Women's Participation in Sheva Berakhot
By Joel B. Wolowelsky
This discussion is excerpted from the author’s Women, Jewish Law and Modernity: New Opportunities in a Post-Feminist Age (Ktav Publishing House), which has a more extensive presentation of the halakhic arguments.
There is a widespread custom of arranging special meals in honor of a new bride and groom during the first week of their marriage so that sheva berakhot, the series of seven special blessings added to birkhat hamazon after each meal, may be recited. In modern religious homes, we are used to hearing women deliver divrei Torah at these events and, as we shall see, there seems to be little reason to exclude women from reciting some or all of the sheva berakhot, if a halakhic minyan of ten men and someone who has not previously heard the berakhot recited (panim hadashot) are present. (The discussion here concerns only sheva berakhot said at a meal and not those said under the chuppa. In addition, it does not apply to a woman leading the zimmun at a sheva berakhot meal.)
The Talmud (Berakhot 6a) records the dictum of R. Helbo in the name of Rav Huna that “Anyone who takes pleasure from a marriage feast and does not cheer him [the groom] has a fivefold violation.” Maharsha notes that Hazal enacted the seven birkhot hatanim in this regard; that is, although there are many ways of cheering the bride and groom, the Sages decreed that it be done by reciting the sheva berakhot. As anyone who takes pleasure from the feast is thereby obligated in sheva berakhot, at this stage there seems to be no reason for excluding women from this obligation.
Radbaz ties this obligation of those who participated in the wedding feast to the more general ruling of Rambam concerning everyone’s responsibility to the new couple. Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Avel 14:1) rules:
It is a positive commandment of the Sages ... to cheer the bride and groom and provide for all their needs. And these are acts of kindness done by oneself and which have no set quantities. Even though all these mitzvot were promulgated by the Sages, they all fall under the rubric of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here, too, there seems to be no reason to exclude women from this obligation, and, with all due respect, the suggestion by the late Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli that women are not obligated in the mitzva to cheer the bride and groom is a lone opinion that goes against generally accepted arguments.
Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Berakhot 2:1-11) records the obligation to say birkhat hatanim in his discussion of the laws of birkhat hamazon. After recording the general laws of birkhat hamazon and the extra paragraphs to be added on Shabbat, Hanukkah and Purim, the Festivals, as a guest in someone else’s home, and when in the home of a mourner, Rambam rules that birkhat hatanim (which he later defines as “Asher Bara,” the last of the sheva berakhot), is added in the home of a newly married groom, and adds that if a minyan of ten [adult free men] is present and some did not yet hear the recitation of all sheva berakhot, then all seven blessings are recited for them.
Most significantly, after noting that birkhat hatanim is added by the individual in birkhat hamazon, Rambam adds: “Neither slaves nor minors recite this blessing,” which is a meaningful departure from his usual triad of “women, slaves and minors.” Unquestionably, the simple meaning of Rambam’s ruling is that a woman may say “Asher Bara” as part of her individual birkhat hamazon.
But an important shift is made by the Shulhan Arukh (Even HaEzer 62:4-7) in summarizing these halakhot. Ten adult males must be present to say birkhat hatanim, whether said at the marriage ceremony or after birkhat hamazon. “If only the Asher Bara blessing is said after birkhat hamazon, the presence of ten is not necessary.” Ramo’s gloss there is that “but three are necessary;” as Beiurei HaGra explains, this is “so that there be a zimmun.” Birkhat hatanim is no longer simply part of an individual’s birkhat hamazon; it is now dependent on the existence of a zimmun. Indeed, in responding to the question of whether one may leave a wedding before sheva berakhot are said, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that those obligated to hear birkhat hazimmun must hear the sheva berakhot, and the way to free oneself from the obligation of the latter is to exempt oneself from the obligation of the former.
Most significantly, the Shulhan Arukh notes after this formulation that birkhat hatanim is not to be recited by slaves and minors, again not excluding women. Helkat Mehokek explains there that the slaves and minors are excluded because they cannot be included in the three required for the zimmun. But the halakha is clear that women are fully obligated in birkhat hazimmun if they eat with three or more men. (They have the option of doing so if they eat alone or with one or two men.) Women therefore are not excluded from saying birkhat hatanim.
An additional issue to be considered is that of tseniut, modesty. In general, the tradition takes the view that a woman should not project herself publicly. In circles where, for example, it would be considered immodest for a woman to deliver a d’var Torah at a sheva berakhot meal, it certainly would be inappropriate for her to say one of the berakhot. Of course, many groups within the halakhic community are quite comfortable with women teaching men, assuming leadership roles in yeshivot, and working as professionals. Saying a berakha aloud before men is hardly more immodest.
Women can recite birkhat hagommel publicly, either in shul at the time of the Torah reading or at a specially convened celebration. Some might feel that this is immodest behavior, noted Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rishon LeTzion and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, “but I say that the evil inclination is not to be found for such a short matter ... especially nowadays when women regularly go out to public places among men .... [Similarly, under these circumstances] one need not be concerned about the issue of kol zemer shel isha erva (a woman’s voice is sexually arousing).” This ruling cannot be applied haphazardly, but it certainly seems to apply to our situation.
Thus the objection raised by Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg to women saying sheva berakhot because of kol isha concerns is not convincing, especially when he compares it to a woman saying kaddish in the presence of a minyan, which is a well-established activity. Indeed, Rabbi Steinberg himself goes on to express his real concern:
If we allow women to say the sheva berakhot, it will be used as a precedent for other demands, including mixed seating in public prayer, as is done by Reform and Conservative [congregations].
But this logic can be argued for the opposite conclusion, as did Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik regarding kaddish:
“Nowadays, when there are Jews fighting for equality for men and women in matters such as aliyot, if Orthodox rabbis prevent women from saying kaddish when there is a possibility for allowing it, it will strengthen the influence of Reform and Conservative rabbis. It is therefore forbidden to prevent daughters from saying kaddish.”
This argument has obvious relevance to sheva berakhot. Indeed, women’s full participation in the sheva berakhot is nothing but a natural extension of their increased participation in the full spectrum of Torah activities.
Rabbi Dr. Joel Wolowelsky is a member of the Academic Advisory Boards of Bar Ilan University’s Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism, and the International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University.