Grace after Meals, and even more so the zimmun blessing, which were discussed in the previous perek of Massekhet Berakhot, lend an element of worship and prayer to every meal. However, even the meal itself is not merely an exercise in eating, but it contains a wide-ranging collection of laws with regard to the various food items consumed in the course of a meal. The eighth perek, which begins on today’s daf , opens with a discussion of one specific issue – ritual impurity.
By the letter of the law, one is not required to avoid ritual impurity, other than when dealing with consecrated items or entering the Temple. However, the nation’s elite, ḥaverim and Torah scholars, were always vigilant in their observance of the of ritual impurity and observed a standard of purity equal to that observed by priests. The plethora of halakhot associated with ritual purity and impurity and the preponderance of rabbinic decrees in that area created a situation where it was necessary to be especially vigilant during every meal in order to avoid both becoming ritually impure himself and making the food ritually impure. Special care was required with regard to liquids, as by rabbinic decree, they become ritually impure by means of contact with any impurity and they then render impure all objects with which they subsequently come into contact. In fact, both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel seek to minimize as much as possible the potential of a person or food items becoming ritually impure in the course of a meal.
Thus, we find that the Mishna on today’s daf teaches:
Beit Shammai say: After washing, one dries his hands with a cloth and places it on the table. And Beit Hillel say: One places it on the cushion upon which he is sitting.
Similarly, Beit Shammai say: One sweeps the area of the house where the meal took place and he washes his hands with the final waters before Grace after Meals thereafter. And Beit Hillel say: One washes his hands and sweeps the house thereafter.
Each of the suggestions raised attempts to limit the spread of ritual impurity, as will be explained on tomorrow’s daf.