Berakhot 52

Shammai wins! Sort of.

On today’s daf, we find ourselves parsing a range of highly specific disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. The discussion began on the previous page with a mishnah that listed eight issues over which the two schools of thought disagreed, including the order of the blessings of the Friday night kiddush (which do we sanctify first — the wine or the day?), the order of wine and hand washing prior to meals, and whether one first cleans up after a meal and then washes hands or the reverse.

This last disagreement concerns a practice known as mayim acharonim — literally “after waters.” This custom, still practiced in some Orthodox Hasidic circles, is to sprinkle a bit of water on the fingertips prior to reciting Grace After Meals. One of the reasons for this (as we’ll see on tomorrow’s daf) is to mimic the practice of the Temple priests who washed before performing their service.

Beit Shammai says you sweep first and wash after. Beit Hillel says you wash first and then sweep. The Gemara then cites another teaching that gives a bit more detail: The issue here is the leftovers. If there’s some left on the table, washing is liable to spill water and ruin the food, which would be a sin. A conscientious eater might know to remove the food first and avoid that possibility. But what about the non-conscientious?

Which leads the Gemara to conclude that the deeper dispute between Hillel and Shammai is over who can be a waiter:

The basis of their argument is that Beit Hillel hold: One is forbidden to use the services of a waiter who is an am ha’aretz. Therefore, there is no room for concern that food will be ruined as only crumbs remain on the table. And Beit Shammai hold: One is permitted to use the services of an attendant who is an am ha’aretz. Food will remain on the table and, therefore, there is room for concern that food will be ruined. 

Am ha’aretz (literally “person of the land”) is a rabbinic euphemism for an uneducated Jew. Since Hillel forbids such a person from serving as a waiter, he expects that anyone serving a meal will be smart enough to know to remove the leftovers first. Shammai allows the uneducated to be waiters and so reasons that there is reason to fear the food won’t be promptly removed. Thus one should clear up before washing.

Interestingly, this is one of the rare cases where the law is resolved in favor of Shammai — normally the more restrictive of the two. In this case, it is Shammai who has the more permissive opinion.

But then the Gemara cites an interesting teaching:

Rabbi Oshaya would teach the opposite and reverse the opinions of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as they appear in our mishna, and in this case as well, the halacha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

In other words, Rabbi Oshaya reverses the attribution — no, he says, it is Hillel who supports the more lenient opinion that permits uneducated Jews to be waiters.

Still, regardless of who said it, the more permissive ruling is the one that stands.

Read all of Berakhot 52 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 24, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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