Rebbe Chanania ben Tradyon says: Two people who are sitting together, and no words of Torah are exchanged between them, are considered to be in a session of scoffers, as it is says: “And in a session of scoffers he did not sit” (Tehillim 1:1). But two people who are sitting together and there are words of Torah between them, the Divine Presence resides between them, as it says “Then those who fear G-d spoke to each other, and G-d listened and He heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for those who fear G-d and who contemplate His Name” (Malachi 3:16). I only know [from this verse] about two people. What is the source that even an individual person who sits and is involved in Torah, has G-d determine for him a reward? For it is written “Let him sit in solitude and be still, for he has taken it upon himself.”
(There are two versions in the text about the reward for one who sits and is involved in Torah. We have used the version upon which the Maharal comments, even though in both “Derech Chaim” texts that I have, an alternative version is used in the text of the Mishna.)
The first difficulty with this Mishna is that the proof text “..in a session of scoffers he did not sit” mentions nothing about the absence of involvement in Torah. Why shouldn’t the verse be interpreted in a straightforward way, discussing a person who is involved in mockery and scorning?!
The next difficulty is the progression of the Mishna. It should first discuss the people who are involved in Torah study, rather than opening with those whose interaction is not with Torah!
Another difficulty is the proof text used for the source that G-d determines reward for the single person who sits and is involved in Torah study. Nowhere is it mentioned in the verse that the individual is involved in Torah study, and no mention is made of setting a reward!
(As we study the Maharal’s questions, we should remember that that if we read the proof text and find ourselves nodding in approval at the wonderful source the Rabbis found to validate their thesis, we are probably fooling ourselves. And if we read it and thought “Well, this proof doesn’t really make sense, but our ability to understand is so limited that I shouldn’t expect it to make sense to me,” then we are excusing ourselves from striving to understand what is accessible, if we are willing to work hard at understanding it.)
Finally, the Mishna first uses the phrase “… and there are no WORDS of Torah (“divrei Torah”) between them…” while later the individual person is said to be “involved in Torah.” When discussing two people it should have also used the phrase “and they aren’t involved in Torah” or for the individual it should have also said “words of Torah.”
(Once again, we see how the Maharal takes a Mishna which sounds so inspiring, and we would understand almost “romantically,” and subjects it to the most critical analysis. The thesis demands a proof-text, and the proof text doesn’t seem to “deliver the goods”! And the order of the Mishna isn’t what we expected. And the deviations in language need to be accounted for. It sounds like nit-picking, but when we finish, we should have a much deeper understanding of fundamental truths and realities being taught by the Rabbis, and not simply a few words of inspiration.)
When two people are sitting together, there must be some form of communication between them. (Otherwise they aren’t sitting TOGETHER.) This communication must be either about matters that aren’t truly significant, or be words of Torah. (We will soon explain this extreme either/or dialectic.) If their communication is about insignificant matters, then it is a session of mockery (“moshav leitzim”). Mockery (“leitzanut”) is ridicule and joking, something which really has no substance. Therefore, when one sits and talks of matters which lack significance and substance, it is considered a session of mockery. It is true that the act of telling a friend things which aren’t actual words of Torah, but simply lack significance, doesn’t render you a scoffer (“leitz”). The definition of a “leitz” (scoffer) is one who is drawn to ridicule, a very alluring activity, and simply telling stories that lack significance isn’t this gratifying kind of ridicule. But when two people sit together and tell each other things which lack any significance, this enjoyable activity has a special attraction. This attraction stems from the same attraction which draws one towards the even more gratifying activity of ridicule. So every session where two people are communicating in a way that aren’t words of Torah, is considered a session of scoffers (since the foundation of scoffing is there, and it is just a matter of time until the slippery slope is descended).
In addition, when people should be discussing words of Torah, which is especially appropriate for two people who are together (as will soon be explained) even innocuous conversation is a departure from the fitting activity. This departure, relative to what they should be doing, renders their interaction (relatively) a session of scoffers. (“Words of Torah” is the paradigm of the most positive interaction between two people, while a session of scoffers is the paradigm of the most negative interaction between them.)
The proof to this lesson comes from the language of the text “and in a session of scoffers…” (“uv’moshav leitzim”) which was used in place of the simpler (and therefore expected) language “and with scoffers he did not sit.” The first half of the verse uses a verb which relates to the activity being described. “In the path of the wicked he did not stand” (implying that he is walking on this path) warns about walking on a path leading to sin. The walking is the beginning of the sin, as “walking” implies movement leading towards a goal, the goal in this case being sin. Since the sinner is walking on the path in order to sin, one is warned against standing on such a path which leads one to sin. This structure makes the language “and in a session of scoffers he did not SIT” incongruent. The verb of sitting is not related to the activity of scoffing, so why was it used? This leads to our understanding, that when two people are sitting together, the lack of words of Torah being exchanged between them renders it a session of mockery, with the sitting together playing a crucial role in defining the nature of their interaction, as we have explained.
(We need to provide some elaboration on what appears to be a quite polarized contrast in defining conversations as either being “words of Torah” or being “scoffing.” This will also give us insight into the strange urge people have to gossip and have “bull sessions,” something that, on the surface doesn’t seem to hold the same allure as other lusts and physical enjoyments.)