Parashas Eikev includes the instruction of birkas hamazon: “You shall eat, and you shall be satiated, and you shall bless Hashem, your G-d, for the good Land that He has given you” (Devarim 8:10). After eating a meal and becoming satiated, the Torah instructs us to bless Hashem for the goodness He has bestowed upon us.
Added to the instruction of birkas hamazon, the Sages teach us an additional instruction of zimun: Before benching, a group that eats together must “invite” one another to recite birkas hamazon.
This week’s article is dedicated to the mitzvah of zimun, and in particular the basic principles of when the mitzvah applies. What is the definition of a zimun? How do people join together in their meal, so that the mitzvah applies? Is there such as thing as an optional zimun? What happens when somebody needs to leave early?
We will address these questions, among others, below.
An Invitation to Thank
The first Mishnah of the seventh chapter of Berachos (which deals with the laws of zimun) states: “Three people that ate (together) as one are obligated in zimun.”
The Gemara (Brachos 45a) explains the source of this obligation: “Where does this come from (Rashi: That three people are suited to bless together)? Rav Assi says, it is derived from the verse “Declare the greatness of Hashem with me, let us exalt his name together” (Tehillim 34:4). Rabbi Avahu says it is from the here: “When I call out the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our G-d” (Devarim 32:3).
Rashi explains how the first verse teaches that a zimun requires three people: “This is three. One calls out ‘declare the greatness’ to two others—there must be at least two others, because the verb ‘declare’ is written in plural form.”
We thus learn that the obligation of zimun is the invitation of one person to two other people to give grace to Hashem for the food they have eaten.
The subsequent Mishnah explains that when ten eat together, the obligation of zimun rises a notch, and the “invitation to bentch” must include the mention of the Name of Hashem (Elo-heinu).
Although the obligation of zimun is derived by way of scriptural interpretation, the great majority of early authorities maintain that zimun is a rabbinic obligation (these include the Rid, the Ra’ah, the Rashba, the Meiri, and others). This is likewise ruled by later authorities (see Mishnah Berurah 192:1).
However, a minority opinion maintains that zimun is a full Torah mitzvah (see Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 31:1).
When Does the Obligation Apply?
The obligation of zimun applies when a group of people eat together; as noted above, one person “invites” the others to recite Grace after Meals. However, defining what constitutes “eating together” is not so simple.
Certainly, if a group both starts its meal in unison, and ends the meal together, its members have “eaten together,” and the group is obligated in zimun. However, many authorities write that beginning a meal together is a sufficient condition for “eating together,” even when the meal is not completed together. This opinion is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (200:1), and many later authorities concur (see Mishnah Berurah 200:5).
Likewise, if the meal is ended together, the Shulchan Aruch (193:2) rules that there is an obligation of zimun even if the group did not begin their meal together.
A number of other cases are discussed by poskim, such as a group that was formed during a meal without intention of ending the meal together, or when the meal was started by two individuals, and a third person joined later, yet before finishing the meal one of the three wishes to leave (see Mishnah Berurah 193:19, who writes that in the last case, the obligation does not apply; the Aruch Ha-Shulchan 193:15 writes that the obligation does apply).
It is important, however, to be aware of the basic definition of “eating together,” which implies the “togetherness” of the people eating the meal (see Beis Yosef 193, citing from Behag, Semag, and Riva, and rishonim to Berachos 42). In general, where each individual has his own table (such as in a restaurant, or in a yeshiva), this is not considered “eating together.” However, in a communal dining room environment, such as where all sing zemiros together or are served by one group of waiters they are seen as “eating together,” and they are required to say birchas hazimun.
Where the individuals have no connection to one another, but happen to be sitting at the same table, it follows that no obligation of zimun will apply.
Authorities discuss the question of a group that is not obligated in zimun, yet now wishes to bench together. Can the group form a zimun, despite of the fact that no obligation to do so is incumbent?
According to the Rema (193:2) and the majority of poskim (Levush, Bach, Perishah, Eliyah Rabba, Taz 195:1, and Aruch Ha-Shulchan 193:12), it is permitted for the group to be mezamen even where zimun is not mandatory.
However, the Magen Avraham (193:8) rules that where there is no obligation to form a zimun, a group should not do so, and this opinion is favored by the Mishnah Berurah (24).
Nonetheless, where there is an actual halachic doubt as to the obligation to make a zimun, it is correct to do so (Eliyah Rabbah 193:7). The Mishnah Berurah (193:26) applies this principle to a case of people eating as they travel together: Although this case involves a halachic doubt (perhaps since they are travelling, a group is not considered to be formed), zimun should be made. Thus, if there is some connection between those who are eating together, and it is unclear whether this connection is sufficient to be considered having “eaten together,” it is correct to make a zimun.
In such cases of doubt concerning the obligation of zimun, a group of ten should not be mezamen with the Name of Hashem (Elo-heinu), but rather use the standard form of zimun for three, without mentioning the Name.
Looking For and Breaking Up a Zimun
It is desirable for two who eat together to make some effort (within reason) to include a third person to eat with them, so that they can make a zimun (Shulchan Aruch 193:2). Similarly, a group of seven should preferably look for another three to perform a zimun of ten, with Hashem’s name (Mishnah Berurah 193:12).
This halachah does not apply to somebody eating alone, when there is no reason to look for others with whom to eat.
Because zimun is a halachic obligation, it follows that none of those eating together can leave without taking part in a zimun. It is likewise forbidden for the group to “break up” in a manner that doesn’t allow zimun to take place, or to break up a group of ten into smaller groups, so that zimun with the Name of Hashem won’t be possible (Shulchan Aruch 193:1).
This raises the question of what happens when one or more members of a group have to leave: How can somebody who must leave the group handle his zimun obligation?
Halachah offers the following principles. If two out of a group of three are interested in benching and the third is not, the two can require the third to take part in a zimun (Shulchan Aruch 200:1). Even if the third does not respond, they fulfill their obligation of zimun, although the third does not, if he did not respond (Mishnah Berurah 200:3).
However, one person who is ready to recite birkas hamazon cannot demand of the other two to respond to him. Having said this, if one member of the group needs to go, it is certainly proper for the other two to respond to his zimun, so that he should be free to leave.
If one out of the three recited birkas hamazon without waiting for a zimun is still present, the zimun is not lost, and the person who already bentched can still respond to it (Shulchan Aruch 194:1). This is true only if the person who benched ate bread; if he ate something else, and recited a berachah acharonah), he can no longer be included in the zimun (Mishnah Berurah 197:9). Moreover, if more than one out of a threesome has bentched, the zimun is lost.
Zimun applies only for birkas hamazon, and not for other berachos acharanos (after blessings). Thus, at least two people must have eaten at least a kezayis (approximately half a slice) of bread for a zimun to be possible.
However, a third person can answer the zimun even after having any food or drink, other than water (Shulchan Aruch 197:2). However, some rishonim write that this is the case only with regard to turning a regular zimun into a zimun of ten (zimun that includes the Name of Hashem). According to these authorities, if two ate bread and one ate fruit, they cannot perform zimun (ibid.).
To stay out of doubt, Sephardim avoid the situation where two who eat bread together invite a third to eat something other than bread (other grain products are a question). If it happened that two ate bread and one ate something else, they should perform zimun (ibid.). The minhag among Ashkenazim is that if the third prefers not eating bread, it is fine to give him something else to eat or drink and use him for the zimun (Mishnah Berurah 197:22).
Also important is a case in which two people have basically finished eating, when a third individual joins them. Zimun is only possible where the three people are somehow united in their eating, in terms of time and place. Yet, for this purpose it suffices if the two who have finished eating are still able to eat (in a halachic sense: they have not for instance washed mayim acharonim), and would eat at least a little more if they were served some particularly attractive food (Shulchan Aruch 197:1).
If the two already made preparations for birkas hamazon that preclude their continuing the meal (such as washing mayim acharonim), if follows that they cannot perform zimun together. Their meal is over.
When two of the diners are still eating their meal, and the third concludes his, the group may not bentch without zimun. However, if the group neither started nor finished together, they need not perform zimun (Mishnah Berurah 193:19). However, if they want to perform zimun, the two may use the latecomer even if he has not concluded eating (see Piskei Teshuvos 193:6).
Who Joins the Zimun: Minors
Can one (More than one certainly cannot make the required quorum.) minor (a boy under the age of bar mitzvah) be counted toward a zimun? For example, if two adults ate together with a child, is it possible for the child to be considered the third participant in the meal so that a zimun can be recited? Similarly, if nine men ate together with a child, can he be counted as the tenth person so that the group can recite the zimun with Hashem’s Name?
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 199:10, as based on the Gemara, Berachos 47b-48a, and the rulings of the Rif and the Rambam) rules that a minor can be counted toward a zimun, provided two conditions are met: 1) He must have reached the age of onas ha-pe’utos; 2) He must be aware of whom we recite birkas ha-mazon to.
The latter condition means that if someone asks him, “To whom are we reciting birkas ha-mazon?” he must either answer “Hashem,” or points upward, indicating that he understands the underlying concept of birkas ha-mazon.
The actual age of onas ha-pe’utos is the subject of a dispute among early authorities (as cited by the Beis Yosef), some writing that the age is nine years old, and others siding with a younger age of approximately six. The Magen Avraham rules in favor of the former opinion, but others (as cited by the Mishnah Berurah 199:24) write that one can include even a six-year-old, provided he understands that the berachah is recited to Hashem.
These criteria apply both to counting a child as the third in the group, and to counting him as the tenth participant to allow reciting a zimun with Hashem’s Name. However, only one minor can be counted toward a zimun. If an adult ate a meal with two minors, they cannot recite a zimun, even if both children meet the above criteria.
The halachah above applies to Sephardim, who follow the rulings of the Shlulchan Aruch. For those who follow the rulings of the Rema, a child is never counted towards a zimun, and only children over the age of bar-mitzvah are counted (Rema 199:10, based on Ravya, Maharil, and others).
However, if an Ashkenazi child eats with two Sephardi men, the child can join the zimun, and answer together with the men. If three Ashkenazi men join with six Sephardi men to form a zimun, and a child is added to complete the minyan, the Sephardim should recite the zimun with the Name of Hashem, but the Ashkenazim should refrain from answering with the Name (Vezos Ha-Berachah p. 127).
Women for Zimun
The Mishnah (Berachos 45a) writes that women do not join with men in the count for a zimun, the reason being (Ritva, Meiri; see Ran Megillah 6b) that their joining with men in forming a zimun is considered immodest. However, where a zimun of men exists, women are obligated in responding, and their halachos are the same as those of men obligated to answer.
There are times when a woman is busy with children or with serving the food, so that she doesn’t really eat with the group, and is therefore not obligated in zimun (Iggros Moshe, Vol. 5, no. 9, sec. 10). On Shabbos, however, where she is clearly part of the meal, she is certainly obligated, and it is forbidden for her to leave without participating in the zimun.
When women eat alone without men present, the Gemara (45b) cites a baraisa stating that women do make a zimun when they recite birkas ha-mazon together. Yet, according to Tosafos there is no obligation for women who eat together to make a zimun, but they may perform one if they so desire. The common practice today is that women do not make a zimun, but it remains permitted to do so (and some do so in practice).
The Rosh (7:4) disagrees with Tosafos, arguing that women are obligated in their own zimun just as men. Among other arguments (why should women be different?), the Rosh bases his ruling on the Gemara in Erchin (3a) which understands that the statement “all are obligated in zimun” means to include women.
The Shulchan Aruch (199:7) rules according to Tosafos, so that women eating by themselves may choose whether or not to make a zimun. However, the Biur Halachah (s.v. Nashim) quotes from the Vilna Gaon who rules in accordance with the Rosh, stating that women are obligated to make a zimun even when they eat only with other women. He concedes, however, that the accepted practice is for women not to make a zimun by themselves at all.
Recitation out Loud
What must the mezamen recite out loud?
It is important to realize that the original custom was that the mezamen recited the entire benching aloud, and others fulfilled their obligation by hearing him. This idea is ruled by the Rambam (Berachos 5:3): “And afterwards he recites… until he concludes all four blessings, and they answer Amen after each blessing.”
Yet, because of concerns for dwindling concentration spans, later authorities suggested that it is preferable for each person to say his own blessings. This way, a slip in concentration will not affect the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah.
The Shulchan Aruch (183:7; see Mishnah Berurah 27-28) thus rules that although the mezamen continues aloud until the end of the fourth blessing, all recite the blessings along with him quietly (this is the ruling given by most authorities, including the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 183:10; Chayei Adam 48:1 and others; according to the Bach, however, the participants must fulfill their mitzvah by listening to the mezamen).
The Sephardi custom is that even the ending of each blessing is recited by all in unison, and Amen is therefore not answered at the end of each blessing (for fear of interruption). The Ashkenazi custom (as ruled by the Rema) is that participants make an effort to finish each of the blessings before the mezamen, so they can then answer Amen at the end of each of his blessings.
Although it remains ideal for the mezamen to recite the entire birkas ha-mazon out loud (with others reciting quietly with him), the Mishnah Berurah (28) writes that at the very least the first berachah should be recited aloud. This is in line with the Talmudic opinion of Rav Sheshes (Berachos 46a), who rules that the zimun ceremony continues until the end of the first blessing.
For this reason, it is important that at large gatherings the mezamen should have a loud enough voice to be heard by all. However, where this is not possible, one can rely on those opinions that rule like Rav Nachman (the Rif and the Rambam; according to Rav Nachman zimun ends with the precursor to benching; there are also opinion among Rishonim who maintain that the entire dispute applies only to those planning to continue the meal, and not to those currently benching).
Zimun and benching is an opportunity to give thanks to Hashem not only for our food, but for all the goodness He bestows upon us. By thanking Hashem truly for all we have, we ensure that His blessings form part of our deep relationship with Him. May we always appreciate the good we have, and merit Hashem’s bounty in all facets of our lives.