A Table Fit for a King

After difficult pains in pregnancy, Rivkah turns to Hashem to ask what’s happening.  In response, Hashem comforts her as follows: “There are two nations (“goyim”) in your womb…” (25:23). Interestingly, the word “goyim”, which literally means “nations”, is spelled different than it’s pronunciation would imply. Instead, it’s written “gayim”, meaning “nobles”.

 

Rashi comments that the verse implies that her children will not only become two separate nations, but each of them will produce men of extreme nobility. Most notably, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 11) explains that this refers to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and Antoninus, both of whom shared one peculiar habit: They each made sure that there would be radishes, lettuce, and cucumbers at their table at all times- even in the off-seasons of those produce. How does this show nobility, and why is that a defining characteristic of Esav and Yaakov’s descendants?

 

There are multiple ways to approach food. On the one hand, we can view it on a functional level. We eat it to be sustained, to survive, and to thrive. But food can be can also express other values. The Maharal (16th century, Prague) explains that both Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and Antoninus used these foods as a way to demarcate their personal levels of pride in their missions- recognizing (and reminding themselves) that they are men of stature- ‘a table fit for a King’, as they say. For Antoninus, this made clear sense- he was a King, and royalty brings with it a certain sense of pomp and circumstance. But the lesson is more stark in regards to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Although he didn’t rule over any country, he too was a “prince”. The Jewish people share in that same same notion of nobility, as princes and ambassadors of Gd’s word. He too would set his table in appreciation of that stature.

 

Oftentimes we find ourselves giving credence and importance to successful doctors, lawyers, and celebrities. We have lavish meals and dress up for cocktail parties for one cause or another. But our spiritual mission alone is reason to dress up. Shabbat tables are not simply normal meals, and our polished shoes are not just our usual business attire. The mission the of the Torah is a noble one, and we should treat it as such. As the mishnah suggests, “Do not desire the tables of kings, for your table is greater than their tables and your crown is greater than their crowns” (Avot 6:5).