Ask the Rabbi: May women lead grace after meals?

The Sages believed that when three or more people eat together, they should also recite grace simultaneously to amplify the public exultation of God.

Woman with Torah 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Woman with Torah 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jews must recite grace after meals (birkat hamazon) after consuming a considerable amount of bread products within a limited time (Deuteronomy 8:10). While some talmudic Sages believed that women were equally included in this biblical imperative (Brachot 20b), others demurred, contending that certain passages within the text regarding the Land of Israel (Rashi) or circumcision (Tosafot) disqualified women from its initial promulgation.
Nonetheless, the rabbis subsequently included women within this obligation.
While Rabbi Moshe Isserles ruled that women should omit those passages irrelevant to them (OC 187:3), the universal contemporary practice is for women to recite the same text as men (MB 187:9).
The talmudic dispute regarding the source was never fully resolved in normative Jewish law (OC 186:1). Only a person obligated to fulfill a commandment on an equal or higher level may recite the blessing on behalf of others (as is customarily done for kiddush). Since historically birkat hamazon was frequently recited on behalf of others, women could not recite these blessings on behalf of men (OC 183:1). In any case, it remained difficult for listeners to concentrate uninterrupted for the extended blessings, and today individuals recite the blessings quietly to themselves (MB 183:27).
The Sages believed that when three or more people eat together, they should also recite grace simultaneously to amplify the public exultation of God (Brachot 45a), with an additional name of God added for a greater quorum of 10 (OC 192:1). This practice, known as a zimun, entails the convener inviting others to join him in praising God. A minority of the participants are not required to have eaten bread, but must have consumed some minimal food or beverage over an overlapping period with other participants (MB 197:22).
The Talmud states that women are not included in a regular zimun, but that they should form their own quorum (Brachot 45b). It remains clear that women may answer the zimun recited by a quorum of men to fulfill their obligation (Rosh, Responsa 4:16). The commentators, however, debate what active role women play might play in a quorum.
THE STRAIGHTFORWARD reading of the text indicates that women eating separately from men remain obligated to form a quorum (Rosh Brachot 7:4). Although some female members of scholarly families did perform this ritual (Mordechai 155), most medieval women did not recite the zimun under any circumstances. This phenomenon, which might have been a result of widespread female illiteracy, led some scholars to postulate that a zimun was merely optional for women (Tosafot Brachot 45b).
Indeed, Rabbi Yehiel Epstein (d. 1908) claimed that he had never heard of women forming separate quorums (Aruch Hashulhan 199:2).
Nonetheless, the option remains impeccably legitimate (OC 199:7) and, according to the Vilna Gaon, obligatory (OC 199:7). As such, Rabbi Yosef Haim (d. 1909) advocated teaching girls how to recite a zimun when they ate separately (Ben Ish Hai, Korah 13).
Other sources further claimed that women may separate from a larger meal to create this female quorum (Sha’ar Hatziyun 199:9).
Rabbis Shlomo Z. Auerbach (Halichot Beita 12:7) and Aharon Lichtenstein also contend that two men eating with three women should respond to the female convener’s blessings.
Greater controversy revolves around the inclusion of women in a joint quorum with men. A couple of medieval authorities contend that one woman can count toward a quorum of three (Tur OC 199) or even 10 (Mordechai 155). Their logic was that a woman who ate grain-based foods would be no less involved than a man who did not eat bread at all but may nonetheless complete the quorum. Normative practice, however, rejected joint quorums, because: (1) Women have a lesser obligation in reciting birkat hamazon (Maharam, Responsa 4:227); (2) women recite a different text than men (Rashi Arachin 3a); (3) women do not establish permanence at the table (Teshuvot Ra’avad 12); (4) a joint quorum, in which one pays attention to the presence of the other gender, will lead to promiscuity (Ran, Megilla 6b).
In the 1980s, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (Jewish Women in Time and Torah) proposed modifying the ban on joint quorums since (a) we should rely on the position that women have the same obligation in birkat hamazon (or that this factor is irrelevant to zimun participation); (b) the text today is uniform for men and women; and (c) prevailing social norms allow for joint dining between the sexes, especially within the family structure. The latter point was already made in the 19th century (Shoel Umeshiv Kama Responsa 3:155), and there is some historical evidence that a few scholars allowed mixed quorums within the family (Gan Hamelech 75).
Based on these points, a more modest proposal was recently floated to allow a zimun within the nuclear family alone (Akdamot 26). This proposed reform, however, drew the sharp response of several traditionalists, leaving its prospects for success in serious doubt.
The writer, the online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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