In discussing the practice of reciting Grace After Meals, two quintessentially rabbinic questions come to the fore: How does one know that the meal is over? And how closely on the heels of the meal is one required to make this blessing?
Let’s start with a story about Rav Pappa (the same one who told us yesterday that a blessing over bread covers an entire meal of diverse foods — except for wine):
Rav Pappa went to the house of Rav Huna, son of Rav Natan. After they finished their meal, they [the servants] brought more to eat. Rav Pappa ate this new food without reciting a blessing.
His dining companions said to him: Master, don’t you hold that once one finished his meal he is forbidden to eat again without reciting a new blessing?
He [Rav Pappa] said to them: One need recite a second blessing only if he eats after the original tray of food was removed from before him.
As we have seen several times already, the rabbis often learn halakha from stories about how their colleagues behave. In this one, Rav Pappa was a guest at the home of a younger colleague. After they had eaten their fill from the first tray of food, the servants brought an additional tray. Rav Pappa plucked something off this new tray and ate it without making an additional blessing. His younger colleagues question this behavior. Since the meal was served on the first tray, wouldn’t food on this second tray be considered a separate meal, requiring a separate blessing?
No, Rav Pappa replies, since the first tray was still sitting before them, the second tray of food counts as part of the same meal. As long as some food remains on the table, the meal is still underway.
The Gemara interrogates this: If keeping food on the table means the meal is incomplete, does clearing away food signal the meal is over? Not necessarily. Rav suggests that a personal ritual that comes after eating is the real signal for the end of a meal:
Rav said: If one usually applies fragrant oil to his hands after eating, his meal is not over until he has done so.
Not everyone had the luxury of rubbing their hands with scented oil after dinner (though that sounds lovely) so this rule cannot apply universally. The Gemara ultimately finds a more universal definition for the end of a meal:
The halakha is determined by that which Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: There are three pairs that immediately follow each other: Immediately following placing hands on the head of a sacrifice, is its slaughter; immediately following the blessing of redemption (recited after Shema), is the Amida prayer; and immediately following the ritual washing of the hands after a meal, is the blessing of Grace after Meals.
We read about the importance of juxtaposing the blessing of redemption (which follows the Shema) with the Amidah in Berakhot 26. Similarly, the rabbis teach, a meal should immediately be followed by its own closing blessing.