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TITLE: 'Women’s Zimmun and Whether Men [Who Are Present] Must Leave'
Author: Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin
B’nei Banim, vol

She’elot uTeshuvot

B’nei Banim, Volume 3 Number 1

Responsum of Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin

Women’s Zimmun and Whether Men [Who Are Present] Must Leave

I have heard that there are those who claim that men must leave the room and not listen to women who are reciting their own zimmun [responsive invitation to a group to say the blessing after meals] and I do not know from where they derive this. If there is [ such a position], however, it apparently follows the Sefer Ha’Meorot on Tractate Megillah 19b, which cited the Ba’al Ha’Ittur as saying that women do not fulfill men’s obligation for them in the reading of the Megillah, and explained that the reason is because of [possible] licentiousness similar to the case of a zimmun of women, slaves and minors together. The Sefer Orhot Hayim, Hilkhot Megillah, Letter 2 and the Kol Bo, Chapter 45, wrote in the name of the Ittur that the reason is "the voice of a woman is [equivalent to forbidden] nakedness," [although] that is not [found] in the Sefer Ha’Ittur that we have available to us. And the Sefer Ha’Meorot wrote: " According to this opinion, that which [the sages] held that a woman recites the blessing [after meals] for her husband refers specifically to her husband, not to men in general, because of [possible] licentiousness, because they said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness,’ and it is appropriate to create some distance between a woman and other men, even with regard to inquiring about one another’s welfare, and even more with regard to other matters."

According to this, men should not listen to the zimmun of women. However, it would be astonishing to rule this way, because the matter of zimmun is not mentioned explicitly in the Ba’al Ha’Ittur, and the Sefer Ha’Meorot itself rejected [this position] , because it is only "regarding slaves and women [together] that we say that we are concerned about licentiousness…but regarding other men [and women], no." There is a great deal to distinguish between the reading of the Megillah and zimmun, and even regarding reading of the Megillah there are many who differ with the Ittur. Also, the Behag [Ba’al Halakhot Gedolot] disqualified women from reading the Megillah for a different reason; [not because of licentiousness] and in the Sefer Ha’Ittur that we have before us, [in] Hilkhot Megillah, page 226, it is evident that he agrees with the Behag; and see [Rabbi Henkin’s] Responsa B’nei Banim, Part 2, Number 10.

The rishonim did not interpret [the textual sources] to prohibit a man from listening to a women’s zimmun but rather to prohibit him from completing a group of three with them for the purpose of zimmun. The Ritva, Hilkhot Berakhot, chapter 4, Halakha 2, explicitly permitted [listening to a woman recite the zimmun], saying, "a woman says the blessing for a man through the zimmun…." He follows his own view that women are biblically obligated in the birkat ha’mazon; and the explanation of "through the zimmun" is that, since she is reciting the zimmun, she fulfills the obligation for [the men] as well, even le’khathila [ab initio];, it is not possible for one woman to fulfill the obligation of one man -- that is permissible only if he is an ignorant person (see there). So, too, the Bah wrote, in Orah Hayim 689, that according to the Ra’avad’s opinion that women may fulfill the obligation of men in birkat ha’mazon, we find that "a woman fulfills the men’s obligation…where there are three men and one woman, so that the men combine for a zimmun and the woman may fulfill the men’s obligation in birkat ha’mazon, because the essence of the strictness [in this matter] is the joining together [of men and women]"; a fortiori, when three men ate together with three women, one of the women may say the zimmun for all of them, according to this opinion,. These rishonim were not concerned about a woman’s voice with regard to zimmun. Also, although we rule according to the opinion of the Rambam in Hilkhot Berakhot 5:1 and the Tur in Orah Hayim 186, that women do not fulfill the obligation of men in birkat ha’mazon – and that is the law regarding zimmun – this is because the women are subject only to a possible biblical obligation. But with regard to the matter of a woman’s voice, even these authorities acknowledge [that it is not a problem], and [this can be inferred] a fortiori from the matter of the Megillah, in which women may fulfill men’s obligation according to the Rambam even l’khathila, despite the fact that it is a time of joy and there is reason to be more concerned [about the effect on men of a woman’s voice]. As for the statement of the Nimukei Yosef on Tractate Megillah 4a that "women recite the zimmun by themselves [only] because of [possible] licentiousness, in that intoxication is frequent at meals but the reading of the Megillah takes place before the meal and so there is no intoxication" – according to this [position], zimmun is not a case of reasoning a fortiori from the [the reading of the] Megillah, - there he is not concerned with the issue of a woman’s voice.

It is the accepted halakha that reciting the zimmun is optional for women, because zimmun is a rabbinic law according to the majority of halakhic authorities, against the opinion of the Ra’avad cited in the Tur 188; and see also the book B’nei Tzion on Orah Hayim, Part 3, 192:1; and the sages did not obligate women in zimmun and, therefore, the man is not obligated to say zimmun along with them even if they are saying it; it also is not the way of the world for a man to be dependent on women. However, if he wishes to answer to their zimmun from where can one derive that it is forbidden? I have also seen this in one of the books of collections of laws for women in the name of the gaon Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (z"tzl) -- that if women recite the zimmun, men may remain present and answer to the zimmun.

The statement written in one book -- that women have the option to say the zimmun for themselves but are not accustomed to do so when men are present – is incomprehensible, because for generations the custom was that women did not say the zimmun at all, as the Arukh Ha’Shulhan wrote in Section 199, that he never heard of women reciting the zimmun – while according to the custom of reciting the zimmun that some women have introduced, they recite it whether men are present or not. One has to say that [the above statement only] concerns the case of three men and three women eating together, because then it is permissible for women to separate [from the men] and to say the zimmun by themselves, but nevertheless they have not been accustomed to do this but rather fulfill their obligation through the men’s zimmun. The custom that [some] women have to recite the zimmun is not in the legal category of an obligation, in my opinion -- since the Shulhan Arukh [Orah Hayim] 199:7 rules as halakha that zimmun is optional for women -- but rather their zimmun is in the category of optional activity; and the practical difference is that they need not recite the zimmun all the time. However, if they said the zimmun three consecutive times, then it is like all customs, and they are obligated in zimmun [thereafter]. See also [R. Henkin’s] B’nei Banim, Part 2, Number 19, on the matter of the Ma’ariv prayer as optional.

But we still need to explain the case of a man who ate [together] with three women: May he say the zimmun for them or must one of the women specifically say it and he should answer to it? The issue is subject to a dispute among the rishonim – see the Ritva in Hilkhot Berakhot, who wrote that "women say the zimmun for themselves, and also fulfill their obligation through the berakha of the man who is fulfilling it for them when there is a zimmun of men without them… and also, if they do not know how to say the berakha, a male may say it for them without [reciting the] zimmun" ergo, [men say a zimmun for women], only if there is already a zimmun of men without them, but this is not the case regarding a single man, who should not say the zimmun for three women. His reason appears to be that he considers the case to be similar to the joining together of [men and women to make] three. Since the man is the one reciting the zimmun and he would not be able to recite it if not for the women, therefore his joining together [with them] is discernible. The Ritva states his position [in commenting on] Tractate Megillah 4a, and it is explained by the Ran commenting on the Rif on Megillah 19b, and is cited also in Beit Yosef, Section 199, that men and women do not join together in a group of three, because their joining together causes a change in the fixed wording of the berakha in that they would then be able to recite the zimmun [ which none of them could do so if they had not joined together]; this is not the case if there are three men, in which case no change in the wording of the berakha results from the joining of the women, and their joining [with the men] is not discernible. Here [in the case of three women] it is clear that there is no change in the zimmun on the part of the women, since they are three already and may form a zimmun without [the man]. However, on the part of the man there is a change, because he would not be reciting the zimmun without them, and therefore, according to the Ritva, one of the three women should say the zimmun and not the man. And similarly, vice versa: If three men and one woman ate together, then one of the men should recite the zimmun and not the woman, because for her there is a change in the wording of the berakha, despite the fact that biblically, according to this opinion, women may fulfill men’s obligation.

However, this, is not the opinion of the Sefer Ha’Meorot on Tractate Berakhot 45a: Rather, [he wrote] that a man may recite the zimmun for a group of women: "Where there are ten minors and one adult [male] with them, and also [if there are ten] women, it is apparent that the adult says the berakha ‘Let us bless our God’ for them, because since he ate with them and is obligated in birkat ha’mazon, he may say the blessing for them and may also fulfill their obligation in the blessing of zimmun." In Sefer Ohel Moed, Sha’ar Berakhot, Derekh 7, Netiv 1, page 107b, this is written in the name of R. Avraham. Sefer Ha’Meorot states his point of view in [comments on] Tractate Berakhot 20a, that birkat ha’mazon for women is possibly [but not definitely] a biblical obligation – which is not the view of the Ritva. The explanation of their dispute is that in the Mishna [Berakhot 7:5], the sages say, "Regarding women, slaves and minors – we do not join together with them for a zimmun" – i.e., women do not join together with men to complete a group of three, and in the beraita on 20b, it is written, "Women, slaves and minors who wish to form a zimmun [together] may not do so" -- i.e., even among themselves they do not join together [with members of one of the other groups]. The Gemara explains that the reason [for the latter prohibition] is because of possible licentiousness. According to the opinion that women are biblically obligated in birkat ha’mazon, [just as men are], one must conclude that the reason the Mishna states that they do not join together with men is because of licentiousness, as in the beraita; and thus the Ritva, in Hilkhot Berakhot, writes regarding that passage: "Women are obligated in birkat ha’mazon from the Torah, and therefore a woman says the berakha for a man through [her] zimmun…but they do not join together with men to form a zimmun, because of licentiousness."

This is not the case according to the opinion that a woman’s obligation in birkat ha’mazon is only possibly biblical, or even according to the opinion that it is certainly biblical but that her berakhot are not identical to the man’s. [According to this view] the Mishna is stating that women do not join together with men because their obligations are not identical – and the reason of licentiousness is mentioned only in the beraita in order to explain why women and slaves do not recite the zimmun with one another, despite the fact that their obligations are identical. See Rashi’s commentary on Tractate Arakhin 3a, that "women or slaves do not combine for a zimmun with men, because an element is present for men that is not present for women and slaves, in that women do not say "covenant’ [referring to b’rit milah, circumcision]…." The Or Zarua, Part 2, Section 368, explains that he [Rashi] holds the view that women are obligated biblically in birkat ha’mazon, but that their berakhot are not identical to those of men, while in Tractate Berakhot, Rashi explained regarding the beraita that [even] if [women, slaves and minors] wish to form a zimmun together, they may not do so, "because their establishment" [of a zimmun] is not appropriate because of possible licentiousness, whether of women [together with slaves] or whether of homosexual acts between slaves and minors." Thus, we see that the reason of licentiousness is mentioned only regarding the beraita that prohibits slaves from forming a zimmun together with women and minors. [There is a difficulty with the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah on Tractate Berakhot, who cited a textual variant of Rashi saying that "women do not join together for a zimmun, even with their husbands, because their company is not fitting." This is the opposite of Rashi in Tractate Arachin; and see the view of R. Avraham Elashvili there and on page 20. This requires further study. The aharonim did not mention this; see Mishnah Berurah, Section 199, Paragraph 12.]

This is also the meaning of the Rambam’s comment on this passage in [Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot] Berakhot 5:7 -- that there is no [fear of] licentiousness except in combining with slaves, as he wrote: "Women and slaves and minors do not recite the zimmun with [men] but recite it for themselves, and there should not be a group of women, slaves and minors [for the purpose of zimmun] because of licentiousness; rather, women by themselves and slaves or minors by themselves." Thus, he used two separate clauses and was careful to write that there should not be a group of women together with slaves because of licentiousness, which is not the case regarding a group of free men with women – which is permissible – [relative to the problem of] licentiousness; only, men do not form a group of three for zimmun with women, because their obligations are not identical.

Likewise, the Sefer Ha’Mikhtam wrote on Tractate Berakhot there: " ‘Women, slaves and children do not form a zimmun together [with men]’ -- the meaning is that they are not obligated like men…it is doubtful whether they are obligated biblically or [only]rabbinically, while men are [certainly] obligated from the Torah" -- and [according to him] it is not because of licentiousness. The Sefer Ha’Mikhtam wrote further that "women and slaves, even if they wish to say zimmun together, do not do so because of licentiousness -- i.e., in order to distance them from one another in order not to create a social gathering of women and slaves." According to this, it is forbidden for them to form a zimmun together, even if three slaves ate together with three women, and this is the meaning of Sefer Ha’Hashlamah, and this seems apparent also from the language of the Rambam, that "there should not be a group of women and slaves…" -- that is, for any matter -- and the Magen Avraham writes thus in Paragraph 4. This is also proved by Rashi’s interpretation in Tractate Berakhot 45b; because [the question arises], why does he single out [the reason of] licentiousness? We could rather derive that [women and slaves do not say zimmun together because] the blessings of slaves and women are not identical, since according to his opinion slaves do not say [regarding the land of Israel] "that you bestowed upon our fathers" and women do not say "for the covenant that you have sealed in our flesh," as he explained in Tractate Arakhin, and therefore they do not form a group with one another for the purpose of zimmun. One is forced to conclude that Rashi’s intention is to add that even three slaves and three women do not form a zimmun together , because of] possible licentiousness. Indeed, that is the meaning of the beraita saying, "Women recite the zimmun for themselves and slaves recite the zimmun for themselves; women, slaves and children, even if they wish to do so, do not recite the zimmun for themselves": that those women, slaves and children who can form a zimmun for themselves [separately] – i.e., three women and three slaves are present – if they desire to form one [combined] group, they may not do so. But there is still a difficulty regarding Rashi’s interpretation: We could derive that a slave does not fulfill the obligation for women and a woman does not fulfill the obligation for slaves because the blessings they say are not identical, and that, therefore, women recite their zimmun separately and slaves recite their zimmun separately – so why was it necessary to mention the reason of licentiousness at all? One would have to reply that [without this reason, it could be argued that] when three individuals who say identical blessings ate together, then three other individuals whose blessings are not identical [to the blessings of the first group] may still join together with them, that each person would recite the second blessing [of the birkat ha’mazon, which contains the variations in wording mentioned above] according to his or her own obligation.

The result [of all this] is, in my opinion: According to our [the accepted] halakhic ruling that women are only doubtfully [biblically] obligated in birkat ha’mazon, then the stated reason of licentiousness does not refer to the joining together of men and women – unlike the Ritva’s opinion; and since the Sefer Ha’Meorot and the Ohel Moed permit [a man to say the zimmun for women], and we do not find anyone who prohibits this besides the Ritva -- therefore, we can conclude that it is permissible for a man who dined with three women to fulfill their obligation in zimmun for them. The halakhic results, in my opinion, are as follows: (1) One woman and two men, or the opposite [one man and two women] do not join together for zimmun. (2) If three women ate with one or two men, then the women recite the zimmun together and the men may answer, or a man may recite the zimmun to fulfill the women’s obligation. (3) Three women who ate with three men fulfill their obligation through the zimmun of the men, or they may separate and recite a zimmun for themselves provided there are less than ten men. If there are ten men, the men recite the zimmun ba’Shem and the women respond. (4) One woman who ate with three men may not recite the zimmun to fulfill their obligation, but she fulfills her own obligation through the men’s zimmun. (5) Ten women may not recite the zimmun ba’Shem [extended form of zimmun said in the presence of a minyan], in accordance with the ruling of the Rambam and the Shulhan Arukh, and not in accordance with the opinion of the Sefer Ha’Meorot; and also a man who is saying the zimmun for ten women should not recite the zimmun ba’Shem. (6) Women have the option of reciting the zimmun for themselves, and a woman who is not accustomed to doing so is still permitted to say the zimmun; if she followed this custom three times in succession, not counting meals where women were not present [separately] to form a zimmun, then she has established a [permanent] obligation for herself if she did not make a condition that she is saying the zimmun b’li neder ["without a vow" for the future].


Yehuda Herzl Henkin






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