|The Voice of Torah: Eikev|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
V'achalta v'savata u'verachta et Hashem...: When you eat to satisfaction, you shall bless God... [Parshat Ekev] With this verse, the Torah commands us to recite Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) -- to "bentsch".
When three or more eat together, however, a different obligation is invoked, an obligation known as "Zimun". A leader is chosen, and he "invites" the rest of the group to bless God. They all respond in agreement, "Yes, God is blessed and we should bless Him from whom we have eaten." And then all proceed, each to his own Birkat Hamazon.
It is not entirely clear what the purpose of this introduction is. It is obviously some kind of add-on designed to acknowledge a group eating together, but why? Each diner is already commanded to recite Birkat Hamazon individually. If we are afraid one may forget, all we need is for one to recite his and the rest of the group will be naturally reminded. Why the need for a special invitation?
Furthermore, one would not expect the fundamental mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon to change just because it is preceded by a collective "call to bentsch". After all, the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon is explicit -- V'achalta, v'savata, u'verachta. The source for zimun is far more obscure: Ki shem hashem ekra, havu godel l'Elohainu, says the pasuk in Haazinu, referring to nothing about eating, "When I mention god's Name, you (pl.) respond by declaring His greatness." Since the minimum of plural is two, we understand the group consists of three. Such a source, we would think, is not able to override the more firmly established mitzvah of Bentsching.
But a look at the Rambam says otherwise. Where Zimun is recited, the leader continues on and recites the entire Birkat Hamazon as well, with the others reduced to listening and answering "Amein". And even those authorities who require us to recite our own bentsching even in the case of Zimun, it is only, they say, because our powers of concentration are weak and we would be unlikely to focus on every word of the leader's bentsching. The implication is that ideally no one but the leader should bentsch! How can this be -- what happened to the mitzvah upon each of us to "eat, be satisfied, and bless God"?
Let's take a closer look at that mitzvah. It seems clear that every Jew is under a personal and individual obligation to bentsch upon completing a satisfying meal. The language of the Torah is singular and personal -- You (second person singular) shall eat; you (second person singular) shall be full; you (second person singular) shall bless. Communal mitzvos are given in the plural. For example, You (second person plural) shall eat it in haste; it is the Pesach offering to God, an important community mitzvah, done by everyone all at one time and performed in groups even while eaten by the individual. From its singular presentation, on the other hand, Birkat Hamazon does not seem to have been set up as a communal mitzvah. Indeed, the Talmud confirms that indeed when the Torah uses the singular, it is setting up a personal mitzvah. The plural -- a communal one.
But the Vilna Gaon advises us that this principle holds true only for the first four Books of the Torah. In the Fifth Book, Devarim, according to the Gaon, it is reversed. Since in Devarim, Moshe is addressing the Jewish people as a nation, a singular entity, HERE when the singular is used, it is addressing the community as a WHOLE (as in "You (s.) appoint over yourself a king -- obviously not a commandment for the individual). To obligate individuals in the Book of Devarim, the Torah has to use the plural (as in "V'Limadtem otam et b'neichem l'daber bam -- You (pl.) teach your children to speak of Torah").
But if so, how do we explain Birkat Hamazon, whose obligation -- in Sefer Devarim -- is in the singular. Shall we say that bentsching is strictly a communal mitzvah? That would explain Zimun, but what about when there is no Zimun. Is there no mitzvah for an individual to bentsch?
I would argue that, yes -- the Torah never intended to obligate an individual to bentsch, because the purpose of the mitzvot of Sefer Devarim are not about people eating. The purpose of the mitzvot of Sefer Devarim are about the people uniting.
No purpose, headed as we are toward our national goal of living in Eretz Yisrael, is as holy as having Jews unite. We must unite as one to select a king; we must unite as one to vanquish our enemies; we must unite as one because Hashem is One, as we are told -- also here in Sefer Devarim -- Sh'ma Yisrael Hashem Elohainu Hashem Echad, and in Eretz Yisrael we must reflect Him. Okay, so how do we unite?
The Torah identifies a classic and universal method -- Eat together!
There is nothing that creates more unity and camaraderie, says the Talmud, than coming together for a meal. And it is that unity and camaraderie -- and the Torah's desire to channel that oneness toward serving God -- that produces the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon. When you eat as one, and reach satisfaction as one, then you shall bless God as one, we are told.
Birkat Hamazon is not simply an obligation produced by eating. When done in a group, it represents the entire purpose and justification of eating! We eat in order to unite. And we unite in order to bless Hashem.
The only question is, what constitutes a group uniting as one? For that, we have the verse in Haazinu -- When one calls to two or more to serve God, we have the optimal communal effort. Three constitutes a group (two does not -- even a marriage is a uniting of three: the husband, the wife, and Hashem), and three who have bonded over a good meal have an obligation to act as a unit and perform the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon.
Now we understand the Rambam. Zimun doesn't take away from bentsching -- it defines what bentsching is all about! And no one but the leader needs to recite the words, because in three Jews forming a group, the group speaks with one mouth. All that is needed from the others is confirmation that the chosen leader indeed speaks for them -- and this they do by responding "Amein".
So does that mean there is no obligation for an individual eating alone to bentsch? In a sense, there isn't. Because when a Jew dines alone, while he has not optimized the opportunity to bring about mutual bonding of the type that ultimate yields a tight-knit and singular Jewish people, he nevertheless blesses God as a group -- a group of one. Even two Jews eating together can function only as two groups of one. But reach the threshhold of three, and we glory in our fully-formed unit and bestow upon it the "call to bentsch" -- Birkat HaZimun -- because we now have what it takes to execute God's missions as a genuine reflection of the true Oneness that is Him.