Women’s Zimmun: It’s Just Not that Radical
It is a classic picture: A family joined together for their Shabbat meal, enjoying delicious food, speaking divrei Torah, and singing zemirot (songs). Finally, the meal concludes with zimmun (the invitation to bless) and birkat ha-mazon (blessing after the meal). Many of you might have similar experiences every week. The only difference in my family, made up of five females and one male, is that the zimmun is comprised not of three men, but of three women. Ever since my eldest sister taught my family and me what she learned in her high school Halakhah class about women’s zimmun, my mother and sisters have made a zimmun whenever we eat together.
When I entered high school a few years later and learned the sources for the halakhot of women’s zimmun myself, I discovered that the practice is even less prevalent than I had imagined. Many girls in my class were uncomfortable with the idea, and I have found that feeling to be widespread. More often than not, people are simply unaware of the halakhic sources of this practice. There are those, however, who are against or uncomfortable with women’s zimmun even after learning the sources. I will therefore first discuss the sources for women’s zimmun, and then I will attempt to understand the objections to this practice.
Contrary to popular belief, the practice of women’s zimmun is well-rooted in Halakhah, stemming back to the time of the Mishnah. As we will see, there are absolutely no authorities that say it is forbidden for women to form a zimmun. The only disagreement that stands is with regards to whether it is obligatory or merely optional for women to form a zimmun. The basis for this discussion is found in three Tanna’itic and Amoraic sources: A Mishnah from Berakhot 45a, a Beraita quoted shortly thereafter in 45b, and a Gemara in Arakhin 3a.
The first source, the Mishnah, discusses the basic concepts of zimmun. It begins, “Sheloshah she-akhalu ke-ahat hayyavin lezammen – three who ate together are required to join in zimmun.”[ii] The Mishnah then continues to limit its statement and discuss who may and who may not join the quorum of three. The last example is, “nashim ve-avadim u-ketanim ein mezammenin alaihen – women, slaves, or minors, we do not join in zimmun on account of them.”[iii] Although this Mishnah seems to imply that women are excluded from the mitsvah of zimmun, in reality, it only says that women cannot join men. It remains unclear if three women can form a zimmun of their own.
The second source, the Beraita, begins to clarify the confusion that emerges from the Mishnah. The Beraita clearly states, “Nashim mezammenot le-atzman – women join in zimmun by themselves.”[iv] Although, as we learned in the Mishnah, women cannot join men in a zimmun, three women can form their own zimmun. The end of the Beraita clarifies that although women, slaves, and minors were grouped together earlier, they cannot, even if they want to, join together to form a zimmun; each group can only do so separately.
From this Beraita, it is unclear whether it is a hiyyuv (obligation) or a reshut (optional act) for women to form a zimmun. Tosafot to Berakhot 45b explain that we derive that it is a reshut from the end of the Beraita – just as the end states “if they want…,” so too is the beginning an optional case. On the contrary, however, one can learn like the Rosh[v] that from the fact that the Beraita did not write “if they want” in the beginning, we see that, unlike the end, the statement in the beginning reflects an obligation.
The third main source, however, appears to put an end to the confusion. In Arakhin 3a, the Gemara states, “‘Ha-kol hayyavin le-zammen’ – le’atuyei mai? Le’atuyei nashim – ‘All are obligated in zimmun’, what [does the word ‘all’ come] to include? To include women.”[vi] For the first time, the Gemara explicitly uses the language of hiyyuv in relation to women’s zimmun.
These three sources – the Mishnah, Beraita, and Gemara – are not easily reconciled. Tosafot, Shulhan Arukh, and Rosh present three distinct approaches on how to understand these sources.
Tosafot understand the Mishnah simply: Women cannot be counted in a men’s zimmun. Tosafot explain that because women cannot say the line in birkat ha-mazon of “al beritekha she-hatamtah bi-vessareinu,” they cannot be in the same grouping as men.[vii] Additionally, Tosafot add that women cannot even respond to a men’s zimmun if they do not understand the Hebrew.[viii]
The Mishnah is simple for Tosafot to understand. The Beraita, however, proves challenging. Tosafot write that the Beraita implies that women can form a zimmun, and yet, the general practice is for women not to do so. Tosafot solve this apparent contradiction between the written halakhah and the popular practice by concluding that the mitsvah to form a zimmun is optional, rather than obligatory.[ix]
Although Tosafot provide a satisfactory explanation of the Beraita, their conclusion is difficult to reconcile with the Gemara, which clearly uses the word “hayyavin – obligated.” Tosafot are therefore forced to conclude that when the Gemara uses the language of hiyyuv, it really means reshut (permissible).
Shulhan Arukh[x] is similar to Tosafot in many ways. Just like Tosafot, Shulhan Arukh explains the Mishnah to mean that women cannot be counted with a men’s zimmun.[xi] Similarly, Shulhan Arukh rules, based on the Beraita, that it is a reshut for three or more women to form a zimmun. He adds a limitation, however: Women are not allowed to use shem Hashem in their zimmun.[xii]
Shulhan Arukh’s interpretation of the Gemara, however, serves as the key difference between the pesak halakhah found there and Tosafot’s pesak. While Tosafot were forced to conclude that “hayyavin” should be explained as reshut, the Shulhan Arukh instead applies the hiyyuv to something else. According to Shulhan Arukh, women are obligated to respond to a men’s zimmun.[xiii], [xiv] Rema,[xv] explicitly disagreeing with Tosafot, adds that this hiyyuv applies even if the women do not understand Hebrew.
Rosh,[xvi] though he provides the most straightforward explanation, is radical compared to Tosafot and Shulhan Arukh. Just like Tosafot and Shulhan Arukh, Rosh explains the Mishnah to mean that women cannot join with men to form a zimmun. However, unlike Tosafot and Shulhan Arukh, Rosh holds that both the Beraita and Gemara teach that women are actually obligated to form a zimmun. He maintains that it would be incomprehensible for women who are hayyavot in birkat ha-mazon, whether it is a de-oraita or de-rabbanan obligation,[xvii] to not also be hayyavot in zimmun. The Gra says that the position of Rosh is the most logical one, but that the practice of the community is not to rule like him.[xviii]
Although Tosafot, Shulhan Arukh, and Rosh all explain and interpret the Mishnah, Beraita, and Gemara differently, one important factor common to all of them is that no one legislates that it is forbidden for women to form a zimmun. The only mahaloket is whether women’s zimmun is a reshut or a hiyyuv.
With this clear basis in Halakhah for women’s zimmun, it is perplexing why there are opponents to women’s zimmun. Indeed, any opponents that I found were unable to deny that women’s zimmun is technically permitted. Instead, their main arguments relate to minhag avoteinu (our parents’ practices) and the dangers of feminism.
At first glance, the issue of minhag avoteinu appears to be a convincing objection. Why should our generation do something that our grandparent’s generation did not do? They chose to follow the shittot that say women’s zimmun is optional and we, in respect to the minhagim of the generations before us, should follow their lead and not change their established practice.
But is the lack of women’s zimmun an established practice? Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer, in an article on women’s prayer services,[xix] quote Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and Justice Menahem Elon in their discussion on whether the absence of a practice constitutes a valid minhag avoteinu that must be followed by future generations. There is a mahaloket Aharonim regarding a situation when a community consistently refrains from doing a certain action, even though the action is technically halakhically permissible. Does this passive behavior constitute a communally binding prohibitive minhag (lo ra’inu re’ayah ba-minhag) or not (lo rai’nu eino re’ayah)[xx]? Rabbi Berkovits and Justice Elon claim that even according to the opinion that would answer in the affirmative, this mahaloket should not apply to women’s prayer services because, although it was not something done in the past, it was also not a practice that the community expressly prohibited. The absence was not deliberate; rather, they explain, there was no social need for women’s prayer services.
This same argument easily extends to women’s zimmun as well. According to Mishnah Berurah,[xxi] the reason why the Hakhamim did not make zimmun mandatory for women was because women were not educated and did not know how to recite birkat ha-mazon. The Hakhamim could not obligate women in something that they would be unable to do. In other words, there was no outright objection to women’s zimmun in past generations. It was simply an impossibility. Consequently, just as in regard to women’s prayer services, the mahaloket about negative minhagim does not apply here and there should be no reason why educated Jewish women should be prevented from forming a women’s zimmun based on the reason of minhag avoteinu.
Even without the issue of minhag avoteinu, there are those who still object to women forming a zimmun because they claim that many women perform this practice in order to further the feminist agenda. Due to this lack of pure intentions, they say, women’s zimmun should not be encouraged. In the words of Rabbi David Cohen, “What was once considered commendable becomes improper when it is done to further an agenda which, to my mind, negates those forces of halachah and mesorah which have sustained us.”[xxii]
These objections to women’s zimmun upset me. Perhaps there truly are women who have construed women’s zimmun into something that it is not, but I participate in a women’s zimmun whenever the opportunity arises because in my high school Halakhah class we opened up a Gemara and a Shulhan Arukh and other sources and found that there are Tanna’im, Amora’im, Rishonim, and Aharonim who support and encourage women’s zimmun. Should I be stopped, too? Should I have to relinquish this opportunity to personally glorify Hashem’s name just because there is a danger that others are doing so for the wrong purpose? How much do halakhah-abiding Jewish women have to give up in order to put a stop to the so-called “dangers” of the feminist movement?
In regard to innovations of the feminist movement, many claim that even if something is technically permitted according to Halakhah, it should be forbidden in order to prevent a slippery slope in which women will begin to do things that have absolutely no basis in Halakhah. But there is a danger in applying the slippery slope argument too often. It is more appropriate to apply this principle to practices such as women’s prayer groups and other similar examples, which are controversial because their halakhic basis is not entirely clear. The practice of women’s zimmun, however, is explicitly supported even by Tanna’im. If the slippery slope argument is applied even to such a well-rooted idea, how many more perfectly halakhic practices will it be applied to in the future? If we prevent women from doing things that are halakhically permissible (and perhaps lauded) for them, we will only create more women who are frustrated within the halakhic framework.
If, according to Mishnah Berurah, it is true that the only reason why women’s zimmun has not been common practice is because women were uneducated, then anyone nowadays who supports women’s education to any extent – even just a knowledge of the Hebrew language that would allow them to fulfill the mitsvah of birkat ha-mazon – should support women’s zimmun as well. Women’s zimmun is a practice that, whether you follow Tosafot, Shulhan Arukh, or Rosh, is perfectly valid according to Halakhah and provides women with another legitimate and beautiful way to praise the name of Hashem.
Gabrielle Hiller is a junior at SCW majoring in Jewish Education, and is an associate editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] I would like to sincerely thank Rabbi Saul Berman and Mrs. Shayna Goldberg, without whom I would have been unable to write this article.
[ii] Berakhot 45a (Artscroll’s translation).
[iv] Berakhot 45b (Artscroll’s translation).
[v] Rosh to Berakhot 7:4.
[vi] Artscroll’s translation.
[vii] Tosafot to Arakhin 3a, s.v. mezammenot le-atzman.
[viii] Tosafot to Berakhot 45b, s.v. she’ani hatam de-ikah de’ot.
[ix] Ibid. Tosafot continue to explain that there is some support in the actual Beraita that women’s zimmun is only optional. Firstly, the language of “im ratzu – if they want” found at the end of the Beraita allows us to infer that we can read the beginning as “women can form their own zimmun if they want.” Additionally, the surrounding Gemara compares a zimmun of three women to a zimmun of two men. Just as two men have no obligation to form a zimmun, so too three or more women have no obligation of zimmun.
[x] Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayyim 199:6-7.
[xi] Mishnah Berurah to Shulhan Arukh 199:12 explains differently than Tosafot why women cannot join men to form a zimmun. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan explains that because women are not benei hiyyuva (subject to obligation) like men, and because “ein hevratan na’eh – their association is not appropriate,” it would be improper for women and men to form one group.
[xii] Mishnah Berurah to Shulhan Arukh 199:15 explains that the use of Hashem’s name in zimmun is a davar she-be-kedushah (form of sanctification), and can therefore only be used when there are at least ten free men present.
[xiii] At first glance, this statement is puzzling. If women cannot join men to form a zimmun because “ein hevratan na’eh,” why is it any more appropriate for women to answer to a men’s zimmun? Mishnah Berurah anticipates this difficulty and explains that because the three or more men are not dependent on the women to form a zimmun, the women joining to be yotzeh (fulfill) their hiyyuv by listening is not a genai (degradation) in the same way.
[xiv] It is a common question whether the opposite applies as well: should men respond to a women’s zimmun? Rabbi David Auerbach (Halikhot Beitah 90:7) rules, “vadai rashai ha-ish la’anot ahareihen – it is certainly permitted for a man to answer after them” (author’s translation). Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, in his Responsa on Comtemporary Jewish Women’s Issues (Jersey City, NJ : Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 38, agrees with R. Auerbach and even says that there are no grounds to forbid men from answering to a women’s zimmun. Nonetheless, Rabbi Henkin adds that although men are permitted to, they are not required to respond to a women’s zimmun.
[xv] Rema to Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayyim 199:7.
[xvi] Rosh to Berakhot 7:4.
[xvii] Berakhot 20a discusses the level of obligation of women in birkat ha-mazon and it is left unclear if a women’s hiyyuv is de-oraita or de-rabanan.
[xviii] Bi’ur Halakhah 199, Bi’ur Ha-Gra, Orakh Hayyim 199:7.
[xix]Rabbi Aryeh A. Frimer and Rabbi Dov I. Frimer, “Women’s Prayer Services- Theory and Practice,” Tradition 32:2 (Winter 1998): 5-118. Available at: http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/english/tfila/frimmer1.htm.
[xx] These phrases personify the argument. “Lo rai’nu eino re’ayah” means that not having seen a practice is not proof that a practice may not be done. “Ra’inu re’ayah ba-minhag,” however, claims the opposite: The fact that a practice was not done should be considered a prohibitive minhag that must be followed by future generations.
[xxi]Mishnah Berurah to Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Chaim 199:16.
[xxii]Rabbi David Cohen, “Legal-ease,” Jewish Action, Winter 1999, available at: http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5760winter/letters.pdf.