Zimun: Joining Together
This week’s parashah, Parashas Eikev, includes the commandment of birkas hamazon: You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, 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 satisfied, the Torah instructs us to bless Hashem for the goodness that He bestowed upon us.
To the commandment of birkas hamazon, the Sages added a requirement of zimun: Before bentching, if a group eats together one of the members must “invite” the others to recite birkas hamazon.
This week’s article is dedicated to the mitzvah of zimun, and in particular to 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, and more, below.
An Invitation to Thank
The first Mishnah of the seventh chapter of Berachos, which deals with the laws of zimun, states: “Three people who 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 should 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: “One calls out, ‘Declare the greatness,’ to two others.” There must be at least two others, because the verb ‘declare’ is in plural form.
We thus learn that the obligation of zimun is the invitation of one person to two other people to give thanks 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 mention of the Name of Hashem (Elo-heinu).
Although the obligation of zimun is derived from scriptural interpretation, the great majority of early authorities hold 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. (This is the opinion of the Raavad; 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 entirely 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 being considered “eating together” – even if the meal is not completed together. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (200:1) and most later authorities (see Mishnah Berurah 200:5; the Mishnah Berurah mentions that some dispute this principle, as we will note below).
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, one of them being 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. Under these circumstances, the Mishnah Berurah (193:19) writes that 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 requires 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), it is not considered eating together. However, there are cases in which people sitting on different tables do join together, such as at a family gathering (Mishnah Berurah 193:18, citing from the Vilna Gaon), or a simchah where all are guests of the same baal simchah (see Vezos Ha-Berachah Chap. 14).
Some write that in a yeshiva environment, where all eat the same food, at the same time, a zimun may be made (see Minchas Yitzchak 8:8; Minchas Shlomo 2:4, sec. 20; see also Biur Halachah 195 s.v. shtei). This is particularly applicable on Shabbos, when there is clear intention to eat together at the same time.
Authorities discuss the question of a group that is not obligated in zimun, yet now wishes to bentch together. Can the group form a zimun, even if there is no obligation to do so?
According to the Rema (193:2) and many 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, 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.
Nonetheless, in cases of doubt as to 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 193:1). 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. He need not 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 bentching 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. Nonetheless, 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 may leave.
If one out of the three recited birkas hamazon without waiting for a zimun, 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 bentched 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). If two out of a threesome have bentched, the zimun is lost.
I Simply Have to Go
What happens when somebody knows that he will have to leave early, and that he won’t be able to join in a zimun with others? This is particularly common at a sheva berachos or wedding meal, when many stay until the end of the meal, yet many also leave early, without the opportunity to make an appropriate zimun.
What should be done in this case?
The Mishnah Berurah (200:5) writes that under extenuating circumstances, one may rely on the minority opinions (Bach and Magen Avraham) that where members of a group did not finish eating together (but only started together), it is permitted to leave without making a zimun. When circumstances are extenuating (the Mishnah Berurah refers to monetary loss, or similar circumstances), one may rely on this ruling.
However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:56) rules that under such circumstances, a person should have in mind, upon starting the meal, that he does not intend to join in with the others for purpose of a zimun. With this explicit intention, the obligation of zimun does not apply.
It is possible that other poskim do not concur with this (see Vezos Ha-Berachah Chap. 14, note 3) – but of course if one must one could certainly follow the advice of the Iggros Moshe, and where applicable have in mind that one does not wish to join with others for a zimun.
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, the third person may answer the zimun 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, then they should do a zimun (ibid.). The minhag among Ashkenazim is that if the third prefers not to eat bread, one may give him something else to eat or drink and use him for the zimun (Mishnah Berurah 197:22).
A further important point to raise is the case of two people who 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 tasty food (Shulchan Aruch 197:1).
If the two already made preparations for birkas hamazon that preclude their continuing the meal (for instance, having washed mayim acharonim), then they cannot perform zimun with the third person.
In a case where the two are still considered within their meal, and the third concludes what he is eating, the group may not bentch without zimun. However, if the group neither started nor finished together, they need not do a zimun (Mishnah Berurah 193:19).
There are many additional issues that are relevant for zimun: Can women or children be part of the zimun? How long does somebody answering a zimun have to pause before continuing his meal? Must zimun be made with a cup of wine? Who is worthy of being the mezamen, and what is the interaction between the mezamen and others who are bentching? These issues will please G-d be addressed in a future article (or articles).