35. Birkat Hamazon – Part 2.
Grace After Meals requires extra dignity and concentration.
In the last class, we covered 4 of the 9 main points relating to Birkat Hamazon. In this class, we'll finish the remaining points.
(5) When in Doubt
In class #31, we learned about what to do when you have a doubt regarding a bracha achrona. Similar situations can arise with Birkat Hamazon. For example:
You ate a kezayit of bread (within kiday achilat pras), but the house was hectic, you got distracted, and now you can't remember if you bentched or not. This is a classic case of doubt.
As we mentioned in the last class, the Torah-level obligation to bentch is based on being satiated – i.e. "feeling full."1 (This is a subjective feeling that varies from person to person.) Therefore if you still feel satiated from the meal, and you cannot recall whether or not you bentched, you are required to bentch.2 This follows the rule of Safek D'oraita L'chumra – we rule strictly in cases of doubt where the issue is on a Torah level.3
If you cannot recall if you bentched and you did not feel satiated from the meal (or are uncertain whether you were satiated), then you should not bentch. In such a case the obligation to bentch is rabbinic, and we adopt the rule of Safek D'Rabbanan L'kula – we rule leniently in cases of doubt when the issue is on a rabbinic level.
However, the best solution is to remove yourself from the doubtful situation by
- saying Hamotzee again and eating another kezayit of bread within kiday achilat pras4
- asking someone, who has a certain obligation to bentch, to exempt you by saying the entire Birkat Hamazon out loud, while having you in mind5
(6) Mayim Achronim
Before bentching, there is a special mitzvah to wash one's fingers; this is called Mayim Achronim (literally, "after-waters"). This washing differs in its details from Netilat Yadayim done at the beginning of a bread meal:
- There is no bracha said on Mayim Achronim.6
- Unlike Netilat Yadayim which must be poured from a vessel, Mayim Achronim can be done at a faucet.7
- Unlike Netilat Yadayim which covers the entire hand, for Mayim Achronim is sufficient to wash just the fingers.8
Once you have washed Mayim Achronim, you should not speak or make any other interruption; rather begin benching right away – within about 15 seconds.9
Before starting to bentch, the used Mayim Achronim water should be removed from the table, or covered.10
Birkat Hamazon has a special addition that is among after-brachot. When three (or more) men (age 13 and above)11 have eaten a bread meal together, we add a special introduction called zimmun (literally "invitation").12 This is based on the verse (Psalms 34:4): "And let us exalt His name together."13
The procedure for a zimmun is that one person "leads the zimmun," while the others answer responsively, according to the text written in the prayer book. The "leader" then recites the first blessing of Birkat Hamazon out loud, while everyone else recites it quietly to himself. They then answer "amen" upon the completion of the leader's blessing.14
Who should lead the bentching? It is customary to honor a Kohen15 or a Torah scholar.16 If the honor is given to an important person (e.g. a groom or Bar Mitzvah boy), he should ask permission from the Kohen or Torah scholar that is present.17
In determining a zimmun, "eating together" is defined as either starting the meal together or finishing together.18 This does not apply at a restaurant or cafeteria where you "just happen" to be sitting in the same room as other people.19 However, a wedding meal does obligate a zimmun, because all the people are coming together for the same purpose.20
Once you have eaten together with two other people, you are obligated to join in the zimmun.21 If one member of the group wants to bentch and leave before the others have finished eating, it is permitted for that first person to lead the zimmun, while the others answer and listen to the entire first bracha – and then bentch later by themselves. (They are not technically obligated to stop for him – and if they don't want to he is obligated to wait for them. However, it is proper for them to be accommodating and to do so.)22
If only two people have eaten bread together, a third person can "complete the zimmun" by preferably eating bread. If he does not want to eat bread, he may consume with them anything that requires a bracha achrona (except water).23
Women are not counted in a zimmun with men. However:
- If women have eaten together with men who are making a zimmun (e.g. at a Shabbat table), the women are also obligated to answer the zimmun.24
- If three (or more) women have eaten together, and there are no men present, they can form their own zimmun,25 though the prevailing custom today is not to.26
When 10 or more men have eaten together, there is a special form of zimmun.27 As well, the leader should hold a cup of wine,28 which he drinks at the conclusion of benching.29 It is preferable to use wine also with a zimmun of 3 people.30 This is based on the verse, "I will raise the cup of salvations, and invoke the name of God" (Psalms 116:13).
A special form of zimmun is recited by Ashkenazim at a Bris Milah and at a Sheva Brachot meal.31
(8) Seasonal Additions
On certain occasions (Shabbat, Yom Tov, Chol HaMoed and Rosh Chodesh) there is a small additional phrase inserted toward the end of the Three-Faceted Blessing. If you forget to recite that phrase, then "after the fact" your bracha is still valid.32
In Birkat Hamazon, however, we add an extra paragraph in the third blessing. The extra paragraph on Shabbat is known as Ritzey,33 and on Yom Tov and Rosh Chodesh it's called Ya'aleh V'yavo.34 Also, on Chanukah and Purim we insert in the second blessing a long paragraph beginning with the words, Al Ha'nisim.35
If you began a meal before sundown (for example, on Rosh Chodesh), then even though you finished eating when it is no longer Rosh Chodesh, you should still include the appropriate extra paragraph.36
If you forget to recite the extra paragraph, the principle is as follows: If you were obligated to eat this bread meal, then you must go back and bentch again.37 So for example on Shabbat and Yom Tov – when the first two bread meals are mandatory – if you forgot the extra paragraph, you must bentch again, even if you are only unsure whether you said it.38
If you forgot to say the extra paragraph at the third meal, do not repeat Birkat Hamazon.39 This is because on Shabbat the third meal does not absolutely require bread, and on Yom Tov there is no obligation whatsoever to eat a third meal.
A woman who forgot to say Ya'ale V'yavo on Yom Tov does not bentch again.40 This exception does not apply on Seder night.41
IF YOU FORGOT TO SAY:
THE HALACHA IS:
Retzei or Ya'aleh V'yavo at the first two meals of Shabbat or Yom Tov42
bentch again (even if you are only unsure whether you said it)
Retzei or Ya'aleh V'yavo at a third meal
do not bentch again
Ya'aleh V'yavo on Rosh Chodesh or Chol HaMo'ed
do not bentch again43
Al Ha'nisim on Chanukah or Purim
do not bentch again44
The above rules apply if you have already completed the word "Ha'El" (the sixth word) in the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon. If you remember your mistake at an earlier point – i.e. upon completing the third blessing, then at that point you should recite a short "make-up" blessing that you'll find printed in the prayer book.45
Though these rules may seem complex, they are worth remembering! Better yet, remind each other before bentching not to forget the extra paragraph.
(9) Extra Dignity & Concentration
In class #25 we learned that a bracha over food needs to be said in a clean and dignified environment. To briefly review:
- We need to be properly dressed when saying a bracha.
- We also need to make sure that those around us are adequately dressed.
- A man should not recite a bracha in the presence of a female singing voice.
- The body and hands should be clean.
- Places with uncovered waste or odors present a problem when saying a bracha.
These same guidelines apply when saying a bracha achrona.
We also learned that whenever saying a bracha, you must have a separation "between the heart and lower parts." In general, to satisfy that requirement, it is sufficient, for example, to be wearing swimming trunks. However, the importance of Birkat Hamazon demands that one be fully dressed. It is not even considered sufficient to be wearing pajamas or a bath robe.46
We also learned in class #24 that when saying a bracha, it is important to maintain concentration – i.e. to be seated47 and not engage in distractions (e.g. signaling).48 With bentching, the degree of focus needs to be higher and we should make no interruption whatsoever.49 In this respect, Birkat Hamazon is likened to Shemoneh Esrei – just as we do not waver our focus during Shemoneh Esrei, so too with bentching.50
If possible, one should say Birkat Hamazon out loud,51 while reading from a prayer book.52
- Orach Chaim 184:4
- Mishnah Berurah 184:22
- There is a question whether women are obligated to bentch on a biblical or rabbinic level. The practical difference would be in a case where she is uncertain if she bentched or not, even when satiated (see Mishnah Berurah 186:3, with Biur Halacha – s.v. elah; Halichos Bas Yisrael, p. 60). The best solution is to use one of the methods to resolve the doubt, as discussed below.
- Mishnah Berurah 184:15
- Mishnah Berurah 184:15; Kaf HaChaim (OC 184:15, 22); Sdei Chemed (Ma’arechet Brachot 4:9). Since according to some authorities, women are only rabbinically commanded in Birkat Hamazon, Mishnah Berurah 186:3 rules that a woman should not exempt a man whose obligation to bentch is of biblical origin. So too a minor, whose obligation is rabbinic according to all authorities, should not exempt any adult (Orach Chaim 186:2, with Mishnah Berurah 5).
- Orach Chaim 181:7
- Mishnah Berurah 181:21. Some are careful to wash Mayim Achronim with a vessel (Yalkut Yosef - OC 181:11, citing Shiltei HaGiborim).
- Some are careful to wash Mayim Achronim using a revi'it amount of water. (Mishnah Berurah 181:19; Ma'aseh Rav of the Vilna Gaon)
- Orach Chaim 179:1, with Mishnah Berurah 1 and Sha’ar Hatziyun 3. Customs vary as to women washing Mayim Achronim (see Mishnah Berurah 181:22).
- Kaf HaChaim (OC 181:8)
- Rema – Orach Chaim 199:10. Sefardim include boys from age 6 (Orach Chaim 199:10).
- Orach Chaim 213:1; Mishnah Berurah 193:6
- Abudraham (Brachot – Shaar 1, s.v. V’katav HaRosh)
- Orach Chaim 183:7, with Mishnah Berurah 28. Sefardim do not answer “amen” (Kaf HaChaim – OC 184:40).
- Orach Chaim 201:2
- Mishnah Berurah 201:8
- Orach Chaim 201:2, with Mishnah Berurah 10
- Orach Chaim 193:1; 197:1; Mishnah Berurah 193:19
- Minchat Yitzchak 8:8; V’Zot HaBracha, pg.133
- V’Zot HaBracha – Birur Halacha 22
- Orach Chaim 193:1
- Orach Chaim 200:1-2, Mishnah Berurah 5
- Orach Chaim 197:2, 3
- Orach Chaim 199:7, with Mishnah Berurah 17; Shu”t Igros Moshe (OC 5:9:10)
- Orach Chaim 199:7, with Mishnah Berurah 17, 18
- Aruch HaShulchan (OC 199:2)
- Orach Chaim 192:1
- Someone else should hand him the wine, which he takes with both hands, and then holds in the palm of his right hand, raised a few inches (Orach Chaim 183:4).
- see Tosfot – Brachot 37a, s.v. natan; Levush (OC 182:1).
- Orach Chaim 182:1, with Mishnah Berurah 4; Be'er HaGolah 182:1, citing Midrash Ruth HaNe'alam; Tosfot – Pesachim 105b (s.v. Shma Mina Bracha)
- Sefer Mahril (Nisuin 7); Aruch HaShulchan (EH 62:18); Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 3:94:3
- Orach Chaim 208:12, with Mishnah Berurah 58
- Orach Chaim 188:5
- Orach Chaim 188:5, 424:1
- Rema – Orach Chaim 187:4; Orach Chaim 682:1, 695:3
- Orach Chaim 188:10. The issue is more complex if one holiday follows another, for example Rosh Chodesh after Shabbat. In such cases, it's better to finish eating bread by sunset.
- Orach Chaim 188:7
- Mishnah Berurah 188:16
- Orach Chaim 188:8, with Mishnah Berurah 31
- Shu”t Rebbe Akiva Eiger 1:1 (see Orach Chaim 271:2). This is because Yom Tov meals fall under the category of time-bound mitzvot from which women are generally exempt.
- Shu”t Rebbe Akiva Eiger 1:1. This is due to the universal obligation to eat matzah on Seder night.
- Orach Chaim 188:7, with Mishnah Berurah 26. An exception is the second (i.e. daytime) meal on Rosh Hashana (Minchat Shlomo 2:60).
- Orach Chaim 188:7, with Mishnah Berurah 26; Orach Chaim 424:1, with Mishnah Berurah 1
- Orach Chaim 188:7, with Mishnah Berurah 26, 29; Orach Chaim 682:1
- Chayei Adam 1:47:18
- Orach Chaim 91:5, with Mishnah Berurah 11, 12; Kaf HaChaim (OC 183:43), V'Zos HaBracha 15:4. Those who wear a hat and jacket for prayers should preferably do so here as well (Mishnah Berurah 183:11).
- Orach Chaim 183:9
- Mishnah Berurah 185:1; Aruch HaShulchan (OC 183:8)
- Orach Chaim 183:6, with Mishnah Berurah 25; Orchot Chaim 53
- Mishnah Berurah 183:25, with Biur Halacha – s.v. Afilu; Aruch HaShulchan (OC 183:8)
- Mishnah Berurah 185:3
- Mishnah Berurah 185:1, 3