Covering the bread at the first two meals of Shabbat is a universal custom within Judaism, carrying a symbolic significance deeply rooted in the reverence for the sanctity of Shabbat. People buy beautiful and elaborate clothes to do so, which adds to the honor of Shabbat.
There is a sort of myth that the reason for this is that the bread gets embarassed, which on a very deep spiritual level is not wrong, but when someone asks “why do we cover the bread on Shabbat?” this answer isn’t very helpful. Rather, the matter reflects the inherent hierarchy of blessings within the Shabbat meal framework, as we’ll explain. To understand this custom, we need to look at the whole structure of food-blessings in a Shabbat meal.
Kiddush: Before talking about the bread, one needs to know about kiddush, literally ‘sanctification’ that happens twice on Shabbat. It is a mitzvah to remember Shabbat, which is done by reciting kiddush Friday night, and again Shabbat morning to distinguish it from a regular meal. This mitzvah trumps normal food blessings.
The First Two Meals: The foundation of covering the bread during the first two out of three meals of Shabbat rests upon the inversion of the normal hierarchy of food blessings as outlined in Jewish law. At the outset of a meal, the mitzvah is to recite the blessing over the wine during Kiddush, sanctifying the day and establishing the primacy of Shabbat. Kiddush contains in the middle of it the bracha for wine, “…borei pri hagafen” and while this blessing exists on its own, in this context it is part of the broader Kiddush being performed.
The Blessing Over Bread: Following Kiddush, the customary blessing over bread, “…hamotzi lechem min haaretz,” would ordinarily take precedence over any other food blessings. The reason why bread is so important is because it is “kovea haseuda” which means it “sets a meal”, or in practical terms it necessitates the blessing Birkat Hamazon (sometimes called Grace After Meals), the only blessing required by the Torah, and any other food eaten at the meal does not need a blessing. Because of this unique status: 1. triggering Birkat Hamazon 2. avoiding saying more blessing in vain (i.e. using God’s name unnecessarily) we always say this first when given the opportunity.
However, the elevation of the “borei pri hagafen” blessing as part of Kiddush creates a unique situation. The bread’s blessing, though of great importance, comes second in order now within the structure of blessings during the meal.
So, Why Cover the Bread?: To maintain the sanctity and order of blessings, the bread is symbolically removed from the meal during Kiddush. This act serves as an acknowledgment of the unique role of the wine blessing in sanctifying Shabbat, and symbolically not complicating the meal that should otherwise start with bread. At the Third Meal, also called Seudat Shlishit, there is no kiddush so the meal starts with bread and it is not covered up.
Torah Sources and Authority: The practice of covering the bread at the first two Shabbat meals finds its underpinnings in the authoritative Jewish sources:
- Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 167:18: The Shulchan Aruch, a seminal work of Jewish law, addresses the custom of covering the bread during Kiddush. It codifies the practice, emphasizing the primacy of the wine blessing and the respect it commands.
- Mishnah Berurah 167:69: The Mishnah Berurah, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, provides a detailed explanation of the custom and its rationale. It highlights the principle of “borei pri hagafen” taking precedence over “hamotzi” and the symbolic significance of removing the bread from the table.
This custom beautifully encapsulates the intricate choreography of blessings and the sensitivity the Torah requires of every moment that the bread could be, in a manner of speaking, embarrassed. Now that you know this, hopefully you will participate in this custom greater zeal for even deeper engagement with Shabbat, as we have barely scratched the surface.