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Social Learning

If we were to extract two broad messages from the first two chapters of Pirkei Avot, they would likely be related to: (1) the importance of learning Torah, and (2) the necessity to cultivate positive social relationships. There are three mishnayot in the early parts of Chapter 3 that combine these two ideas, and we will analyze the three together in one essay.

Lesson 1 – Social Relationships are Enhanced with Torah Learning

In the second half of Avot 3:2, R. Chananiah ben Teradion teaches us that “if two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners… but if two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, then the Shechinah abides among them…” Similarly, in Avot 3:6, Rabbi Chalafta of Kefar Chananiah teaches that “when ten sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Shechinah dwells among them.” He continues with prooftexts to demonstrate that this is also true if five, three, or two people learn together (we will address how they both relate to the individual who learns Torah alone in Lesson 3).

As we mentioned in Psyched for Avot 2:5, Aristotle wrote that “man is by nature a social animal.” We need each other to survive and to thrive, and there are many psychological benefits to positive social relationships. Yet, as we also noted in the previous Psyched for Avot relating to the first half of Avot 3:2 (“Rabbi Chanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive”), there is a potential danger to our sociality. One way to understand Rabbi Chananiah’s statement is that the indicator of whether our social relationships will flourish or devolve into chaos, is whether the relationship involves sharing words of Torah. Such a relationship—rooted in ethical and spiritual teachings—invites and welcomes God’s Presence, enhancing the connection between individuals. Rabbi Chalafta, according to Abarbanel, adds to Rabbi Chananiah’s conceptualization, arguing that there is even more holiness and inspiration when the group grows in number. God’s Presence is enhanced when there are three people learning, and is augmented further when there are five people, and is even amplified when there are ten people sharing words of Torah together. The more social and communal the Torah, the more spiritual the endeavor.

Lesson 2 – Social Eating is Enhanced with Torah

In Avot 3:3, the message focuses specifically on the gathering of people together to eat.

Rabbi Shimon said: if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead… But, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present…”

Rashbam assumes that Rabbi Shimon’s message isn’t specifically limited to three people but is relevant even to one or two people who are eating. Following this approach, the main idea seems to be the necessity to elevate the physical act of eating to a loftier spiritual engagement by speaking words of Torah (see Rabbi Yosef Yavetz). However, Rabbeinu Yonah and other commentaries assume that the message is specifically geared toward (at least) three people. Three indicates a specific social gathering. The message isn’t just about elevating eating, but about elevating social eating.

Social eating can be a risky undertaking. When people eat with friends or family, they tend to eat more than they would if they were just eating alone (Higgs & Ruddock, 2019). In fact, Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda, writing in the 17th century, suggests that the reason why the Mishna uses the past tense of “if three have eaten,” is to hint to the fact that ideally, people should not eat together. Social eating, he argues, can easily lead to “drunkenness and debauchery.” The ideal is that people eat alone. Yet, if people happen to be eating together, they should make sure to include words of Torah.

However, Rabbi de Uceda’s reading is not altogether persuasive. Rabbi Shimon describes three people eating together and sharing words of Torah as comparable to eating on the table of God, which sounds more like a well-deserved reward than an afterthought or consolation prize. In his article “Breaking Bread: The Functions of Social Eating,” Professor Robin Dunbar reviews national data collected in the UK and argues for the importance of eating together in groups. Summarizing the findings, he writes that “those who eat socially more often feel happier and are more satisfied with life, are more trusting of others, are more engaged with their local communities, and have more friends they can depend on for support.” Rabbi Shimon seems to be arguing that we should harness the power of social eating and sanctify it into an act of worship and service of God through the sharing of Torah. This will likely also serve as a buffer to help us avoid the potential pitfalls of social eating.

Lesson 3 – Torah is Enhanced through Social Relationships

Both Rabbi Chananiah in Avot 3:2 and Rabbi Chalafta in Avot 3:6 address at the end of their respective mishnayot the individual who learns on his or her own. Rabbi Chananiah teaches “Now I only know two, from where do we know that even one who sits and studies Torah the Holy One, blessed be He, fixes his reward? As it is said: “though he sits alone and [meditates] in stillness, he takes [a reward] for himself” (Lamentations 3:28).” And Rabbi Chalafta—after demonstrating that the Shechinah is present when ten, five, three, and two people learn together—says, “How do we know that the same is true even of one? As it is said: “In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you” (Exodus 20:21).”

While the essential message is that even learning alone has value, the implicit message, particularly as elaborated on through the commentaries, is that learning alone is not as beneficial as learning with others. As mentioned, according to Abarbanel, while Rabbi Chalafta holds that the Shechinah is present even for one person learning, it is not as powerful a presence as if there were more than one person. Abarbanel goes even further to suggest that Rabbi Chananiah argues with Rabbi Chalafta and assumes that while one person learning Torah gets reward, the Divine Presence is not present when a person learns alone. Machzor Vitri references the Talmud in Berachot (63b) that cautions in strong terms against people learning alone instead of in pairs or groups, and therefore assumes that Rabbi Chananiah’s message of reward is only referring to a case where it was not possible to learn with someone else.

Furthering the problem of learning alone, based on a parallel statement in Berachot (6a), another distinction is made between two people who are learning together and a person learning alone: the learning of the pair gets transcribed in the “book of remembrances”; in contrast, the person learning alone gets reward, but his learning is not recorded in this book. The Vilna Gaon explains that the process of learning is so enhanced when people study together, that they have a better chance of remembering what they learn, so it is written in the “book of remembrances.” When a person learns alone, however, he or she will likely forget what they learned, so it is not inscribed. Similarly, Maharsha suggests that the quality of the learning produced amongst peers will likely lead to correct conclusions, while when one studies alone, he or she will likely be left with erroneous assumptions. Emphasizing this message with a creative, yet daring read of the Mishna, Midrash Shmuel argues that when Rabbi Chananiah says “if two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners,” he is referring to two people who are actually learning Torah. Yet, since they are sitting next to each other and not discussing or sharing their ideas together, that is still considered a session of scorners!

Learning alone is valuable, but not ideal. Words of Torah are enhanced through social interaction and social interactions are enhanced through words of Torah. Torah has the capacity to elevate our eating and our friendships, by bringing the Divine Presence into the relationship. May we all take to heart the messages of Rabbis Chaninah, Shimon, and Chalafta, and take advantage of the opportunities we have to share Torah with each other.


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