of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


Women are required to recite Birkhat ha-Mazon [Grace After Meals], but it is not clear whether they are required [to do so] by Torah law (and therefore may enable men [to perform the mitzvah]) or whether they are only required [to recite Birkhat ha-Mazon] by rabbinic law and [therefore] may only enable those whose duty derives from rabbinic law.


To those of us with modern susceptibilities the content and wording of paragraph 1 of Section 186 will be anything in a scale that will range from 'quaintly amusing' to 'infuriating' and all points between. Those at the 'quaintly amusing' end of the scale will see in it nothing more than a relic from a bygone age; most of those at the 'infuriating' end of the scale receive the halakhah as given above as yet another example of where halakhah is worryingly out of kilter with modern realities.

The problem that paragraph 1 of Section 186 tries to address (not very successfully) is found in the very biblical verse that is the source for the requirement to recite birkhat ha-mazon. You will recall that Deuteronomy 8:10 reads as follows:

You shall eat, be satisfied and praise God for the good land that He has given you.

The sages asked themselves whether this is a command which is eternally applicable at all times or whether its scope is limited to certain times and certain circumstances. The question was relevant for them because the command is obviously a positive one: it is of the 'thou shalt' variety, not the 'thou shalt not' variety; and it is well-known that the sages had a general rule of exposition according to which females are excused all positive commandments that are circumscribed by a time consideration.

Clearly it is impractical to read the mitzvah as being eternally applicable: to do so would require the God-fearing to be eating every second of their lives. It is much more logical to see the verse as requiring us to praise God every time that we have eaten our fill. And that clearly constitutes a circumscription. However, if we accept this more logical reading of the verse we are ipso facto proclaiming that females are not required to praise God for the boon of the food that they eat. And that too is a logical absurdity. The solution seems to be that if women are not included in the biblical verse they must be included by rabbinic enactment. Hence the wording chosen by Rabbi Karo: "it is not clear whether women are required to recite birkhat ha-mazon by Torah law or whether they are only required to do so by rabbinic law."

Thus, from the practical point of view both males and females are required to recite birkhat ha-mazon; it is only when one considers other possible implications that problems arise. We have seen again and again that one person can 'enable' another person to fulfill a mitzvah under a large range of circumstances. But in order for that to be possible both the enabled and the enabler must share the same halakhic responsibility. If males are required to recite birkhat ha-mazon by Torah law and females are required to do so by rabbinic enactment it is clear that females cannot be 'enablers' for males.

Nowadays halakhic equality between the sexes is so widely accepted within Conservative Judaism that we may view it as being almost a truism for the Movement. Almost a decade ago I tried to deal with a philosophic reasoning that would prompt halakhah to make this adjustment. I did this when we were studying Tractate Berakhot. (One prior clarification is necessary: in the time of the sages most women were not free agents. They were under the tutelary protection either of their father or of their husband, and these men had juridical rights over the actions and decisions of their womenfolk. Therefore, say the sages, a woman must be excused from observing positive time-bound commandments because her time is not her own and "she is under the authority of another" [Kiddushin 30b].)

The exclusion of women must be understood ... in the light of their social status generally in the Graeco-Roman world at that time. In republican Rome - when it still practiced the 'ancient virtues' - only men reclined on couches to dine (round the outer edges of a U-shaped table). Despite everything that Hollywood spectaculars would have us believe, virtuous women would not be present, and if they did join the men at all they would sit on upright chairs (as we do) opposite the men, inside the U-shaped table. In a Roman household generally, the womenfolk would preside over the meal of the rest of the household, which would include the servants and children, of course. The discussion in the Gemara [Berakhot 45b] shows that similar arrangements obtained in the households of Eretz-Israel. However, it does make one differentiation: the Gemara says that the womenfolk may recite zimmun [the introductory invitation to birkhat ha-mazon] among themselves and the servants may do so as well, but they may not do so together (despite the fact that their level of obligation is identical); furthermore, children and servants may not recite zimmun together. The reason given for the separation of the women and the servants is to protect the Jewish women from the possible licentious overtures of the servants, and the reason given for the separation between the servants and the children is to protect the children from suspected paedophilic tendencies among the servants...

It seems to me that the modern adult Jewish woman is essentially different from her Talmudic counterpart in that her society does not recognize any difference in the nature of the control over her will, activities and behaviour than obtains in the case of her father or husband. Thus the logic for excusing women from religious duties on these grounds does not apply in her case. Let me put it differently. The modern woman is a legal and social personality that is not addressed by Talmudic legislation - because such a woman did not then exist. Therefore, we must either force the modern woman into the rôle assigned her by heretofore rabbinic realities (as Orthodoxy does today) or we must release her from being considered someone whose time, will and behaviour is in a non-voluntary fashion "under the control of others". I think that a growing segment of Conservative Judaism sees the modern woman more and more in the latter light. Thus, according to this rationale, her exclusion from zimmun with the menfolk is unjustified...

I know that my suggestion is novel; that is why it would be difficult to find an exact precedent. However, a reasonably similar solution was found by the sages when confronted by a similar question. Actually, we have already studied the passage in question, but under the circumstances it deserves repetition. On the day that Rabban Gamli'el was deposed from the presidency of the Sanhedrin

Yehudah, an Ammonite proselyte, presented himself in the Bet Midrash and asked whether he could marry into the Jewish people. "You may," responded Rabbi Yehoshu'a; "You may not," responded Rabban Gamli'el. Rabban Gamli'el objected, "But does it not [expressly] say 'An Ammonite and a Moabite may not marry into Israel' [Deuteronomy 23:4]?" Rabbi Yehoshu'a retorted, "And are the Ammon and Moab [of today] the originals? Sennacherib King of Assyria mixed up all the nations" ... Immediately they permitted him to marry into Israel.

I do not think that it is too far-fetched to claim that just as the sages accepted that the contemporary inhabitants of Ammon and Moab were not the Ammonites and Moabites referred to by the Biblical record, so we might claim that the modern adult woman, not being held to be under the sway of her father or husband, is not "a woman" as understood by the rabbis.

For these reasons (and others) it seems to me that nowadays within Conservative Judaism both men and women are equally required to recite birkhat ha-mazon, and therefore each may be an enabler for the other. Thus, paragraph 1 of Section 186 is now irrelevant.