The Shabbos Tisch

Rabbi Amitai Adler
March 5, 2012
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In some ways, the true experience of the tisch is inextricable from its Hasidic context. And this is both for good reason, and perhaps also for the best.

It is for good reason because a true tisch requires the culture of the frum Shabbat: the appreciation of traditional dishes, of zmirot and nigunim, of the traditional style of Torah talk and storytelling around a Shabbat table; and it requires the focus and attention of hasidim for a rebbe. It is perhaps for the best because it requires there to be a rebbe with hasidim, and that kind of intense, exclusive, and utterly devoted master-disciple relationship is something with which I have profound discomforts.

Nonetheless, I have been to several Hasidic tischen, and to many more informal tischen in the Orthodox world, and have enjoyed them, mostly very much. And though I do think that a true rebbe’s tisch is not replicable in the non-Orthodox world, I think a more traditional style of tisch would be a deeply positive thing to export into non-Orthodox Judaism. I have attended several non-Orthodox events called tischen, which ranged from innocuous but unmoving to embarrassingly ignorant and un-Shabbosdiche. Something is lacking in non-Orthodox tischen, and it’s not a rebbe.

What I think really is that non-Orthodox Judaism does not need the Hasidic tisch per se: we don’t need to try and emulate the rebbe-hasid dynamic, because that dynamic is ultimately not friendly to pluralistic learning– I don’t mean that it encourages intolerance, because I have met some extremely tolerant Hasidim. But I do mean that it encourages people to focus their learning very narrowly, through the single lens of a particular rebbe or dynasty of rebbes, rather than embrace many different sources of learning, with many different attitudes and ideas.

What we do need is the tisch mamash: the word tisch in Yiddish means “table,” and while it got taken to refer specifically to der rebbes tisch (the rebbe’s table), it really means the Shabbat table around which the rebbe was accustomed to gather his hasidim, or at least some of them. And what has become sorely lacking in non-Orthodox Judaism is the frum Shabbos table experience. The traditional Shabbat is not best experienced at shul– although certainly traditionally one goes to shul– it is best experienced at the table. Not simply because of traditional foods, although those are lovely. But because of Torah discussion, storytelling, and above all, the singing of zmirot and nigunim. And while at some non-Orthodox Shabbat tables, I have encountered Torah discussion, and occasionally even some storytelling, very few sing zmirot and nigunim. And, unfortunately, most of the non-Orthodox zmirot singers that I have encountered (under the age of 40) know only a few tunes from summer camps– and while Jewish summer camps do many wonderful and invaluable things, teaching good zmirot tunes is not generally one of them.

This traditional table, this Shabbos tisch, is the heart of ruach shabbos, the spirit of Shabbat. It is, as I discovered when trying to teach Shabbat in the classroom, the most ineffable and difficult-to-transmit aspect of the traditional Shabbat experience. It is needed in non-Orthodox Judaism, like a transfusion of blood to an anemic patient: because it suffuses Shabbat with a certain air, a saturation of restful peace, in a way nothing else does.

Since I can’t describe better the ephemeral yet essential nature of the Shabbos tisch, the best I can do is to append a zemer: the one I am attaching is Yetzaveh Tzur Chasdo, found in traditional bentschers and Ashkenazi siddurim in the section for zmirot for Shabbat day. The nigun, my father learned from Rav Michel Twerski shlit”a, from whose family it comes (I am told). To me it has always exemplified the peaceful, contemplative, loving ruach of the Shabbos tisch.

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1 Comment

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