Forgetfulness is a common human frailty and the halachic system provides guidance for times when we forget to fulfill an obligation. Thus our sages discuss the appropriate course when one forgets to recite Grace After Meals and remembers only when he has reached a different location (M. Brachot 8:7). According to the School of Shammai, the forgetful diner must return to where he ate and recite the Grace. The School of Hillel felt that it was not necessary to return to the original site: "Let him recite the benediction wherever he recalled [that he had eaten and forgotten to recite Grace]."
The Talmud qualifies the disagreement between the two schools (B. Brachot 53b): The two schools only disagree when one inadvertently forgot; if a diner intentionally neglected the obligation to say Grace where he ate, all agree that he must return to his original location to recite the benediction.
While the Mishna records the final positions of the two schools, the Talmud recounts an interchange between them. The School of Hillel turned to the School of Shammai: "According to your opinion that a diner who unintentionally did not say Grace must return to where he ate - if he ate at the top of a grand tower and failed to remember to recite the benediction, would you require him to return all the way to the top of the tower?"
The School of Shammai was unmoved: "According to your logic, someone who forgot a wallet of money at the top of a grand tower would not go to the trouble of climbing back up to retrieve his money!" The conclusion of Shammai's School was understood: "If a person is willing to make the arduous ascent for his own personal benefit, shouldn't he do so for the sake of Heaven!"
In most cases of disagreement between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, normative law follows the School of Hillel. In this case the Talmud seems to indicate that acting in accordance with the School of Shammai is praiseworthy. Consequently, normative law on this point is far from clear (Shulhan Aruch OH 184:1).
The Talmud follows up with a story about a sage who forgot to recite the Grace After Meals and desperately sought to return to where he ate, as per the position of the School of Shammai: Rabba bar bar Hana was traveling in a caravan. At one point the convoy stopped and Rabba bar bar Hana ate but forgot to say Grace. Realizing later in the journey once the group had moved on, he wondered to himself: "What should I do? If I tell people that I forgot to recite the prescribed benediction, they will say to me - 'Recite the Grace After Meals here, for wherever you say Grace, you are blessing the merciful one.'" Rabba bar bar Hana's traveling companions would argue that God's presence fills the entire world, and returning to a specific location to acknowledge the Almighty's hand in providing sustenance is an unnecessary burden on the traveling party.
Rabba bar bar Hana therefore concluded: "I would be better off saying that I forgot a golden dove, for then they will agree to stop and allow me to return and retrieve it."
He promptly put his plan into action, and sure enough his fellow travelers sympathized with his plight and agreed to wait for him. The Talmud tells us that besides reciting Grace, Rabba bar bar Hana miraculously found a golden dove! It is rather surprising to find Rabba bar bar Hana concocting a story; the opinion of the School of Hillel provided legal grounds not to inconvenience the entire convoy. While following the opinion of the School of Shammai may be laudable in this case, is it encouraged even at the cost of a lie? How are we to understand Rabba bar bar Hana's choice, and perhaps more importantly how are we to fathom the divine approval or even encouragement of this behavior?
Perhaps we can suggest that Rabba bar bar Hana was merely speaking metaphorically. In the continuation of the talmudic passage, Israel is compared to a dove: Just as a dove protects itself with its wings, Israel protects itself with the commandments it performs (see Psalms 68:14). Furthermore, in the Bible Torah is compared to gold (see Psalms 19:11). Rabba bar bar Hana was bemoaning his loss: "I lost a golden dove," meaning "I lost part of my essence, the opportunity to fulfill the Torah requirement of reciting Grace where I ate."
His traveling companions of course did not understand the metaphor. Blinded by the thought of a glittering gold dove lying abandoned in the desert, they agreed to facilitate his detour. The divine reward was not for the tale invented by Rabba bar bar Hana, but for his heartfelt loss at the golden opportunity to recite Grace on location.
This explanation departs from the initial reading of the talmudic text and thus leaves the perplexing question largely unanswered. Nevertheless, the approach suggests a significant message: Forgetting to recite Grace After Meals involves more than the halachic question of what should be done. Indeed the practical question of whether the forgetful diner needs to return to where he ate needs to be answered.
Beyond that legal question, however, is the issue of whether the forgetfulness truly bothers the diner: How upset do we get if we forget to thank the Almighty for the sustenance with which we have been blessed? Do we feel as Rabba bar bar Hana did that we have lost a valuable possession? Would we be willing to inconvenience others - or even just ourselves - to return to where we ate so that we could properly recite the Grace?
Rabba bar bar Hana's desperation suggests the importance of location. Indeed the second blessing of the Grace is all about location, the location of our people in the Land of Israel. The tale of Rabba bar bar Hana conveys the spirit of the requirement to recite Grace After Meals where we partook of the food and together with the second blessing encourages us to take note of location, the location where we eat and the location where our people gets its sustenance.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.