Shabbat Parashat Toldot | 5768
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Question: My boyfriend and I went out to eat with my friend and her husband, who are much more religious than we. I made Hamotzi on behalf of everyone, but afterwards my friend’s husband made his own Hamotzi. I was quite insulted. Is there a halacha that a man cannot fulfill his mitzva by answering Amen to a woman’s beracha?
Answer: Let us begin with a story, whose relevance should be clear later. An Ashkenziboy got engaged to a Sephardi girl. At the engagement party, the girl’s father wished the boy’s father that soon he would have a grandchild named after him. The recipient of the “blessing” got upset, and the “good wisher” took it as a sign that he did not want to share grandchildren with the latter. It took some explaining for the Ashkenazi to realize that Sephardim covet grandchildren named after them while they are alive and he intended to bless his new mechutan. The Sephardi learned the hard way that Ashkenazim do not name after live grandparents, explaining the negative reaction.
The gemara (Berachot 42b) spells out when a person can make a beracha on behalf of others who are eating with him. Basically, there are two scenarios: they recline to eat together; they make a statement that they intend to eat together. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 167:11) points out that nowadays when people rarely recline when eating, the first criterion depends on whether they sit down to eat at one table. In your case, both criteria were apparently met (one is sufficient) and, therefore, you had reason to consider it appropriate that one person would make Hamotzi and the others would only answer and eat. In fact, when starting the meal as one group, there is a benefit in one making the beracha on behalf of all, based on the concept of “with a multitude of people, it is a glory for the King” (Mishlei 14:28) (Bi’ur Halacha to 167:11). (Regarding Birkat Hamazon after the meal, only if there is a zimun (three reciting Birkat Hamazon as a group) is it proper for one to listen and answer rather than recite separately (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 193:1).)
May a woman make Hamotzi on behalf of others? Only one who is fully obligated in a mitzva can perform it on behalf of others who are fully obligated (Berachot 20b). Women, who are not obligated in shofar blowing, cannot blow shofar for men to fulfill their mitzva (Rosh Hashana 29a). However, women are obligated (rabbinically, like men) to make berachot before eating and can exempt men. Indeed, in some fine families, the wife makes Hamotzi at the Shabbat meal.
It is understandable then that you might feel that your friend’s husband acted on an insulting social/political basis by making his own beracha, but it may be similar to the story above. Without crawling into his head, it is likely that he just followed a broad minhag (which you apparently do not share),which is well over a century old, that people generally make their own berachot rather than suffice by listening to another. One reason given is that we fear that one will speak between answering the beracha and eating (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chayim 167:18). A convincing reason for the general custom regarding many berachot is that we are afraid that people will not focus in a manner that enables them to be exempted by another’s beracha (Mishna Berura 8:13).
Only on Shabbat and Yom Tov is it still widely practiced that one person makes the beracha on everyone’s behalf, and this is because there is usually only one set of lechem mishneh (double loaves) upon which the beracha is recited. If one makes his own beracha on a piece of bread, it is questionable whether he is connected to the two loaves (see Mishna Berura 274:8 and Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 55:19). Even then, there are communities where people make their own beracha after the central one was made (see ibid.).
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