Shiur 15: May Birkat Chatanim (Sheva Berakhot) be Recited by a Woman?
Whether or not a woman may recite one of the Sheva Berakhot at the wedding ceremony or at one of the Sheva Berakhot meals depends on how we understand these berakhot.
We read in tractate Kalla as follows (1:1):
A bride without a blessing is forbidden to her husband as if she were a menstruous woman. Just as a menstruous woman who has not immersed [in a mikve] is forbidden to her husband, so too a bride without a blessing is forbidden to her husband. And from where do we know that birkat chatanim (the bridegrooms' blessing) is by Torah law? As it is stated: "And they blessed Rivka, and said to her, You are our sister, be you the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let your seed possess the gate of those which hate them" (Bereishit 24:9).
And the Gemara in Ketubot states (7a):
Rav Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna who said in the name of Rav Abba bar Zavda who said in the name of Rav: Both a virgin and a widow require a blessing."
We must clarify the nature of this blessing and who is obligated to recite it.
The words of the Baraita in tractate Kalla, that a bride is forbidden without a blessing, seem to imply that we are dealing with an obligation that falls upon the bridegroom to recite a blessing in order to permit his bride to him. We do not appear to be dealing here with a birkat ha-mitzva - a blessing recited over the performance of a mitzva (as the Ran explains in Ketubot 7b, s.v. mai, that there is no birkat ha-mitzva over betrothal, because the mitzva is performed in two stages – first, the betrothal, and later, the marriage). It is possible, however, that since a wedding is not only a mitzva, but also a fundamental human need and desire, the Sages enacted a birkat ha-shevach - a blessing of praise - which allows a person to derive pleasure from the great privilege of building a home and releases him from the obligation of reciting a birkat ha-mitzva. We find a similar phenomenon regarding the "asher bakhar banu" blessing in the blessings recited over the Torah, which includes both praise and a birkat ha-mitzva; and also in the "ahavat olam" blessing, which is a blessing of praise that also serves as a birkat ha-mitzva for the mitzva of keriyat shema, and sometimes even for the mitzva of Torah study.
In contrast, the Baraita cites the blessing received by Rivka as the source of the obligation of birkat chatanim. This seems to imply that we are dealing with a blessing that falls upon others to bless the bride and groom.
It might be suggested that the birkat chatanim recited by others is what permits the bride to her husband, but it seems to me that it is more reasonable to understand that the Baraita is alluding to two different berakhot. The first berakha – without which the bride is forbidden to her groom – must be recited by the groom, whereas the second berakha is a different blessing which is cast upon the community. Even though we ordinarily refer to all seven blessings as birkat chatanim, the Baraita uses this designation only with respect to the blessing recited by the other members of the community.
TWO DIFFERENT OBLIGATIONS REGARDING SHEVA BERAKHOT
The Tosafot (Ketubot 7b, s.v. she-ne'emar) raise the possibility that the blessing in the case of Rivka was a blessing over the betrothal and not a blessing over the marriage. According to this, it would seem that that the Baraita in tractate Kalla refers to two different blessings. In the end, however, the Tosafot reject this understanding.
In the Gemara in Ketubot, Rav Yehuda brings the text of the blessings, and in this context Rashi writes:
But "shehakol bara li-khevodo" is not part of this order. Rather, [it is recited] over the assembly of people who have gathered as an act of kindness, in remembrance of the kindness that God performed for Adam when He served as his best man and took care of him. This assembly is an honor to God, and this blessing was enacted over it. It is fit to be recited from the time of the assembly, but since there is a blessing over a cup [of wine], [the Sages] required that it be recited over it. (Rashi, Ketubot 8a, s.v. same'ach tesamach)
It follows from the words of Rashi that the seven blessings of Sheva Berakhot do not all stem from the same source. Rather, there are different blessings which were joined together because of the cup of wine. It might, therefore, be argued that some of the blessings are an obligation falling upon the groom, while others are recited by other people, some as a blessing to the bride and groom, and another over the assembly of the people.
It is also possible to say that regarding all the blessings there is an obligation that falls upon the groom and an obligation that falls upon the community. According to this understanding, we are dealing with two different obligations, each with its own character. Regarding the groom, the blessings serve to permit his bride to him and are similar to birkot ha-mitzva, whereas regarding the community, the blessings are merely blessings of praise. This might be the reason that according to some Acharonim, the groom must have intention to fulfill his obligation when he hears the Sheva Berakhot.
The Gemara in Ketubot (7b) records an Amoraic dispute regarding the source of the law that birkat chatanim requires the presence of ten people:
Rav Nachman said: Huna bar Natan said to me: [The Tanna] taught: From where [do we derive] that birkat chatanim [requires the presence of] ten? Because it is said: "And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, Sit down here" (Ruth 4:2). But Rabbi Abahu said: [We derive it] from here: "Bless God in the congregations, the Lord from the fountain of Israel" (Tehilim 68:27). And how does Rav Nachman expound the verse of Rabbi Abahu? He needs it for [an exposition] like that which was taught: Rabbi Meir used to say: From where [do we derive] that even embryos that were in their mothers' wombs sang the song by the sea? For it is said: "Bless God in the congregations, the Lord from the fountain of Israel." And the other? If so, let the verse say: "From the womb." What [is meant by] "from the fountain"? Concerning matters of the fountain. And how does Rabbi Abahu expound this verse of Rav Nachman? He requires that [verse] in order to expound: And Ammonite, and not an Ammonitess; a Moabite, and not an Moabitess. For if it should enter your mind [that it is required] for the benediction, would it not have been sufficient if they had not been elders? And the other? If it should enter your mind [that it is required] for expounding, would it not have been sufficient if they had not been ten? Yes, to publicize the matter, and it is as Shemuel said to Rav Chana of Baghdad: Go out and bring me ten [people] and I will tell you in their presence: [If] someone assigns [a gift] to an embryo, it acquires [it]. But the law is: [If] someone assigns [a gift] to an embryo, it does not acquire [it].
Rav Nachman does not respond to Rabbi Abahu's argument that perhaps Boaz assembled ten elders in order to publicize the matter. He remains firm in his position that we can derive from Boaz the need for the presence of ten for birkat chatanim. It is possible to understand that he disagrees with the possibility that the ten were necessary in order to publicize the matter, and therefore he maintains that we can learn from here the requirement of ten. There is, however, another way of understanding the Gemara: Rabbi Abahu maintains that since the ten were needed in order to publicize the matter, we cannot learn from here that ten are needed for birkat chatanim. According to him, the need for ten derives from a different reason. Rav Nachman, on the other hand, maintains that even if the ten were needed in order to publicize the matter, we can still learn from here about birkat chatanim, because the whole need for ten regarding birkat chatanim is to publicize the matter.
It might be suggested that the issue of the source is connected to the basic understanding of the obligation of Sheva Berakhot. Rav Nachman who learns from Boaz maintains that it is an obligation falling upon the groom; he must invite ten people in order to publicize the matter. Rabbi Abahu, on the other hand, speaks of a blessing recited by others "in the congregations," and therefore ten are required.
The Rambam also implies that we can talk about an obligation falling upon the community and an obligation falling upon the bridegroom. In Hilkhot Ishut 10:3, he writes: "And birkat chatanim must be recited in the groom's house prior to the wedding…." It is not stated here who must recite the blessing, and one may understand that all those present must recite the blessing (in accordance with the Rambam's explanation of the need for "new faces," that since they did not yet participate in Sheva Berakhot, the obligation, therefore, falls upon them to bless the bride and groom). In halakha 6 it says:
[If] one betroths a woman, and recites birkat chatanim, but has not yet secluded himself with her in his house, she is still a betrothed woman. For birkat chatanim does not make the marriage, but rather entry into the chuppa. [If] he betroths her and brought her into the chuppa, but did not recite birkat chatanim, she is fully married, and he recites the blessing, even after several days.
Here we are talking about a bridegroom who is obligated to recite the blessing, and if he fails to do so at the proper time, an obligation falls upon him to recite the blessing even if some time has passed. In halakha 5, he writes:
Birkat Chatanim is only recited in the presence of ten free adults, and the bridegroom [himself] is included in the number.
The Acharonim ask: Why was it necessary to emphasize that the bridegroom is included in the number of people required? Would we have thought that they should not be included? It is possible that were we to maintain that the blessing falls only upon the others who bless the bride and groom, we would then require ten other people in addition to him. It was therefore necessary to emphasize that the obligation to recite the blessing rests also upon him and not only upon the others, and that he is included in the ten.
The Ramach raises an objection against the Rambam in halakha 3: Why is it necessary to recite the Sheva Berakhot prior to the actual marriage? The Vilna Gaon (cited in the Frankel edition of the Rambam) brings the disagreement between the Bet Yosef and the Ran on this matter. According to the Bet Yosef (beginning of sec. 62), the reason is that a blessing over a mitzva must be recited prior to its performance. According to the Ran, these blessings are blessings of praise, and the reason that the blessings must be recited prior to the actual marriage is that the bride is forbidden to seclude herself with her husband without a blessing. We see then that according to the Bet Yosef, there is here an element of birkat ha-mitzva, as was proposed earlier, and therefore there is room to invoke the rule of reciting a birkat ha-mitzva prior to the performance of the mitzva.
THE BRIDEGROOM'S OBLIGATION
If we are dealing with a blessing cast upon the bridegroom, then when another person recites the blessing, the bridegroom can listen and fulfill his obligation with that other person's blessing, as with any other blessing.
The Rosh in Berakhot (chap. 3, no. 13) asks: Why does the Gemara say that if women are obligated in birkat ha-mazon only by rabbinic law, they cannot discharge the obligation of men who are obligated by Torah law? Surely we find that one who eats in the amount of an olive and is obligated in birkat ha-mazon only by rabbinic law, can discharge the obligation of one who is obligated in birkat ha-mazon by Torah law? The Rosh answers that a woman is not governed by the principle of arevut – mutual responsibility – and therefore she cannot discharge the obligation of a man who is obligated by Torah law. The Dagul me-Revava and Rabbi Akiva Eiger disagree about how to understand the Rosh: Are women always excluded from the principle of arevut or only with respect to those mitzvot from which they are exempt? According to the Dagul me-Revava (no. 271) women are always excluded from the principle of arevut, whereas according to the Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Responsa, no. 7), with respect to mitzvot in which they are obligated, they too have arevut. Even according to Rabbi Akiva Eiger, if in our case we say that there is an obligation upon the bridegroom to recite birkat chatanim, women are not included in that obligation, and therefore they should not be able to discharge the bridegroom's obligation.
THE COMMUNITY'S OBLIGATION
When we come to consider the obligation cast upon the community, we must first clarify whether a woman can be included among the ten people whose presence is required for birkat chatanim.
The Ritva (ad loc.) says that birkat chatanim requires ten because it is regarded as a davar she-be-kedusha (a holy matter). According to this, women cannot fill the quorum of ten just as they cannot be counted toward a minyan with respect to other "holy matters." If the presence of ten is required only in order to publicize the matter, it might be possible to count woman toward that quorum. In Responsa Yabi'a Omer (Even ha-Ezer, III, no. 11, s.v. u-beheyoti), Rabbi Ovadya Yosef discusses the possibility of a woman constituting "a new face":
For it is stated in the novellae of the Ritva (Ketubot 7b), in the name of the Tosafot, that "a new face" only applies when an important person arrives, and a woman is not fit for that, even if she is important, for "a new face" only applies to one who is fit to be counted towards the ten people needed for birkat chatanim.
The Otzar ha-Ge'onim, does not relate at all to this question. There is, however, extensive discussion about a wedding in a place where ten people are not to be found – should the wedding be conducted or perhaps put off. It is clear from all the authorities who dealt with the issue, that they never imagined including the bride or other women in the count of ten.
If a woman can be counted towards the ten, then it would seem that she should be able to recite the blessings and discharge the community's obligation (but not that of the bridegroom, as stated above). If she is not included among the ten, then it would seem that she cannot recite the blessing. We find, however, regarding the public reading of the Torah, that even one who cannot be counted among the ten required for the reading, can be called up to the Torah. The two cases, however, seem to be different, for there the ten do not create the obligation, but rather there is a general enactment of public Torah reading, whereas here we are dealing with an obligation created by the ten people.
From all that has been said above, it would seem that according to the Baraita, the Rambam and the Bet Yosef, there is a separate obligation falling upon the bridegroom, and therefore a woman cannot participate in birkat chatanim. All the more so in the case of a blessing, where a doubt suffices to bar the recitation of the blessing. Indeed, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, in his Chavat Binyamin, rules that a woman may not recite these blessings.
Thus far, we have related to the issue from the perspective of the laws of blessings. It seems to me, however, that brief mention should be made of three additional aspects:
1) A Baraita in Berakhot 45b states that women recite the zimmun among themselves, but not with men. And so rules the Shulchan Arukh, 199.
2) Even according to those who maintain that according to strict law there is room for allowance, the matter should be forbidden based on custom, as stated by the Chavot Ya'ir regarding the recitation of kadish by women: "Question: A strange thing was done in Amsterdam, where a person died without a son, but before he died, he instructed that ten people should learn in his house for pay every day for twelve months, and following the learning his daughter should recite kadish, and the rabbis and lay leaders of the community did not object. While there is no proof against the practice, for women are also commanded about sanctifying God's name, and there is a quorum of ten men… nevertheless there is concern that by so doing there will be a weakening of Jewish customs which are also regarded as Torah, and everybody will build an altar of his own according to his reasoning, and the words of the sages will become a mockery…" (no. 222).
3) According to the Torah and Halakha, a man betroths a woman and the woman is "acquired" by him. The betrothal and marriage are performed by the man who takes the woman, and at least with respect to the nature of the kinyan, the difference between the roles of the man and the woman is clear.
This is one of the clear characteristics of Reform Judaism which denies the Torah, and in the name of egalitarianism conducts wedding ceremonies in which the woman betroths the man as well. In recent times, even observant Jews have begun to search for ways to allow the bride to express herself under the chuppa. According to them, the passive role that has been assigned to her by tradition does not suffice.
It seems to me that any change in this matter is liable to lead to confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of betrothal and marriage. In my humble opinion, it would be very difficult to explain to the average person why a woman is capable of conducting a wedding ceremony (which does not involve the recitation of problematic blessings), but cannot betroth her husband. It is therefore exceedingly important not to introduce any changes into the wedding ceremony.
What was said here also applies to the reading of the ketuba which does not involve any blessings, and as for the blessings themselves, there are halakhic reasons to bar a woman from reciting them, as explained above.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 This article first appeared in Daf Kesher for the students of Yeshivat Har Etzion serving in the army, no. 742.