Misconception:Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) is said over a cup of wine only on special occasions, such as Sheva Brachot or a brit milah. Those who are particularly meticulous use wine whenever there is a minyan “bentching” together.
Fact: It is meritorious to bentch over wine whenever there is a zimun.
Background: Wine has a significant place in rabbinic literature, and Chazal established the well-known principle of enhancing important mitzvot by performing them over wine. A wedding, brit milah, and pidyon haben are celebrated over wine, and in Talmudic times even comforting mourners was done with wine. It was also ordained that Birkat Hamazon be said over a glass of wine, known as a kos shel brachah (Pesachim 105b). This is most familiar from the Passover Seder where all four major mitzvot of the night are performed over wine. Despite all of these precedents, regularly bentching over wine seems to have fallen out of custom.
There are three basic opinions among the early sources regarding the use of a kos shel brachah. 1) The Rambam, Rif, Rashba, Meiri , and Smag hold that Birkat Hamazon never requires wine and it is merely a meritorious action. They would explain the statement in Pesachim as either being praiseworthy, but not obligatory; or as being one opinion, which we do not accept. 2) The Rosh, Tur, Tosafot, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Yonah require wine even for an individual bentching. Some of them go so far as to say that one should not eat if he knows he will not have a cup of wine for Birkat Hamazon. Their logic is compelling; the Talmud stated that Birkat Hamazon requires wine, not that a zimun needs wine. 3) The Hagahot Maimoniot, Zohar, Kol Bo in the name of Midrash Rut ha-Ne’elam, and others require wine whenever a zimun of men is bentching.
The Ramah (OC 182:1) notes that even those who do not view a kos shel brachah as an obligation, certainly agree that it is commendable. Thus, when there is a zimun present, two of the three opinions require bentching over a cup of wine and the third opinion agrees that it is commendable and enhances the mitzvah.
An important practical difference between these three opinions occurs at the third Shabbat meal, Shalosh Seudot: when bentching after dark on a kos, may one drink the wine? Normally it is forbidden to eat or drink anything after sunset before Havdalah. The Magen Avraham (299:7) says that, according to the strict halachah, one may drink it because that wine is considered part of the meal that was started before dark. However, he adds, one who is normally not careful to bentch on a kos apparently is of the opinion that it is not obligatory; hence the wine is not really part of his meal and the person should therefore not drink it after Shalosh Seudot. The Mishnah Berurah (Sha’ar Hatziyun 299:24) and Ben Ish Chai (Shana Bet, Vayetze:20) rule that one who normally does not bentch with a kos may still take a taste. Despite this, the custom seems to be not to drink it at all. This also affects the question of drinking the wine from Sheva Brachot at Shalosh Seudot. The Tzitz Eliezar (10:45) rules that the chatan, kallah, and the person leading the Birkat Hamazon may all drink wine from both the bentching and Sheva Brachot cups; Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:69) argues that only the bride and groom should drink, and combined, they should drink “only a cheekful.”
The Aruch Hashulchan bemoans the fact that wine is expensive in his region and hence people can never bentch on wine. However, as a hiddur mitzvah and with the assurance of Divine blessing, he strongly advocates that those who live in regions where wine is readily available should use wine when bentching with a zimun of three. This seems to be the accepted Ashkenazic practice.
Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef 3:182:1) notes the current Sephardic practice is not to use wine12, but one who does is commended. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 182:1), who notes that the principal drink in his locale is water, says that some people try to bentch with wine when they have a zimun on Shabbat and Yom Tov if they are able to procure wine. Certainly, he urges (in 182:3), in places where wine is available it is proper for all those who “fear God” to use wine. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (45:1) and the Ben Ish Chai (Shlach:16) likewise urge one to bentch over wine if there is a zimun of three, but say that an individual should not use wine. It would seem that if wine was a part of the meal, indicating its availability and desirability, it would be inappropriate to then bentch with a zimun and not use wine.
Drinking from the kos shel brachah is considered auspicious. The one who led the Birkat Hamazon should drink first. After that, he should give some to his wife (Shulchan Aruch, OC 183:3), even if she was not at the meal. Following that, some should be offered to the rest of the family, a guest should offer some to his host, and a host to his guests, so that all present drink (Mishnah Berurah 183:19; OC 190:1).
I have been unable to find any source that on halachic grounds distinguishes between a zimun of three and a zimun of ten with regard to this law, and it seems that being scrupulous to use wine only with a zimun of ten (and not three) is an error. Today, unlike the Lithuania of the Aruch Hashulchan 120 years ago, wine is relatively easy to come by, and this seems to be a practice that is worthy of reviving.
Notes: 1. This is certainly true for a zimun of at least three men. For a women’s zimun, most opinions hold that wine is not used (Sha’ar Hatziyun 199:6). See, however, the opinion cited in Kaf Hachaim 199:19 (in the name of the Zohar) that women should also use wine, although he admits that this is not the custom. 2. For a discussion regarding if the circumcision of a convert needs wine see Shoot Har Tzvi YD 221. 3. See Ketubot8b; Rambam, Hilchot Avel 13:8. See also Eruvim 65 that wine “was created in order to comfort mourners.” 4. There are numerous laws relating to the way to treat the cup and wine used for bentching. For details see Berachot51-52 and Shulchan Aruch, OC 182-183. 5. A link between a bread meal and wine is hinted at by their juxtaposition in Psalms 104:14-15. 6. Kiddush, telling the story of the Exodus, bentching, and reciting Hallel. See Igrot Moshe OC 4:69 for a discussion of the rationale behind the four cups of wine. 7. Ran to Pesachim 117 quoted in Beit Yosef 182; Meiri. 8. See Beit Yosef, Shulchan Aruch, and Aruch Hashulchan beginning of OC 182 for summaries of these opinions. 9. Rav Moshe Feinstein (OC 4:69, 4th paragraph) offers two alternatives for understanding the Magen Avraham, and links them to whether only the one leading the bentching may drink or if others may also. He concludes that one should be strict, and only the one leading should drink. 10. The Mishnah Berurah and the Kaf Hachaim both note that the custom is to bentch with wine only with three people, but for an individual there is no need to bentch over wine. 11. See Rav Kanievsky in Shoneh Halachot 182:1. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:69), in explaining the current practice, states that we hold like the Rambam and Rif that bentching does not require a kos. 12. Although the Mishnah Berurah(182:4) states that the Shulchan Aruch did not take sides in the three-way debate, Rav Ovadia Yosef believes that the Shulchan Aruch held like the Rambam — that a kos is not required. 13. There is clearly no halachic difference between a zimun of three on Shabbat versus one on Tuesday, but the Rivevot Ephraim (1:150) nonetheless tries to explain this custom based on the fact that people are not preoccupied with work on Shabbat and Yom Tov. 14. Tzitz Eliezer (ibid) notes that the custom seems to be that everyone is careful to use a kos when there are ten people. He does not offer a judgment of the practice. 15. This would also enable one to drink the wine from bentching and Sheva Brachot at
Reprinted from JEWISH ACTION Magazine, Winter 5761/2000 issue