Join Rabbi Haber's mailing list:
Home What's New Blogs Store Dedications Weekly Parshah About TorahLab Contact Us Links


The Systems of the Jewish Year

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Chapter Three (Lag B’omer)

By Rabbi Sender Haber

The Holy Tanna, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was the author of the Zohar. His Yahrzheit is not a day of mourning but a day of celebration because he taught that on the anniversary of a Tzaddik’s death his soul rises to yet a higher level in heaven.

Amidst a discussion about the ability of ten, five, three, or even one person to merit the divine presence, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai makes perhaps the most dramatic statement of all:

“If three people are eating at one table, and they are discussing Torah, that table becomes an Altar before G-d. If however, those people do not share Torah, it is as if they have eating idolatrous offerings full of vomit and filth”.

Now that we do not have a Temple in Jerusalem our table can take its place. Rather than offer food to G-d, we consume the food and use the energy and strength to serve G-d. The table is like an altar. We do not sit on it, we must eat respectfully, and we must speak words of Torah.

Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was known for his view that a person should not work for a living. Rather, Rabi Shimon felt that we could spend our lives in Torah study and rely on G-d for our sustenance. Others disagreed with Rabi Shimon but Rabi Shimon put his words in to practice and they did work for him. The Talmud tells us that Rabi Shimon did not even pray, so engrossed was he in his holy pursuits.

The Talmud (Shabbos 33b) tells us of a famous conversation between three great sages. Rabi Yehudah began the conversation by praising the Romans for their marketplaces, their bathhouses and their bridges. Rabi Yosi, who may or may not have concurred, remained silent. Rabi Shimon was vehement in his disagreement: “Do you think they created those amenities for good purposes?” He asked. “The Marketplaces are there to facilitate prostitution; The bathhouses are there for pleasure only, and the bridges are nothing more than money making ventures”.

Similar to his statement in Pirkei Avos, Rabi Shimon was clear that not only were the Roman’s not a Holy empire; they were actually consumed with filth. Perhaps this was a reflection of Rabi Shimon’s views on thius world in general and his clear preference for purely spiritual pursuits.

The Roman government heard of the conversation between these three Torah sages and Rabi Shimon and his son were forced in to hiding. They studied together in a cave for twelve years. Miraculously, a carob tree and a spring of water appeared at the mouth of the cave and they had all of the nourishment that they needed. They buried themselves in sand so as to preserve their clothing as they studied. We are taught that the Zohar was formulated during those twelve years.

After twelve years, Elijah the prophet appeared outside the cave. Not wanting to disturb the study of Rabi Shimon and his son, Elijah did not eneter. He stood outside and proclaimed “Who will tell Rabi Shimon that the Caesar has passed away and the edict against him has been lifted?”

Rabi Shimon and his son emerged from the cave. Immediately, they came across a man plowing his field, Rabi Shimon was horrified. How could a man with a chance to access the next world waste his time on a transient world? Rabi Shimon looked at the man and he was consumed in a ball of fire.

A heavenly voice was heard and Rabi Shimon and his son were ordered back to return to the cave. They may have been deeply attuned to spirituality, but G-d did not want them to come out and destroy the world.

After twelve months they emerged once again. Rabi Elazar would cause fires wherever he looked, but Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai extinguished them. “Between the two of us“, Rabi Shimon said, “The world can survive”. (A similar sentiment is found in Succah 45b)

Just before Shabbos, Rabi Shimon and his son came across a man rushing with two myrtle branches. He told them that they were in honor of Shabbos. Rabi Shimon was comforted by the eagerness of Jewish people to perform mitzvos.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe makes an intriguing observation. Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai extolled the virtues of eating and studying as a threesome, yet for twelve long years he and his son were secluded in a cave. Perhaps Rabi Shimon spent all of those years yearning for a third person to partake in their meal and in their Torah thoughts.

The Bartenura, in his commentary to this Mishna, famously asserts that the obligation to share Torah at a meal can be discharged with the recital of the Grace after Meals. Many others argue and the halacha does not follow the Bartenurah, although the Bnei Yissoschar writes that he Bartenurah did the world a great service by advancing this lenient view.

Bearing this in mind, perhaps Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s statement can be understood in the following way:

The Yaacov Yosef Polnoah (commenting on this chapter in his Toldos Yaacov Yosef on Parshas Metzora) makes the point that holiness is much easier to attain when we are on our own and not subject to the whims and distractions of others. Think of a Rebbe at his Tish. He alone sets the tone for the meal and the meal is entirely holy. Of course, if two holy people with the same approach and motivation come together for a meal, that meal will be all the more holier.

To give a simple illustration: If one person who is accustomed to saying the Grace After Meals eats on his own we can assume that he will thank G-d for the food trhat he has eaten. If he eats with a companion who is less religious that he, it is quite likely that the second person will follow the first one’s lead and join him in Birchas Hamazon. One is reflecting the holiness of the other. If However, the religious person is outnumbered, it can go either wat. It is likely that the rest of the party will leave while the one religious man stays behind to Thank G-d, but there is an opportunity for the religious man to change the tone of the meal and inspire all of his colleagues – as Avraham did – to praise G-d before rising from their meal.

This is the depth of a ‘mezuman’, in which one person invites two others to ‘bench’, and this was the point of Rabi Shimon. If one person is Holy, that is fine. If two people are holy, that is better. But if three people eat together and one is able to effect a change upon all of them and inspire all of them to thank G-d, he has elevated the entire table and in doing so can change the entire world.

This is alluded to in the verse in Shir Hashirim (6:10) describing the Jewish people: “Who is she that looks forth like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun, and awe inspiring as a watch tower?”. The Medrash Rabba explains that the Jewish people shed light first as a rising sun, then as sun with a moon to reflect its light, and finally like the clear sun at noon. In future days we will be awe inspiring as well. (The word “Shulchan is an acronym for the four levels of influence: Shachar, Levanah, Chamah, and Nidgalos.)

Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was a rising sun, in studying with Rabi Elazar the world was enhanced with a ‘moon’, but he yearned for an opportunity to spread that light outward and to inspire holiness and light throughout the world. For twelve years, he dreamed of expanding the spiritual and G-dly light that he had experienced. We can imagine his disappointment when he finally encountered that third person and the man was not interested. He was consumed with this world and unable to accept the spiritual light.

When they emerged a second time, Rabi Shimon was comforted by the man running to honor Shabbos. He realized that he too had the capacity to enjoy a spiritual day, consume a spiritual meal, and truly sit at a table before G-d.

In the Zohar on Terumah, Rabi Shimon expands on this idea. He teaches that if we use our tables properly two angels will accompany us along with our table when we stand before G-d after our deaths. The angels will describe how we made the table a vehicle for holiness, an altar and a source of blessing in both this world and the next.

When we sit down to our tables for a meal we need to think “This is the table that is before G-d”. Our table is our Altar and it is situated just in front of the Holy of Holies.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita. 

View and leave comments • (0 comments so far)