Our Gemara brings a series of questions that Rabbi Yoḥanan asked his teacher, Rabbi Bena’a, that relate not so much to issues of Jewish law as to proper deportment for Torah scholars. Specifically:
What should the ḥaluk (undergarment) of a scholar look like?
What should the tallit of a scholar look like?
What should a scholar’s table look like?
Rabbi Bena’a responded to each of these questions. With regard to the ḥaluk, he taught that it should cover the body so that no flesh could be seen. This is understood to mean that a scholar should take precautions regarding personal modesty beyond those ordinarily accepted by society. The Rashbam understands that this undergarment should reach almost to the floor, thereby covering the entire body; the Ramah, as well as the Rambam suggest that it means that the material should be thick enough so that the flesh cannot be seen through it.
Regarding the tallit, Rabbi Bena’a taught that not more than a tefaḥ of the ḥaluk should be seen, once the tallit is put on.
As far as the scholar’s table is concerned, Rabbi Bena’a taught that two thirds should be covered by a tablecloth, while one third should remain without a covering. The uncovered part is where the plates and vegetables should be placed, and the ring for hanging the table on the wall should face away from the person who is eating. This stands in contrast with the table of the Am ha-aretz – the non-scholar, whose food is piled in the middle of the table with plates around it.
The Rashbam offers two possible explanations for the appearance of the scholar’s table, based on Rabbi Bena’a’s explanation.
In the time of the Talmud, it was common practice for each person to eat on a small table that was placed in front of him. In order to save space in their houses, every such table had a ring attached, with which it could be hung on the wall when it was not being used.
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