Shiur #08: The Obligation of Women to Recite Grace after Meals

  • Rav Chaim Navon

            The Mishna in tractate Berakhot (20a-20b) establishes that women are obligated to recite the Grace after Meals (Birkat Ha-mazon). The Gemara asks: Surely, this is obvious; why would we have thought that women are exempt from this obligation? It answers that in light of the verse, "This shall be, when the Lord shall give you in the evening meat to eat, and in the morning your fill of bread" (Shemot 16:8), we might have thought that Birkat Ha-mazon is connected to the natural daily cycle of a meal in the evening and a meal in the morning, and therefore we might have said that Birkat Ha-mazon should be treated like a time-bound positive commandment, from which women are exempt. Therefore, the Mishna teaches that this is not the case, as women are indeed obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon.

 

            Later in that passage, the Gemara raises the question whether women are obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law or only by Rabbinic enactment. This question has a practical ramification regarding whether a woman can recite Birkat Ha-mazon for a man. A man is certainly obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law; if a woman is obligated only by Rabbinic enactment, she cannot discharge a man's obligation for him.[1]

 

            How are we to understand the Gemara's uncertainty? Surely the Gemara has already clarified that Birkat Ha-mazon is not a time-bound positive commandment. This being the case, why shouldn't women be obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law?

 

            Rashi explains that the biblical passage dealing with Birkat Ha-mazon connects that obligation to the inheritance of the land of Israel: "When you have eaten and are replete, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you" (Devarim 8:10). When the people of Israel entered the land of Israel, the land was divided among the men, whereas the women did not receive a portion. Thus there is room to argue that they are not obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law. The Tosafot (ad loc., s.v. nashim) reject this suggestion, asserting that were this the case, a similar question would arise with respect to priests and Levites, as they too were not given a portion in the land. Rather, argue the Tosafot, there is reason to say that women are not obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law, because they cannot recite the words: "For Your covenant which You have sealed in our flesh; for Your Torah which you have taught us," since women are not obligated in the commandments of circumcision or Torah study.

 

            The Tosafot assume that women cannot recite these two clauses. The Gemara below (49a) states: "Whoever does not mention 'covenant' and 'Torah' in the blessing relating to the land… has not fulfilled his obligation." The Tosafot explain the Gemara's question on p. 20b regarding the obligation of women to recite Birkat Ha-mazon as follows: Does this rule, that one who omits these words has not fulfilled his obligation, relate even to women, so that by Torah law their Grace is not defined as Birkat Ha-mazon, as it mentions neither the covenant nor the Torah? Or perhaps it applies only to men, who are obligated to mention these things, but failed to do so, and so their Grace is not considered valid Birkat Ha-mazon.

 

            The Meiri, however, disagrees with the Tosafot's basic assumption:

 

As for women, some say that they do not mention the covenant or the Torah, as these things are not relevant to them. In our opinion, however, even women mention them, just as they mention the land, even though they do not have a portion in the land, as they are part of [the people of] Israel, and they say this for [the people of] Israel. And [the Sages] said regarding slaves with respect to first fruits, that they bring them and recite the accompanying passage, even though it says: "That you have promised to our fathers." (Meiri, Berakhot 48b, s.v. kol mi)

 

            The Meiri argues that even women must mention the covenant and the Torah, as they are part of the people of Israel, to whom the covenant and the Torah belong as a people. This is like the law governing slaves, who can refer to the patriarchs as "our fathers" even though genetically they are not their ancestors, because the patriarchs are the fathers of the people of Israel, and slaves are part of the people of Israel.[2]

 

            The Gemara in Berakhot 49a seems to support the position of the Tosafot:

 

Rav Chananel said in the name of Rav: If one has omitted to mention the covenant, Torah and kingship he has still fulfilled his obligation: covenant, because it does not apply to women; Torah and kingship, because they apply neither to women nor to slaves.

 

Not only does a man fulfills his obligation to recite Birkat Ha-mazon even if he fails to mention the covenant and Torah (because "they do not apply to women"), but the Gemara even relates that Rav Chisda actually acted in this manner and omitted mention of the covenant and Torah. The Gemara, however, goes on to disagree with Rav, asserting that the accepted opinion is that one who omits to mention the covenant and Torah has not fulfilled his obligation. But Rav's words imply that all agree that women do not mention the covenant and Torah; the only disagreement is whether this impacts upon the formula of the blessing for men. This is a strong proof in support of the Tosafot.

 

            How does the Meiri explain this passage? He could argue that it is merely the position of Rav. We have suggested that those who disagree with Rav maintain that a man must make mention of the covenant and Torah, even though a woman is exempt from doing so; but perhaps they say that even women must mention the covenant and Torah.

 

            The Meiri's explanation of the Gemara's question on p. 20b is similar to that of Rashi (Meiri, Berakhot 20b, s.v. ma she-bei'arnu). According to him, women must mention the covenant and Torah when reciting Birkat Ha-mazon, but still the question arises whether or not they are obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law. This is because the biblical passage dealing with Birkat Ha-mazon connects that obligation to the produce of the land. Even if this connection is not reflected in the wording of the blessing, there is room to say that women who have not received a portion in the land of Israel, are not obligated by Torah law in Birkat Ha-mazon.

 

            How has the law been decided? Are women obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law or only by Rabbinic enactment? The Rashba (ad loc.) rules that women are obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law. The Ramban as well (Milchamot, 12a in Alfasi) infers from the Rif that women are obligated by Torah law, as the Gemara seems to imply at the beginning of the passage, when it says that Birkat Ha-mazon is not a time-bound positive commandment, and therefore they are obligated. He adduces proof from the passage that we already saw in Berakhot 49a. We have seen that, according to Rav, even men can omit mention of the covenant and Torah, because these passages do not apply to women. The Ramban reasons as follows: If women are exempt by Torah law from Birkat Ha-mazon, why must the blessing's formulation be appropriate even for them? How is it possible to learn from the formula recited by women about the minimal formula recited by men? By Torah law, women are not at all connected to this blessing! This proves then that women are in fact obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon even by Torah law. Even though the law does not follow Rav with respect to the minimum formula that must be recited by men, we can learn from what he says that he assumes as obvious that women are obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law, and regarding this point we find no one who disagrees.

 

            Certain Rishonim, however, rule that the Gemara's uncertainty was never resolved. So states the Rosh (chap. 3, no. 13) and the Ba'al ha-Ma'or (ad loc.), and so also rules the Rambam:

 

Women and slaves are obligated to recite Birkat Ha-mazon. There is a doubt whether their obligation stems from the Torah, since [this is a positive mitzva] that is not bound to a specific time, or whether their obligation does not stem from the Torah. Therefore, they should not fulfill the obligation on behalf of others. Minors, however, are obligated to recite Birkat Ha-mazon by Rabbinic enactment, in order to train them to perform mitzvot. (Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 5:1)

 

            Following the Rambam, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 186:1) also rules that the uncertainty remains whether women are obligated in Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law or by Rabbinic enactment. The Mishna Berura (ibid. no. 3) writes that the Acharonim disagree about a woman who ate to satiety and is now in doubt as to whether she recited Birkat Ha-mazon – must she repeat Birkat Ha-mazon or not. If she is obligated by Torah law, she must repeat the blessing, for in cases of doubt concerning a Torah law, we rule stringently. But if she is obligated only by Rabbinic enactment, she need not repeat the blessing, as for in cases of doubt concerning a Rabbinic enactment, the rule is that we adopt leniency. As for the halakha in practice, since many Rishonim maintain that a woman is obligated by Torah law, a woman who relies upon them and repeats the blessing, has not lost out.[3]

 

            What about mentioning the covenant and Torah in Birkat Ha-mazon? We have seen that the Tosafot and the Meiri disagree on this point, whether the formula recited by women is different from that recited by men.

 

            Women are not obligated in Torah study, but does that mean that therefore they cannot recite in their blessing: "For Your Torah which you have taught us"? It is possible that these words refer to the practical observance of the Torah, and in this the difference between women and men is miniscule in comparison to what is common to the two groups. It is also possible that we are dealing here with the fundamental connection to Torah that derives from membership in the people of Israel, and not specifically to practical observance or study. And even if we speak about Torah study in practice, women are indeed obligated to study those mitzvot that apply to them (Rema, Yoreh De'a 246:6).

 

            What about mentioning the covenant of circumcision? The Beit Yosef states as follows:

 

Even regarding women there is room for discussion, as one is only called a man if he has a wife (Yevamot 63a), so that the man and the woman constitute a single entity, and thus [women] can say: "For Your covenant which You have sealed in our flesh." (Beit Yosef, Orach Chayyim 187)

 

The Beit Yosef argues that nothing prevents a woman from mentioning circumcision, as a man and a woman are treated like a single entity, and so the covenant can be seen as sealed in the flesh of the two of them.

 

            We have seen that already the Gemara on p. 49a implies that women do not mention the covenant or the Torah. The Beit Yosef might perhaps accept the Meiri's understanding of the passage that the Amoraim disagree about the matter. Or perhaps the Beit Yosef means to say that even though women are not obligated to mention the covenant and the Torah, they are permitted to do so.

 

            In practice, the Shulchan Arukh does not explicitly relate to the question whether or not women must mention the covenant and Torah in Birkat Ha-mazon. In the wake of his remarks in the Beit Yosef, perhaps he can be understood as ruling that there is no difference between men and women. The Rema writes that that woman and slaves should not mention the covenant or the Torah (187:3). The Mishna Berura (no. 9) notes that in our day women are accustomed to mention both the covenant and the Torah, as they too are connected to these two mitzvot, for it was in the merit of these two mitzvot that the entire people of Israel inherited the land.

 

            The Magen Avraham implies that we are dealing here not with a mere custom, but with an obligation. Surely women are obligated to study the mitzvot that they are obligated to fulfill, and so they too are connected to Torah study. He proves from the Gemara in Avoda Zara (27a) that women are also connected to the mitzva of circumcision. He therefore maintains that even women are obligated to mention circumcision and the Torah. How does the Magen Avraham understand the Gemara on p. 49a? Surely it is related there that Rav wished to compare the wording of the blessing for men (at least bedi'eved) to that for women, and that Rav Chisda actually acted in that manner, omitting mention of circumcision and the Torah. While in practice we reject the positions of Rav and Rav Chisda with respect to the obligation falling upon men, it would appear that we can rely on them with respect to the proper wording of the blessing to be recited by women! The Magen Avraham explains that Gemara as follows:

 

That which is stated in the Gemara that Rav Chisda would not mention circumcision or the Torah, that is because Rav Chisda would recite Zimmun and fulfill the obligation even of women, and therefore he did not mention circumcision or the Torah, as they do not apply to women in the same way that they apply to men, for in any case men undergo actual circumcision and study the entire Torah. (Magen Avraham, Orach Chayyim 187, no. 3)

 

            According to the Magen Avraham, Rav and Rav Chisda did not base their position on the fact that women are exempt from mentioning circumcision and Torah study in Birkat Ha-mazon, but rather on the fact that the meaning of circumcision and Torah study for women is different than that for men. Men are directly obligated in the mitzvot of circumcision and Torah study, while women are not. Rav Chisda recited Birkat Ha-mazon to fulfill the obligation of both men and women, and since men and women mean different things when they mention circumcision and Torah, he simply omitted them and mentioned only what is the same for both. Admittedly, this is a rather forced explanation of the Gemara. Nevertheless, even if there is no actual obligation, it has been the customary practice of women for generations to mention circumcision and the Torah in Birkat Ha-mazon.

(Translated by David Strauss) 

 


[1] In a forthcoming shiur regarding mutual responsibility (areivut) with respect to women, I will address the question why it is that if women are obligated only by Rabbinic decree, they cannot discharge the obligation of a man which is by Torah law.

[2] This formulation is slightly different from the famous formulation of the Rambam in his letter to Rabbi Ovadya the Proselyte (Responsa ha-Rambam, no. 293).

[3] Rav Ovadya Yosef ruled that in a case of doubt, a woman should not repeat the blessing, for in cases of doubts concerning blessings, we rule leniently (Yechaveh Da'at  vol. 6, no. 10). The Mishna Berura (no. 3) rules that a woman should not recite Birkat ha-Mazon for a man who ate to satiety and is obligated to recite Birkat Ha-mazon by Torah law.