One might suppose that the concerns of reciting blessings, which fulfill a religious obligation, lie far above the concerns of ordinary table manners. But in today’s daf we see that, for the Rabbis, they do not.
A story: Rabbi Zeira fell ill and when he recovered, Rabbi Abahu hosted a large celebratory meal for all the sages. When it came time to recite the blessing before eating, Rabbi Abahu (the host) asked Rabbi Zeira (the guest of honor) to make the blessing. Rabbi Zeira demurred, citing a teaching of Rabbi Yochanan that it is the host, not the guest, who recites Hamotzi.
The Gemara then presents three opinions, including Rabbi Yochanan’s, about who should recite which blessings (here, the concern is both the blessing before and the blessing after eating) at a meal:
(1) Rabbi Yochanan says the host should say the blessing over bread.
(2) Rav Huna of Babylon says that the one who said the blessing over bread should recite the blessing after the meal.
(3) Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that the host should say the blessing over bread and the guest should say the blessing after the meal.
This may, at first, appear to be an inconsequential squabble over manners. On closer consideration, however, their positions offer us models for how blessings thanking God for our bounty can influence how we treat others.
The Gemara explains these positions further: Rabbi Yochanan thinks the host should offer the initial blessing because he or she will then offer more generous portions of food, whereas the guest would be embarrassed to hand out too much. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai thinks the guest should recite the blessing after the meal is so that he or she can bless the host. (Birkat Hamazon presents an opportunity to do so, as, in the time of the Talmud, when three or more people ate together, one person would recite all of Birkat HaMazon out loud, and others would listen and respond “amen.”) On the other hand, Rav Huna thinks one person (the host, in light of Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion) should say both blessings. Why? Perhaps because, as the host, this person is responsible for the comfort of the guests, for welcoming them and making sure their needs are met; thus, it is appropriate for the host to frame the meal with blessings.
The blessings are directed at God, but in fact the person who recites them teaches us something about his or her role vis-à-vis the others at the meal. Are others comfortable? Does our generosity increase their feeling of comfort or camaraderie? Are we expressing gratitude to those who are kind to us?
The Maharsha (a 16th-century commentator) suggests that Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Zeira are actually citing these opinions in order to say the other should be reciting the respective blessings as the greater scholar or more important person present. It is, in fact, an unspoken conversation about humility and showing respect in the presence of friends and colleagues.
The Tosefta (Berakhot 1:4) teaches that one can only recite the Shema in the morning when there is enough light to recognize a friend from four cubits (approximately 6.5 feet away). There, we ask how our connection to fellow humans helps us relate to God, whereas here we ask how our connection to God helps us relate to our fellow humans.