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Laws of Zimun: Who Joins and Who Leads?


This week we continue to discuss the laws of zimun, the “invitation to bentch” that precedes birkas ha-mazon when a bread meal was eaten by a group of three people or more.

In the previous installment we presented the basic laws of when a zimun is obligatory, which depend on the grouping together of a number of individuals to eat their meal. In addition, we investigated the possibility of an “optional zimun,” and discussed the options available to somebody who has to leave a joint meal before the communal bentching.

This week we turn our attention to the laws of the zimun itself, and in particular to questions of “who joins?” and “who leads?” Who should perform the zimun ceremony? Who is considered the ba’al ha-bayis, and what right does he have to decide who the mezamen is? Can women and children form part of a zimun group? And what is the halachah of women eating on their own?

These questions, and more, are discussed below.

The Mitzvah of Zimun

The Gemara (Berachos 53b) teaches that it is a mitzvah to be the mezamen – the one who leads the zimun. Rav Huna taught his son that if he is honored with an offer to perform the zimun, he should grab the mitzvah.

It is especially wrong for a guest to refuse to perform the zimun. The mezamen recites a special yehi ratzon blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis (see below), and refraining from the zimun is thus an implicit refusal to bless the ba’al ha-bayis (Mishnah Berurah 14). The Gemara says that a guest who refuses to perform the zimun upon a cup of wine causes his days to be shortened – though this stringency may not apply today, when every individual recites the personal blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis as part of his bentching (see Sha’ar Ha-Zion 201:14).

According to the Magen Avraham (201:5) the principle applies only to zimun over a cup of wine, and not to zimun without a cup of wine. However, the Shulchan Aruch (201:3) does not mention the wine. Even where no cup is offered zimun remains an important mitzvah, so that one should certainly not refuse it (Mishnah Berurah 14).

A Kohen or a Torah Scholar

If one of the assembled members of the group is a Torah scholar, it is a mitzvah to honor him with the zimun. Likewise, if one of the members of the group is a Kohen, he should be honored with the zimun. This is derived from the general rule of giving a Kohen preference, based on the instruction ve-kidashto, implying a preference for any matter of kedushah (Magen Avraham 201:4).

Where no Kohen is present, some write that a Levi should be given the honor (see Mishnah Berurah 201:13), and some write that an avel should be given preference with the zimun (see Mishnah Berurah 201:1). From experience, it seems that today it is not generally customary to give precedence to a Levi or an avel in leading the zimun.

Where both a Kohen and a Torah scholar are present (and where the Kohen himself is not a Torah scholar), the Torah scholar takes precedence over the Kohen (Megillah 28a). However, it is permitted for a Torah scholar to forego his preference – on a one-time basis – in favor of the Kohen. Where the Kohen is also a Torah scholar but a greater Torah scholar is also present, it is correct for the non-Kohen scholar to defer to the Kohen (see Tosafos, Megillah ibid.; Rema 167:14 and Mishnah Berurah 71).

Even where no Kohen is present, a Torah scholar may allow others to be mezamen, to honor, educate or encourage them, or for some other reason.

Another principle found in the Gemara (Sotah 38b) is that the kos shel berachah (the cup of wine over which zimun is recited) is only given to a tov ayin, meaning to somebody who is generous with his money and hates nefarious gain (Rashi). The blessings of such a person are assumed to be more meaningful than of somebody who lacks this trait.

Zimun by Guests

When some members of the group are guests at someone’s home, it is customary for one of the guests to be the mezamen. The reason is so that the yehi ratzon blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis should be recited. In the past, the only person who recited birkas ha-mazon was the mezamen, and other members of the group would fulfill their obligation by listening to his berachos and answering amen. It was thus important that a guest should be the mezamen, so that the blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis should be recited.

Even today, when the general custom is that each member of the group recites his own birkas ha-mazon, it remains customary to offer the honor of the zimun to a guest, who adds the blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis out loud in his bentching. The other participants answering amen to his blessing.

However, the homeowner reserves the right to be mezamen himself, and this is also an acceptable practice (see below), though where a guest is a Torah scholar and the homeowner is not, it is correct to honor the Torah scholar with the zimun. Even if he was not honored with the zimun, a guest should still recite the yehi ratzon blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis.

Although among Ashkenaz communities it had become somewhat customary for guests to say a shortened blessing for the ba’al ha-bayis (adding just a short Ha-Rachaman), it is correct to insert the entire blessing as Chazal enacted (Berachos 46a). In recent times the full version has been reinstated in many siddurim and bentchers (see Lechem Chamudos; Mishnah Berurah 201:5).

The Homeowner’s Prerogative

The Gemara (Berachos 46b) records that Rebbi honored Rav with leading the zimun in the presence of Rav Chiya, even though Rav was young and Rav Chiya was the greater of the two.

Several authorities derive from here that the homeowner retains the right to honor whichever guest he chooses with the zimun, even if he wishes to choose somebody who is a lesser Torah scholar. This right is noted by the Rema (201:1), and several later authorities concur (see Peri Megadim; Ma’amar Mordechai; Mishnah Berurah 4).

The definition of a ba’al ha-bayis is the person whose food is being eaten. Where guests pay for their food, there is no ba’al ha-bayis, and the identity of the mezamen is decided by the group (Mishnah Berurah 201:7). However, where there is nobody to whom the meal belongs, the host is considered the ba’al ha-bayis, even if the food is not his (this is implied by the Sha’ar Ha-Zion 6).

Who Joins the Zimun: Minors

Can a minor – a boy under the age of bar mitzvah – be counted towards a zimun? Meaning, 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 made? Similarly, if nine men age 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 towards a zimun, provided two conditions are met: 1) He must have reached the age of onas ha-pe’utos; 2) He must know to Whom we recite birkas ha-mazon.

The latter condition means that if someone asks him, “To Whom are we reciting birkas ha-mazon?” he must either answer, “Hashem,” or point 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 write that the age is nine years old, and others give 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 that 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, since (Ritva, Meiri; see Ran Megillah 6b) their joining with men in forming a zimun is considered immodest. However, where a zimun of men exists, women are obligated to respond, and their halachos are the same as those of men.

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 would not be obligated in zimun (Iggros Moshe, Vol. 5, no. 9, sec. 10). On Shabbos, however, where she clearly joins in the meal, she would certainly be obligated and it is forbidden for her to leave without participating in the zimun (see last week’s article for details).

When women eat alone, 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. Rather, they may make a zimun if they so desire. Accordingly, the common practice today is that women do not make a zimun.

However, the Rosh (7:4) disagrees with Tosafos, arguing that women are obligated in their own zimun just as men are. Among other arguments, the Rosh bases his ruling on the Gemara in Erchin (3a) which understands that the statement “all are obligated in zimun,” includes 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 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. However, he concedes that the accepted practice is for women not to make a zimun by themselves at all.

There remain a number of outstanding zimun issues that should be discussed: Is a cup of wine mandatory for zimun? What is the correct text for zimun? How long must somebody who is continuing his meal wait when responding to a zimun? Please G-d, we will discuss these final matters at a future opportunity.

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