Women, Bentching and the Role of Publishing

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25 Jul 2018

For years, I held onto two regrets about the planning for my wedding.

Everything was beautiful, and I was overcome with joy, as a bride should be. But I had hoped to include certain elements of my particular values – ok, maybe make a little bit of a statement – in the details, and instead, I sold out.

One of my longstanding ideals was to make sure that any “impromptu” mincha minyan at my simcha would be clearly welcoming to men and women, with space for women to daven. As I once expressed in Jewish Action, I have never doubted the value of my praying with a minyan when the opportunity arises, nor have I ever encountered any halachic view denying that value. So I was often perplexed (annoyed) when, at a wedding or other function, I would hear some guy announce, “If any of the men would like to daven, there will be a minyan in that corner.” Why not say “If anyone would like to daven”? Is that hard? And then, invariably, I would find the men spread across the whole available area, leaving no room for me – or perhaps, leaving room only to the east, so that if I wanted to hear Kaddish and Kedusha, I would have to plant myself right in front. (Some statements, I don’t need to make.)

So I dreamed of having a plan in place for my own wedding, with a time and a location and an announcement with my chosen wording. Maybe even signs: “Mincha here at _:00”; “men’s section” and “women’s section.” Maybe even a real mechitza.

I would never presume to say every woman must join every minyan, or any minyan, that comes her way; for one thing, I don’t do so, and for another thing, I wouldn’t say that about every man either. Everyone makes his or her choice, each time. But I see no reason to make it difficult, and every reason to make it explicitly available. And I was excited to have the opportunity at my own function to create a space for that availability, and yes, to make a statement that I believe that space is important.

That dream fell apart, though, because of simple logistics. Because it’s overwhelming to plan a wedding, because the hall only had so much square footage, and because I was busy living and working in another city at the time. Because there’s no easy precedent even for such a simple innovation, and it’s hard to blaze even a simple trail, even one I saw as the obvious course of action.

My other big plan fell apart for similar reasons.

Growing up with two older sisters and no brothers, I was exposed early on to the concept of women bentching with a zimun. By the time I was old enough to do so myself, I had absorbed my mother’s not-so-subtle messages of support for the practice, and somehow I also managed to learn the sources behind it at a fairly young age. I knew this was not a new-fangled idea; I knew some Rishonim and Acharonim had even held it was obligatory for three women who ate together to join for bentching with a zimun; and I knew that ultimately, the Shulchan Aruch rules it’s an option. Seemed like a good option to me, especially when one considers the Mishna Berura’s contention that the only reason Chazal did not made it obligatory was that women typically weren’t well educated in these matters and it would be an unreasonable demand to place on them.

Well, thank G-d, I was educated. And I used the benefits of my education to peruse the bentchers and siddurim in my house, and I was perpetually frustrated to find that not one of them mentioned the possibility of women bentching with a zimun. (No, wait, there might have been one….) I was convinced for years that I had indeed seen such a thing in my parents’ house, but finally came to the conclusion that it must have been a relic from my father’s non-Orthodox youth. I couldn’t find it in the Orthodox publications.

Not only that, but as I got older and began to make my way in the world, living and often eating in my own apartment, I came to discover another piece missing from many Orthodox bentchers as well: the very possibility that a woman would be bentching at all. Once I had my own place of residence and began paying attention to the “Harachaman” option for that circumstance, I discovered that if I were married, I would find no guidance in many bentchers as to the wording by which I might ask G-d to bless my husband along with me. Every text includes the possibility of “bless me, and my wife” – but how many remember to include the possibility of saying “me, and my husband”?

I can understand why early printers might have left women out, if so many women for so long were not formally educated and were perhaps often not so literate. Perhaps printers legitimately assumed women weren’t using bentchers. But even if that explains the beginnings, in today’s era when we are in fact quite literate and educated, it is simply a bad habit to leave women out. I know this because of that very education with which I have been blessed. I know this because I’ve learned the Gemara in Berachos which states unequivocally that women are obligated in Birkat Hamazon, and only wonders whether our obligation is d’Oraita, like men’s, or d’Rabbanan. I’d love to see that in a bentcher, actually. In all the halachic notes many bentchers contain, do they ever include the possibility that the rules might be different for men and women, because men’s obligations and women’s obligations might be different? No; they just talk about men. As if women don’t bentch.

But I know we do, and for my wedding, I dreamed that I would find a bentcher to give out, our names proudly printed on front, with an option for women’s zimun and an option for a woman to say “bless me, and my husband.” I dreamed of a bentcher that would represent halacha fully, opening the possibility to build better halachic and societal habits, for all those who live halachic lives today – not just men.

But this, too, fell through the cracks. Because there was nothing. We just couldn’t find a bentcher that met my criteria, and faced with the increasing stress in my mother’s expression, I gave in. Of course, my mother fully supported my ideals; she raised me with them! But so often, reality ends up trumping our ideals. There’s so much to do with just the basics, that even the best intentions must sometimes succumb.

Several years after my own wedding, I attended the wedding of a good friend and kicked myself. Because she did what somehow had not occurred to me, and designed her own bentcher.

I resolved then that the next simcha I was privileged to make would be different: if what I valued didn’t exist, I would make it exist.

For months before my daughter’s bat mitzvah (which we celebrated several months ago), that’s what I did, along with my husband and the bat mitzvah girl herself. We cut and pasted and requested permissions; we formatted and researched and wrote and edited and formatted some more – and we had ourselves the bentcher of our dreams. We included a brief conceptual and/or halachic introduction for each section, and every halachic note specifies details for both men and women.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to zimun:

As those realities of education and literacy among women have changed in recent years, some feel it is desirable to combine the halachic option of zimun with the modern benefits of increased literacy, and bentch with a zimun when three women eat together. Other women, however, feel uncomfortable with a practice their mothers and grandmothers might not have recognized.

I wrote those words with, I confess, the goal of making a statement. A multifaceted statement. I wanted to be clear that according to the most widely accepted halachic rulings, zimun is optional for women. (Although – little-known fact: the Shulchan Aruch also rules it’s obligatory for a woman who ate with three men.) I will not judge any woman who chooses to forego this option; it is her halachic right. However, I also demand that those who do choose to bentch with a zimun not be judged, either, or their motives called into question. And the only way I see for that to happen, the only way to create a communal atmosphere in which zimun for women is a true option, is to educate.

When there happen to be three women, but fewer than three men, at my Shabbos table, I don’t want to have to spend the whole meal wondering how I’m going to broach the topic and ask my guests if they would like to join me in this optional mitzvah. I dream of the day when it won’t be awkward or uncomfortable, and my guests can simply answer “yes” or “no.” And one step in that direction would be to simply put it in the bentchers. To change our printing habits to more accurately reflect our halachic tradition.

Women’s zimun is fully halachic, and if I sometimes make it a statement as well, that is because the statement is an important one: This is a practice that has genuine religious value, and it is a genuine halachic option for women.

I see no reason to make it difficult, and every reason to make it explicitly available.

And I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to create a space, a book, for that availability.

Of course, our bentcher isn’t perfect. There are mistakes; there is always room for improvement. My ten-year-old son has already started noting those errors, editing in preparation for our second edition, im yirtzeh Hashem, to come out in three years.

But maybe we won’t need it.

While I fully intend to carry on this new family tradition of building a bentcher ourselves for each simcha, especially if the child in question wants to, I was thrilled recently to learn that Koren and the RCA have created a siddur with deliberate attention paid to inclusion of women. I don’t know what it will look like; I put in an order at my local bookstore, but haven’t seen a copy yet. I am, however, cautiously optimistic. Cautiously, because none of the similar attempts I’ve seen in past years have fully achieved what I think the Orthodox publishing world needs to achieve in this realm. But still optimistic.

I am optimistic that one day, full representation of the full halachic realities for women will be the norm across our communities. Including the mere facts of women’s existence and responsibilities in halachic life, and including those that are optional – such as davening with a minyan, or bentching with a women’s zimun.

I dream that these elements will become standard in our books and in our announcements, impromptu or not. Because the alternative, allowing communal habits to continue eroding communal awareness of actual halachic options, leaves us no real choice at all.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.