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Thought for the Day: Levels Of Eating "Together" And Why It Matters

Here is one of my favorite jokes about racism: A row broke out on a bus in the old south during the 50s (middle of last century).  They fight was over a passenger of color wanting to sit in a seat in the "persons of no color" section.  The bus driver we fed up and declared, "No more fighting!  This is ridiculous!  There's no white, there's no black; everyone on this bus is green!  Got it, y'all?!"  Everyone murmured their agreement and felt appropriately castigated.  The bus driver then announced, "Good.  Now, dark green in the back, light green in the front."

Let's analyze this joke.  במאי קמיפלגי/what is the source of their disagreement?  There must have been a sign at one row that said, "Dark green section."  מר סבר too exclude light green, but dark green can sit ahead of that row also; מר סבר dark green may only sit there and no where else.  Certainly, though, had there been two signs, "Light green here" and "Dark green here", there would have been no room of misunderstanding and the argument could have been avoided.  (Though the world would have lost a good joke.)

The gemara (Brachos 42b) makes a דיוק in the mishna on 42a that said that when people are reclining at a table for a meal, then one person should bentch for all.  The דיוק of the gemara is: reclining, yes; not reclining (ie, sitting), no.
Aside: During the times of Chazal, civilized people ate at a formal meal reclining on special couches.  The only remnant of that practice now is at the Pesach seder when eating and drinking should (at some points must) be done reclining.  Tosafos already notes that our sitting is there reclining and so you really need to know something to understand how these topics apply to our meals today.  Moreover, when they ate together at a formal meal, then one person said birkas ha'mazon and was motzi everyone else; similar to the way we do kiddush.
Tosafos (dh הסבו אין לא הסבו לא) exclams, "What the hey!?"  (My free translation.)  The immediately preceding clause of the mishna has said explicitly, "if they are sitting, then each bentches for himself."  You don't need to make a דיוק  when the words are right there in front of you!  (Ah... so that's the relevance of the joke... very clever.)  Tosafos says that one must interpret the mishna as talking about something besides not reclining; the mishna that said "sitting" meant "sitting for some other reason than eating".  The gemara then brings as contrast a baraisa that says that if a group is traveling and eats on the way -- even if they all eat from one loaf of bread -- each benches to himself, but if they sit together to eat -- even though each has his own bread -- one benches for all.  From cholent of practices (take a look, it's really cool), the gemara discusses four levels of eating together.

  1. Sitting and reading or playing cards or doing homework or whatever and at some point they eat.  Maybe they brought their own lunch/snack, maybe mom brought snacks.
  2. Sitting at a cafeteria.  You are eating at a table with other people, but not together.
  3. At work and someone says, "Hey, it's a beautiful day!  Lets go to the park and have lunch."
  4. Eating at a formal meal; a wedding, siyum, shabbos, etc.
Nowadays we don't recline and we don't have one person say birkas ha'mazon for all.  We do, however, make a zimun and sometimes one person will say al ha'michya for everyone else.

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