Siman 170 Table Manners

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #106: Siman 170


By Rabbi Asher Meir





Our Sages were extremely scrupulous with regard to dignified conduct during eating.  Our siman is devoted almost entirely to proper table manners; the main source is tractate Derekh Eretz, which in most editions of the Shas is printed, together with the other masekhtot ketanot, (literally, "small tractates") at the end of Nezikin.


Most of the directives in this siman would be approved by Emily Post (or Amy Vanderbilt, Miss Manners, or any other manners maven).  Contemporary etiquette certainly believes in: avoiding eating with the mouth full (se'if 1, AV 5), leaving a bit on the plate (3), not staring (4, AV 166), being a cooperative guest (5, AV 243) and a gracious host (6, see AV 154), not eating too large a portion at once (7, AV 165), not gulping (8), avoiding demanding behavior (13, AV 161), and avoiding transferring utensils from one guest to another (16). ("AV" refers to page numbers of similar rules in the Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette.)


As far as I know, contemporary etiquette does NOT frown on sipping (8) nor on leaving an empty glass on the table (17, see AV 162).





Though Amy Vanderbilt does not mention it, I seem to recall that standard etiquette also disapproves of wiping the plate clean.  It seems that the reason is that finishing every last bit would seem gluttonous, whereas the reason emphasized here in the SA is to leave food for the help.  But these two reasons are intimately connected. 


Pe'ah, the term used by the SA to describe the food left on the plate, is the name given to the corner of the field which according to Torah law must be left unharvested in order to provide for the poor (Vayikra 19:9).  This gift to the poor cannot be given at the beginning of the harvest, but rather must be what is left over at the end of the harvest, or at the very least after the harvest has begun (Tosefta Pe'ah 1:1). So the "leaving" of pe'ah, that is, refraining from gathering the entire field (which would seem greedy), is intimately connected with the "giving" of pe'ah, of leaving some produce for the poor. 




The Rema (13) and MB touch on the subject of usury (ribit) with meals.  This subject merits a short explanation.




The Torah prohibition on accepting interest on loans definitely includes loans of food, as explicitly mentioned in the Torah, "Don't give a cut [literally bite, meaning interest] to your fellow, a cut of money, a cut of food, or a cut of anything which people take a cut on" (Devarim 23:20). However, the Torah prohibition only applies when the loan is made with an explicit stipulation that the loan must be returned with the addition of certain interest.


However, the Rabbis made many extensions to this Torah rule.  Two of these, and the exceptions to them, are particularly relevant for food:


i) It is forbidden to lend a measure of produce even if it is returned to the lender WITHOUT any addition.  Lending a bushel of wheat was forbidden because the price of wheat might rise between the time of the loan and the time of the repayment, creating the possibility of interest.  This is called "se'ah be-se'ah" (SA YD 162:1).


Does this mean that it is forbidden for a housewife to lend her neighbor a cup of sugar or a loaf of bread?  This is exactly what the Tanna Hillel held.  However, the Sages disagreed and ruled that lending a small amount in this way is permissible (Bava Metzia 75a), and this is how the Rema rules (SA YD 162:1).


ii) The Torah prohibition was also extended by the Sages to include interest paid even when none was requested.  This is called "ribit meucheret" (SA YD 160:6).  It is forbidden to add a little bit to the principal amount and tell the lender that you are giving him a gift in return for his kindness in extending a loan.  However, ribit meucheret IS permissible if two conditions are met:

1) The borrower does not make it obvious that the additional amount is because of the loan (Rema YD 160:6).

2) The additional amount is not given together with the principal repayment, but only afterwards.  (Implicit in SA YD 160:6; see Shakh s.k. 9.)




In the eight chapter of Derekh Eretz we learn:


Don't say to your fellow, "Come eat what you fed me," as this is like interest.  But in Yerushalaim they would return hosting one another.


We can clearly identify the first scenario as what the Rema forbids in se'if 13.  This resembles ribit meucheret.  But what exactly does "return hosting" ("hofkhim akhsania") refer to?


The Beit Yosef had a slightly different wording: "In Yerushalaim they would return hosting with a wedding."  The BY concludes that in Yerushalaim they did not forbid "eat what you fed me," and would readily return a small dinner-party meal even with a large wedding feast, since no loan was intended.  Alternatively, he suggests that returning with a wedding feast is permissible, since, unlike returning a dinner invitation, the feast is not made to repay a debt.


The Rema in the Beit Yosef disputes this interpretation and instead presents the scenario found in the Rema on the SA: when urging a reluctant guest to come to dinner, the host would say, next time I'll eat at your home.  Then the guest would be less ashamed to accept the invitation.  After the fact, a return invitation is permissible - even if the second meal is larger than the first. 


We explained above that two conditions are necessary to permit ribit meucheret: discreetness and delay.  In the case of repaying one meal with a larger one, the FIRST condition is met, as the MB explains in s.k. 33.  But the SECOND condition is NOT met, since the addition is eaten together with the "principal" meal.  Why does the Rema permit this?


It seems that the fundamental reason for the permission is not what is written in s.k. 33, but rather what we find in s.k. 32, namely, there was never a loan in the first place.  When there IS credit, then the laws of ribit can be very strict on what kind of addition is considered ribit.  But when there is no credit in the first place, then it is not relevant to forbid interest!  If someone gives me an outright present, there is no reason why I can't later give an even larger present, since the first present was not conditional on any kind of repayment.


If there is no loan at all, why does the MB explain (in s.k. 33) that the leniency depends on the fact that "he does not mention at the time of the meal that it is a repayment?"  Even if he mentions repayment, there should be no prohibition, since there was no loan in the first place!  It seems that there is a separate rule that forbids giving a transaction the appearance of ribit even retroactively.  By CALLING the second meal a repayment, I retroactively relate to the first meal as a loan.




The MB (end of 32) mentions that the Taz objects to accepting a larger second meal in the case of trading invitations.  The objection of the Taz (s.k. 6) is very cogent: In the first example of the Rema, during the first meal there was no mention of repayment whatsoever.  The first meal was given as an outright gift.  Even so, the recipient is not allowed to treat the return meal as a repayment with interest.  In the second example, there IS a stipulation of repayment: "Come eat with me, and I will eat with you some other time."


The Taz seems to be saying: if EXPLICIT repayment is forbidden with an IMPLICIT loan, we should also forbid IMPLICIT repayment of an EXPLICIT loan.  This reasoning makes sense according to what we explained above: the prohibition of interest begins with a loan.  When there is no loan, there can be no interest.  So when there is a loan, then implicit repayment is a real problem, not just a cosmetic one.  It should be at least as problematic as explicit "interest" when there was no loan in the first place!


The Taz's understanding of the beraita in Derekh Eretz is as follows: The reason we are not stringent like Hillel on lending small amounts of household needs is because there is little chance of ribit in these cases.  One cup of sugar is the same as another.  (And the difference in price is usually negligible.)  But this is not true with meals.  The word "meal" can encompass a friendly lunch or an elaborate banquet.  So it is much more likely that the repayment will be greater, and even that the sides expect and intend it to be greater.


However, according to the Taz's reading, in Yerushalaim people were accustomed to fancy banquets.  This means that meals become like cups of sugar - the repayment is fairly comparable to the original invitation.




Rules given in the halakhic sources are almost invariably in the third person: One should do this, shouldn't do that, etc.  Very often when I translate the sources I use the second person, which in English is more common and less awkward, and also does not present gender problems. 


However, se'if 22 in the SA is actually written in the second person: "After you finish drinking and there is wine left in the cup for your companion to drink, wipe the place where your mouth touched."  Note that the Rema immediately following follows suit.


I'm not familiar with the entire SA, but from what I have seen I can't recall any other halakha which is worded in the second person this way.  Perhaps some reader knows of a parallel.