The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (72b) observes that three of the furnishings in the Mishkan were adorned with a “zeir” – a decorative rim, resembling a crown: the aron (ark), the mizbei’ach (altar), and the shulchan (table). These three articles with their respective “crowns,” the Gemara comments, represent the three “crowns” that exist in Jewish life, the three areas in which one can achieve special status. The zeir around the altar represents the “crown” of the kehuna (priesthood), as only kohanim were permitted to perform the rituals on the altar, and this “crown” is reserved for the priestly tribe. The zeir around the table represents the “crown” of kingship, which is reserved for King David and his descendants. And the zeir around the ark – which contained the tablets upon the commandments were engraved, as well as the original Torah scroll – represents the “crown” of Torah, which, the Gemara teaches, “is still available; whoever wishes may come and take it.” Whereas the “crowns” of the kehuna and kingship are reserved for specific groups, the “crown” of Torah is available to one and all.
Why does the Gemara view the shulchan as a symbol of the Jewish monarchy? The aron clearly represents the Torah because it contained the original texts of Torah instruction, and the altar was where the kohanim served, and so it represents the priesthood. But what is the connection between the shulchan and kingship?
The simplest answer is that as opposed to the scholars and kohanim, who were responsible for the nation’s spiritual wellbeing (the former through teaching and halakhic rulings, and the latter through the service in the Temple), the king was responsible for the nation’s material wellbeing. The primary role of the king was to lead the people militarily, and to ensure their needs were cared for. Indeed, the Gemara relates in Masekhet Berakhot (3b) that each morning during King David’s reign, when light first appeared on the eastern sky, the king would be approached by the nation’s scholars, who said, “Our master, the king – your nation, Israel, requires sustenance!” As this was the primary responsibility of the king, the kingship is associated with the shulchan, which contained the special lechem ha-panim (“show-bread”), and thus symbolized material sustenance.
The Tolna Rebbe (Heima Yenachamuni, Parashat Teruma) suggests a deeper connection between the shulchan and kingship. The Gemara (Menachot 97a) teaches, “In the time when the Beit Ha-mikdash stood, the altar atoned for a person; and now that the Beit Ha-mikdash does not stand, a person’s table atones for him.” This passage is commonly understood to mean that in the absence of the Beit Ha-mikdash, we earn atonement through our charity and hospitality, represented by our “table.” However, the Tolna Rebbe noted that the specific reference to “shulchano shel adam” – a person’s “table” – as opposed to explicitly mentioning charity and generosity, might point to a different explanation. He suggested that the Gemara here teaches that there are two methods of earning atonement: through sacrifice, symbolized by the altar, and through enjoying worldly delights in a properly controlled fashion, as symbolized by the table. We earn atonement through our “table” by injecting meaning and significance into our mundane activities, by exercising moderation and self-control, eating and filling our other physical needs with dignity, with the proper mindset and intention, and in accordance with Torah’s laws and values. Our table becomes a means of atonement when we eat appropriately, in reasonable quantities, with meaningful and substantive conversation, and while fulfilling the various halakhot relevant to food. Whereas the altar is a place of sacrifice, the table is a place of enjoyment and indulgence – and the Gemara here teaches that even our enjoyment of, and indulgence in, the delights of the world can bring us atonement, if we approach them the right way.
This is the significance of the shulchan in the Beit Ha-mikdash. It shows that physical enjoyment has a place in the “Mikdash,” in our spiritual life, in our pursuit of sanctity. The mundane areas of life are no less crucial than the “altar” – the sacrifices we are called upon to make – in our efforts to live a life of holiness and nobility, in the devoted service of the Almighty.
On this basis, the Tolna Rebbe suggests explaining the association between the shulchan in the Beit Ha-mikdash and kingship. The shulchan represents the notion of elevating our mundane pursuits, and in this sense, it signifies self-control and self-restraint. The ideal of the shulchan is living as “king” over oneself, exerting unlimited power over one’s base desires and human instincts. The shulchan is indeed about “kingship” – specifically, the most critical of all forms of kingship, the control over one’s own being. This control and authority is manifest not through self-denial, by withdrawing entirely from physical enjoyment, but rather through our uplifting our indulgence, conducting our mundane affairs in a dignified and spiritual manner, thereby earning what is perhaps the most important and valuable “crown” that we could ever hope to wear.