The assembling of the various pieces required to furnish the mishkan is of central importance in Parshat T’rumah and each piece is said to import both its literal purpose and deeper, symbolic value. One of the objects discussed is a table for the “show bread”. What is amazing is that this parsha, in 25:23 is actually the first use of a word which is now commonplace, shulchan. In fact, the only instances of the word shulchan in the chamisha chumshei Torah, 2 as shulchan and 17 as hashulchan, occur in relation to this object. No one sits at a table, eats at a table, judges at a table or plays solitaire at a table. Admittedly, as far as my research shows, no one in the 5 books plays solitaire, but if someone did, I think precedent makes it clear that he or she would not do so at a table. A shulchan is a table in common use now but that doesn’t explain why this piece, with its staves and shelves (most unlike anything I have yet to see on sale at Ikea under “tables”) is called a shulchan.
This shulchan has an important role. It holds the 12 loaves of bread which stayed fresh all week (Menachos 96b) as a constant display of a public miracle. Its structure included a “zir” a rim or crown which represented, according to Rashi on Yoma 72b, the crown of kingship. The gemara there also includes the statement that each of the various crowns (zir) is such to one who merits it, but is a stranger (zer) to one who does not. So now, we have 12 loaves of a wonderous bread, a word whose meaning we have had to table and a rim, shot through with meaning and symbolism. All of this somehow is tied into the notion of Hashem’s providing food for all the people of the earth and sustaining them (as per the Rabbeinu Bachya on Sh’mot 25:23) which is seen as the role of the one who has true sovereignty and kingship.
Etymologically, the word might be connected to spreading out (as in an animal skin) though Ernest Klein’s A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English only provides his evidence as to why the conventionally suggested history is actually wrong. He does not provide any alternative. Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch provides a possible connection when he discusses the use of the final letter nun as a suffix to a three letter root (page 298). In Hebrew, often an addition of a final nun to a three letter root indicates a relationship of a person/character to a trait, behavior or action. A slothful person is an atzlan, from the root a-tz-l, plus the final nun; a bayshan is someone embarrassed, from the root for shame plus that nun. Maybe it is possible to see shulchan as related to the sh-l-ch root associated with a person or people.
The word shalach is about spreading out, and is used textually to refer to being sent out. Moshe and Aharon repeatedly implored Par’oh to “shalach ami” (as in Sh’mot 8:16), and we have an entire parsha named after that “being sent out” in Parshat B’shalach. With this “shalach” in the recent memory of the people, calling this table a shulchan would have resonated. The people are the shulchan, those that were sent out. It had to symbolize that person or group that was sent, and as it held the 12 loaves, this would be a direct reflection of the 12 sh’vatim. Bnei Yisrael are the ones associated with being sent and they, who have been sent out, only can stay “fresh,” vibrant and alive as a miracle which comes as a direct result of the crown of Hashem’s sovereignty. Only by recognizing that kingship of Hashem and allowing the crown of kingship found on the shulchan to be in sway does that zir not become zer, stranger; that crown endows the people with the privilege of being recipients of Hashem’s blessing and continued sustenance – he fulfills a role as king over us only when we accept him as such.
We use that word shulchan so often today that we lose sight of its power. It symbolizes a relationship imbued with incredible power and uniqueness. We rest on it and rely on it (as the 12 loaves rests on the table and is supported by it) and it represents us, as those who were brought out of Egypt by the mighty and miraculous hand of Hashem. It teaches our responsibility to accept ol malchut shamayim and our potential as proper ovdei Hashem to be a constant and public symbol of his eternal presence in the world.