Pesachim 86

Etiquette lessons.

Modern Western social etiquette tells us that thoughtful dinner guests bring a gift, wait for the host to lift a fork before digging in and compliment the cook. Is that what the rabbis of the Talmud thought you should do? Let’s find out:

Rav Huna, son of Rav Natan, came to the house of Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak. They said to him: What is your name? He said to them: Rav Huna. They said: Our master may sit on the bed. He sat. They gave him a cup of wine that he accepted the first time (without initially refusing it). And he drank it in two sips and did not turn his face from the rest of the people who were present (as would have apparently been polite).

At first glance, everything that Rav Huna does seems rude: insisting on his title, not politely declining the offer to sit on someone’s bed and drinking his wine in two gulps while maintaining eye contact with his hosts. What is Rav Huna doing?! In what is apparently not a break with etiquette (or, perhaps, just a rabbinic device) his hosts ask their guest to explain himself:

They said to him: What is the reason you call yourself Rav Huna?

He said to them: I am known by that name.

Rav Huna explains that he has put in the time and effort to become not just Huna but Rav Huna. Using the title is not arrogant, just a reflection of his true identity. An effort to be straightforward and polite is what motivates his next actions as well:

They asked him: What is the reason that when they told you to sit on the bed, you sat (immediately and did not initially refuse)? He said to them: We have learned that anything the master of the house says to you, you should do, except for an inappropriate request, such as if he says to leave.

What is the reason that when they gave you the cup, you accepted it the first time (and did not politely demur)? He said to them: One may refuse a lesser person, but one may not refuse a great person.

Rav Huna explains that it is his great respect for Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak, both as his host and as a sage (his elder, as well), that led him to obey the host’s requests.

What is the reason you drank it in two sips? He said to them: As it was taught: One who drinks his cup at one time is a guzzler; drinking it in two sips is proper manners; one who drinks his cup in three sips is haughty.

What is the reason you did not turn your face? He said to them: We learned in the mishnah that a bride turns her face.

Rav Huna thus explains that he is familiar both with social etiquette and with rabbinic teachings — when the mishnah states that a bride must turn her face to drink (presumably out of some kind of modesty), this suggests that only a bride should turn her face. In citing the mishnah, Rav Huna demonstrates that he understands that the rabbis’ social etiquette might be slightly different from common etiquette — but as a rabbi eating at another rabbi’s home, he must follow rabbinic etiquette, even when it contradicts the norm.

Though we aren’t likely to be deciding whether it is rude to accept an invitation to sit on someone’s bed or precisely counting our sips of wine, Rav Huna’s lesson is salient: all etiquette is nuanced and relative — it depends on the host and guest, and no rule applies universally.

And though the Talmud doesn’t say anything about it, I would add: don’t forget to bring a gift!

Read all of Pesachim 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 15th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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