Ethics of the Fathers: Three Who Eat with No Torah Discussed

Moshe Ben-Chaim


Ethics 3:3: "Rabbi Shimone said, 'Three who ate at one table and do not discuss any Torah on it, it is as if they ate of sacrifices to the dead (idolatry)."

According to Rabbi Shimone, what is so sinful about eating, in a group of three, with no Torah discussions? Why does the sin exist only when three ate together, but not two or one? Why is eating an essential component of this sin? Meaning, if three people convened for the sake of talk, but not eating, why would there be no sin?

It is evident that we must define the phenomena of eating, as well as the psychological dynamics present only once three people have gathered, and no less.

Psychologists, as well as our Rabbis, teach us that the appetitive (eating) and sexual are the two most powerful drives. For this reason, Maimonides grouped the laws of forbidden eating and forbidden relations into one category called "Kedusha", meaning sanctity or separateness. Kedusha is a state where man is in control of his passions, not the reverse. However, Kedusha is not a goal in itself, for if man would abstain from these forbidden actions, but never engage his mind in wisdom, his abstention is a futile endeavor. Abstention is but a prerequisite, enabling man to channel his energies towards higher goals. i.e., Torah study and fulfillment of the laws. Only the one who has mastered his passions, may redirect his energies. But one whose passions rule himself, cannot follow his mind. He is always driven to satisfy his lusts, thereby removing himself from higher activities.

Eating with others while no words of wisdom are exchanged is man acting in the sole capacity of "animal". He simply satisfies his desires, without placing them in perspective, i.e., a means to nourish his body so his mind may be free to study G-d's wisdom. In such a case, eating becomes an ends, and not a means. But why is one who satisfies his appetitive drive equated to an idolater? Is this not an extreme accusation? It is not. I believe the reason to be that in both cases (eating for eating's sake, and idolatry) man is allowing his drives to have free reign. It is not the act of eating per se which is equal to prostrating to an idol, but it is the freedom of emotional expression man allows himself, which is identical with the freedom of emotional expression displayed in bowing to stone gods. This is the equation. In the acts of idolatry and eating, man lets his drives run free. But also true, is that when such a person shows no restraint in his appetitive drives, he is now more prone to show no restraint in other areas, which include the religious sphere. Once a person's emotions are trained to run free, they will do so in many areas. Here we find a second explanation for Rabbi Shimone's words. Talmud Succah 52b discusses this matter: "Rabbi Yochanan said, 'Man possesses a small organ , if he starves it, it becomes full, if he feeds it, it becomes hungry." This means that the more man satisfies his sexual desires, the more inflamed will this desire become. But if he refrains as the Torah teaches, he will find he has less need to satisfy this desire, and he may then channel his energies towards higher pursuits. Such pursuits will enlighten him to intellectual truths, and offer him insight into a correct morality with which to rule society, and more justice will be enacted. Everyone benefits when man controls his passions. This statement of Rabbi Yochanan applies to other passions as well as the sexual.

Now we must understand why this act of eating with others equates to idolatry, only when three or more convene.

What are the psychological dynamics when one is alone? We can say he is functioning in a "subjective" mode. He has no one from whom he may receive agreement for his actions, so no judgment is passed. He may not feel right or wrong in his actions. There is no "check system" when alone. Now, what happens to these dynamics when he is with one other person? We may say again, he remains in a subjective framework. Although in the company of one other person, this individual feels that his companion is there for one reason: for him. He is still the focus - even in this twosome. "He is here for me, as there are no others present" is his unconscious sentiment. Two eating with no words of Torah remains in a subjective framework.

However, when three people convene, the dynamics change drastically: At any given moment during their meal, the two others may discuss a matter among themselves, thereby rendering the first person no longer the center of attention. This first person sees there are matters which do not concern him. This is significant. As he sits alone, while the other two talk, even briefly, this first person is struck with the recognition that there are matters in which he is not involved. What does this awaken in him? He realizes the concept of "objectivity", meaning there are interests which others partake of, even when he does not. This teaches the first person that if others indulge in something, it objectifies, or condones such an activity. I believe this to be the core idea of Rabbi Shimone, that in a group of three or more, a new psychological phenomenon is born, which cannot exist in less numbers. The witnessing of "objective" behavior is only possible in a group of three. (We are not saying that this is the first time he becomes aware of this. We are merely describing the dynamics which always exist in such a scenario.)

Understanding human behavior, we can appreciate Rabbi Shimone's words: three who eat with no Torah are qualitatively more corrupt than two or one doing the same act. Attributing "objectivity", or societal allowance" to such an action, man internalizes this behavior and labels it as "permissible".

Most morality is is absorbed by what we see others doing. This is of course a poor means for selecting a moral code, but it is how people operate who do not observe their actions, and don't strive to comply with Torah standards.

One person who sees two others doing any action, may accept such behavior as acceptable. This is where the corruption exists. When man eats alone or with one other - with no Torah - this act has not yet been objectified as acceptable behavior. But when one person eats with two others, and sees those two eating with no words of wisdom exchanged, he now incorporates such an act as objectively acceptable behavior, and the eating becomes an acceptable act in itself, a "good". Once eating attains this status, man's energies can partake with no guilt, feeling perfectly justified in indulging his drive, with the approval of others. Such unchecked and unrestrained outlet of his passions mirrors the same course leading one to idolatry, and sets the stage for additional outpouring of unrestrained emotion. This excites man's energy level in general, and removes him further from the sedate and tranquil state of mind required for Torah study, and moral discipline.

Additionally, we learn from Rabbi Shimone's equation between eating and idolatry, that both are equally easy to violate. One should not think idolatry as an archaic or primitive practice, far below the capability of today's "sophisticated and modern society". Rabbi Shimone teaches that just as man can err with regards to eating bereft of Torah, so too, one can commit idolatrous sins. Man is no less predisposed to violating idolatry, than overindulgence in eating.

I feel this lesson of Rabbi Shimone is an excellent response to those who mock the Torah. Many Jews are not observant, justifying their avoidance of Torah with claims that it is antiquated, inapplicable, or archaic. People look for ways to keep their cozy, free lifestyles even if it means acting with ignorance, as such claims display. Well, here we find a perfect example of how eternally true and insightful our Torah is, and our Rabbis are. Rabbi Shimone displays a keen understanding of human behavior, which does not change over the millennia.

If someone honestly wishes to live his life as happy and fulfilling as possible, the table of knowledge is set. G-d has ultimate knowledge. He has graciously imparted it to man embodied in Torah. All one needs to do is partake of this true "meal".