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Posted in: Judaism, Devrai Torah, General Jewish Themes

Published on Dec 05, 2007 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by The Jewish Press

A Bencher For Our Times

Many Orthodox women have graced and inspired us with profound learning and leadership. It was my privilege to interview two such women for The Jewish Press about their important new bencher, Shaarei Simcha (Ktav Publishing).

Rivka Haut is a long-time agunah activist, a mother and grandmother, and the co-author of two books, Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue and Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site (full disclosure: I was her co-author on the latter book and we have studied Torah together for eighteen years).

Dr. Adena Berkowitz holds graduate degrees in law and ethics. A popular teacher of Torah, Adena has lectured across the U.S. on Jewish ethics, rabbinics, women and Judaism and Jewish values. She and her husband, Rabbi Zev Brenner, are the parents of five children.

Q: What motivated you to create this bencher?

Rivka: Originally our intention was to prepare a small volume that would include Birkat Hamazon, would adhere to halacha, and be sensitive to the religious needs of many groups – women, baalei teshuva, "frum from birth" Jews, marrieds and singles, people with children and those without, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. We were inspired by the approach of Rav Hisda in the Talmud (Berachos 49a) who tried to create a version of Birkat Hamazon that would be applicable to everyone saying it including women and slaves. Although his version was not accepted by the Chachamim, his emphasis on sensitivity to all inspired us as we engaged in this endeavor.

What challenges did you face in undertaking the project?

Adena: We made a concerted effort to prepare a volume that would have as wide appeal as possible, all within a halachic framework. We hope that what we have produced will be a good model for kiruv, allowing people at one table to share in a sense of chavershaft, greater yirat shamayim and an enhanced understanding of the tefilah and berachot they are saying. Hence we decided to completely transliterate all the prayers, as well as translate them in accordance with the admonition of Rambam. When translating we opted to go with a Sephardic pronunciation because that is the style taught in many yeshivot and as a way of creating a bridge between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. In addition, we made an effort to include different Sephardic prayers which add greater beauty to the texts.

What's different about this bencher?

Rivka: As we began working on this project, it became evident that we needed to include material beyond Birkat Hamazon. We were aware that there are many benchers available with beautiful graphics and illustrations. Our focus, however, was going to be on the text. We wanted to provide scholarly sources along with popular explanations and background discussions of various prayers and blessings connected with Shabbos and holidays. We felt it important to reintroduce techinas and customs that many might be unfamiliar with – such as techinas in Yiddish recited before taking challah, or lighting candles or at the bris of one's son, or the custom of mayim acharonim.

What prayers for modern occasions have you provided?

Adena: We included other prayers such as the Hebrew blessing that a wife may recite for her husband as a parallel to Eishes Chayil. We tried to find a way to help parents have a role under the chuppah and included a prayer that either a mother or father could recite at that auspicious moment of their child's wedding. We also provided ceremonies for naming a baby girl, for a boy at his bris, as well as a unique ceremony for adopted children. We've provided moving prayers for parents to say at their children's bar and bat mitzvahs, spiritual meditations to add at holiday times such as Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos, prayers to remember agunahs, and even whimsical poems such as a Dr. Seuss-style poem for Sukkos.
We also felt it important to have this work reflect our love for Eretz Yisrael and so we included a seder for Yom Ha'atzmaut based on the one prepared by the Chief Rabbinate and the Kibbutz Hadati movement.

What halachic issues did you deal with?

Rivka: Our most difficult issue related to zimmun and women. We began our analysis as to the halachic appropriateness of three women forming a zimmun when they eat together. What we discovered was an interesting rabbinic debate concerning whether women may or must do this. According to some authorities (the Rosh and the Vilna Gaon), they are actually obligated to do so. Other rabbinic authorities agree that women are permitted to do zimmun. Yet this fact has routinely been forgotten or overlooked. When large numbers of women eat together – at women's luncheons, for example – zimmun is usually not recited. At lunchrooms in girls' yeshivot it is often not done. But women should recite zimmun, as it offers an opportunity to form a group that thanks Hashem together. Instead of the women thanking Hashem individually and benching privately, zimmun elevates the gathering to a meal eaten together with the opportunity to add more praise to Hashem.

What else did you discover about what might be halachically permissible for women to do?

Adena: After researching the issue of three women, we asked ourselves, what about ten women? Can they recite zimmun b'Shem, adding Hashem's name, as ten men do? To our surprise and joy, we discovered that there are rabbinic authorities who permitted this.

Rivka: In our introduction, we cite all the major sources on this issue. Yet we were unsure whether to include them. Adena then remembered having read a column in The Jewish Press by Rabbi Aharon Zeigler, an authority on the halachic views of the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt"l). According to the Rav, zimmun of ten is not a function of minyan at all. It is a matter of glorifying Hashem's name when eating in a group. According to Rabbi Zeigler, the Rav would have approved of ten women doing zimmun b'Shem.

Therefore, we provide the sources, including a long quote by Rabbi Zeigler and we advise women to study the sources and make their own informed decision.

How did you manage to add material to traditional prayers without violating halacha?

Rivka: In editing this mini-siddur we were guided by the injunction not to depart from "matbe'a sh'tazu bo chachamim" – the formulaic language set forth by the rabbis. Yet at the same time we wished to take note of the imahot – Sarah, Rivka, Rochel and Leah. Where the text says k'mo shenisbarchu avoseinu Avraham, Yitzchak, v'Yaakov..." we could not add the names of the imahot because one does not add to the traditional language of the prayer. However, we consulted with a number of leading rabbonim and talmidei chachamim who assured us that people may add thoughts if they so wish. Therefore, we have a footnote suggesting that people who wish to may mentally add the imahot. We used the same approach when dealing with the phrase "v'al berischa she'chasampta b'vesareinu."

What feedback have you received so far?

Adena: Baruch Hashem, we've been hearing very positive things. Shaarei Simcha has been ordered to be given out at bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and baby namings. The prayer we included to be recited by a parent at a bar or bat mitzvah has been especially popular – fathers as well as mothers find it extremely meaningful. Women are reciting the techinas for candle lighting, for baking challah, after the birth of a baby, and are grateful that we have made them easily accessible.

Equally important to us has been the excited reaction of those who order just a copy or two for use at their tables, for Shabbos and Yom Tov. We are excited to know that our work has found a place in people's homes and has led to an increase in personal, private prayer as well as to a deeper understanding of Birkat Hamazon.

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