Jewish tradition is not shy about relating to culinary matters. The Talmud deals with a whole range of food related issues: What to eat and when to eat it; how much to eat and how often to go to the bathroom; not to mention the appropriate blessings before and after eating.
Thus it is unsurprising that our sages also had words to say about with whom to eat: "Whoever benefits from a meal where a Torah scholar is present, it is as if he benefits from the radiance of the divine presence" (B. Brachot 64a).
The talmudic lesson is concluded from the biblical verse describing Jethro's first meal after he joins the Jewish people in the desert: And Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before the Lord (Exodus 18:12). The Talmud asks: Did they really eat "before the Lord"? Were they not eating before Moses? Rather, the verse teaches that whoever benefits from a meal where a Torah scholar is present, it is if they are eating "before the Lord," that is they bask in the glow of the divine presence.
Who was the Torah scholar at Jethro's first meal that gave the gastronomic gathering its special status as being "before the Lord"? Three possibilities come to mind.
The first is borne out of the talmudic text. Rereading the question posed by the Talmud, it would appear that the Torah scholar present was Moses, for the diners were eating in his presence.
Moses, however, is not mentioned in the biblical passage at all. In his commentary to the Bible, Rashi (11th century, France) - following an earlier tradition of midrashic exegesis - wondered where Moses was while everyone was eating bread. Rashi explained that Moses, in his desire to show respect for his father-in-law, did not sit at the table, rather he was busy waiting on the diners. His physical presence - even though he didn't partake of the food - gave the meal its special status.
A later commentator, however, felt that the divine presence would only be felt if the Torah scholar was actually sitting with the eating party and joining in the meal. Indeed, elsewhere the mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai tells us that three people "who dine together" and say words of Torah it is as if they have eaten from the table of the Almighty (M. Avot 3:3). Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai does not entertain the possibility of a waiter saying words of Torah; the divine atmosphere at a meal, it would appear, is contingent on being part of the meal. Moses, according to the biblical verse, was not eating with Jethro, Aaron and the elders, and therefore he could not be the Torah scholar that the Talmud refers to. Thus the Maharsha (16th-17th centuries, Poland) in his commentary to the talmudic passage suggests that the Torah scholars were Aaron and the anonymous elders.
A third candidate for the identity of the Torah scholar at that meal - and the only other person present - is Jethro. Indeed he is credited with offering sound advice to Moses the day after that meal: Jethro saw his son-in-law sitting all day as the lone judge, hearing cases, handing down rulings and dispensing advice. While Moses explained that he was responding to the people's needs for spiritual guidance, Jethro was perturbed that Moses would burn out, as the burden of being a lone address for the people's needs was too great for one person.
He therefore suggested a restructuring of the system: While Moses would continue carrying the Almighty's word to the Jewish people, he should locate able, God fearing people, people of truth who hate unjust gain. These upstanding candidates should be appointed over defined constituencies and judge all manner of cases. Only the most complex or serious cases were to be brought before Moses. In short, Jethro was telling Moses to delegate responsibility by establishing a multitiered court system. Moses accepted his father-in-law's sound advice and the new system was instituted (see Ex. 13-26).
Our sages laud Jethro's contribution, noting that in his merit an extra passage describing the multi-tiered judicial system was added to the Torah (Tanhuma Yitro 4).
Alas, despite his impressive perception and insightful suggestion that revolutionized the judicial system, no commentator dared to suggest that he was the Torah scholar at that meal.
Perhaps Jethro's wide-ranging curriculum vitae led the sages to balk at declaring him the paradigmatic Torah scholar. The biblical passage describes him as a priest of Midian (Ex. 18:1), hardly the profession for a Torah scholar.
Moreover, after Moses described the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, Jethro declared: Blessed be God who has delivered you out of the hand of Egypt and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who has delivered the people from under the oppressive hand of Egypt; now I know that God is greater than all gods... (ibid v. 10-11). Our sages note that Jethro was able to confidently declare that he now knew that the Almighty was greater than all other deities, for he had indeed tasted every available form of worship. There was no religious path that he had not explored and thus his statement was made as one who knew that indeed God is greater than all gods (Tanhuma Yitro 7).
While Jethro is certainly to be respected - and Moses appropriately showed him great respect - and his contribution should be lauded; it is far from clear that he should be the paradigmatic icon of a Torah scholar. The choice to recognize the Almighty after tasting all manner of other available paths is praiseworthy, but it may not be the model that our sages seek to bequeath. To merit the radiance of the divine presence at our meals, it is not a prerequisite that we have tasted from every available spiritual path. The prototype Torah scholar may be a far less adventurous model: a person whose connection to God is far less complex; a relationship with the Almighty that is essentially simple.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.