Shulhan Shel Arba: The Third Gate

The Third Gate: An Explanation of the ethics and etiquette with which a person is required to behave at the table 

[p. 497] It is well known that ethics [ha-musar] are connected to the Torah, for so it is written: “He who follows ethics [musar] shows the way to life,” and they said explicitly, “If there is no derekh eretz [etiquette], there is no Torah.”[1] And it is from ethics and etiquette that we advised that no person should recline at the table until he knows who his fellow guests are and with whom he’ll be reclining.  And so we learned from the laws of Derekh Eretz: “A person should always know with whom he stands, with whom he reclines, and with whom he puts his seal on his documents.”[2]

It is proper etiquette for a person to honor his companion by letting him wash his hands first with the washing before the meal, but not with the washing after the meal, because for the washing after the meal, his own hands are dirty.  For we have learned, “One does not show honor with dirty hands, or out in the streets, or on bridges, nor at an entrance small enough for a mezuzah,”[3]because as long as one’s hands are dirty, it is not polite to delay washing one’s own hands to honor any other person, but whoever washes his hands first merits being in a state of purity.   A person should not sit at meal above someone who is older than him in years, for this would transgress the rule of ethics; [p. 498] indeed, one should assume because someone is older than him that he is perhaps greater in merits than him (and it goes without saying, greater than him in wisdom) – for he wouldn’t want to transgress the law of Torah nor throw off the yoke of reverence for the disciples of the sages.  A person ought to be modest in his eating and drinking, not be short-tempered at the table,[4] not eat or drink standing, nor eat before the fourth hour of the day.[5] When two are eating, each one waits for the other to take from the plate, but with three, one does not wait. A person should not grab in his hand a serving larger in size than an egg, because that is being a glutton.[6] One should not wipe the plate with his fingers, not eat from a head of garlic or onion but from its leaves.[7 And one should not bite from a piece of food and then give it to his companion, because not all creatures feel the same way [about how hygienic this would be].[8] One should not bite off piece of bread with one’s teeth and then return it to the table.  Once it happened that there was someone who picked up a piece of bread and let it hang from his teeth.  R. Akiba said to him, “Not so, my son.  You might as well put your heel on it and rip it off.”[9] A person should not drink his cup in one gulp, and if he does so, he is a glutton. Two sips are polite; three sips, vulgar.[10] One should not drink from one’s cup and then give it to his companion because of the health risk.  Once it happened to R. Akiba when he was a guest at someone’s house that his host gave him a cup from which he had sipped. R. Akiba said to him, “Drink it yourself.”  Ben Azzai said to him (the host), “How long will you keep giving R. Akiba cups that have been sipped from!?”[11] A person should not put the plate on top of the bread.  Once it happened to R. Akiba when he was a guest at someone’s house that his host took a piece of food and put the plate on it.  R. Akiba grabbed it and ate it. He said to his host, “How could I imagine that you would be hurt by lukewarm water when you’re not even hurt by boiling water?”[12]

Five are the things they said about bread: (1) Don’t put raw meat on bread; (2) don’t put the cup on top of the bread; (3) don’t put the plate on top of the bread; (4) don’t throw the bread; and (5) don’t sit on the food – so it is taught in the laws of Derekh Eretz.[13] Rejoice over your table when the hungry come and enjoy from your table, for that will lengthen your days in this world and earn you life in the world to come.  And so also from Derekh Eretz we learn: [p.499] “Let no guest say, ‘Give me and I shall eat,’ until they speak to him, though it is not necessary to say explicitly that he should eat when on the table in front of him is whatever he needs and is able to eat.  For thus it is written in the Torah: “But when food was set before him, he said, ‘I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.'”[14] Who said anything to Eliezer about eating that he should reply, “I will not eat,” unless he was responding to the fact that the food was prepared, set before him, and up to him to eat?  There was no one putting himself between him and his food for him to say to him “I will” or “I will not eat.”

One does not look directly at the face of someone eating at the table, nor at the plate, nor at the portion set before him, so as not to embarrass anyone. The table server does not eat in the presence of the diners, but they give him some of each dish out of kindness, so that his heart won’t be ashamed.  A host who has eaten before his guest – he’s a disgrace! When two are sitting at the table, the older gets to reach for the food first, then the younger.  And whoever extends their hand before someone older than them – he’s a glutton!  One leaves a “corner” of food uneaten in a kettle but not in a pot.[15] It happened to Rabbi Yehoshua when he was a guest at a widow’s home, that she brought him a stew pot, and he did not leave a “corner.”  She brought him a second one, and he did not leave a “corner.  The third time she ruined the dish with salt.  He withdrew his hand and ate only bread.  She said to him,  “Why did you take so much bread when you took so little of the pounded beans?”  Hence, Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Nobody has ever gotten the best of me except a woman who was a widow, a little boy, and a little girl.” For it happened to Rabbi Yehoshua when he was walking on a path through a field, that he found a girl who was sitting in the field. She said to him, “Why are you walking in the field?” He said, “I’m walking on a path.” She said, “If this is a path, it’s only because robbers like you have trampled it into one.” And again, it happened to Rabbi Yehoshua when he was walking on a path through a field, that he found a little boy sitting where the path split in two.  He said to the boy, “My son, which path will take me into the city?”  He said to him, “There are two paths in front of you: the one long and short; the other short and long.”  Rabbi Yehoshua took the short and long path.  When he got to the wall of the city, he saw gardens and orchards surrounding the city.  R. Yehoshua turned back and saw the little boy sitting where he had been before.  He said to him, “My son, didn’t I ask you which path would take me into the city?” He replied, “You’re the old sage; aren’t you wise enough to figure it out?”  At that, Rabbi Yehoshua went to kiss him on his head and said, “Happy are you, O Israel, for all of you are wise, from your oldest to your youngest![16]

The host enters first into the house, then the guest after him. And when the guest leaves, the guest leaves first, then the host after him.[17] One must beware of saying birkat ha-mazon if one’s father, or teacher, or someone greater in wisdom than he is at the table, unless he gets permission from them.  And if there is a kohen among them, one should defer to the kohen, for thus it is written, “And you shall make him holy,”[18] and the sages interpreted this in a midrash to mean, “you shall make him holy in everything that involves holiness, such as letting him open first, say a blessing first, take the nicest portion first, since a person is required to bestow honors upon the seed [p.500] of Aaron.[19] And if there’s a kohen who’s a talmid hakham (i.e., a Torah scholar)[20] and an ordinary Jew who’s a talmid hakham, and the kohen wishes to bestow an honor on him, he may.  For it is said about a kohen, “You shall make him holy [ve-kidashto]” but it is also said about ordinary Israelites “Set bounds about the mountain and make it holy [ve-kidashto],” and in the entire Torah there are only these two occurrences of “ve-kidashto:” one at the beginning of the verse, the other at the end of the verse.[21] This comes to teach about the kohen, that his greatness comes when he begins things, like opening first, or saying a blessing first.  But the talmid hakham, his greatness comes at the end, which we derive from what is written, “to the holy ones [la-kedoshim] who are in the land,”[22] which the sages interpret in a midrash to mean the holy ones are not called “holy ones” until they have been given their “land.”[23] as it is said, “they become holy ones [la-kedoshim]- those who are in the land.”[24] But about them during their lifetime it is written, “He should not trust that he is among His holy ones.”[25] So it is with the talmid hakham in this world; his glory is at the end, as they say about the Torah scroll – “the talmid hakham rolls up the torah scroll in the end.”[26]

An ordinary Jew who is a talmid hakham ought to confer honor on the kohen by letting him go first, provided that the kohen is a talmid hakham.  But if the ordinary Jew were a talmid hakham and the kohen an ‘am ha-‘aretz,[27] the talmid hakham says the blessing first, for thus they said in the Talmud in the tractate Horayot on the order of statuses: “An illegitimate child [mamzer] who is a talmid hakham has precedence over the High Priest if he is an ‘am ha-‘aretz.”[28] If someone who is not a talmid hakham, – driven by his pride and need to dominate  – wants to say a blessing over the table instead of a talmid hakham, the talmid hakham may not give him permission to do so. And thus they said in the section in the Talmud about “fellow townsmen”: “Any talmid hakham before whom an ‘am ha-‘aretz, even if he is the High Priest, says a blessing, deserves to die,” as it is said, ‘All those who hate me [mis’anai], love death.’[29] Don’t read this as mis’anai (those who hate me), but as masniy-ai (those who cause people to hate me).” [30] They said in the laws of Derekh Eretz: “Don’t eat the bread of an ‘am-ha-‘aretz priest [kohen] lest he feed you the holy things dedicated to Heaven.”[31] Whoever enters into a meal should not take his portion and give it to the table server, lest it cause something to happen during the meal to spoil it.  Rather he should take it and set it aside, and afterwards give it to him.[32] Those entering a host’s home are not allowed to pick up anything set before them to give it to the host’s son, to his servant, nor anyone representing him – unless they have gotten permission from the host.[33] It once happened to someone when three guests entered into his home during a period of drought, that he placed before them three eggs.  The host’s son came and stood in front of them.  One of the guests took his share and gave it to him, and likewise the second guest, and then the third.  When the host saw the three eggs in his son’s hands, he lifted him up bodily and smashed him onto the floor, and he died.  Then his mother, when she saw her son dead, went up to the roof and plunged to her death.  When his father saw this, he too went up to the roof and plunged to his death.[34]

If the host himself wants to serve his guests, he may, even if the host is a talmid hakham. The reason is from this:[35] If a teacher has waived the honor due him, his waiver of honor is waived, as it is said, “The Lord went before them by day.”[36] That contradicts this!  Or does it? It is the Holy One Blessed be He’s world, and if He wants to waive His honor, it is up to Him.[37] And it goes on to say that it is the teacher’s torah (and honor) once he has learned it, as it is said, “he studies his torah day and night.”[38] And they also said, if a nasi (political authority) has waived his honor, his waiver of honor is waived.[39] It happened to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua when they were reclining in the banquet hall of the son of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, that Rabban Gamaliel was serving them something to drink.  He gave a cup to Rabbi Eliezer, who refused it, and to Rabbi Yehoshua, who accepted it.   Rabbi Eliezer said to him, [p.501] “What is this, Rabbi Yehoshua?  We are sitting, but Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi is standing and serving us something to drink!” He replied, “We have precedent for the greater acting as a table server.  Abraham was the greatest of his generation, and it is written about him, “And he stood over them under the tree and they ate.”[40] Lest you object that they appeared him as heavenly angels, on the contrary, they appeared to him as Arabs. So as for us, why shouldn’t Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi stand and wait upon us?” Rabbi Zadok said to them, “How long are you going to overlook the honor of God and occupy yourself with the honor of mortals? The Holy One Blessed be He causes the winds to blow and raises up rulers, makes the dew fall and makes plants grow from the earth; He sets a table before each and every one. So as for us, why shouldn’t Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi stand and wait upon us?[41]


[1]M.Avot 3:17.

[2] Derekh Eretz Zuta 10.

[3] That is, a doorway, not a wide gate.

[4] Derekh Eretz Rabba 6.

[5] Derekh Eretz Rabba 7, around 10:00 AM (van Loopik, 115).

[6] Derekh Eretz Rabba 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10]Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid. The story “proves” that it is wrong to cover food with the plate. Following Chavel’s explanation, I think Rabbi Akiba reproaches his host for ungraciously not offering him the piece of food and trying to hide it under the plate. R. Akiba explains his own bold gesture -grabbing the food and eating – euphemistically.  In other words, with someone as rude as you who doesn’t know better than to put a plate on a piece of food, only something as rude as what I did (“boiling water”), not a gentle or subtle hint (“lukewarm water”), could get it across to you just how wrong and rude you were to put the plate on top of the food.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gen 24:33.

[15] Derekh Eretz Rabba, 6. Corner in the Hebrew is “pe’ah.” Just as farmers are commanded to leave the corners (pe’ot) of their fields un-harvested for the poor to glean (in Lev. 19:9), so one should not scrape clean food served a cooking pot, but rather should leave leftovers for the servers to eat.  On the other hand, it is okay not to leave leftovers from food served in a different kind of cooking pot.  Chavel suggests that the difference between the “kettle” (lit., “something made in an ‘ilpas – one type of cooking pot”) and the “pot” (lit., something made in a kedrah – another type of cooking pot) is their size, and that one is only required to leave a “corner” of leftovers for the server from the bigger stew pot (ilpas), not the smaller cooking pot (kedrah). In other words, unlike the saying “That’s like the pot calling the kettle black,” what I’ve translated here as “kettle” and “pot” are significantly different types of cooking utensils.

[16]All these stories about Rabbi Yehoshua are taken almost verbatim from Derekh Eretz Rabba 6.

[17] Derekh Eretz Rabba 4.

[18] Lev. 21:8

[19] B.Gittin 59b.

[20] Lit., “disciple of a sage,” i.e., someone learned in rabbinic Torah.

[21] Lev. 21:8 and Ex. 19:23. In Ex. 19:23, Moses says to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you warned us saying, “set bounds about the mountain and make it holy [ve-kidashto].” However, R. Bahya takes the “it” in the pronominal suffix of ve-kidashto to refer to “the people [ha-‘am],” i.e., the Israelites, not the mountain.  Grammatically both are masculine singular.

[22] Ps. 16:3.

[23] Midrash Tehillim on Ps. 16:3.

[24] The midrash seems to read la-kedoshim (“to the holy ones) as if it were in the Hebrew grammatical construction “hayu le-:” “they became holy ones.”

[25] Job 15:15, as R. Bahya creatively reads the verse, which the JSB translates “He puts no trust in His Holy ones.”

[26] An allusion to the honor of rolling and tying the Torah scroll back up after it is read publically in the synagogue service – the honor of being the “golel.” According Chavel, R. Bahya takes “the greatest among them rolls up the sefer torah” in b.Megillah 32a to refer to the talmid hakham, the Torah scholar. I believe R. Bahya is also implying that the reward the torah scholars – talmidei hakhamim – will receive at the “end of this world” is in the world to come, and will be much greater than the perks that the kohanim receive for their hereditary status only in this world.

This expresses the same belief in the spiritual superiority of the talmidei hakhamim over non-torah scholars (‘ammei-ha-‘aretz) about which R. Bahya speaks at length in the previous Second Gate.  Moreover, this reflects the general tendency of rabbinic Judaism to supplant the priests with rabbinic Torah scholars as the ideal Jewish religious authorities and role models.  However, R. Bahya and his fellow kabbalists accentuate the priest-like, “sacramental” powers of the Torah scholars – those adept in both rabbinic and kabbalistic Torah – by comparing them to the kohanim in the Temple, using priestly language especially to describe their divine service (‘avodah ‘elohit) at the table, the “little Temple” (mikdash me’at).

[27] A Jew who is not learned in rabbinic torah.

[28] B. Horayot 13a.

[29] Prov. 8:36.  Wisdom (Hokhmah) personified is the “me” speaking.

[30] B. Megillah 28a.

[31] Derekh Eretz Zuta 1.

[32] Derekh Eretz Rabba 9.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom, on his Rambam website, explains clearly the Gemara that R. Bahya cites in this way:

The essential question, as presented in the Gemara (BT Kiddushin 32a-b), is whether the honor due the sage is his own (like the father’s), or if it is the *K’vod haTorah* (Honor of the Torah), which he embodies. The Gemara posits that even though the father (and, presumably, the mother), may be *Mochel* [that is, “waive”] the honor due him, the teacher may not. A challenge is brought from the fact that God Himself was “*Mochel*” His Honor, by “walking” in front of the camp of Bnei Yisrael in the desert (inappropriate for one due honor) – and God is seen here as the model for the teacher. The Gemara defeats this challenge by distinguishing – it is God’s world and it is God’s honor – if He wishes to be *Mochel* – that is “up to Him”. But the scholar isn’t just representing his own self; it is God’s Torah which is the source of his honor. The Gemara refutes this distinction by pointing to an alternate reading of the first verse of Psalms, which indicates that after learning Torah, the Torah becomes the “property” of the student/scholar. That is the final result of the *sugya* (section) in the Gemara. http://www.torah.org/learning/rambam/talmudtorah/tt5.11.html, consulted 3/11/10.

[36] That is, God Himself waived His own honor by walking in front of the Israelites.  It would have been more appropriate for the honored person to be proceeded by someone lesser in rank (like when King Ahashverous honors Mordechai by having Haman lead him around the city on horseback).

[37] Here the Gemara goes on to object that if the teacher’s honor depends his knowledge of Torah, and Torah comes from God, that it is not the teacher’s honor that he’s waiving, but God’s.  However, the Gemara then goes on to refute this objection with the proof text from Psalm 1:2, where R. Bahya resumes his paraphrase of the sugya, having omitted the objection itself.

[38] Ps. 1:2, taking the “his” of “his torah” (be-torato) to refer to the subject of the verb “studies” (ye-he-geh), that is, the man who studies, not God.

[39] B. Kiddushin 32b.

[40] Gen 18:8.

[41] In other words, R. Zadok says, we hardly need the precedent of Abraham, a mortal, to wait on his inferiors, when this is what God Himself does for everyone all the time!  For anyone familiar with the New Testament, this whole discussion about the appropriateness of a high status host waiting upon his guests at the table calls to mind a scene in the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel:

A dispute also arose among them [the disciples] as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  But he [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Lk 22:24-27)

Yet despite their similarities, the most striking difference between the Jewish and Christian stories is who gets to make the interpretation that the host’s lowering himself to the status of a table server is okay.  In the Christian story, Jesus defends his own behavior, while in the Jewish story, the guests defend their host’s right to lower his status to wait on them.  Moreover, they justify his behavior with examples from others who willingly lowered their high status to wait on their guests: Abraham to wait upon his mysterious visitors, and God to “wait upon” the whole world! In the Last Supper, Jesus justifies his behavior by his own example.  Jesus warrants his practices by his own charisma; the rabbis warrant theirs on the precedents of others, that is, on past traditions and rational argument.

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