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Zimun (3) Women and Zimun

Rav David Brofsky
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Last week, we studied the obligation to participate in a zimun and the prohibition of separating from a group of three, and even from a group of ten or more. We discussed the point at which a person is considered to have eaten with a group, and thus obligated in the group zimun. We also questioned whether one may forgo the reciting of the shem Hashem in a zimun of over ten people in order to form a smaller zimun of three, as well as whether one may even forgo a zimun of three in extenuating circumstances. These questions are extremely common and relevant, especially when attending a wedding, sheva berakhot, or other festive meals.


The first mishna of the seventh chapter of Massekhet Berakhot (45a) enumerates those who may be included in a zimun and those who may not be included. Those discussed include one who ate prohibited food, a servant, a non-Jew, women, children, and slaves. This week, we will discuss whether women may join or form a zimun.


Women and Men Forming a Zimun


Women are obligated to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon. As we will learn in a future shiur, the Talmud (Berakhot 20b) discusses whether their obligation is of Biblical or Rabbinic origin. However, all agree that under certain circumstances, a woman may even fulfill a man’s obligation of Birkat Ha-Mazon. Are women obligated in zimun as well? May women join or form a zimun, with or without men?


The gemara (Arakhin 3a) teaches:


What does “All are obliged to arrange zimun” mean to include? It means to include women and slaves, for it was taught: Women arrange a zimun amongst themselves, and slaves arrange a zimun amongst themselves. What does “All may be joined to a zimun” mean to include? That includes a minor who knows to Whom one pronounces a blessing. For R. Nachman said: One may arrange a zimun with a minor who knows to Whom one pronounces a blessing.


This source states that women are obligated, but it does not indicate under which circumstances. It also implies that even a child may join with others to form a zimun (as we will discuss next week).  


On the other hand, the mishna in Berakhot (45a) states: “Women, children, and slaves may not be counted in the three.” Furthermore, the Talmud teaches (45b):


Come and hear: Women by themselves invite one another, and slaves by themselves invite one another, but women, slaves, and children together – even if they desire to invite one another – may not do so. Now a hundred women [regarding this issue] are no better than two men, and yet it says: Women by themselves invite one another and slaves by themselves invite one another? There is a special reason there, because each has a mind of her own.


This passage implies that women cannot form a “quorum” with men and are always viewed as “individuals” regarding zimun (me’ah nashi ke-trei gavrei damyan). On the other hand, they may join together to form their own zimun, as “each as a mind of her own” (“de-ika de’ot”).


Despite the apparent contradiction between these sources, the overwhelming majority of Rishonim assume that a woman cannot join two other men to form a zimun. However, some Rishonim suggest (and even implemented) that a woman may join two men to form a zimun. For example, the Maharam Mi-Rotenburg (Responsa, Prague, 227) records that R. Yehuda Ha-Kohen said that a woman can join to a zimun of three, whereas the Maharam himself disagreed. Both opinions are cited by the Tur (199). The Mordekhai (Berakhot 158) records that Rabbeinu Simcha would add a woman to nine men in order to mention the name of God in the zimun. Although the Rishonim reject these opinions, the Acharonim (see Bach 199:7, Taz 199:2, Derisha 199:5) attempt to reconcile their view with that of the mishna (Berakhot 45a).


According to the majority view, why does the mishna preclude a woman from joining two men in order to form a zimun? The Talmud does not provide an explanation, and it is especially difficult to understand in light of the gemara’s ruling that a minor can join a zimun. Furthermore, as R. Yehuda Ha-Kohen noted (as cited by the Maharam), even one who eats only a vegetable joins a zimun of three! The Rishonim offer different approaches to explain this anomaly.


            Some suggest that since men and women carry different obligations of Birkat Ha-Mazon – a man’s obligation is mi-de’oraita, while a woman’s a woman’s obligation is possibly mi-derabannan – they may not join together for a zimun. Indeed, this appears to be the rational of the Maharam in his objection to R. Yehuda’s view. Similarly, the Sefer Ha-Michtam (Berakhot 45a) writes:


Women, slaves, and children do not form a zimun together with men. The explanation is that they are not obligated like men… It is subject to doubt whether they are Biblically obligated or Rabbinically, while men are obligated from the Torah. 


This rationale appears in the writings of R. Yehonatan of Luneil (Hilkhot He-Rif, Berakhot 45a) as well.


It is not clear whether this reason assumes that the group leader fulfills the obligation of the participants, in which case this reason may not be applicable nowadays, or whether the potential to become Biblically obligated enables one to join together to form the zimun of three.


            Others suggest that men and women may recite different texts of the Birkat Ha-Mazon. Rashi (Arakhin 3a, s.v. mezamnot) writes:


But two women or two slaves cannot join a man [to form a zimun], because an element [of Birkat Ha-Mazon] is present for men which is not present for women and slaves, in that women do not mention “berit”…


Rashi refers to the reference to “berit” in the second blessing of Birkat Ha-Mazon: “ve-al beritkha she-chatamta be-vsareinu,” a reference to the berit mila. The Me’iri (Berakhot 47b) mentions this as well. Some suggest that these Rishonim refer to a technical problem – that is, the leader cannot fulfill the obligation of the group when its members say different texts of the Birkat Ha-Mazon. Indeed, the Or Zaru’a (Hilkhot Megilla 368) notes that if women did mention “berit,” they would be able to join men in forming a zimun. Others explain that participants who say different versions of the Birkat Ha-Mazon cannot join to form a unified group that becomes obligated to say the zimun. R. Yechezkel Landau, in his Tzlach (Berakhot 47b; see also Chatam Sofer, OC 1:48), suggests that one woman may join two men, as the majority of the group will be saying the same text. Nowadays (see Mishna Berura 187:9), women recite the full text of Birkat Ha-Mazon, as we will discuss in a separate shiur, and therefore this reason, as well, may not be relevant.


Finally, many Rishonim, with different nuances, suggest that the limitation regarding women may be related to another passage in the sugya, which precludes joining together with a slave to form a zimun because of “peritzuta” (immorality). The gemara (Berakhot 45b) teaches:


Women and slaves together, even though they desire to invite one another, may not do so. Why not? Each has a mind! There is a special reason in that case – because of immorality.


The Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona (Berakhot 33a, s.v. nashim) cites Rashi (in a comment that is not found in the commentary of Rashi that we have on the gemara), who explains that “women do not join a zimun, even with their husbands, as their ‘fraternizing is not pleasant’ (ein chavratam na’eh).” Rabbeinu Yona further connects the gemara cited above to women as well. Other Rishonim, including the Ritva (Hilkhot Berakhot 7:2), the Ran (Megilla 6b), and the Mei’ri (Berakhot 47b), cite this reason as well.


As we will see, many Rishonim are only concerned about “peritzuta” if women complete the zimun. Women who eat with three men may actually incur an obligation to participate in the zimun.


            The Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona extend and apply this notion even to a husband and wife, well beyond social gatherings of men and women, as they apparently maintain that any mixed gathering of men and women should, by definition, be viewed as unseemly. Interestingly, the Peri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav 199:2) insists that these reasons fundamentally do not apply to a family, and that is why R. Yehuda Ha-Kohen (as cited by the Maharam) would form a zimun with his wife.


The Shulchan Arukh (199:6-7) rules:


Women, slaves, and children do not join to form a zimun; rather, they form a zimun for themselves. A group of women, slaves, and children should not join together due to the immoral behavior of the slaves. Rather, women should form their own zimun, as should slaves, and they should not pronounce the name of God.


The Mishna Berura (12) explains that these three groups do not join together with men to form a zimun.


Aside from the opinion of R. Yehuda Ha-Kohen and Rabbeinu Simcha (cited above), which was rejected by the Rishonim, some Acharonim question whether under certain circumstances women and men may join together to form a zimun, especially in the context of a family. For example, R. Yosef Shaul Nathansohn (1808–1875), in his Responsa Sho’el U-Meshiv (Mahadura Kama 1:155) writes:


And at a party in which men are sitting with members of their households, when men are sitting with their wives and servants, how is “immorality,” God forbid, possibly relevant?


He notes that the Shulchan Arukh’s ruling does not mention men and women joining together (as the Mishna Berura understands), and he therefore suggests that women may join together with men to form a zimun. He admits that this question requires further research, as he only “briefly looked into the matter” (ve-tzarikh iyun ki lo ra’iti ela be-ha’avara be-alma).


Similarly, the Sha’arei Teshuva (199:1) cites R. Avraham ben Mordekhai Ha-Levi (17th century, Egypt), the Gan Ha-Melekh, who relates that a certain scholar would form a zimun with his daughter and son-in-law. However, he subsequently rejects this custom.


            Despite these interesting testimonies, as well as recent articles advocating that men and women should join to form a zimun, especially family members, it is not customary for one or two women to join a man or two men in making a zimun.


Zimun Nashim


As we saw previously, the Talmud (Berakhot 45b) teaches:


Come and hear: Women by themselves invite one another, and slaves by themselves invite one another, but women, slaves, and children together – even if they desire to invite one another – may not do so. Now a hundred women [regarding this issue] are no better than two men, and yet it says: Women by themselves invite one another and slaves by themselves invite one another? There is a special reason there, because each has a mind of her own.


How are we to understand this passage?


Some Rishonim explain that the gemara still distinguishes between the zimun of men and that of women. Rashi (s.v. de-ika), for example, explains that although three women are not obligated to form a zimun, “the de’ot of three [women] count more than two men in praising, as [it fulfills the principle of] ‘O magnify the Lord with me’ (Tehillim 33:4).” This is the view of Tosafot (s.v. shani) as well. In fact, Tosafot relate that the daughters of the Tosafist R. Avraham would form their own zimun. Tosafot note, however, that it is not customary for women to form a zimun, as it is only a reshut (optional), and not obligatory to do so.


Others (see Rosh, Berakhot 7:4; see also Talmidei Rabbenu Yona 33a) explain that although women do not join in forming a quorum of ten, at which the name of God is added to the zimun (“nevarekh le-Elokeinu”), they do join together to form groups of three, which are obligated, like men, to say the zimun. Indeed, the Rosh notes, the gemara (Arakhin 3b) says explicitly that women are obligated in zimun. Finally, the Rosh concludes, since women are obligated in Birkat Ha-Mazon, they should certainly be obligated no less than men in the zimun.


The Shulchan Arukh (199:7) rules that “nashim mezamnot le-atzman reshut” – women may, but are not obligated, to join together to form a zimun. Interestingly, the Mishna Berura (16) suggests that the Rabbis did not wish to obligate women to form a zimun, as it was not common for women to be literate in Birkat Ha-Mazon. He further suggests (Sha’ar Ha-Tziun 6) that a zimun preferably entails saying Birkat Ha-Mazon over a cup of wine, and requiring women to say Birkat Ha-Mazon over wine was viewed as inappropriate. Interestingly, the Bi’ur Halakha cites the Vilna Ga’on, who rules in accordance with the Rosh.


Although the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (199:2) relates that “we have never heard that women say the zimun amongst themselves,” R. Ari Zivotofsky (Letter to the Editor, Jewish Action, Summer 5762/2002) relates:


Regarding women’s zimun, R. Elazar Mayer Teitz, morah de-atra of Elizabeth, NJ, told me the following: In 1954, when R. Teitz was a student in Ponevetz, his maternal grandmother, Rebbetzin Frieda Preil, founder of Neshei Ezras Israel, visited the Sara Schneirer school in Bnei Brak.  R. Teitz was invited by Rebbetzin Preil to join her at the school for Friday night Shabbat dinner. At the conclusion of the meal, the girls bentched with a zimun with Rabbi Teitz present. Rabbi Teitz also told me that his wife, a native Yerushalmit, attended the Spitzer girls school, where the girls would bentch with a zimun (there were no males present).


Similarly, the Ben Ish Chai (Korach 13) writes: “It is appropriate for every man to instruct the women of his household that they should say the zimun amongst themselves when three [women] eat together.”


The women’s zimun has become increasingly popular in Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist seminaries and communities in Israel and the United States. It is viewed as a halakhically rooted and sanctioned opportunity for greater ritual participation.


What if one or two men eat with three or more women? R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin (Responsa on Cotemporary Jewish Women’s Issues [Ktav, 2003], chapter 6) notes that while the Ritva (Hilkhot Berakhot 7:2) does not allow a man to lead a zimun for three women, the Sefer Ha-Me’orot (Berakhot 45a) and the Sefer Ohel Mo’ed (Sha’ar Berakhot 7:1) disagree and allow a man to lead a zimun for women. R. Henkin further writes (p. 48) that although he later discovered that R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhot Beita, p. 94, n. 14) disagreed and maintained that a man should not lead a zimun for women but should rather say the zimun himself, he still believes that a man may lead such a zimun.


Assuming that one of the three women leads the zimun, should one or two men who are present respond? Surprisingly, R. Elyakim Elinson writes (Ha-Isha Ve-Ha-Mitzvot, vol. 1, p. 77), without citing a source, that “in the presence of men, women do not form a zimun at all.” R. Dovid Auerbach (Halikhot Beita, p. 94), cites his uncle, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z”l, who ruled that “[when] three women are eating with one or two men, it is proper for one of them to say the blessing [i.e. the zimun] and not the man, but the man is certainly permitted to answer.” I heard this from R. Aaron Lichtenstein as well. R. Zivotovsky (cited above) cites R. Dovid Cohen (of Gvul Ya’avetz in Brooklyn) and R. Dovid Feinstein (MTJ), who rule that “men should answer as ‘outsiders’ by responding ‘Baruch u-mevorach shemo tamid le’olam va’ed.’”


Women Who Eat with Three or More Men


            The Semag (Aseh 27; see also Teshuvot Ha-Rosh 4:16 and Ran, Megilla 6b, s.v. matnitin) explains that zimun is only a reshut (optional) when three women join together. However, when women eat with three or more men, “they are obligated and fulfill their obligation with them, and they do not say the blessings for themselves.” The Beit Yosef (199) understood that the Talmidei Rabeinu Yona disagree and rule that a women does not join the zimun of three men.


            The Shulchan Arukh (199:7) rules that women who eat with at least three men are obligated in the zimun. The Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav (199:6; see also Mishna Berura 199:18) writes that in this case, three women may separate to form their own zimun, if they wish to do so.


Contemporary authorities attempt to justify the practice of not insisting that women participate in the zimun. For example, R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 5:9) explains that during the week, women may be busy preparing and serving the meal, and they therefore may not become obligated to join the zimun. He adds that this is not the case on Shabbat, and “men who wish to hurry on Shabbat and say the Birkat Ha-Mazon with a zimun, and do not want to wait for the women, and do not even call them – that is certainly prohibited on Shabbat, and often even during the week.”


Interestingly, R. Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi 1:38) discusses the practice of Chassidic men to leave their Shabbat meals without saying Birkat Ha-Mazon and join their rebbe for the end of the meal, without saying the Birkat Ha-Zimun at home with their wives.


Next week we will continue our discussion of those who join the zimun.


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