Torah vs. “Text” or, Don’t Study With Your Mouth Full

SMS till you drop -- mobile phone ad on van in Kampala, Uganda by on Flickr

“Rabbi Shimon taught: ‘…Three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten at God’s table…’”  (Pirke Avot 3:4)  I suppose a discussion of religion is considered verboten almost everywhere by certain people, but not in Jewish culture.  Then again, we like to talk politics in public, too!  But in the days of the Mishna, of course the conversation was only with the other people at the table.  After all, there was no e-mail, no phones…  and no text messages!  I remember, when cell phones were first becoming popular, my friend railing against people who would answer calls during dinner.  I agreed with her, but felt there should be some wiggle-room:  what if your friend is calling to say she’ll be late?  What if he needs directions to the restaurant?  Also, why should it bother me at the next table?  I understand if it is the person you’re dining with, but the “noise” argument makes no sense, since you wouldn’t be bothered by the people at the next table having a normal conversation.  Nowadays, we’re all used to this and most of us are pretty polite about it (music on the subway is a different story entirely, but I’ll restrain myself for now.)  Text messages, though around for years, have recently become more of a problem according to the NYT Dining section.

I have had a number of occasions lately to use my iPhone to “iTrump” someone in a friendly argument or, more often, to let myself be “iTrumped.”  (Term courtesy of Lisa O.)  The other night a friend was over, and we even busted out the laptop during dinner to look up something that was a part of the conversation.  I find these incursions of technology into the dining experience to be a little weird, but not particularly scary or tacky.  After all, cultures change and, as noted above, our culture values dining-table conversation differently than others.  Of course, the propriety of using such gadgetry on Shabbat or holidays has further ramifications that actually dove-tail quite well with this topic.  Perhaps the novice should start off by ceasing to use electronics during the Shabbat and holiday meals and move toward a more “traditional” observance from there.

One could even ask, “what if you call, SMS, Google-search, etc, your way into some aspect of Torah study while you eat?  Isn’t that laudable?”  This is not a formal p’sak halakha, but here’s my feeling:  The rule or maxim given in the name of Rabbi Shimon refers to people eating and talking together at the table.  Here too, there may be some wiggle-room:  The family gets together for dinner and wants to speak with the kid away at college, the cousin in Argentina or what-have-you…  But in those examples, the idea is to bring someone else to the table.  Most of the time, texting, answering calls, checking e-mail, etc, is a way for diners to take themselves away from the table, figuratively.  (If you need to find a way to be taken away, literally, I can suggest the “Fake A Call” app for the iPhone as a decent* way to exit yourself from that uncomfortable conversation/date/treyf.)  Even if you’re using it to get to Torah, I am suspicious of it if it takes you away from the conversation being had by the diners.  After all, Torah is “not beyond reach; it is not in the heavens…  neither is it beyond the sea…  rather, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”  (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

*meaning that it works okay, not that it is morally decent.  I’ll let you decide that.

Some might say that by mixing Torah-study with eating, we Jews lose some concentration on what could otherwise be totally intentional eating.  I disagree:  Who likes eating in contemplative silence?  And the food of the body and the food of the soul can be mixed in ways that allow us to consider where our food comes from, to what end, and with whom we want to, or should, share it.  After all, “Man does live on bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3)  But, what Torah-study is all about and what eating ought be all about is about bringing the spiritual or heavenly down to earth.  As such, these are acts that require being “present” and while distractions are totally part of being in this world and tangents make for great conversation, they should be the kind that engage us with one another, not that remove us from what’s right around us.

Have a Shavuot full of food and Torah-study.  חג שמח

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3 Responses to “Torah vs. “Text” or, Don’t Study With Your Mouth Full”

  1. Avigail Says:

    I have a pet peeve that has basically developed since my move to NY – friends who text or compulsively check their phones while you’re out to coffee or dinner. ARGH! Whatever happened to spending time in the present? At least in the place where I spent shavout there were no cellphones on so when you got distracted it was by people next to you gossiping too loudly (not that that happened to me – but it could have).

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