of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



If there are many diners the pre-eminent one breaks [the bread]. Note: If they are equal and one of them is a kohen it is a mitzvah to give him precedence. If the kohen is unlearned someone learned [in Torah] takes precedence over him. If the kohen is learned too, but less so than the other, it is good to give him precedence, but there is no requirement to do so. If the host is with them it is he who breaks [the bread], even if there is a more important guest (and the one reciting the benediction should first say "With your permission").

The diners may not eat until the one who breaks [the bread] has eaten (but he is permitted to give each one his slice before he eats, and they will wait until he has eaten). But if each person is eating of his own loaf and they are not dependent on the loaf held by the person who breaks [the bread], they may taste before [he does]. On Shabbat they must each have two loaves in addition to those held by the person who breaks [the bread] and then it is permissible for them to eat before he does.


In his halakhic code Mishneh Torah [Berakhot 7:1-2], Rambam writes of customs of table politeness that were considered to be de rigeur in Amoraïc times and which thereafter became more or less established halakhah:

The sages of Israel followed many customs at meal times and they are all polite behaviour. They are [as follows]... It is the host who recites the benediction ha-motzi, concludes the benediction and then breaks [the bread]; but it is the guest who recites grace after the meal so that he may bless the host; and if they all [have the status of] host then the most pre-eminent among them breaks [the bread] and it is he who [also] recites grace after the meal...

This is the basis of the halakhah as stated by Rabbi Karo in paragraph 14 of Section 167. However, between them, Rabbi Karo and Rabbi Isserles expand the halakhah to include later innovations which derived from novel circumstances or matters which had not been made explicit by Rambam and his predecessors.

We must first note that there is a marked preference for a situation in which one person recites the benediction ha-motzi on behalf of all the diners. (We are dealing here with diners who constitute a cohesive group by prior arrangement. See Shabbat 047, explanation #4.) However, this raises the question of how to define which of the diners is pre-eminent - by no means an easy task! Paragraph 14 of Section 167 seeks to establish general rules in this matter - but, nevertheless, we can imagine that in earlier times when these customs were of much greater social importance the decision as to who does what must have been extremely 'delicate'. Luckily, nowadays - especially in Conservative/Masorti circles - these considerations have lost their 'seal of social standing'. Let me try to summarize the order of precedence (preference) established.

  • The host: this can also be the person in whose home the meal is eaten or the head of the family;
  • A kohen who is also an acknowledged Torah sage (unless there is present a greater sage);
  • A Torah scholar (talmid ĥakham): if several are present they are expected to defer to one acknowledged pre-eminent sage;
  • A kohen;
  • Anyone else in descending order of presumed Torah knowledge and practice.
The requirement to accord some kind of precedence to a kohen may seem quaint to modern sensibilities. The kohen is, of course, a man who claims descent from Aaron, the first high priest. The status of the kohen in Conservative congregations today is varied. Some have become very inclusive, according to the daughter of a kohen the status of kehunah; others have become very exclusive and have abolished the few ritual privileges still attaching to a kohen; yet others (blithely ignoring halakhic consistency) accord to the kohen some of his ritual privileges but not others. (For a fuller discussion on the kohen see Torah Reading 003.)

The Torah [Leviticus 21:1-15] enjoins us to respect the sanctity of the kohen:

And you shall sanctify him [the priest] because he offers the food of your God. He shall be [deemed to be] holy by you; I, God, sanctify you. [Leviticus 21:8]

Obviously, such a consideration could well be problematic for the modern Jew. Since we have already discussed this matter fully in the past I shall not repeat everything here but refer you to the discussion in Torah Reading 004.

The comment offered by Rabbi Isserles at the very end of paragraph 14, that "the one reciting the benediction should first say 'With your permission'", is interpreted by later authorities as being applicable to anyone who recites ha-motzi: even the most pre-eminent of sages should request the permission of the rest of the company before reciting the benediction and breaking the bread.

When one person recites ha-motzi on behalf of the whole company, after he has broken the bread he distributes pieces (or slices) of it to the rest of the diners. They should not eat their slice until the person who recited ha-motzi has eaten his slice. (However, see the discussion section in
Shabbat 047.) We have had occasion several times during our study of this topic to note the requirement that the action associated with a berakhah should follow immediately after the conclusion of the blessing (see, for example, Shabbat 019). This would suggest that the person who has recited ha-motzi should eat from his slice of ĥallah before distributing a slice to each of the other diners. However, the Tosafists (a school of medieval annotators of the Talmud) decided that (presumably for reasons of politeness) the person who recited ha-motzi may distribute slices to the others before he eats his slice - but they must not eat from their slice until he has eaten his. But even so, there are later poskim who have ruled against this and require the person who recited ha-motzi to first eat from his slice and only then distribute slices to the other diners. This seems to be accepted practice nowadays - at least among those who follow Ashkenazi usage; and the reasoning certainly seems to be halakhically consistent.

All that we have said so far assumes that one person will recite ha-motzi on behalf of the whole company (see explanation #2 above). However, it is also permissible for each of the diners to have his own loaf. When this is the case each diner may also recite ha-motzi for himself. This permission assumes that his loaf is whole (and not a slice) and that on Shabbat and YomTov he has two ĥallot and not just one. (If either of these conditions is not met he must wait for the general benediction recited on behalf of everybody.)


In our last shiur we described the difference between a "formal" meal and "informal" one. Cheryl Birkner Mack writes:

I think I understand that in our time, at an "informal" meal one may always take the option of having one person say ha-motzi for all others. Is the opposite true? Can participants in a "formal" meal choose to make ha-motzi for themselves? I have seen this practice often at seuda shlishit. Is it correct?

I respond:

Cheryl's question anticipated the subject of our present shiur. I hope that what I have written above explains the situation to which Cheryl refers. If each person has two ĥallot they may recite ha-motzi for themselves and do not have to wait for the general ha-motzi; however, the prevalent "feeling" of the poskim is that it is more in keeping with tradition to have the "host" act as enabler for them all. (Apart from the halakhic considerations that form the burden of the above shiur there is also the social consideration of quite literally sharing bread.) However, having said this, it seems to me that when the company is a large one and waiting for the slices to come from the "enabler" could take some considerable time, it would make much more sense for the diners to avail themselves of the permission to have each one recite his own ha-motzi.


Because next Tuesday the Bet Midrash Virtuali will be marking the 10th anniversary of the Rabin Mishnah Study Group, the next shiur of the Halakhah Study Group is scheduled for November 22nd.