Pirke Avot 3:4

Rabbi Shimon says:

If three have eaten at the same table and have not spoken words of Torah there, it is as if they have eaten the offerings made to dead idols.  …

But if three have eaten at the same table and have spoken words of Torah there, it is as if they have eaten from the table of the LORD.

Rabbi Shimon was a famous and acclaimed rabbi who lived, more or less, in the 100 t0 150 C.E. time frame.   He was one of a generation of rabbis who were crucial in the formation of a post-Temple Judaism.

While this piece of wisdom seems so similar to the previous one it does, in fact, add something significant for us to ponder this week.  In 3:3 Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon talked about our need to speak words of Torah when we are together.  When 2 or more do so the LORD is present with them.

Rabbi Shimon tells us that if three of us gather for a meal and do not share words of Torah / Scripture it is as if we are idol-worshippers cut off from our God and our faith.   In the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures worshipping idols was the worst possible kind of sin and it was a constant temptation then (and now, in our own way).   Why would this be so sinful?   To not recognize God’s gift of food for us  to eat and company to share it we turn our backs on God!

BUT

If we DO share words of Torah / Scripture when we sit down to eat together it is as if we are eating from the very table of God!

How so?

  1. The LORD is present with us – listening, sharing, laughing, and crying with us.
  2. We eat of the LORD’s bounty – since all things ultimately come from God – and we recognize that.
  3. It is a foretaste of the banqueting and celebrating that marks the coming Kingdom of God.

Is there some particular point to the “three”?  The rabbis ALWAYS have a reason for such details!  The tradition suggests that three were required to be present to say the official blessing after meals.

How might we share words of Torah / Scripture when we sit down to eat?  Saying grace before and after meals is a good start – all religious traditions provide for them.  Going beyond that – elevating our talk above the mundane things of our lives (which can be important to share but which should not dominate) to speak of the important things of life (life, love, death, joy, sorrow, meaning etc.) with input and formation from our religious traditions.

For example:

“What happened at work today?”

“A co-worker, Jane, announced that she is retiring.”

“What is she going to do now?”

“She is going to take care of her grandchildren.”

“It sounds like family is very important to her….”  and to then continue to discus the values and ideas from our religious traditions that would support this idea.  NOT to dwell on a particular person and speculation about the choice being made.

Can you imagine what night after night of such elevated talk might mean in the formation of our children?   As opposed to eating and watching TV?  As opposed to gossip?  Or silence?

There will always be times in our modern life when such a family dinner is not possible.  But, if night after night, we are not eating together as a family something is wrong with the way we are choosing to live.   Rather than dismiss this idea as “impossible” perhaps this is the place where we need to let our religious tradition critique our lives – and to change our lives in response!

I think the key addition that Rabbi Shimon is making is the focus on gathering for a meal.  This implies sharing words of Torah / Scripture with our children and spouses.  It implies that our time within the home, particularly at meals but other times as well, can be sacred and should always be uplifting.  It connects our very intimate moments as a family to the coming Kingdom and to our creator by recognizing and celebrating the LORD’s presence with us.

Another approach might be to read something from our religious tradition at the beginning of the meal and then discussing something related to that.  It might be from the Scripture, or about (for Catholics) the saint of the day.  It might be one of the readings from the mass for the day.

Or it might start simply with the news of the day from each member of the family – beginning with our life experiences but exploring them from the point of view of faith.

In our Catholic / Christian tradition we have the wonderful post-resurrection story of the Road to Emmaus.  Briefly – two disciples are walking along on Easter Sunday, leaving Jerusalem.  Jesus joins them but they do not recognize him.  They share details of their life experience with him.  He interpets them in the light of Scripture.  They stop to eat together and at the blessing of the meal they recognize him, at which point he disappears.