Of those who introduced the plan that the holy Lessons should be read in the Cœnobia while the brethren are eating, and of the strict silence which is kept among the Egyptians.
But we have been informed that the plan that, while the brethren are eating, the holy lessons should be read in the Cœnobia did not originate in the Egyptian system but in the Cappadocian. And there is no doubt that they meant to establish it not so much for the sake of the spiritual exercise as for the sake of putting a stop to unnecessary and idle conversation, and especially discussions, which so often arise at meals; since they saw that these could not be prevented among them in any other way. 773 For among the Egyptians and especially those of Tabenna so strict a silence is observed by all that when so large a number of the brethren has sat down together to a meal, no one ventures to talk even in a low tone except the dean, who however if he sees that anything is wanted to be put on or taken off the table, signifies it by a sign rather than a word. And while they are eating, the rule of this silence is so strictly kept that with their hoods drawn down over their eyelids (to prevent their roving looks having the opportunity of wandering inquisitively) they can see nothing except the table, and the food that is put on it, and which they take from it; so that no one notices what another is eating. 774
It is quite in keeping with what is here said by Cassian that in the Rule of Pachomius there is no mention of reading at meals, but only of the strict silence observed, so that anything wanted might not be asked for but only indicated by a sign (cc. xxxi., xxxiii.), while in the shorter Monastic Rules of S. Basil the custom of reading at meals is distinctly alluded to (Q. clxxx.). It is of course also ordered in most of the later monastic rules, e.g. that of Cesarius of Arles “ad Monachos” c. xlix., “ad Virgines” c. xvi.; that of S. Aurelian, c. xlix.; S. Isidore, c. x., and S. Benedict, c. xxxviii. The regulations in the last mentioned are as follows:—“A book should be read in the Refectory while the brethren are at meals. Let no one presume to read of his own accord; but let there be one appointed to perform that duty, who, commencing on Sunday, will read during the entire week…Profound silence shall be observed during meals, so that no voice save that of the reader may be heard. The brethren will so help each other to what is necessary as regards food and drink that no one may have occasion to ask for anything; should, however, anything be wanted, let it be asked for by sign rather than word. Let no one presume to make any observation either on what is being read or on any other subject, lest occasion be given to the enemy. The Prior, however, should he think fit, may say a few words to edify the brethren.”224:774
So Pachomius (c. xxix.). While they are eating they shall sit in their right places and shall cover their heads.