There is a mishnah [Berakhot 6:6] which reads as follows:
BET MIDRASH VIRTUALI
of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
HALAKHAH STUDY GROUP
If [the diners] were two or more one [of them] recites the benediction for all of them. This applies if they dine together, [reclining] in a formal manner (the head of the family dining with all the members of the household is considered formal). But if they sit casually, because they do not form a group, each one recites his own benediction. If they say [something like] "Let's eat here or in such-and-such a place" this would be considered formal since they have pre-specified a place to eat [together] even if it is not [strictly] formal. Nowadays we do not recline, so our sitting at the same table (or upon the same cloth in the absence of a table) is considered formal. For them, even [just] forming a group was the equivalent of formality; but for us, even if we pre-specify a place to eat and [even] the head of the family with the members of the household it is of no avail unless they sit at the same table or tablecloth.
Where no pre-specification has been made and we have said that each one recites his own benediction, nevertheless, if one reciting the benediction has the mental intention of enabling them and the others have the mental intention of being enabled they have fulfilled their duty.
There is a mishnah [Berakhot 6:6] which reads as follows:
If they sit down to eat each one recites his own benediction; but if they recline one recites the benediction for all of them.
Clearly this mishnah is making a distinction between two manners of dining; but because customs and habits have changed we find it difficult to apprecite the distinction. With a few words of explanation, however, the matter becomes quite clear.
Every child has probably heard - even if only at the Seder table on Passover - that in Tannaïtic times it was customary for formal meals to be eaten Roman fashion, reclining on couches round a central, low table. Thus it is the act of reclining which gives the repast its formal character. (Among the Romans informal meals were eaten sitting at a table as we do; and even on a formal occasion the womenfolk and the servants would dine seated at their own table while the menfolk reclined. The women would join the men for desert and would sit on chairs.)
Paragraph 11 of Section 167 seeks to establish quite simply that if the meal is a formal one, one of the diners recites ha-motzi on behalf of all of them; but if the meal is informal each diner must recite his or her own benediction. In Tannaïtic times the status of the meal could be established quite simply: if the menfolk reclined it was a formal meal, but if everyone sat on chairs it was an informal meal. (Jewish tradition did not exclude the womenfolk and servants from the table, so it was necessary to point out that "the head of the family dining with all the members of the household is considered formal" - even if they sit on chairs.)
When it became the universal custom for all the diners to eat while seated at the table (with none reclining on couches) it became necessary to re-define what is a formal meal and what is informal. The basic definition is that if people dine together by pre-arrangement the meal is considered formal, but if they just happened to be together at the same table with no pre-arrangement the meal is considered informal.
When a group of people sit down together to share the Sabbath repast the meal thus becomes a formal meal and one person recites ha-motzi on behalf of them all.
Despite its rather circuitous phrasing paragraph 13 of Section 167 is simple to understand. When a meal answers to the definition of informality each diner should recite his or her own benediction. However, one of their number may recite the benediction on behalf of others (as in the case of a formal respast) under certain conditions: the person reciting the benediction must, at that time, have the distinct intention of being an enabler and each of the other diners who wihes to be included in the benediction must have the distinct intention of fulfilling the duty through the agency of the enabler. (We have encountered this possibility of enabling others to fulfill their religious: Kiddush, was an instance. See Shabbat 033 for an example.)
In Shabbat 046 I wrote: I have heard of celebrants who refrain from eating their slice of ĥallah until ĥallah has been served to all the other diners: this is wrong, even if the celebrant says nothing at all.
Elro'i Sadeh writes:
I learned from my late Rabbi Mori Yosef Qapach zt"l that the celebrant is not eating from the bread until all other diners have been served. He learns this from the Rambam in Hilkhot Berakhot Ch.7, Halakha 5 and Rabbi Qapach elaborates on this issue in his commentary on his edition of the Mishne Torah. This custom is also what I have seen being practised within traditional Yemenite families. Though it might not be the common custom, however I thought it may be refresing to know what is seen as 'wrong' to some opinions is 'right' to others.
First of all I really must permit myself to congratulate Elro'i. Rabbi Yosef Kapaĥ was one of the truly great scholars of our age. (He died about 6 years ago.) His work, particularly on Rambam and Sa'adya Ga'on is exemplary. If we had received only his translation of The Guide for the Perplexed into Hebrew "it would have been enough" to establish his unique contribution; but, of course, he did much more. To have been a student of Rabbi Yosef Kapaĥ must have been a great privilege indeed!
Elro'i is right: apparently there is here a distinct difference between accepted Ashkenazi custom and the custom of those who follow Rambam. (And by and large, of course, there is no section of Jewry that aggrandizes Rambam more than the Yemenites.) If I could I would mention all the various customs of the Jewish tribes all over the world. But, of course, I can't. For better or for worse, the Conservative Movement adopted the Ashkenazi tradition, and - as our banner says - the Virtual Bet Midrash is for the "Study of halakhah in the religious climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism".
I do permit myself one note. Despite what Elro'i writes of the teaching of Rabbi Kapaĥ, this is not mentioned as a Yemenite custom in Kapaĥ's book Halikhot Teman. (I checked!)
Gemar Ĥatimah Tovah to everybody. Because of the incidence of Sukkot and Simĥat Torah, and subsequently my own vacation, the next shiur in this series will not be, God willing, until 8th November.