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In any other culture, it would be viewed as peculiar for diners to find food covered with a cloth at a table set for a formal meal. Yet, at every Shabbat or Yom Tov table, the bread is covered. Why? What’s the origin of this practice?

In Talmudic times, participants at a meal didn’t sit around one large table. Rather, a small table with food was brought before each diner. The Talmud states that on Shabbat, this table shouldn’t be brought into the dining area prior to Kiddush (Pesachim 100b). The She’iltot explains that waiting until after Kiddush to bring out the food indicates that the meal is in honor of Shabbat (she’ilta 54).

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The Talmud further rules that if one acted incorrectly and brought this table out before Kiddush, one need not go through the effort of removing it and subsequently bringing it back after Kiddush. One may instead cover it with a cloth and then uncover it after Kiddush (pores mappah u’mkaddesh), which approximates the effect of the table arriving after Kiddush in honor of Shabbat.

In other words, covering the food during Kiddush is only a post facto remedy; ideally, the food should not be brought out before Kiddush at all. In light of this, why do virtually all Jews nowadays insist on having the bread covered on the table during Kiddush? Why don’t they just wait until after Kiddush to bring it out?

Tosafot explains that the halachic injunction to, ideally, bring out the table after Kiddush no longer applies (100b s.v. she’ein). In the times of Chazal, when tables were individually-sized, they could easily and quickly be brought out between Kiddush and hamotzi. But now that dining rooms feature one large table for all diners, removing this table from the room and then schlepping it back in would not only be quite difficult but also constitute an inappropriate interruption between Kiddush and the meal. Therefore, the remedy of pores mappah u’mekaddesh is now sanctioned even lechatchila.

At first blush, though, Tosafot’s reasoning seems difficult to understand, as there appears to be a way to fulfill the ideal halacha of “bringing the table after Kiddush” without moving any furniture. As the She’iltot states, the rationale of this halacha is emphasizing that the meal is in honor of Shabbat. As such, let the food be brought in after Kiddush. The location of the table per se would seem to be irrelevant.

Indeed, the practice of the Vilna Gaon was not to have the bread on the table at all during Kiddush (Maaseh Rav 118). Why don’t all Jews act accordingly?

Tosafot quotes a different Talmudic passage that sheds light on this issue. In Tractate Shabbat, the Gemara famously states that both a good and a bad angel accompany Jews home from synagogue on Friday evening (Shabbat 119b). If one arrives home to find everything arranged properly in honor of Shabbat – including a set table – the good angel issues a blessing to which the bad angel must begrudgingly agree.

At first glance, this passage – which indicates that the table should be prepared before one returns home from shul, which is necessarily before Kiddush – contradicts the rule in Tractate Pesachim that the (individually-sized) table(s) should not be brought in until after Kiddush. Tosafot, however, suggests a simple reconciliation between the two passages: The tables must indeed be properly prepared and ready for use before Kiddush, but they must be kept out of the dining area until after Kiddush.

As discussed above, keeping our large tables out of the dining room and then moving them in after Kiddush is not practical; nevertheless, in accordance with the passage in Tractate Shabbat, the table must be set before anyone attending shul on Friday night returns home. Apparently, according to Tosafot and the reasoning upon which the common custom rests, if the table is empty of food, it has not yet truly been “set.” Thus, in our times, the bread must be placed on the table before people arrive home from shul.[i]

The Vilna Gaon, in contrast, apparently maintains that arranging the utensils on the table is sufficient for it to be considered “set.” He therefore maintains that, lechatchila, one should not bring the bread to the table before Kiddush so as to more closely adhere to the prescription in Tractate Pesachim. Thus, the Vilna Gaon’s opinion is not merely a chumra; it’s also a leniency with regards to the requirement of setting the table – a kula that goes against the opinion of virtually all poskim (who quote Tosafot) and a thousand years of Jewish custom.[ii]

In addition to the Talmud-based reason, the Rishonim cite additional, homiletic explanations of the practice to cover the challah (all mentioned in the Tur, Orach Chayim 271). Perhaps the most famous one of these is that we cover the bread during Kiddush so it shouldn’t be embarrassed, as it were, by “seeing” the beracha of borei pri ha’gafen being recited first – an honor that usually belongs to the blessing of hamotzi.

An additional explanation relates to the idea that the two loaves of bread on Shabbat are reminiscent of the double portion of manna that descended on Fridays. Since the manna was ensconced by two layers of dew (one above and one below), we cover the bread so that it, too, has a layer of protection above and below it.[iii]

These aggadic explanations clearly originated in order to bolster, post facto, the post-Talmudic practice – occasioned by the change in table size – of bringing the bread to the table before Kiddush. In Talmudic times, there was usually no reason to cover the bread since it was not in the dining area during Kiddush. Nevertheless, poskim note that one could reach different halachic conclusions in certain cases depending on which reasoning one adopts.

For example, if the main reason for covering the bread is to reveal it after Kiddush as a way to emphasize that the seudah is in honor of Shabbat, there would seemingly be no reason to cover the bread for the Shabbat day meal (Mordechai, Pesachim ch. 10 s.v. u’mah she’anu). After one has already made Kiddush and eaten a seudah the night before, it is obvious that any subsequent food served over Shabbat is in honor of the holy day. But if we are concerned about the bread not “seeing its embarrassment” and ensuring that it resembles the ensconced manna, one should cover the challah even during Kiddush for the Shabbat daytime meal. Indeed, such is the common custom.

If the covered bread is supposed to recall the manna, one should perhaps keep the bread covered while making the berachah of hamotzi, suggest some later poskim.[iv] Yet, aside from the fact that older sources mention covering the bread during Kiddush only, it is also halachically questionable to cover a food during the recitation of a beracha upon it (Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat ch. 7 n. 16*).

Sometimes, especially at large group meals, a challah roll is set at each person’s place. If covering the bread is necessary to save it from “embarrassment,” it would seemingly be sufficient to cover the bread only in front of the person who recites Kiddush; everyone else can leave his or her challah uncovered (Leket Yosher p. 50). But according to the She’iltot, all the bread on the table should probably be covered so as to emphasize that each person’s meal is in honor of Shabbat (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 5:20:18; it is not clear why Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat [op. cit.] rules otherwise).

If covering the bread has to do with its association with the manna, one could argue in both directions – perhaps it’s sufficient for only one person’s bread to allude to the manna, but perhaps it’s better if all breads do so.

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[i] One could claim that all the food for the first course should be placed on the table and covered (cf. Nefesh HaRav p. 159). The prevalent custom, however, is to place only the bread on the table before Kiddush; even if people do place other foods on the table, they do not customarily cover them. Presumably, this is because it’s difficult to cover all foods on the table, and since the bread is the mainstay of the meal, covering and then later uncovering just the bread is sufficient to make clear that the entire meal is in honor of Shabbat (cf. Piskei Teshuvot 271 notes 147 and 184). Certainly according to the aggadic reasons mentioned below, it is only necessary to cover the bread.

[ii]R. Avigdor Nebenzahl encourages following the Vilna Gaon’s practice because he maintains there is no downside to doing so (Yerushalayim beMoadeha, Shabbat vol. 2 p. 133). Based on the analysis presented here, however, this ruling is misguided. The Aruch HaShulchan also concludes that one should not follow the Vilna Gaon’s practice, but his presentation of the sugya is difficult to understand (Orach Chayim 271:22).

[iii]The simple understanding of this explanation is that the tablecloth serves as the cloth below the bread. Some, however, place an additional, separate cloth below just the bread (see Piskei Teshuvot 271 n. 188).

[iv]The Chayei Adam (6:13) says one should cover the bread even if Kiddush does not immediately precede the meal – e.g., if one sits down for Shabbat lunch after already having made Kiddush earlier in the day. (Presumably, the same would be true at seudah shlishit.) The rationale behind this ruling is apparently the importance of recalling the manna at every meal. The clear implication of the Chayei Adam is that when Kiddush does, in fact, immediately precede the seudah, the manna is alluded to when the bread is covered during Kiddush, and there is no need to keep the covering on for hamotzi. It is therefore puzzling that the Mishnah Berurah quotes the Chayei Adam as implying that the bread should always remain covered during hamotzi (271:41). The Aruch HaShulchan, though, does recommend keeping the bread covered through hamotzi (op. cit.).

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Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman leads Washington Heights Congregation (“The Bridge Shul”). He is a member of the Kollel L’Horaah of RIETS and has had a lifelong interest in the history of halacha. He can be reached at rabbi@bridgeshul.com.