World of the Sages: Tarrying at the table

Sitting for a long time at the dinner table is not wasting time, nor is it merely a social event; every moment spent tarrying at the table is another minute waiting for a hungry person to walk through the door.

Our sages declare that sitting for extended periods by the dinner table is one of the actions that can lengthen a person's life (B. Brachot 54b-55a). Besides the external comparison - stay longer at the dinner table so you will stay longer in this world - why do long meals merit long life? The Talmud explains that the longer the meal, the more chance there is that a needy person will knock at your door asking for food. If the meal is still in progress, the hungry visitor can easily be invited to the table. In the merit of feeding the needy, the host may merit long life. The Talmud cites a biblical verse to buttress the importance of the dinner table: The altar, three cubits high and two cubits wide, was of wood and it had corners and its length and its walls were of wood, and he said to me: This is the table that is before God (Ezekiel 41:22). The verse calls the altar "the table that is before God" and our sages explained: As long as the Temple stood, the altar served as the place for atoning for sins; nowadays, when the Temple is no longer standing, the dinner table is the locus for atonement for sin. One hassidic master - Rabbi Yisrael Hopsztajn (1737-1814), the maggid (preacher) of Kozienice - suggested that the dinner table is even better than the Temple altar, though both are effective in achieving atonement: On the Temple altar sacrifices were offered up and accepted by the Almighty; food eaten at the table gives strength beyond mealtime, enabling those who have eaten to further study Torah and serve God. Returning to the talmudic passage and putting its various parts together we come to the following: By extending our stay at the dinner table, we increase the likelihood of assisting the needy; by assisting the needy, we atone for our sins; by atoning for our sins, we merit long life. This is a roundabout way to say that assisting the needy merits long life; why phrase this advice in terms of the dinner table? Perhaps this talmudic passage is not just talking about providing food for the hungry. One contemporary commentator offers a rational explanation for how long life is connected to a lengthy stay at the dinner table. Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel suggests that sitting at the table enjoying a meal with the needy, or even with other guests or family members, is a gratifying and satisfying experience. This emotional pleasure also translates into physical well-being that may lead to long life. While this may be true, it is difficult to read this explanation in the talmudic text that talks about the opportunity to provide food for the needy. A different possible approach is to focus on the unique merit of providing assistance to the needy in the form of ready-made food. Elsewhere in the Talmud we are told about a time of serious drought when the sages approached Abba Hilkiya to beseech the Almighty on behalf of the people for much-needed rain (B. Ta'anit 23a-b). Before they could voice their request, Abba Hilkiya turned to his wife: "I know that the rabbis have come on account of rain. Let us go to the roof and we will pray for mercy, perhaps the Almighty will be appeased and bring rain, and then we need not take any credit." The couple went up to the roof to pray. Abba Hilkiya positioned himself in one corner, while his wife stood in the opposite corner and the two supplicants offered their prayers. It was not long before clouds began to approach from the direction of the corner of Abba Hilkiya's wife and soon the rain fell. The couple descended to the rabbinic delegates: "Why have the rabbis come?" asked Abba Hilkiya with feigned innocence. "We have been sent by our rabbinic masters to sir" - referring to Abba Hilkiya - "to ask you to pray for rain," they responded. "Blessed is the omnipresent, that there is no need for the prayers of Abba Hilkiya," he responded modestly. The rabbinic messengers were not fooled: "We know that the rains came because of you!" They continued asking Abba Hilkiya to explain what had transpired: "Why when the rains came did they first come from the direction of your wife's corner?" Abba Hilkiya explained: "My wife is often at home. When the needy come knocking at our door she offers them bread that they immediately can eat. I, on the other hand, give the needy coins and they still need to go to some effort to turn my donation into food that will satisfy their hunger." The merit of Abba Hilkiya's wife was that she made the assistance that was being provided for the needy easily accessible; she gave them a finished product not just raw materials. This act merited life-giving rain that quenched the thirst of the people. This may be the very same merit of those who lengthen their time at the dinner table in the hope that they can provide the needy with freshly prepared food ready for eating (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). Perhaps we can suggest a further aspect of sitting at the dinner table with the hope of helping the hungry: The longer we sit at the dinner table, the greater the potential that a hungry person will knock at our door. Reward is granted not only for providing for the needy and not only for making that provision easily accessible. Long life is granted even for creating the possibility for assisting others. Sitting for a long time at the dinner table is not wasting time, nor is it merely a social event; every moment spent tarrying at the table is another minute waiting for a hungry person to walk through the door. Just sitting at the table and thereby increasing the likelihood of providing for the hungry - even before that assistance has actually been extended - is a worthy action deserving of the blessing of long life. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.