If we were to extract two broad messages from the first two chapters of Pirkei Avot, they would likely be related to: (1) the importance of learning Torah, and (2) the necessity to cultivate positive social relationships. There are three mishnayot in the early parts of Chapter 3 (namely Avot 3:2, 3:3, and 3:6) that combine these two ideas together, and we will analyze the three together in this week’s column.
Lesson 1 – Social Relationships Are Enhanced Through Torah Learning
In the second half of Avot 3:2, R. Chananiah ben Teradion teaches us that “[i]f two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners… but if two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, then the Shechina abides among them…” Similarly, in Avot 3:6, Rabbi Chalafta of K’far Chananiah teaches that “[w]hen ten sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Shechina abides among them.” He continues with prooftexts to demonstrate that this is also true if five, three, or two people learn together. (We will address how they both relate to the individual who learns Torah alone in Lesson 3, below.)
As we mentioned previously in Psyched for Avot, Aristotle wrote that “[m]an is by nature a social animal.” We need each other to survive and to thrive, and there are many psychological benefits to positive social relationships. Yet as we also elaborated on in our last column, discussing the first half of Avot 3:2 (“Rabbi Chananya, the vice-high priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive”), there is a potential danger to our sociality. Rabbi Chananya seems to be indicating that the difference between whether our social relationships will flourish or devolve into chaos is whether the relationship involves sharing words of Torah with each other. Such a relationship, rooted in ethical and spiritual teachings, invites and welcomes G-d’s Presence, enhancing the connection between individuals.
Rabbi Chalafta, according to Abarbanel, adds to Rabbi Chananya’s conceptualization, arguing that there is even more holiness and inspiration when the group grows in number. G-d’s Presence is enhanced when there are three people learning, is augmented further when there are five people, and is amplified even more when there are ten people sharing words of Torah together. The more social and communal the Torah learning, the more spiritual.
Lesson 2 – Social Eating Is Enhanced Through Torah
In Avot 3:3, the message focuses specifically on the gathering of people together to eat:
Rabbi Shimon said: If three have eaten at one table and have not spoken words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead… But, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present…”
Rashbam assumes that Rabbi Shimon’s message isn’t geared specifically towards three people but is relevant even to one or two people who are eating. Following this approach, the main idea seems to be the necessity to elevate the physical act of eating to a loftier spiritual engagement by speaking words of Torah (see Rabbi Yosef Yavetz). However, Rabbeinu Yonah and other commentaries assume that the message is specifically geared toward (at least) three people. Three indicates a specific social gathering. The message isn’t just about elevating eating, but about elevating social eating.
Social eating can be a risky undertaking. When people eat with friends or family, they tend to eat more than they would if they were just eating alone (Higgs & Ruddock, 2019). In fact, Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda, writing in the 17th century, suggests that the reason why the mishna uses the past tense of “if three have eaten,” is to hint to the fact that ideally, people should not eat together. Social eating, he argues, can easily lead to “drunkenness and debauchery.” The ideal is that people eat alone. Yet if people happen to be eating together, they should make sure to include words of Torah.
However, Rabbi de Uceda’s reading is not altogether persuasive. Rabbi Shimon describes three people eating together and sharing words of Torah as comparable to eating at the table of G-d, which sounds more like a well-deserved reward than an afterthought or consolation prize. In his article “Breaking Bread: The Functions of Social Eating,” Professor Robin Dunbar reviews national data collected in the UK and argues for the importance of eating together in groups. Summarizing the findings, he writes that “those who eat socially more often feel happier and are more satisfied with life, are more trusting of others, are more engaged with their local communities, and have more friends they can depend on for support.”
Rabbi Shimon seems to be arguing that we should harness the power of social eating and sanctify it into an act of worship and service of G-d through the sharing of Torah. This will likely also serve as a buffer to help us avoid the potential pitfalls of social eating.
Lesson 3 – Torah Is Enhanced Through Social Relationships
Both Rabbi Chananya in Avot 3:2 and Rabbi Chalafta in Avot 3:6 address at the end of their respective mishnayot the individual who learns on his or her own. Rabbi Chananya teaches “Now I only know two; from where do we know that even one who sits and studies Torah, the Holy One, Blessed be He, fixes his reward? As it is said: ‘Though he sits alone and [meditates] in stillness, he takes [a reward] for himself’ (Lamentations 3:28).” And Rabbi Chalafta, after demonstrating that the Shechina is present when ten, five, three, and two people learn together, writes “How do we know that the same is true even of one? As it is said: ‘In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you’ (Exodus 20:21).”
While the essential message is that even learning alone has value, the implicit message, particularly as elaborated on through the commentaries, is that learning alone is not as beneficial as learning with others. As mentioned above, according to Abarbanel, while Rabbi Chalafta writes that the Shechina is present even for one person learning, it is not as powerful of a presence as it would be if there were more than one person. Abarbanel goes even further to suggest that Rabbi Chananya actually argues with Rabbi Chalafta and assumes that while one person learning Torah gets reward, the Divine Presence is not present when a person learns alone. Machzor Vitri references the Talmud in Berachot (63b) that cautions in strong terms against people learning alone instead of in pairs or groups, and therefore assumes that Rabbi Chananya’s message of reward is only referring to a case where it was not possible to learn with someone else.
Furthering the problem of learning alone, based off a parallel statement in Berachot (6a) another distinction is made between two people who are learning together, whose learning gets transcribed in the so-called “Book of Remembrances,” and one person learning, who just gets reward, but is not recorded in this book. The Vilna Gaon explains that the process of learning is so enhanced when people study together that they have a better chance of actually remembering what they learn, so it is written in the “Book of Remembrances.” In contrast, when one person learns alone, he or she will likely forget what they learned, so it is not inscribed.
Similarly, Maharsha suggests that the quality of the learning produced amongst peers will likely lead to correct conclusions, while when one studies alone, he or she will likely be left with erroneous assumptions. Emphasizing this message with a creative yet daring read of the mishna, Midrash Shmuel argues that when Rabbi Chananya says “[i]f two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners,” he is referring to two people who are actually learning Torah. Yet since they are sitting next to each other and not discussing or sharing their ideas together, that is still considered a session of scorners!
Learning alone is valuable, but not ideal. Words of Torah are enhanced through social interaction and social interactions are enhanced through words of Torah. Torah has the capacity to elevate our eating and our friendships by bringing the Divine Presence into the relationship.
May we all take to heart the messages of Rabbis Chananya, Shimon, and Chalafta, and take advantage of the opportunities we have to share Torah with each other.