As the text continues to puzzle through an individual's obligations to recite blessings before and after a meal, the vivid examples continue to be more captivating for me than any interest in the outcome. For example, here is an early instance of the legendary propensity of our people to answer a question with a question (and a sarcastic question at that!). The question on the table is whether one who neglected to say a blessing before eating and drinking should, once he realizes his omission, recite the blessing. The answer is, "If one had eaten a garlic clove so that his breath smells, shall he go back and eat another garlic clove so that his breath will smell even more?" (51a).
These Three Things Must Be Important (Or at Least Two of Them) . . . or One, Anyway
There are ten rules regarding the cup of blessing and they are all listed, even though R'Yochanan notes that the custom is to observe only four of them. Whether he meant that the other six had fallen out of favor or simply that they were not as essential as the four he cited is a subject of dispute. In fact, when the cup overflows with wine, there are many disputes, especially if the wine is consumed on an empty stomach!
Before the ten rules there is one rule regarding the ispargus cup, which is an alcoholic beverage reputed to have therapeutic effects when the entire cup is consumed at once on an empty stomach: do not return the ispargus cup to anyone other than the one who gave it to you.
And between the ten and the one, there are the three things told to R'Yochanan by a well-connected angel and three things told to R'Yehoshua ben Levi by the Angel of Death. Of the three, two are told to both of them and one differs. (The two that are common to both are: (1) "Do not take your shirt in the morning from the hand of the butler and get dressed" and (2) "Do not have your hands washed by someone who has not washed his own hands.")
The one that the two do not have in common is either the one rule regarding the ispargus cup or a strange and morbid warning.The former, presented immediately after the rule is stated, is probably meant to stand as a proof for the rule, but since it comes in the form of testimony from an angel, and falls only one folio before R'Yehoshua declares that "We pay no heed to Heavenly voices in resolving halachic issues," it is more likely a record of a playful exchange among inebriated scholars who are inventing wild variations in an halachic template. The latter, which doesn't mention the cup at all, probably was born even deeper in the cup than the former.
R'Yochanan's report discloses that the reason one must be sure to return the cup to its owner is "because tachsefis, which is a group of demons, or as others say it, istalganis, which is a group of angels of affliction, wait for a person and say, 'When will a person come to do one of these things and be ensnared?'" (51a).
According to R'Yehoshua ben Levi, the Angel of Death focuses on ensnarement, not the cup. In fact, as I noted previously, he does not mention the cup at all: "Do not stand in front of women when they are returning from a funeral, because I [i.e., the Angel of Death] dance and come before them with my sword in my hand and I have permission to harm those whom I meet."
I hope that I am not the only student of this text to find it marvelous in the sense that I find it to be full of marvelous and playful invention. What other than delight can one possibly derive from the dispute between Hillel and Shammai on whether or not it is forbidden to employ a waiter "who is an ignoramus." (52b). The Gemara says that Shammai holds that it is permitted, which is the halachah, but some wonder how this can be when they all have been taught that the halachah in these matters follows Hillel. According to R'Oshaya, however, the opinions were erroneously ascribed, and indeed it is Hillel who held according to the Halachah.
It must have been exceedingly difficult to be in the position of knowing who was right but having no definitive record of what their position was on the issues on which they were correct. It is even more sad to have to endure waiters whose training did not prepare them to answer the classic question of what the fly was doing in my soup.