There must be a cloth underneath the bread [ĥallah] and another cloth must be spread above it.
We shall see in a later section that under normal circumstances two loaves of bread are needed for the Shabbat meal. Tradition has given each of these two loaves the name ĥallah
. After kiddush
and before the festive repast the Grace Before Meals will be recited over these two ĥallot
. According to our western way of thinking we would place the rule that the two ĥallot
must be covered above and below in the section that deals with the grace before the meal; however, the rule is placed here because ideally the ĥallot
should be in place before we begin to recite kiddush
. (We shall deal with the question of where
should be placed when we reach the section dealing with the grace.)
Paragraph 9 states quite simply that before we commence kiddush we must make sure that the two ĥallot have a cloth underneath them and another cloth covering them. The cloth underneath the ĥallot can be the tablecloth which covers the table or it can be a special napkin used only for this purpose. Traditionally, the cloth which covers the ĥallot is a richly decorated napkin; but if such a cloth is not available any cover will suffice - a table napkin or even a large sheet of paper.
Two explanations for this rather singular requirement (that the ĥallot be covered below as well as above) have been offered in our tradition. One explanation is based upon the fact that the ĥallot can be used for kiddush if there is no wine available. Since the ĥallot are essentially a suitable vehicle for kiddush we keep them covered until after kiddush has been recited over wine in order not to 'shame' them, as it were. However, this explanation seems to be more quaint and picturesque than reasonable, even if we permit ourselves to imagine for a moment that the ĥallot are sentient and can be shamed! This explanation is not sufficiently reasonable because it does not explain the rather extraordinary requirement that there be a cloth underneath the ĥallot as well as above them.
The other explanation, even if it too is rather picturesque, does address this issue.
At the very start of their desert wanderings the Israelites were blessed with the miraculous provision of manna. This manna was, according to what we are told in the Torah, the basis of the Israelite diet during their forty years wandering in the Sinai desert - and its miraculous provision ceased immediately they entered the Promised Land. The people had crossed the Red Sea and had barely started their penetration into Sinai when the grumblings began:
In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by God's hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death." And God said to Moses, "I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day's portion ... But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day." [Exodus 16:2-5].
And this was, indeed, what happened according to the account in the Torah [Exodus 16:13-36]:
In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" [from which Hebrew phrase is derived the English designation 'manna'] - for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "That is the bread which God has given you to eat. This is what God has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat ... The Israelites did so, some gathering much, some little... And Moses said to them, "Let no one leave any of it over until morning." But they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank... So they gathered it every morning, each as much as he needed to eat; and when the sun grew hot, it would melt.
You will recall that God had promised that a double amount of manna would be provided on Fridays. Thus it came to pass that
on the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food... Moses said, "This is what God meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, God's holy sabbath. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning." So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered; and it did not turn foul, and there were no maggots in it. Then Moses said, "Eat it today, for today is God's sabbath; you will not find it today on the plain. Six days you shall gather it; on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none." [Exodus 16:22-26]
Note that the daily appearance of manna on the desert soil was preceded by a fall of dew. (Perhaps the intention is to indicate that the manna was precipitated by the dew, as it were.) At any rate, we have here a picture of the manna resting upon the dew and having dew upon it: the manna only became apparent when the dew lifted. Thus the manna was covered 'above and below' with dew.
The double portion of manna that was provided on Fridays was so that the Israelites could provide food for two days - for Friday and also for Saturday, because on the Sabbath there would not be a supply of manna: God does not 'work' on Shabbat, as it were. So a double portion is associated with Friday, and that double portion is the thinking that prompts the custom of having two ĥallot for the grace over bread. It is now simple in the extreme to understand that the cloths that we are required to provide for the ĥallot are meant to represent the dew which covered the Israelites' manna in the desert. Picturesque or not, quaint or not, the covers of the ĥallot serve as a regular reminder of God's providential care for the human race.