The Holy Altar of Table Fellowship

Rabbi Shimon said: If three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead, for it is written (Isaiah 28:8) “All tables are covered with filthy vomit; no place is clean.” But if three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written (Ezekiel 41:22) “He said to me, ‘This is the table that stands before the LORD.’ ” (m.Avot 3:4)

In our previous mishnah, we learned a lesson from Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion regarding the necessity to speak words of Torah when two people are conversing. In this mishnah, Rabbi Shimon uses the teaching of Rabbi Chananiah as a springboard to lead into his teaching. He said that “if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead.” As we brought out in our previous mishnah, for some this statement will be immediately written off as extreme. However, if we peer deeper into it we will see the wisdom waiting for us under the surface.

First, why does Rabbi Shimon increase the number of people from two to three? To begin answering this question, we need to think about the difference between a random event and an intentional one. Sometimes two people may eat together simply because they are in public and either happen to run into one another or happen to sit at the same table. Three people, on the other hand, is usually the result of a more intentional act. When three people sit to eat together, it is usually because they have something in common. Therefore, Torah should be a common, uniting factor between them. Also, with three people (versus only two) there is a higher possibility that one of them will be learned and able to bring a word of Torah with them to the table.

Second, Rabbi Chananiah’s instruction was not limited to a specific location or event. Why does Rabbi Shimon specifically limit his address to those who have “eaten at one table”? Because since the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the family table has functioned in a way so as to represent the the altar of the Beit HaMikdash. The things we do around our tables are to function similar to offering up a sacrifice in the Holy Temple. It should always be accompanied by blessings and prayers. 

Yeshua exemplified this by always making a berachah before partaking of either food or drink, a rabbinic tradition that was relatively new in his day. This practice was used to resolve a seeming contradiction within the Psalms. One Psalm says, “The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Another (Psalm 115:16) says, “The heavens are the LORD's heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.” Does the earth belong to Hashem or to man? To resolve the tension between these two passages, the rabbis advocated reciting a blessing before eating or drinking in order to receive permission to partake of what belongs to the LORD. Then, after eating, one would give thanks for what Hashem had “given to the children of man.” 

Today we continue to both consecrate our tables and offer up words of Torah by offering up the appropriate berachot for the food we are about to eat, and then by bentching Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) together. By offering up these words of thanks, we first receive divine permission to partake of the bounty of Hashem, and then we bless Hashem for what He has given to us. If we are mindful of the origins of all that we have, particularly our nourishment, we will constantly be sharing words of Torah and offering up praised to the One from whom all blessings flow.