By Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal
The dictionary informs us that “manners” are a form of proper behavior. And there are manners for just about everything. But somehow, when it comes to “table manners,” the list of “do's and don’ts” seems to be endless.
Halachic literature also has a list of “table manners.” It is interesting that when Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Asher, commonly known as the Baal Haturim, organized the halachos of the Gemaraand early Rishonim, he chose to include an entire chapter that deals exclusively with how a person should conduct himself while eating.
No Talking Please
The Gemara (Taanis 5b) relates that two of the great Sages, Rav Nachman and Rebbi Yitzchok, were dining together, and Rav Nachman asked Rebbi Yitzchok to relate some words of Torah. Rebbi Yitzchok responded that one does not speak during the meal, out of concern that the food will enter the trachea, endangering the person’s life.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 170:1) cites this ruling as the very first halachah concerning how a person should conduct himself during a meal. Seemingly, to add emphasis to the severity of the prohibition, he writes that one is not even allowed to respond “asuta” (the Aramaic version of “Gesundheit”) during the meal if someone sneezes. Although there is a view that maintains that this prohibition is in effect throughout the entire meal (Prishah 170:1), most Acharonim hold that one is allowed to speak between courses (Aruch Hashulchan 170:1; Mishnah Berurah 170:1).
Numerous Acharonim are troubled by the fact that, although this prohibition is based on the Gemara and is cited as halachah in the Shulchan Aruch, people are not careful about it, and, in the words of the Chida, “We see that the elder rabbonim are not particular about this.” To explain why people are not careful about this observance, the Acharonim point to the words of the Prishah (170:1) who writes that this prohibition was in effect only during the time of Chazal. In their time, the custom was to eat while reclining on the left side. That particular position increased the likelihood of food entering the trachea if one spoke while eating. Nowadays, however, this precaution is no longer relevant, as we eat in an upright position. In addition, the Acharonim note the passage of Gemara (Shabbos 129b) that when it is common practice to do something dangerous, one can rely on the dictum, “Hashem protects fools” (Tehillim 116:6) [see Birkei Yosef 170:1; Sha’arei Teshuvah 170:1; Elyah Rabbah 170:1].
It should be noted that at least two of the great poskim write explicitly that there is no difference between our time and the time of Chazal, and that it is forbidden nowadays to speak during the meal (Pri Megadim #170, Eishel Avraham #1; Aruch Hashulchan 170:2). Additionally, the Maharsham, basing himself on the words of the Beis Yosef elsewhere, writes that a talmid chochom is not allowed to speak during the meal, as he cannot rely on the dictum, “Hashem protects fools” (Da’as Torah 170).
Even according to the stringent opinion that nowadays one should refrain from talking while eating, the Acharonim mention some situations where it is permissible to do so. These include:
1) If one who is eating sees someone about to do something that is forbidden, he may warn him. This ruling teaches something surprising. There is a well-known Talmudic dictum, chamira sakanta mei’isura, that something dangerous should be treated more seriously than something which is forbidden (see Chulin 9a-10a). Based on this rule, one who is eating should not be allowed to tell someone about to transgress to desist, as the one eating is placing himself in danger. Nevertheless, the Acharonim rule that it is permitted (Pri Megadim 170, Eishel Avraham #1).
2) The halachah is that if one inadvertently began eating without first reciting a bracha, if the food will become disgusting if one spits it out, he should move the food to one side of the mouth and recite the bracha (Shulchan Aruch 172:2). We see that this is not considered talking while eating. Based on this, some poskim suggest that, where necessary, one is allowed to move the food to one side of the mouth and then speak (Badei Hashulchan 39:3).
Torah Learning during the Meal
Having discussed the law about talking while eating, let us now discuss the importance of learning Torah during the meal. The source for this concept is a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:3) that states: “Rebbi Shimon says: Three people who ate at the same table and did not speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from offerings to the dead (idols), as it says: ‘For all tables are full of vomit and filth without the Omnipresent’ (Yeshayahu 28:8). But three people who ate at the same table and did speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of the Omnipresent, as it says: ‘And he said to me, this is the table that is before Hashem’ (Yechezkeil 41:22).”
At least two of the commentators on the Mishnah maintain that one can fulfill the obligation of learning Torah at a meal simply by reciting birkas hamazon (see Rashi and Rabbeinu Ovadiyah Mibartenura). However, some are bothered by this approach, as it is obvious that when Rebbi Shimon formulated this ruling, he was speaking to people who recite birkas hamazon. If so, everyone who eats a meal automatically fulfills this requirement, and there is no need to tell us to do so (Tosafos Yom Tov). Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (170:1) cites the view of the Shelah that one should study something – such as a Mishnah, halachah, some aggadata or mussar, and that one does not fulfill this obligation through birkas hamazon. The Mishnah Berurah, quoting the Chayei Adom, mentions that one should recite the chapter of Tehillim (#23), “Hashem ro’i lo echsor, which are words of Torah as well as a tefillah for sustenance. The Aruch Hashulchan (170:1) writes that lechatchilah one should learn divrei Torah during the meal, and bidi’eved, he can fulfill this obligation by reciting “Al naharos Bavel” or “Shir hamaalos” prior to bentching. In order to fulfill the obligation of speaking divrei Torah at the meal, some have a custom of saying, “Mayim acharonim chovah” – “mayim acharonimare obligatory,” before washing mayim acharonim (Ben Ish Chai, Shelach I, #7).
Although it would seem from the words of the Mishnah that there is an obligation to learn Torah only when a minimum of three people eat together, according to many sources, even an individual must do so. The Likutei Maharich (Seder Hanhagas Haseudah, s.v. divrei Torah), citing Shaarei Kedushah, notes that there is a disagreement on this matter between the Midrash and the Zohar, and that one should be stringent. The Mishnah Berurah (170:1) writes that “there is a mitzvah for each person to study Torah at the table,” indicating that an individual is also obligated.
Staring is Impolite
In order to understand the next halachah, we need to discuss some halachos relevant to orlah. During the first three years after a tree or a grape vine has been planted, we are forbidden to eat or benefit from its fruits, as they are considered orlah. Fruits that grow after the third year are permitted.
The Mishnah (Orlah 1:5) discusses a situation where an “old,” meaning more than three years old, vine was grafted on to a “young” vine, younger than three years old, and obligated in orlah. Rebbi Meir rules that if the plant draws its nourishment from the older vine, orlah does not apply, but if the sustenance is coming from the younger vine, the fruits are forbidden.
The Gemara Yerushalmi (Orlah 1:3) gives us an indication how we are to know from which plant the fruits are drawing nourishment. If the leaves are facing the older vine, it is drawing sustenance from the younger vine, while if the leaves face the younger vine, the nourishment is coming from the older one. The Gemara then says that this is similar to the concept that a guest is embarrassed to look at the face of his host and turns away while eating.
Based on this Yerushalmi, the Rambam (Hilchos Brachos 7:6) writes that when someone is eating, one should not look at him or at his food, so as not to embarrass him (Mor Uketzi’a#170). The Shulchan Aruch (170:4) cites the words of the Rambam. The Acharonim argue under which circumstances this halachah is said. Some maintain that since it is derived from the Yerushalmi mentioned above, it is forbidden to look only at a guest who is eating. Since the guest is receiving the food gratis, he is more likely to be embarrassed (see Mor Uketzi’aad locum; Aruch Hashulchan 170:7). Others contend that since the Rambam did not make any distinctions between guests and other people, it is always forbidden to look at someone while he is eating (Toras Chayim [Rav Yaakov Shalom Sofer of Pest] 170:6).
Some maintain that to observe a tzaddik or a talmid chochom eating is permissible. This is because the intention of the onlooker is not to embarrass but rather to show honor and deference, as well as to fulfill the mitzvah of clinging to talmidei chachomim (Mishnah Halachah #170).
Do What You’re Told
The Gemara (Pesachim 86b; see also Derech Eretz Rabbah 6:1) relates that Rav Huna was a guest in the house of Rav Nachman. When he entered, they instructed him to sit on a bed, and he did so. (The story continues, but we will focus on what is germane to our topic.) Afterwards, Rav Nachman asked him why he readily sat on the bed, something that was considered an act of haughtiness, when he could have instead opted to sit on a bench. Rav Huna replied that he was fulfilling the dictum of “kol mah sheyomar lecha baal habayis aseih” – “whatever the host says to do, do.”
Tosafos (ad locum, s.v. ein) points out that we see from this Gemara that even if one’s host tells him to do something which smacks of haughtiness and he would normally not behave in such a way, nevertheless, he should do as he is told. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah 170:16) cites this opinion as halachah lema’aseh. It should be noted that there is a disagreement among the poskim whether the guest should comply immediately (Birkei Yosef 170:8; Sha’arei Teshuvah 170:6) or whether he is allowed to decline at first until the host insists (Magen Avraham 170:10).
The Shulchan Aruch (170:5) cites the above-mentioned Gemara and writes: “One who enters a house, whatever the host tells him to do, he should do.” The Levush (ad locum) explains the reason behind this idea by citing a pasuk from Megillas Ester (1:22): “Each person should rule in his house.” In other words, derech eretz, or etiquette, demands that the word of the host is law.
It is interesting to note that the Acharonim place numerous limitations on this halachah. For example:
1) The Mishnah Berurah (170:16) writes that if the guest has a particular chumrah which is based upon a concern that he might transgress a prohibition, he is not required to forgo this stringency in order to accommodate his host. However, if the guest has a practice where he refrains from a particular action or food in order to act with prishus, asceticism, he should hide his stringencies from others.
2) The dictum of following the instructions of the host applies to everything but eating and drinking. In other words, if a person is uninterested in eating and is concerned that if he does eat, it will affect his health, he does not have to do so, even if the host insists that he eat (Mishnah Berurah 170:17).
3) Even if one is invited to eat at someone’s home, if the guest suspects that the host does not have sufficient funds to feed his family, it is forbidden to eat there, as it borders on thievery (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 42:18). If a person is caught in such a situation, he should try and give some excuse why he cannot eat. It is reported that great tzaddikim, when finding themselves in similar situations, would say, “The doctor told me not to eat this,” having in mind that the “doctor” is the Rambam (see Piskei Teshuvos #170, footnote #45).
Aside from Leaving
Earlier, we quoted a Gemara (Pesachim 86) which states: “Kol mah sheyomar lecha baal habayis aseih” – “whatever the host says to do, do.” Some texts add two words to the conclusion of this quote: “chutz mi’tzei” – “aside from ‘leave.’” According to these texts, the Gemara’s dictum is that a person must always listen to his host, unless the host tells him to leave. It should be noted that, according to numerous views in the Rishonim and Acharonim, these words do not belong in the Gemara at all. The Maharsha (ad locum, Chiddushei Aggados) opines that the suggestion implied by this text is halachically incorrect, for if the host insists that his guest leaves, how can the guest continue staying there without permission? The Meiri (ad locum) writes that these words were “added by some scoffers.”
Be that as it may, many Acharonim discuss this alternative text and provide numerous approaches to understand it. Since some of the explanations have practical halachic ramifications, we will briefly present two of them.
1) The Bach (Orach Chaim 170) explains that whenever a host asks his guest to help him with some type of work in the house, the guest is obliged to do so. However, if the host asks him to “go out” and do something for him outside, e.g., to pick up something from the store, the guest is not required to oblige.
2) The Sfas Emes (Pesachim 86b) explains that Chazal’s original dictum was simply “kol mah sheyomar lecha baal habayis aseih,” and according to this, if the host told the guest to leave, he was required to do so. However, after the incident of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, where, due to Bar Kamtza’s embarrassment over being forced to leave the meal, the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, Chazal added to the rule and said that if the guest would be embarrassed, he does not have listen to the host.
Learning from Avraham Avinu
The Acharonim (see Magen Avraham 170:10) cite a Gemara (Arachin 16b) that states: “A person should not change his place of lodgings.” In other words, if a person was a guest in a city and he ate and slept in the home of a particular family, when he revisits that city, he should return to the original host. The Gemara derives this from Avraham Avinu. The pasuk tells us that upon returning to Eretz Canaan from Mitzrayim, “Vayeilech lemasa’av” – “he went to his travels.” Chazal understand that on his return trip he stayed in the same inns where he stayed when traveling towards Mitzrayim.
Although most of the Gemara is beyond the scope of this article, it can be said that a person must make every effort to try and heed this dictum, even if it means some inconvenience. The reason for this, explains the Gemara, is because, by not doing so, people will think badly of both the host and the guest. They will think the reason why the guest is staying elsewhere is because the host did not fulfill the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim properly. And they will think badly of the guest, because his actions indicate that he does not get along with other people.
Based on this, if the guest has a legitimate excuse not to stay in the home of his original host, he is allowed to seek other lodgings. For example: Yehudah arrives from out-of-town to attend the wedding of Levi’s son, and Levi graciously invites Yehudah to sleep and eat in his home. During Yehudah’s next trip to that city to participate in the wedding of Naftali’s daughter, he may stay in Naftali’s house and does not have to stay with Levi. This is because everyone realizes why Yehudah is changing his place of lodging. Similarly, if the original host is unable to have guests, the guest is permitted to find another place to stay (Ahaleich Ba’amitecha [Rav Betzalel Stern] chapter #25).
Torah is Primary
Concerning learning words of Torah during the meal, the Chassid Yaavetz (Avos 3:4) writes as follows: “It is a great obligation, for the time of eating is a test and an indicator whether one loves Torah or not. This can be compared to a person who has a son in a distant land and at the time of his joy, he remembers him, as it is written (Tehillim 137:6): ‘If I fail to elevate Yerushalayim above the foremost of my joys.’ Therefore, at the time of eating when a person is happy, if he remembers the Torah, it is recognizable that its love is bound to his heart… A person should make the Torah primary and eating secondary. People do the opposite, as their joy is only when they attain a ‘sea of pleasures,’ and they are depressed and distressed when they do not attain them… It is fitting for a person to rejoice only with fear of Hashem, which is the purpose for which we were created…”