A Profound Disagreement on How to Live Jewish Lives –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

The Mishna in Berachot (53b) states: “With regard to one who ate a meal and forgot to say the bircat hamazon (grace after meals), Bais Shamai says they must return to their place and say the grace, Bais Hillel says they should say grace in the place they are when they remember.”

The Talmud on this Mishna comments: “We learned in a Berita (an uncannonized Mishna), Bais Hillel said to Bais Shamai, “According to your opinion, if one ate on top of a hill, are you saying they would have to climb back up to recite the grace after meals?”  Replied Bais Shamai to Bais Hillel, “If someone forgot their wallet on top of a hill would they not climb back up for it?  If one would return up the hill for their own honor, for the honor of heaven how much more so should they.”

This is an interesting and surprising argument between Bais Shamai and Bais Hillel.   Isn’t Bais Shamai right?  If we would go back up the hill for ourselves, should we not return to say the grace after meals for God?  What is Bais Hillel’s reason for disagreeing with Bais Shami’s opinion?

The following piece of Talmud (Betza 15a) may shed some light: “They say about Shami the elder that all his days he would eat in honor of the Shabbat.  If he found a nice animal one day he would say, “This one is to eat for Shabbat.” The next day if he found another one that was better than the first he would put aside the second one to save for Shabbat and eat the first animal.  But Hillel the elder had a different path, all of his deeds were for the sake of heaven, as it says in the verse, “Bless god each day.”

Though Hillel and Shami were both great sages they had very different takes on how to live a Jewish life.  To elucidate I will rewrite the preceding two arguments in the form of a conversation.

Bais Hillel: You can bench (say grace after meals) wherever you remember.

Bais Shami: No, you must bench where you ate.

BH: That may be better, but I’m sure you don’t really believe that, for, what if someone ate on a hilltop, surely you would not ask the person to schlep back up the mountain to bench?

BS: Wouldn’t you do that for your wallet?   So certainly you should for God’s honor; to bench!

BH: Who says this is about honoring God by schlepping?  Maybe we honor God by benching well, not after sweating up a mountain (with Yiddish accent)!

BS: Eating is very physical, Shabbat is holy, let us use the holiness of Shabbat to sanctify even the weekday meal.

BH: God is right here, everywhere, in every step, in every meal, not just on Shabbat and not just back up on the mountain top.  God must be an inherent part of our everyday lives!

BS: It’s better to go back up the mountain to bench….

BH: No, it’s better to let people bench and have some kavanah and not hock them to climb back up a hill…

BS: Climbing back up a hill is a great religious act since it enables one to bench in the best way.  Shouldn’t we make that sacrifice for a mitzvah?

BH: No, benching is a great religious act since by it we thank God for our food.  Yom Kippur for instance or giving up one’s life for the sanctification of God’s name, these are acts of sacrifice, benching though is thanking god for our everyday food in our everyday, real lives.  God is already a part of that.   Its what benching is.

BS: We fundamentally see religion and the way in which it can effect life differently, don’t we?

BH: Yes we do, at least we agree about that.

Both opinions are the word of the Living God, but the halacha (the law, the path) follows Bais Hillel, (Aruvin 13b).

3 Responses to A Profound Disagreement on How to Live Jewish Lives –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Richard says:

    Isn’t the halacha like Beit Shamai in this case?

    The Aruch Hashulchan (184:3) says that if you forget to bentsch in the place of eating, you should return to and bentsch. Bdieved (after the fact), he fulfills his obligation with bentsching in the new place.
    The Mishna Brura (184:7) says that the best practice is to return to your original place, as long as there is not too much pressure (sheat hadchak), in which case he can follow the Rambam (who rules like Beit Hillel).

    Does Beit Hillel admit that it is preferrable to bentsch in the original place, but that, because God is everywhere and all the time, you can also bentsch in the new place?

  2. Hyim Shafner says:

    Whether the halacha is like bais shami or bais hillel is an argument between the rambam and the rosh. what we should do after the fact is also a machloket. Certainly it is better, even according to bais hillel to bench in the place you ate if you have not left there. if you have left it is not clear from the gemara if bais hillel would say it is best to go back up the mountain or not. It seems from the mishnah berurah’s understanding of the rambam that the ramabam’s understanding of bais hillel is that it is no better to climb back up the mountain if the person descended by accident.

    The halacha is important to know but my point was not really to clarify the halacha as much as the two differing outlooks, and how this seemingly small machloket about benching is actually a machloket about how we see god in our lives and in mitzvot.

  3. pierre says:

    In this very beautiful instance (thank you much for your presentation of it), there is elu v’elu, “these and THESE”, precisely from where we should hear it, an argument in Talmud. We should be careful of the voices in ourselves, and our perceived left/right, that speak “elu v’elu” but read “elu v’haim” (“these and THOSE”) – where something from outside of the rubric of halachic mutuality is given sanction and regarded – either by culture or by coercion, as if it were halacha. I’m reminded of the risks of overextended/misapplied piety by sarah epstein Weinstein’s “Piety and Fanaticism”.

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