The Mishnah (8:7) teaches:
If one ate [bread] and forgot to bless [birkat ha’mazon(a.k.a. bench)]: Beit Shammai rule that he must return [to where he ate] and bench. Beit Hillel say he can bench at the location that he remembers...
The Gemara (Berachot 53b) explains that the debate is only regarding one that forgot. If one deliberately did not bench and set off on their journey, then everyone agrees that he must return to bench.
The Gemara elaborates on this debate. Beit Hillel questioned Beit Shammai that if someone ate at the top of a building, would we require him to return to bench? Beit Shammai responded that if he left his wallet there he would return, which is for his own needs. For the sake of Heaven how should certainly return.
The Gemara continues with the incident involving two students. One of them forgot to bench and returned to his original place in accordance with the opinion of Beit Shammai and found a gold purse. The other deliberately did not bench and did not return like Beit Hillel and was eaten by a lion.
The above incident (as well as the one that follows in the Gemara) has led some Rishonim (Rosh, Rif) to understand that the Gemara ruled in accordance with Beit Shammai (see also Tur). In other words one would be required to returned to bench even if they had only forgot.1 The difficulty with this understanding is that the Gemara earlier (52b) explained that the Halacha is like Beit Hillel in all the Mishnayot of this perek except for forth one, implying that in our Mishnah the Halacha is like Beit Hillel. The Tosfot(52b) however answer that our Mishnah was not considered in that general rule, since Beit Hillel in essence agrees with Beit Shammai that one should return, yet does not enforce one to do so.
Other Rishonim understand that the ruling is like Beit Hillel (Rambam, R’ Yona, Ritva). If so how do we understand the story involving the students cited above? Furthermore, we recently learnt the Mishnah (1:4) that recorded the debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding whether must lie down to recite the evening Shema. There the Mishnah treated one that behaved in accordance with the position of Beit Shammai very harshly – keday hayita lachov be’atzmecha!
Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the difference between this case and the earlier one is that earlier, while Beit Hillel understood that one can recite the even Shema while reclining, one should not intentionally do so. In this case however, Beit Hillel agrees that one can act stringently and return to their location. R’ Yonah continues that it is for this reason that the story involving the students was included. It was not to reject the position of Beit Hillel but to teach that one may act stringently like Beit Shammai.
The Ritva answers that in the earlier case, if one was standing and then reclined to recite the Shema it is evident that he is acting like Beit Shammai’s ruling. In our case however, if one returns to the location of his original meal, it is not immediately obvious why he is doing so. One could assume, for example, that he had forgotten something.
Let us however return to the incident. If the Halacha is like Beit Hilllel then why was the one that acted like Beit Shammai rewarded while the other who acted like Beit Hillel punished so severely. The Iyun Yaakov explains that the first student took a position that both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in essence agreed upon (as explained above).2 Consequently he acted in a manner that brought peace between the Rabbanim. The second student deliberately placed him in the situation of dispute. However he also made a mistake. He left intentionally and benched their intentionally; if one left intentionally, even Beit Hillel agrees that one must return. Consequently since he placed himself in the dispute between great “lions” he was consumed by one.
1 It would appear that according to the opinion of Beit Shammai there is no difference between whether the person left deliberately or by mistake – the ruling is the same in both cases. In both case one would need to return. Bedi’eved if one did bench at the distant location he would have satisfied his obligation. This is indeed the understanding of the Aruch HaShulchan. The Tur however understands that if he left deliberately and benched elsewhere he would need to return and bench again. See the Bach (OC 184) for his explanation of the source of the Tur’s position. See also the Taz (OC 184) and Pri Megadim.
2 The Maharsha explains that he was rewarded with a gold wallet for this was the item referred to in the debate – “if one left a wallet on top of the building would he not return and go up for it!”
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