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Every Table Tells a Story

Every Table Tells a Story

Family kitchen table topped with food and drinks with living room chairs visible in the background

A tradition practiced for generations in some French-Jewish communities brings home the concept that death is part of life. Answering the call of faith, men would construct a table from suitable wood that would be used for daily meals and interactions. When the men died, the wood from those very tables would be recycled to build their coffins.

Imagine a man’s family and friends coming to his funeral and seeing his casket, which in its previous incarnation had been the table they had once sat around, eating, talking, laughing, arguing, and apologizing.

What is the origin of this French-Jewish tradition? After the Romans destroyed Second Temple in Jerusalem, where people brought sacrificial offerings to God, the rabbis taught that the home table would become a sanctuary and a bridge to atonement.

The kitchen table would become a place where the values of the man who had hewed it are affirmed or challenged. When the poor are invited to come and share in his bounty and good fortune, the table nurtures the soul and becomes a place of blessing.

Conversely, if he is inattentive and self-absorbed, it becomes a place of emotional indigestion and spiritual hunger. 

As dishes are filled and conversations ensue, souls mingle or bump into each other most directly. In life, you observe your tablemates up close. After they die, you remember tender details, such as the shape of their hands, their trademark fragrance, music they hummed, their favorite jokes or phrases – elements of keeping alive their memory.

Most of us can recall the kitchen table of our childhoods – of stories told, anger flashed, quarrels resolved, someone leaving the table in a huff. We saw and heard our parents cajole one another, bicker about finances, declare rules, discipline us kids, and show affection. While these times weren’t always congenial, they were real, and some of the things spoken there have never been forgotten.

What we do and say at the kitchen table, how we behave, and how we put down or lift up others all become engraved in people’s memory and the libretto of their grief when we die. In a sense, our eulogy echoes the clanking plates and cutlery, the smells and tastes of favorite foods, juxtaposed with the sounds of people laughing, weeping, shouting, blaming, and forgiving.

Tabletop scratches and other signs or wear may be seen as treasured story lines. A dear friend shared the following anecdote:

Kaylie, 6, said to me on my birthday, “Grandma, you have a lot of scratches on your table.” That table, I told her, has seen a lot of events and dinners through the years. That’s why I treasure that table and see on it a holiday feast, a birthday cake, glasses of wine, cat scratches, parrot bites, family reunions, and toasts to new beginnings and profound losses. So I like the scratches…all well earned through the years.

May all of us treasure our family table, scratches and all, and make of it a sanctuary both in times of grief and of joy.

Rabbi Ben Kamin holds a Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion. He is the award-winning author of 12 books on human values, civil rights, and spirituality. His articles here are adapted with permission from his latest book, The Blessing of Sorrow, Central Recovery Press, Las Vegas, NV. © 2018 by Rabbi Ben Kamin. 

Rabbi Ben Kamin
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