other words, taka refers to a portable personal tray-table for one, while petora refers to a longer table of the sort one might have in one’s dining room. This approach is endorsed by Rabbi Shaul Goldman, who independently arrived at the same conclusion. Thus, despite Rashi defining both terms with the Hebrew shulchan, these two Aramaic terms do not mean exactly the same thing. Indeed, if one looks back at all the examples of taka in the Talmud cited above, one will see that they refer to private tables upon which single individuals would eat, as opposed to the more communal petora.

It should be noted that from an etymological perspective, this is another difference between petora and taka. Dr. Michael Sokoloff writes in his dictionary of Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic in the Byzantine Period that the Aramaic word petora is a cognate, or even derivative, of the Akkadian word passuru (which is the plural form of the Akkadian word passurum), which is, in turn, borrowed from the Sumerian word bansur ("table"). On the other hand, in his dictionary of Jewish-Babylonian Aramaic in the Talmudic and Geonic Periods, Dr. Sokoloff notes that the etymology of the word taka is unknown.

Our third word for “table” in Rabbinic parlance is tavla. This word appears multiple times in the Mishnah (Eruvin 5:1, Yoma 3:10, Keilim 2:3, 16:8, 25:1, 27:1, Mikvaot 4:2), as well as in the Talmud (for example, see Pesachim 57a). Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) in Sefer Tishbi notes that tavla is the Rabbinic Hebrew equivalent to the Biblical Hebrew word shulchan. In his entry on this word, HaBachur connects tavla to the Latin tabula, which is the forebearer of the English words table, tablet (“small slab”), tabulate, tabloid, and more.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Shimshon of Sens (Rash M’Shantz to Ohalot 15:2) writes that a shulchan actually differs from a tavla, because a shulchan is a flat surface that is attached to four legs that hold it up, while a tavla simply refers to a table top that is not attached to four legs (so it can even be simply a flat board or plank serving as an even surface).

Interestingly, Rabbeinu Manoach (to Maimonides’ Laws of Chametz & Matzah 6:7) writes that the word tevel (in reference to food from which tithes had not yet been taken off) is related to the word tavla, in the sense that just as a person cannot eat a wooden or metal table — but rather eats food from such a table — so too may a person not eat tevel, but rather must separate tithes and may only eat from a subset of that foodstuff.

Alternatively, he explains tevel as a portmanteau of tav ("good") and lo ("not"). [This explanation is also offered by Sefer Ha'Aruch, Bartenura (to Brachot 7:1), Rabbi Chaim Vital in Eitz Chaim (Shaar #50 ch. 3), and Kli Yakar (to Jud. 11:3)]. Additionally, Rabbi Manoach suggests that tevel is related to the Arabic word mitabel (food that has something mixed into it), which — although he does not note this — is a cognate of the Hebrew word tavlin, “spice” (see also Ha’Ktav V’Ha’Kabbalah to Ex. 22:28).

One last interesting point is that we find names of sages in the Talmud related to the word petora (for example, Ben Petora, also spelled Betorah) and tavla (for example, Rav Tavla appears in Bava Batra 111a, Chullin 132b), but not taka. Although, I should also point out that the Yiddish names Tevle/Tevele are unrelated to the word tavla. Instead, Alexandre Beider explains that they are permutations of the names David (with the interchangeability of the t-sound and d-sound) and/or Tuvia, with the additional diminutive -le appended.

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