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Women's participation in zimun and minyan

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Tishrei 5765/Oct 2004

Both zimun (invitation to say the Grace after meals) and minyan (quorum of ten men for a prayer service) are commandments which a Jew can only fulfil with the participation of other qualified Jews. The ruling that women cannot be participants is well known. Rav Duvdevani set out to examine why this is so and what is entailed.

Beginning with zimun, Rav Duvdevani pointed out that the invitation to say the Grace after meals is a commandment separate from that of the Grace itself, although it may include the opening paragraph. All are obligated to say the Grace. Zimun can only be said when at least three qualified men are present. It involves a leader and respondents, as does a public prayer service. He noted that Rav Soloveitchik had made clear the distinction that exists between prayers said together with a number of people, (be tzibbur) and a public service (ha tzibbur) when one person leads the prayers and thereby ensures that others, possibly not as able as himself, have fulfilled the commandment properly.

The Talmud in Tractate Berakhot gives us three important basic statements:

  1. Women, slaves and minors are obligated as regards the (Amida) prayer, the Mezuza and the Grace after meals (20A/B).
  2. Women, slaves and minors may not be counted for zimun (45A).
  3. Women observe zimun by themselves and slaves observe zimun by themselves on account of levity (45B). The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 199) explains that this means on account of the possible levity of slaves.

The first question that arises is the nature of the women's obligation here. According to Rashi (on Arakhin 3A), their obligation is Rabbinical, not Biblical. The text of the Grace is Rabbinical. Women cannot thank the Almighty for circumcision and slaves cannot thank Him for our inheritance of the land, both of which are part of the text of the second paragraph of the Grace. Men cannot count women in their invitation to say Grace, since some of what they are about to say does not apply to women. Women have an obligation of their own and are duty bound to say the Grace on their own. The question of the women's obligation being Biblical or Rabbinical is raised by the Tur (Jacob ben Asher, 13th century), who refers to Yehuda haCohen who did count women for zimunand was told that, since the women say Grace on their own, they cannot help the men to fulfil their requirement of a quorum of three or the requirement to say the Grace on behalf of the men.

This leads on to the subject of the men's quorum for prayers, the minyan. A minyan is required whenever Israel sanctifies the Almighty, based on the verse vekidashti betoch benei Yisrael, 'I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel' (Tractate Megilla, 23B; the Mishna here gives the word betoch the meaning of a quorum of ten men because the same word is used elsewhere together with eida, a 'community'). That sanctification takes place, for example, in a public service, a public reading of the Torah and a zimun when ten men are present.

Once again, an early Ashkenazi source raises the question of women and slaves being counted. The 13th century Sefer Mordechai cites the view of Rabbenu Simcha that women and slaves might be counted, based on the fact that Rabbenu Tam once counted a slave to make up the minyan. Such a ruling concerning women was rejected since it would mean equating women and slaves. It therefore became the rule (nahagu ha olam), not to count women. As with zimun, women are obligated to pray, but their obligation is not the obligation incumbent upon men and they cannot help men to fulfil their obligation.

The RaMBaM, Maimonides, looks at the question from a different angle (Hilchot Tefila). His view is that there is a Biblical, positive command to pray daily, which applies to everyone. The rest - the format, times and minyan requirements - is Rabbinical. Maimonides explains that the minyan for the Amida prayer is needed, since prayers have replaced the Temple sacrifices and theminyan for certain prayers continues the minyan for certain sacrifices. He describes the Rabbinical format, where one person leads the prayers out loud on behalf of the community. Men have an obligation to pray with a minyan, preferably in a Synagogue. All these Rabbinical enactments were not made for and do not obligate women. Their obligation to pray daily is to fulfil the original Biblical commandment.