Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese mindfulness master living in in France, talks of a practice called noble silence.  “If we are talking, we are talking,” he writes. “But if we are doing something else….such as eating…then we do just these things. We aren’t doing these things and also talking. We do these things in joyful, noble silence….free to hear the deepest call of our hearts.” What might the Torah have to say about this practice? Imagine a silent Kiddush after Shabbat services! I can’t.
The day after reading about noble silence, I found a Ba’al Hatturim (Spain, 1269-1340) commenting on the behavior of the guests (said to be angels in the guise of men) who visited Avraham at the opening of the parsha. They had come to inform Avraham and Sarah of the impending birth of Yitzchak. Before they have a chance to tell Avraham the reason for their visit, Avraham hosts them to lunch. Only afterwards do they speak. The Ba’al Hatturim (Bereishit 18.8) highlights the period, full-stop or soff-passuk, at the end of verse 8, separating the word ויאכלו “and they ate” from the word ויאמרו “and they said” at the start of verse 9.
רמז למה שאמרו (תענית ה:) אין מסיחין בסעודה, שמה יקדים קנה לושט
“This (period) alerts us to the comment in the Talmud (Ta’anit 5a) that one should not have conversation during a meal in case the food goes down the trachea instead of the esophagus (and could cause one to choke).”
So, the Torah does recommend silent meals. By withholding their vitally important conversation until after their meal, Avraham’s three guests taught him and us the principle of eating in silence. However,the Ba’al Haturim explains the Torah’s reason for silent eating being for physical health, whereas Thich Nhat Hanh’s reason is for inner peace. These are different reasons for the same practice. Or are they?
Health and Halacha
The laws of the Torah, including Kashrut, are not intended for physical health. The reasons for the laws of the Torah are all entirely spiritual. There are, however, a few cases where health-related practices are specifically included in the halachik cannon. Not speaking while eating, is one such case. These cases where health laws are stated as halachik imperatives, are serious:
(חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא (חולין י:) “Practices legislated to prevent threats to health, should be treated more strictly than practices that are purely legal or ritual in nature.” (Hulin 10a)
Interestingly, in Halacha there are relatively few health-related laws. This is because the Torah generally requires when it comes to health, that we conduct ourselves according to the scientific knowledge of our times. There is a reason why this particular health-related law, to desist from talking while eating, is singled out and worthy of special mention. To understand the reason why, it is important to appreciate that there is more than one way to establish what God’s will is.
We can figure out what God wants of us from the words of the Torah as extrapolated by the Talmud using the thirteen principles of logical extrapolation. But we can also figure it out from the way God designed nature. Just as you can determine the correct use of a chair by its design, and the different use of a bed by the way it, in turn, is designed, so too we can sometimes learn about how we need to conduct ourselves by the way we are designed physiologically.
חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא means that Halacha (laws) deduced from physiological design are stricter than laws deduced from the Torah itself. Both are laws, both are Halacha, both inform us of God’s will. Their sources differ; the one finds God’s will revealed in the words of the Torah, the other finds God’s will in the design of nature. The latter, those deduced from the design of nature, are the stricter laws.
Multitasking and Human Design
The law of not speaking while eating, is based on a physiological design feature of the human body. We are created in such a way that multitasking while eating is dangerous to our health. The epiglottis covers the trachea when we swallow to prevent us from choking. It opens when we speak. We are not designed to speak and eat at the same time. The Halacha deduces from this design feature, that we are not built to multi-task while eating, and that it is therefore God’s will that we don’t. The reason we don’t speak while eating is not because of our design. Rather, we are designed that way so that we don’t speak while eating.
The reason אין מסיחין בסעודה – we do not speak while we eat – is deeper, it is not just to avoid choking. Perhaps our silent meals are for the very reasons described by Thich Nhat Hanh. Perhaps we need to eat with Kavanah, mindful intention, focusing on the taste and flavor of the food so that we can truly feel the gratitude to our host and to our provider – God as we will later express in birkat hamazon (Grace After Meals). Conversation can follow.
Consider the statement of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of Primary Principles, Chap. 3):
שלשה שאכלו על שלחן אחד ולא אמרו דברי תורה, כאילו אכלו מזבחי מתים
“Three who ate a meal at one table and did not discuss words of Torah, are as if they ate from sacrifices for dead idols (implying that their meal was void of meaning)”
The word שאכלו (who ate) is in the past tense. The time to discuss divrei Torah (meaningful conversation around ideas of Torah) is after the completion of the meal, not during it. So, we get a picture of the Torah’s model of a meal with Kavanah – something very different from that to which we are accustomed:
The Meal – A New Model
Instead of rushing the meal with some forced conversation and often artificially imposed divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) then quickly dispersing after benching (saying Grace), rather eat with Kavanah. Eating with Kavanah means eating with directed mindfulness. Directing your attention to the richness of the experience and your gratitude for it. It means focus on the meal only, its flavors and textures, without any multi-tasking. Do not speak or read while eating. Certainly, do not scroll through your iPhone messages and emails while eating, nor take or make calls. Then, when you have said birkat hamazon (grace) don’t all scatter to your different activities, and don’t be quick to dismiss your guests. After having enjoyed a mindful meal together in silent kavanah, it is time for the family, with or without guests, to sit together and connect in conversation. This is the time to inquire about each other’s day, to explore each other’s thoughts and experiences, to share each other’s feelings. This is the right time to begin some meaningful conversation and share divrei Torah. Conversation can now also be focused, without the distraction of serving the meal, passing dishes to one another, and eating. In this era of multi-tasking, separating out our activities to allow for the focus they each require, is a crucial practice in the development of the art of living.
Far be it from me to suggest an end to tumultuous Jewish meals and the vibrant conversations that take place around the world at Shabbat tables and other meals. Spiritual adventurers, however, might find the halachically recommended practice of a silent meal followed by meaningful conversation to be quite an eye-opening experiment. Just for once, separate your meal from your conversation with a period. Try it. You might be surprised at the results.
 In a book called Silence – The Power to be Quiet in a World Full of Noise
 the weekly Torah portion assigned for study).