Time and time again I have come upon the discussion of whether having a woman’s zimun is a halachik obligation or even allowed at all. Herein we shall address some aspects of this topic and try to answer some of these questions.
Are Women Obligated In Birkat HaMazon In The First Place?
We know that after consuming enough food, Jews have the obligation to recite Birkat HaMazon after the meal (Devarim 8:10). The first question that has to be asked, then, is whether women have an obligation in Birkat Hamazon at all. Rabina asks Raba this exact question (Berachot 20B). They want to know if the recitation of Birkat Hamazon is DeOrayta for women, or just DeRabanan. Although from the Gemara it seems that it is indeed a Biblical imperative for women, many meforshim differ and believe that since women are not obligated in certain parts of Birkat Hamazon — like passages about Israel1 or Brit Milah2 — this disqualifies women from the obligation altogether.
Though the machloket as to whether women are obligated in Birkat HaMazon was never truly resolved in Jewish law, the issue is important as only a person who has the same or higher obligation as another person may fulfill an obligation on behalf of said other person3. Indeed, throughout history Birkat Hamazon was often recited by one person on behalf of everybody else, as people were illiterate and unable to recite it for themselves. While, l’halacha, women are not able to recite these berachot on behalf of other people (OC 186:1), this fact is not particularly relevant as people have long found it difficult to focus on someone else reciting Birkat HaMazon for them, so today it has become the norm for every participant at a meal to recite Birkat HaMazon to him or herself4.
Indeed, over time, halachik authorities have included women in the obligation of Birkat HaMazon. R’ Moshe Isserles ruled that women should simply remove the passages that are irrelevant to them whenever reciting Birkat HaMazon. The Mishna Brura, however, says that this is not done in practice, and women should in fact recite the entire text of Birkat HaMazon (187:9).
The Source For A Women’s Zimun
We can now turn to the issue of women’s zimun. Of course, right before everyone begins benching, if there are three or more men present, a zimun is recited. What people aren’t always aware of is that if there are three or more women, a zimun should also be recited. Often, people at the table think this concept is a “feminist pursuit” that has no halachik basis at all. Little do people know, though, that this practice is brought up as early as the times of the Gemara.
The earliest source is a Braita in Masechet Berachot:
Women may make a zimun amongst themselves, and slaves may make a zimun amongst themselves; but women, slaves, and minors may not include each other in a zimun. And though one hundred women are like two men, it is taught: Women make a zimun by themselves, and slaves make a zimun by themselves. There it is different because there are many people. If that is so, I will quote the conclusion: Women and slaves cannot make a zimun together — why not? There are not many people! There it is different because of licentiousness.
The Talmud actually states that women are not included in a regular zimun, but should form their own zimun. While everyone agrees that women are able to answer a zimun that is recited by men without concern for this issue(Sh”t HaRosh 4:16), the meforshim debate what active role a woman may take.
The Braita explains that two different groups of people have a zimun for themselves — women and slaves. They are not allowed to participate in a zimun with other men because of the “Pritzut B’Davar”; the action of forming a cohesive zimun of both men and women may lead to immorality. According to the Gemara, then, a joint zimun would be inappropriate. However, women may form their own zimun as it states in the Gemara “נשים מזמנות לעצמן”. The words “נשים מזמנות לעצמן” are interpreted in one of two different ways:
- We are able to understand these words to mean that women who eat together separately from men are chayav in a zimun5, or…
- It’s permissible, but not necessarily an obligation6.
The reason for the latter seems to be because of a historical reality that a majority of women were illiterate, so women creating a zimun was not done, and therefore became optional. In fact, R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein said that he never even heard of the practice of women’s zimun (Aruch HaShulchan OC 199:2). Regardless, it would seem from the Talmud that women’s zimun is either obligatory, or at the very least permissible.
What About Today?
Although it may be the case that women’s zimun was not practiced for an extended period of time, it still remains legitimate. Now that women are literate, it has most certainly become a viable option when there are three or more women eating alone. According to the Vilna Gaon, it is actually obligatory. Others claim that women may even separate from a larger meal in order to create their own zimun (Sha’ar HaTziyun 199:9), and R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach goes so far as to say that two men who are eating with three women should respond to the females’ berachot (Halichot Beitah 12:7).
Thus, the next time you find yourself with your friends or family and they want to have a women’s zimun, don’t laugh it off as being feminism that is the driving force behind their desire to perform this ritual — it’s actually halacha.