The Hasidic Tish: Tabletop Spirituality, Food for the Soul
The Sages of the Talmud characterized the dining table of the Jewish home as a mikdash me'at, a "small altar," elevating the mundane business of eating to a sacradotal level. The idea of a meal punctuated with Torah study also goes back at least as far as the Talmud (Avot 3:4; Taanit 5b). The practice continued on into the Middle Ages (Zohar II:154a), but early Hasidic masters were critical of their conventions, which focused more on virtuoso demonstrations of homiletic prowess rather than on spiritual inspiration .
The Tish, by comparison is focused on cultivating a emotional and spiritual identification between the attending Hasids and their leader. Attendees are encouraged to observe and reflect on the every gesture of the Rebbe, whose actions are understood to be "living Torah." Thus, for example, how the Rebbe handles the food, or which morsel he chooses as his first, are all assumed to convey a spiritual lesson. In most cases, the tzadik makes no effort to explain his actions. It is left to the individual hasid to find the metaphysical implications of the master's behavior. For many devout hasids, the tish is the highlight of their communal spirituality, for some it is more powerful than prayer. By means of notarikon, R. Sholem of Belz found that the initials of the phrase "You spread a table before me" - T'l'Sh - (Ps. 23:5) are the same as the initials for the phrase Tikkun Leil Shavuot, midnight study vigil held by Jews prior to celebrating the giving of Torah. Every evening spent at the tzadik's tish is as if you celebrated a major festival.
While there may be considerable food present, it is the food (usually bread and/or fish*) that is blessed and distributed through the hand of the rebbe that holds the greatest interest. In large crowds, often only those closest to the rebbe get more than a fragment. In very large gatherings, to get any at all is a rare and precious event, enhancing the significance of receiving it. It comes to signify a kind of grace. This food, called shirayim, is considered imbued with great sanctity. While most will eat it, some participants will keep the morsels as amulets.
Among CHaBaD Hasidim, these spiritual hoedowns are often called a Farbrengen (Yid., "Gathering"). Functionally identical to the rebbe's tish practiced by other Chasidic groups, the farbrengen features long discourses on mystical teachings of Torah, interrupted by chanting, song and dance. The crowd is also loosened up by a liberal supply of liquor present at all such events.
*Fish has long been held to be a uniquely 'metaphysical' food of special purity and status in the folk traditions of Judaism. Fish need not be slaughtered and kashered as the meat of land animals. The Talmud teaches that fish were spared the destruction of the land animals in the generation of the flood (T.B. Sanhedrin 108a). Fish are not vulnerable to the evil eye. Later reincarnation traditions hold this is because righteous souls transmigrate into fish. To consume them is to assimilate a measure of their merit. Thus fish is always integrated into Hasidic festive events.
1. Werthheim, "Traditions and Customs in Hasidism," p. 383.
2. Rabinowicz, The Encyclopedia of Hasidism, pp. 495-496.
3. Rabinowicz, p. 125.