Our Reading Table

During our Shavuot Service and Celebration on June 5, Temple Emanu-El member Gary Horwitz made a gift of a reading table that he designed and built himself. What follows is the speech he made during his presentation.

This Torah reading table is one of a kind. Our congregation is also one of a kind. Several years ago, Rabbi Drorah Setel expressed her difficulty with the small size of our reading table. We were also considering innovations to our sanctuary configuration with the idea it would be more engaging to bring the Torah reading into the midst of the congregation rather that continue the separation inherent in the location upfront like a performance situation. It was around this time that my neighbors expressed dismay at the raining of choke cherries from one of my trees onto their cars, and the top showed decay with the risk of falling on their house. With the decision to cut it down, I envisioned it becoming the wood for the Torah table as I had been developing some skills in woodworking. A method of turning logs into rough cut lumber with a chainsaw provided the opportunity to put that tree to use. The best cuts were set aside for this purpose.

Rabbi Setel asked that the table be built such that its height could be adjusted and the top tilted so that it could accommodate people in wheelchairs, youngsters, people of medium height but also people who are quite tall. This is an indication of the inclusiveness of this congregation adjusting to people of all sizes but more broadly accommodating anyone who is interested.

As the design and construction progressed it occurred to me that there are several parallels between the table and our congregation. To understand this, I first have to say a few things about woodworking. Building furniture is largely about joining one piece of wood to another. This is called joinery and there are a variety of standard, legacy methods. These joints have evolved to deal with some of the properties of wood such as the lack of strong connections if we simply glue the end of one piece of wood to another. To get a strong and lasting connection there is a need to have overlapping areas of parallel grain because the end of a cut board is like a bundle of tiny straws cut across and you need a length of fibers in parallel for the glue to hold tight. Construction with solid wood must also accommodate expansion and contraction.

One of the most basic joints is the mortice and tenon. The mortis is typically a rectangular hole in one element and the tenon is the pared down end of the other element so that the central part of the piece can be inserted and glued into the mortis. This firm and long-lasting connection is what I see in the members of this congregation. It is the joint that I used in constructing the base of the table and it reflects the strong connections between members which is the base of the congregation.

The top of the table is a broad area and had to be reworked from my first effort because using certain cuts of the wood, used because of the beautiful grain, allowed some warp in the first top. Study about other options revealed another joint that allows for the expansion and contraction of the wood as humidity and temperature changes. This so-called breadboard joint holds the ends of the elements to prevent warping while allowing movement across the width of the table with changes in the environment. Our congregation has become very adaptable to changing conditions allowing for expansion and contraction without distortion or loss of integrity.

The third type of joint it’s called the dovetail. I had to become proficient in this type of joint because the box that forms the top of the table has no frame. This was necessary to allow the movement up and down on the legs which is accomplished by locking into a series of notches. This means that the joints in the corners must be especially strong as it relies on each side as the structural element to provide the strength needed. The dovetail joint has a series of angled cuts and one board that has a complementary series of pins on the matching board that interlock in a very strong and tight connection. This to me represents the covenant in which we provide our side of the connection to Adonai and a reciprocal connection is provided to us. This being the most important connection, you may notice that it shows prominently on the corners. This is largely due to the end of the board absorbing more of the tong oil finish. This darkening was accentuated by leaving the end grain open to draw attention to that connection because the covenant is so central to our heritage.

The upswept curve of the legs ties the table to the Mishkan with its stylized Tree of Life motif. As such, the legs represent the trunk of the tree with roots extending deep into the ground representing the wisdom, nourishment and sustenance we receive through reading and wrestling with the content of Torah.

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