Perek 3, Mishna 3
The mishna reads:
R. Shimon says: Three who ate at the same table and did not say any words of Torah are as if they ate from offerings of the dead [idol worship], as the verse says: "For all the tables are filled with vomit and excrement, without any place;" but three who ate at the same table and did say words of Torah are as if they ate from the table of God, as the verse says: "And he said to me, this is the table that is before God."
A MISHNAH ABOUT MEALS
This is perhaps one of the more famous mishnayot in Tractate Avot, if only because it led directly to the custom to have someone recite a devar Torah (a Torah thought), at a meal. The term zivchei meitim (offerings of the dead) and the prooftext that there is a problem with a meal without Torah are both somewhat odd, and Maharal will discuss them.
The positive side of the mishna comes second, which Maharal explains simply as repeating the pattern of the previous mishna. Here, the question is why the mishna places so much value on having words of Torah, so that it is characterized as eating from God's table. As a second question, granting that words of Torah are important, why should it be three that need such words - why not two or one? Third, the prooftext here, too, does not prove anything about divrei Torah, as it refers to an altar simply as a table before God.
JOINING THE PHYSICAL TO THE SPIRITUAL/INTELLECTUAL
Maharal begins the discussion by pointing out that the act of eating in particular is a time when we show our dependence on those who provide us with the food - it is where a servant or slave most directly gets sustenance from the master. As such, a meal provides an opportunity to recognize explicitly our dependence on God. To do so properly, however, we need to make clear that we rely on God for two aspects of our lives, the physical and the spiritual. In addition, one of those aspects, the physical, will die and be gone forever; it therefore has only temporary value. The other, the spiritual, is eternal.
When we most manifestly display our dependence on God, Maharal says, we need to insure that both aspects are included. By discussing issues of Torah at a meal, we actively demonstrate our understanding of the two areas of our life where we enjoy God's beneficence. Otherwise, we are simply feeding our bodies, which is like serving a dead vessel, since the body itself has no staying power.
HAVING SCHOLARS AT THE MEAL
Maharal then quotes a gemara in Tractate Berakhot that says that if someone eats at a meal where a Torah scholar is present, it is as if that person has enjoyed the presence of the Creator. According to Maharal, that statement conveys the same idea - a meal can feed only the physical - or the spiritual as well. Through the presence of the Torah scholar, what could have been a purely physical meal is given a spiritual component.
Directing a meal towards the intellectual/spiritual, which actually means directing that meal towards God, converts the meal and the table, allowing the event to serve a similar purpose as the altar and an offering. The prooftexts come to support that point, on both sides of the equation, according to Maharal. When the mishna cites, "for all the tables are filled with, etc.," the verse clearly refers to idol worship. For Maharal, it only proves that an altar (in this case, an idol-worshipping one) can be referred to as a table. The second verse - "this is the table before the Lord" - does the same thing for a real altar, one dedicated to the service of God. There, too, the only point is to justify the metaphor. If an altar can be thought of as a table, Maharal reasons, a table can be thought of as an altar, the point of this mishna.
Having unraveled why divrei Torah are so important, we need to discuss the numbers of people present that the mishna requires. If the act of eating is sanctified by joining it with divrei Torah - since those words of Torah remind us of the second realm of existence, we need to keep in mind in referring to God - should that lesson not apply also to one person eating alone?
In understanding the limited value of being alone, perhaps our memory of last mishna will help. There, Maharal pointed out that it is only with TWO people learning together that there is a significant value to actually saying words of Torah, for only then is that Torah complete. Without repeating the entire shiur, that notion also explains why one person eating alone would not have this requirement, since his Torah study is fundamentally different from that of a group. But what about two?
MAHARAL ON NUMBERS - SOMETHING TO WATCH
An aspect of Mahral's Avot commentary that I find attractive in general is his explanations for numbers. We will see this in its most concentrated form in the fifth chapter of Avot (be-ezrat Hashem), but here it begins to come up in the context of the number three. We will see similar issues a few mishnayot hence, when the text discusses the different types of visitations of the Divine Presence that Torah study groups of different sizes merit.
TWO IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER SINCE THE NUMBER ONE
Maharal's answer, basically, is that three is the first number of unification; as such, it is when there is a gathering of three people that the issue of joining in reciting divrei Torah arises. An halakhic proof that three is a unifying number comes from the halakha of "zimun," where the presence of three adults at a meal allows (and possibly mandates) that the three recite Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) together.
Maharal is not interested only in the halakhic proof; he wants to make a point about the number three in general. [As an aside: the gemara proves that three require a zimun from one of two verses, each of which refers to a leader speaking to a group - at least two - and urging them to follow him. In that construct, the need for three comes from having a group aside from the speaker, which could have applied here as well; Maharal goes a different way.] First, he points out that three is the smallest number for a simple closed figure - two lines cannot make a simple closed figure, but three can, suggesting that three allows for more than one voice to become nonetheless whole.
Making the same point in a different way, Maharal notes that two is the number for opposites - two points connect a line, with each point at an opposite end. Dichotomies are also always stated in twos - black-white, right-left, etc. When a third member enters the group it is more difficult (Maharal actually thinks impossible) to have the third element also be diametrically opposite. [Had he thought three-dimensionally, of course, he would have realized that was not necessarily true, but the point is valid enough for present purposes.] To take the black-white example, a third color cannot be the opposite of both black and white, it will have to lie somewhere in the middle.
So, too, when there are two people sitting at a meal they could possibly be opposites of each other, with little to unify them. That possibility frees them of the necessity of saying divrei Torah, since there is no expectation that they will be unified in any way at this meal. Once a third person enters the picture, however, the balance shifts and the expectation becomes that some sort of unity will be forged. Since that third person cannot be opposite to the first two, he (or she, although Maharal does not say that) will necessarily create a middle ground that develops some common elements with each of the other two.
Maharal's idea about three suggests an interesting point about how unity is created. He assumes that individuals will differ in their ideas, perhaps diametrically. With two people, each with opinions of his own, there is no necessary avenue for unity, or joint action, although Maharal does not reject the possibility that two people will unify. As soon as there are three, however, some form of unity becomes not only possible, but required. Since the third person will also have his own point of view, the possibility of being so opposite as to prevent joint action becomes lessened. Instead, it becomes the responsibility of those at the table to find the common points, to share Torah around those points, and to make a shulchan (table) that is truly for God. See you next week.