Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

No Place like God (Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23)

Isaiah, like many of his fellow prophets, felt compelled to rail against what we would call the hedonistic excesses of some in his generation. It particularly appalled him that these excesses were often found amongst those who were supposed to be the elite of society: the political and religious leadership of the nation. Isaiah’s critique was biting in its vivid descriptiveness: “(7) But these are muddled by wine and dazed by liquor: Priest and prophet are muddled by liquor; they are confused by wine, they are dazed by liquor; they are muddled in their visions, they stumble in judgment. (8) Yea, all tables are covered with vomit and filth (literally – feces), so that no space is left (b’li makom).” (Isaiah 28:7-8)

Verse 8 was meant to illustrate the obscene results of these excesses and perhaps to rattle those involved into realizing the error of their behavior. It is one thing to practice excessive behavior; it is another to envision the results of one’s conduct and here, Isaiah spares nothing in his description – a table so completely filled with vomit and feces that there is no place on its surface left untouched. This image is especially shocking because the tables being talked about here were likely those of kohanim – priests, whose tables would otherwise be filled with sanctified things. This contrast is both startling and appalling. Those charged with maintaining the nation’s highest values have betrayed their divine trust. (See Rabbi David Kimche.)

The Mishnah transformed this verse into a different kind of critique: Rabbi Shimon said: ‘Three who eat at a table and do not speak words of Torah there, it is as though they had eaten sacrifices of the dead, as it is said: ‘For all tables are filled with vomit and filth, when God is absent (b’li Makom).’ (Isaiah 28:8) (Mishnah Avot 3:3)

Notice how Rabbi Shimon reinterpreted the end of the verse 8. The pshat or plain meaning of the text renders “makom” as “space,” but for the rabbinic Jew the word “Makom” had already come to be understood as a name for God, the Omnipresent. Consequently, Rabbi Shimon renders this verse: ‘In a place where God is not mentioned (absented), anything that happens at that table is an abomination.’

Rabbi Shimon’s use of this verse is based on quintessentially rabbinic ideology. As Professor Gerson Cohen has noted, in his definitive essay ‘The Rabbinic Heritage’, Rabbinic Judaism made each Jew an active participant in the religious life of the people. No longer were priests the sole arbiters of religion. Jewish ritual and the study of Torah became a primary avenue of religious experience not just for the elite but for all Jews. This democratization of religious life serves as the background for Rabbi Shimon’s teaching.

Consequently, when Jews join in a meal and introduce words of Torah at the meal, the meal itself becomes a means of worship of God and a place of Divine revelation. The journey from abomination to revelation is as simple as that – a journey from self-indulgence to sacrifice and inspiration.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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