by Rav Yaakov Klass, originally published in The Jewish Press
Covering The Challah
Question: I have been wondering about a custom I have always followed myself, as does everyone else — namely, the fact that the challah on the Sabbath table remains covered. What is the reason, and why don’t we cover other food items on the table?
Answer: The practice you mention is cited by the Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 271:9, Hilchot Shabbos) who states: “We are required to have a cloth on the table under the bread [the loaf of challah] and another cloth spread over it.” This is a requirement that is mentioned in the context of other halachot regarding the recital of Kiddush over wine. As you noted, it is only the challah on the Sabbath (and Yom Tov) table that has to be covered, and not any other food items.
The Tur (ibid.) notes: When one sits down to eat there should be a cloth spread over the bread, as we were taught in a baraitha (Pesachim 100b) stating, “One must not bring in the [individual] table [on which he would eat] unless he has recited the Kiddush; but if [the set table] was brought in, he spreads a cloth over it and then Kiddush is recited.” The Tur explains that although we are required to prepare the table while it is still day, the intent is that the table should be “prepared and set” somewhere else. Anyway, the table is not brought in until after Kiddush has been recited so that it should be evident that the [set] table is brought in honor of the Sabbath. Therefore, if the table was brought in before the Kiddush, we spread a cloth over it (i.e., the challah) as if it were not there. Kiddush is recited, and then we remove the cloth [that covered it].
The Tur then refers to a commentary of Tosafot on Tractate Shabbos 119b (also found on our baraitha s.v. “she’ein mevi’in”) to the effect that this rule (of bringing in the set table after Kiddush) applied specifically in the time of the Mishnaic sages. In those days it was the custom to have separate, individual tables for each person. Bringing the tables in was easy and did not cause an interruption. But now that our tables are large, continues the Tur, bringing them in after the Kiddush would constitute an effort great enough to create an interruption between the Kiddush and the meal. We have therefore adopted the custom of setting up the table [where the meal will take place], covering it [the challah] with a cloth and then reciting the Kiddush.
The Tur’s explanatory text and the baraitha he quotes appear somewhat vague as to what is being covered. However, his opening statement as well as the Rashbam’s commentary on Tractate Pesachim ad loc. (which we incorporated in our rendition) clearly indicate that it is only the challah that has to be covered.
The Tur was evidently bothered by the vagueness of the description of what is required to be covered, for he continues: It is stated in the Jerusalem Talmud [that the reason for this practice is] that the bread should not feel embarrassed [suffer the indignity of not being blessed on first], for according to the verse describing the bounty of the Land of Israel — (Devarim 8:8), “A land of wheat, barley, grape, fig and pomegranate; a land of oil-olives and date-honey” — it is the bread that should take precedence in the order of the blessings.
This text of the Jerusalem Talmud is, in fact, mentioned by the Rosh, the Tur’s father, in his commentary on Pesachim (loc. cit.), and the Tur is obviously quoting him. Korban Netanel (Rosh ad loc.) remarks that he could not locate that text of the Yerushalmi — nor were we able to find it. However, the Mordechai ad loc. quotes what he heard from Rabbi Avraham [probably his teacher]. The reason stated clarifies, of course, why only the challah is covered. In fact, when quoting Rabbi Avraham, the Mordechai states that in a case where the challah on the Sabbath table is uncovered, Rabbi Avraham would require that the blessing over bread be recited first. This is in accordance with the ruling in Tractate Berachot (41a), attributed to R. Yosef or, some say, to R. Yitzhak, that the order in which the products of the Land of Israel are mentioned in the verse determines the precedence of blessings.
Finally, the Tur suggests still another reason for covering specifically the challah (and not other foods) on the Sabbath table. We do so as a remembrance of the manna in the desert, which the Children of Israel would find on the ground as if wrapped in layers of dew, that is, there was dew underneath it and dew above it to cover and protect it. We therefore put a tablecloth underneath the challah and another cloth over it. (Today we usually have a tray under the challah and a cloth above it to cover it all around.)
Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc O.C. 271:sk22) adds that according to Tur’s explanation that we cover the challah in order that it not suffer the indignity of being preceded by the wine at the seuda it would seem that immediately after the Kiddush over wine has been made one may uncover it but since the Tur offers his second reason that covering the challah is a remembrance of the manna that was wrapped in layers of dew it is therefore one is to leave it covered until after the blessing of HaMotzi. And he adds this is the custom.
The importance of bread is also addressed in Tractate Pesachim (106b), where it is noted that Rav would, on occasion, choose to make Kiddush over bread, and at other times he would recite the Kiddush over wine. (Rashbam, explains that when Rav was hungry he would wash his hands and make Kiddush over bread so that he would be able to eat forthwith; Rashi’s commentary, as found in the Vilna Shas, states that when he was thirsty he would recite the Kiddush over wine.) Only bread can be substituted for wine in the Kiddush — and this in spite of the fact that wine is the first choice for Kiddush, as it is written (Shemot 20:8), “Zachor et yom Ha’Shabbat lekadsho — Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” Tosafot (Pesachim ibid. s.v. “Zochrehu al HaYayin”) explain that we deduce the primacy of wine for Kiddush from a verse in Hoshea (14:8) stating, “Zichro ke’yeyn Levanon — Its memory shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”
Years ago I heard the following story. The Chasam Sofer once traveled to Baden Baden in Germany for its famous mineral baths. When he arranged his accommodations at an inn he requested that he have complete privacy, even when he is dining. By chance as he was having his Shabbos meal someone chanced to peek through a glass door, that was supposed to be secured from sight, and saw that he was making Kiddush on challah. To the Chasam Sofer’s consternation the word soon spread that he [the Chasam Sofer] makes Kiddush on challah. The Chasam Sofer was very upset, as he did not want any to issue a ruling from his personal behavior. However, what was probably the case was that since he was traveling he did not want to bring along wine and he wished as well not to use any one else’s wine. Now we see from the Gemara above (Pesachim 106b), that his source was Rav (see Rema, Orach Chayyim 272:9 and Magen Avraham ad loc sk9, see also Tur ad loc and Beit Yosef in his longer commentary to Tur), who would some times make Kiddush on wine and some times on challah.
Now, as to why we only cover the challah when making Kiddush [over wine], why not cover all other foods that are on the table? The answer to this is underscored in R. Papa’s statement (Berachot 41b): “The halacha is that foods which form an integral part of the meal require no [separate] blessing either before or after if they are consumed during the course of the meal.’’ The reason for that law is that the blessing recited over bread is deemed to include all other foods eaten at that meal (see Tosafot s.v. “Hilchata”). Therefore we might say that only the challah has to be covered during Kiddush because bread and wine are the two main food items on the table in the course of a meal.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org