World of the Sages: Wisdom at the dinner table

Our blessings, our eating habits, and our conduct are indicative of our wisdom.

Our sages analyze the text of the zimun - the invitation to recite the Grace After Meals in a quorum - and discuss possible variations (M. Brachot 7:3). The Mishna tells us that if three people - the minimum number for the zimun - are reciting the prayer together, then the leader of the zimun should begin with the words: "Let us bless...," summoning those present to join in the quorum. If there are three participants besides the leader, then the leader opens with the instruction: "You should bless...," telling the threesome to recite the Grace together since there is a quorum besides the leader. If there are 10 present then the Almighty's name is added to the invitation, for the mention of God's name is appropriate when a congregation of 10 is present (M. Megilla 4:3). As in the case of the threesome, the Mishna again presents two formulas: When there are exactly 10 including the leader, the leader begins: "Let us bless our God..." If there are 10 besides the leader, the leader addresses the quorum: "You should bless our God..." The Talmud juxtaposes these directives of the Mishna with a statement of Shmuel, an early talmudic sage: A person should never exclude himself from the group (B. Brachot 49b-50a). This declaration suggests that the leader of the zimun should never use language that excludes himself even if there is a quorum without him. This position appears to contradict the ruling of the Mishna. The Talmud resolves the issue by explaining that the Mishna gives voice to the possibilities, while Shmuel is stating the preferred course: While a leader inviting another three diners may begin by saying: "You should bless...," it is preferable to use the more inclusive expression: "Let us bless..." An early text supports this conclusion and adds a postscript: From one's blessings it can be discerned whether the one reciting the blessing is wise or not. A few salient examples are offered. If a person reciting the zimun says in reference to God: u'vetuvo - and through whose goodness we live - this is a sign of wisdom, for the statement does not limit the Almighty's goodness. However, if the person says: u'mituvo - and from whose goodness we live - this is a sign of an ignoramus, for using the term "from" minimizes the measure of divine goodness we enjoy. Similarly saying: betuvo hayinu - through whose goodness we live - reflects wisdom, while saying: betuvo hayim - through whose goodness they live - reflects ignorance, for the latter version excludes the one reciting the words from those who live through divine goodness. While the Talmud refers to the language used in the invitational zimun, one scholar from our generation, Rabbi Yehuda Tzedaka (1910-1991), expanded the scope of the talmudic dictum. Born in Jerusalem to a prominent rabbinic family from Baghdad, Rabbi Tzedaka went on to become the head of the Yeshivat Porat Yosef. In this position, he taught the most prominent Sephardi rabbis of our day, including former chief rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Mordechai Eliahu. Once, a person seeking a certain rabbinic position came to Rabbi Tzedaka to obtain a letter of recommendation. The young applicant assumed that he would test his Torah knowledge so that he could confirm the candidate's appropriateness for the position. To the candidate's surprise, Rabbi Tzedaka invited him in and offered him a cup of tea. The young man took the cup of tea and began to recite the blessing. As he did so, Rabbi Tzedaka leaned forward to closely observe how the blessing was being recited. When he realized that the recitation of the blessing was merely lip service and did not come from the heart, he refused to sign the letter of recommendation attesting to the candidate's scholarship: Wisdom is reflected in a person's blessings, asserted Rabbi Tzedaka. Our scholarship is not usually measured while eating, yet our sages add that besides seeing table manners and eating habits, conduct at the table may be indicative of wisdom. The Talmud refers to the choice of words used for the invitation to recite Grace After Meals, while Rabbi Tzedaka used the blessings recited before eating as a yardstick. Perhaps we can add that even conduct during the meal - unrelated to the recitation of blessings before and after eating - can tell us much about the wisdom of our dinner company. The Bible tells us "A wise person's eyes are in his head" (Ecclesiastes 2:14), meaning that a wise person looks ahead. The sages tell us that Alexander the Great posed 10 questions to the Elders of the South (B. Tamid 31b-32a). One of the questions he asked was: "Who is considered a wise person?" and the Elders of the South responded: "Who is a wise person? One who perceives future developments." When we sit down to dinner we may be famished and tempted to pile much delicious food on our plates. Wise people, however, know how much they are going to eat and keep their eyes in the head rather than in their stomachs. There are certain character traits that our sages highlight as heralding a lack of wisdom. While these mannerisms are not directly connected to eating, they can be perceived when we dine together. Our sages tell us that wise people who act haughtily lose their wisdom. Similarly, wise people who get angry are also prone to losing their wisdom (B. Pesahim 66b). Thus exhibiting haughtiness and displaying anger at the dinner table portends a lack of wisdom. Choosing to sit with others may also foretell the level of wisdom. Thus the Talmud tells us that wise people who sit alone to study are likely to become foolish for they have no one to challenge their assumptions or correct their mistakes (B. Brachot 63b). Perhaps the same may be said of those who eat alone. The dinner table is hardly the place to assess mental faculties. Yet our blessings, our eating habits, our conduct and even the company we choose are indicative of our wisdom. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.