When Permission Meets Obligation
“Women make a mezuman for themselves.”
A few words of introduction to the mitzvah of zimun: When three or more people have eaten together they become obligated in the mitzvah of zimun. One person of the group leads the others, inviting them in a prescribed manner to say Birkat Hamazon together. The group’s leader is known as the mezamen — “the one who invites.” The group is called a mezuman. According to most authorities the mitzvah of zimun was instituted by our Sages and is not a mitzvah of the Torah.
What is the reason for this mitzvah? In general, a person can make a beracha for someone else only if they form a single unit — as if they are one body. There is a very special pleasure derived by the diners when eating together as a group of three, a pleasure that binds them together as if they were one body. Therefore, it is correct that they also give praise to
The Maharal of Prague explains the significance of the number three as being the “minimum of a multitude” that combine to form a single unit. We see this in geometry. If one takes one or two straight lines he cannot join them together to produce a closed form. However, with three lines he can make a triangle — a closed unit.
In this beraita on our daf, Rashi and Tosefot explain that three or more women who ate together have permission to make a mezuman for themselves. Although men who ate together have an obligation — and not merely permission — women have permission but not an obligation. The Poskim explain that women nowadays do not make a mezuman of their own, based on this ruling that their status is one of permission and not obligation.
Rabbeinu Asher and Rabbeinu Yona, however, write that women in fact are obligated in the mitzvah of zimun. A few reasons are offered for this position, especially the words of Chazal (Erachin 3a): “Everyone is obligated in zimun,” which comes to “also include women in the mitzvah.”
The Aruch HaShulchan answers for Rashi and Tosefot that this teaching refers to women who eat together with three or more men, in which case the women are indeed as obligated as the men. But when the women eat alone, they have permission to make a mezuman, without an obligation.
The halacha is stated in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 199:7: “Women may make a mezuman for themselves (i.e. they are not obligated to do so but have permission to do so). But when women eat together with (a mezuman of) men, they are obligated in the mitzvah of zimun.”
An interesting question arises in the case where three men and three women eat together and want to make one mezuman for the men and a different one for the women. The halacha is that that are permitted to split into two groups, even though the women — who had an obligation due to their eating with the men — would seem to be in a lesser mitzvah-status of “permission” when making a mezuman separately. How can they fulfill their obligation when they are separate and apparently no longer obligated?
One answer is that the obligation they gained when eating with the men does not cease to be an obligation for them even when they separate from the men to make their own mezuman. It is an obligation that is part of their being and stays with them despite the changed makeup of their mezuman. An addition point to allow this separation and to help understand it is to give consideration here to the ruling of the Gaon from Vilna, that even had the women eaten separately they would have a zimun obligation (like the opinion of Rabbeinu Asher and Rabbeinu Yonah). (Chafetz Chaim in Shaar Hatziun 199:9)
More than forty years ago I heard from Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zatzal, that when a woman has eaten with a mezuman of men, thus having a zimun obligation, it is important for the men to be sensitive to her obligation. This entails an obligation on them to call for her if she is busy away from the table when they are ready to say the beracha of zimun, and they should also wait a reasonable amount of time for her to return so that she may fulfill her obligation along with them — an obligation that is identical to theirs.
- Berachot 45b