Three Jews who eat together...

Two Jews may have three opinions, but three Jews who have eaten together form a zimun – a group who may jointly say the birkat hamazon, grace after meals using a special formula, also called a zimun.

Deriving the idea from the Torah itself, the Talmud in Brachot understands that there is special significance in one person calling others to join him in praising God; it seems that when recited in response to the invitation, the grace is viewed as a collective, and therefore, more powerful form of thanksgiving.

In its Mishnaic form, zimun is simply the word nevarech – let’s bentsch! However, this has expanded over time. The leader starts with rabbotay nevarech – my gentlemen let’s bentsch, to which the others respond by praising God’s name. (In Yiddish-speaking circles, this is often said in the vernacular – rabbosay mir villen bentschen.) The leader then invites the others to ‘praise the One from whose food we have eaten.’ Before starting the grace proper, the others respond with a similar formula. When a Minyan is present, God’s name is mentioned (praise our God, etc.); when mentioning it, one rises slightly from one’s seat in deference.

The Mishnah offers increasingly superlative versions of the zimun, dependent on the number of diners present. At a feast attended by at least 10000 people, one should apparently say, ‘Let us bless our God our Lord, Lord of Israel, Lord of hosts who dwells among the cherubs, for the food we have eaten.’ Sadly, this text is never used, not even at the most lavish Simchah. There are, however, longer forms of zimun recited following a wedding or brit milah banquet, containing poetic additions apposite for the occasion.

It is considered an honour to lead the zimun; there is a system of priority as to how to select the leader. It is usual to ask a guest to lead; when there is no guest present, the wisest diner is prioritised; it is also appropriate to offer the honour to a Kohen, although the host is entitled to lead whenever he wishes. As such, when inviting the others to respond to his call to bentsch, the leader asks permission of anyone present whom he believes to take halachic precedence. This is achieved by saying birshut – with the permission of – then mentioning the host, Kohanim, etc., before proceeding.

Although the formula is written in the masculine, a group of three women who eat together have the option of forming their own zimun, with an appropriately adapted introduction, such as gevirotay or chavrotay – my women or friends. Some authorities rule that this zimun is actually obligatory; others note that women eating with men may choose to form their own separate zimun, rather than respond to the men’s one. And while not widely practiced, this possibility seems particularly worthy of consideration when three or more women dine with one or two men, when otherwise there would be no zimun at all. Whether men and women may answer to each other’s zimun remains a matter of halachic debate.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.