By Boruch Merkur
Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchok, two sages of the Talmud, sat
together at a feast. Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchok, "Master, say a few words,
if you would."
Rav Yitzchok responded: "So says Rebbi Yochanan: ‘there
should be no talk at meals, lest food enter the windpipe instead of the
esophagus, leading to mortal danger.’"
At the end of the meal, Rav Yitzchok continued: "So says
Rebbi Yochanan: ‘Yaakov Avinu did not die.’"
Rav Nachman objected, "was it then in vain that the
eulogizers eulogized and the embalmers embalmed and the gravediggers buried?!"
[as the Torah describes].
Rav Yitzchok answered: "I derive this from Scripture, as it
is said: ‘And you, my servant Yaakov, do not fear,’ says the L-rd, ‘and do not
be dismayed, Yisroel, for you I will save from afar, and your
offspring [I will save] from the land of their captivity.’ This verse
associates Yaakov to his progeny to teach us that just as his offspring are
alive, so is he alive."
TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK
Reflecting on this Talmudic passage, the following difficulty
arises: What does Rav Yitzchok gain by saying, "there should be no talk at
meals," while in the very same breath with which he states this rule (at the
meal) he seems to be breaking it? Moreover, since Rav Yitzchok wanted to teach
that "Yaakov Avinu did not die" - which is the shorter of the two sayings, and
therefore, the lesser infringement of the rule, "there should be no talk at
meals" - this should have, therefore, been his immediate response to Rav
Nachman’s request for him to speak; he should have simply said the shorter
teaching and remained silent until the end of the meal. Why did he choose to say
the lengthier statement during the course of the meal, thereby taking a greater
The commentaries explain that in saying, "there should be no
talk at meals," Rav Yitzchok’s intention was - not to excuse himself from
"saying a few words," on account of the "mortal danger" involved, preferring
instead to remain silent until the end of the meal, rather, his intention was -
to rebuke Rav Nachman for initiating a conversation during the course of the
This explains why Rav Yitzchok waited until the end of the
meal to say the second teaching; for rebuking someone in order to prevent him
from doing a forbidden act takes precedence over other words of Torah, whereas
saying the second teaching, "Yaakov Avinu did not die," was not imperative at
But this explanation alone is incomplete; for according to
this logic, Rav Yitzchok should have simply stated the Torah directive, "there
should be no talk at meals," without extending his rebuke by introducing its
rationale, "lest food enter the windpipe instead of the esophagus...," an
explanation which could have (also) waited until the end of the meal.
The Rebbe explains: During the course of the meal, when Rav
Nachman asked Rav Yitzchok to speak, it is likely that he also knew the rule,
"there should be no talk at meals, lest food enter the windpipe...," but he was
under the impression that this rule only applied to worldly conversation,
whereas words of Torah - the kind of speech he hoped to hear from the sage - he
deemed to be permissible, since "Torah protects and saves."
There is even an obligation to say words of Torah at a meal,
as it says in Pirkei Avos, "[eating at a table] upon which words of Torah are
not said, is like eating from sacrifices to the dead." Thus, there is no danger
in speaking words of Torah at a meal, Rav Nachman reasoned, because when Jews
are occupied in Torah, the Alm-ghty guards them - even when according to the
laws of nature there is a real threat of danger.
According to this explanation, we can understand why Rav
Yitzchok answered at such length, for it was his intention to emphasize that
this law also applies to speaking words of Torah. That is, although it is true
that "Torah protects and saves," and that sent to do mitzvos do not get
harmed," nevertheless, this cannot be relied upon "in circumstances when damages
are commonplace." Thus, in his rebuke, Rav Yitzchok also explained the
rationale, "lest food enter the windpipe...," to illustrate that speaking at a
meal is a "circumstance when damages are commonplace," and therefore, when
eating, even words of Torah may not be uttered.
(Consequently, the obligation to discuss Torah at the table
may be fulfilled before and after the meal, or even between courses, according
to some authorities.)
Although G-d does, in fact, perform miracles for the benefit
of the Jewish people, nevertheless, here we are told that even Torah and
mitzvos must be performed within the framework of the laws of nature, by
taking into consideration worldly limitations. Therefore, we may not rely on the
Torah’s miraculous ability to "protect and save" in circumstances of danger.
"YAAKOV AVINU DID NOT DIE"
To save us from the pitfalls of misunderstanding the
ramifications of this message - that our approach to Torah and mitzvos
must take into consideration worldly limitations - Rav Yitzchok introduces the
teaching, "Yaakov Avinu did not die."
The reason why our approach to Torah and mitzvos must
take into consideration worldly limitations is not because the laws of nature
themselves rule over Torah and mitzvos, G-d forbid, for, on the contrary,
"Yaakov Avinu did not die." That is, just like the Torah itself which he
embodies, Yaakov is beyond the natural limitations of the world; he is not
confined by the laws of nature which insist that there must be death in the
But Rav Nachman - who understood the saying, "there should be
no talk at meals, lest... [it] lead to mortal danger," to mean that the role of
Torah study and the performance of mitzvos is essentially confined to the
realm of nature - challenged the teaching, "Yaakov Avinu did not die," by
asking, "was it then in vain that the eulogizers eulogized and the embalmers
embalmed and the gravediggers buried?!"
Since these events are clearly recorded in the Torah, Rav
Nachman reasoned (and particularly the burial, which is a mitzva, and was
performed according to the command of Yaakov himself), we see that according to
the Torah itself, the natural limitations of the world apply even to Yaakov! For
if we were to say that "Yaakov Avinu did not die," then the Torah’s description
of the burial of Yaakov would have been recorded "in vain," recorded as an
insignificant account of the limited perspective of the Egyptians, who were
simply mistaken to think that Yaakov had died!
To Rav Nachman’s challenge, Rav Yitzchok replied, "I derive
this from Scripture... just as his offspring are alive, so is he alive." The
teaching, "Yaakov Avinu did not die," is not intended to deny the events as they
appeared in the eyes of the Egyptians, rather, it is a description of Yaakov’s
true and actually state of being according to Torah. From the perspective of the
Torah, Yaakov is not limited to the laws of nature, and therefore, "he did not
die." Although he did not appear to be living in the eyes of the Egyptians, from
"Scripture" we know that he is truly alive.
TWO TORAH-TRUE PERSPECTIVES
And there is no contradiction between the two concepts - that
on the one hand, "Yaakov Avinu did not die," and on the other hand, "the
eulogizers eulogized..." - because, according to the Torah, it was appropriate
for the Egyptians to attend to the burial of Yaakov’s body. Since it "appeared
to them that he had died," they were, therefore, obligated to follow suit by
burying him (especially since Yaakov himself had commanded them to do so).
According to Torah, both perspectives are true: In essence,
the Torah and the Jewish people are not confined to the laws of nature; they are
above and beyond any conceivable limitations. But at the same time, G-d desires
that Torah and mitzvos be performed within the framework of the laws of
nature - to make for Him a "dwelling place" in the natural world itself. May we
immediately see this fulfilled with the true and complete Redemption! [Adapted
from Likkutei Sichos vol. 35, pp. 223-7]