Rabbi Shimon said: If three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead, for it is written (Isaiah 28:8) “All tables are covered with filthy vomit; no place is clean.” But if three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written (Ezekiel 41:22) “He said to me, ‘This is the table that stands before the LORD.’ ” (m.Avot 3:4)
In our previous mishnah, we learned a lesson from Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion regarding the necessity to speak words of Torah when two people are conversing. In this mishnah, Rabbi Shimon uses the teaching of Rabbi Chananiah as a springboard to lead into his teaching. He said that “if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead.” As we brought out in our previous mishnah, for some this statement will be immediately written off as extreme. However, if we peer deeper into it we will see the wisdom waiting for us under the surface.
First, why does Rabbi Shimon increase the number of people from two to three? To begin answering this question, we need to think about the difference between a random event and an intentional one. Sometimes two people may eat together simply because they are in public and either happen to run into one another or happen to sit at the same table. Three people, on the other hand, is usually the result of a more intentional act. When three people sit to eat together, it is usually because they have something in common. Therefore, Torah should be a common, uniting factor between them. Also, with three people (versus only two) there is a higher possibility that one of them will be learned and able to bring a word of Torah with them to the table.