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Medieval Sourcebook:
Reciting the Grace after Meals:
The Status of Jewish Women, from Berakhot, chap. 7

This text has three layers: a short legal statement found in the Mishnah (2nd century, Palestine), an exerpt of the discussion of the Mishnah found the Bablylonian Talmud (3rd-7th centuries, Babylonia), and the commentary of the Tosafists (12th-13th century, France and Germany). It is of interest for the method which the Tosafists use, but also for what it tells us about contemporary perceptions of the relative level of education of men and women.

Mishnah 1: Three who ate together are obligated to invite one another [to say grace after meals] . . . Women, slaves and minors are not included in the invitation [zimun].

BT Berakhot 45b: Come and hear: women by themselves or slaves by themselves invite one another [to say grace], but women, slaves and minors may not invite one another, even if they wish to. Now a hundred women are no better than two men [in that neither constitutes a quorum for zimun and yet [we already mentioned the teaching that] women by themselves or slaves by themselves invite one another: [is this not a contradiction?]. No, this is different, for each [woman] has a mind of her own.

Tosafot, ibid, s.v. "No, this is different:"
From here, we learn that women join to form a zimun by themselves. The daughters of Rabeinu Avraham, the son in law of Rabeinu Yehuda did so in accordance with the teaching of their father. However, in general, this is not the practice. It is difficult to understand why it is not done, since from the statment "invite one another [=form a   zimun]" we understand that they are obligated to form a  zimun.

 (The tosafot continues by bringing an opinion that the statement in the Gemara reflected permission rather than an obligation to form a zimun, despite a passage in the first chapter of tractate Arakhin (3a) which might suggest the opposite. The text continues with a subsidiary question:)

Further investigation is needed to determine whether women's obligation is fulfilled [yotzot] by the zimun of men [1], since they do not understand [the words of Grace]. There are those who offer as a proof that their obligation  is fulfilled from what it says below, "if a scholar makes the blessing, an ignoramus has his obligation fulfilled;" from this is appears that even the obligation of women for grace is fulfilled. As for our own [women] however, it is possible to rebut that proof, since there is a difference between an ignoramus, who understands Hebrew and some of what is said [in Grace but just does not know how to say Grace himself], but as for women, who do not understand at all, it could be said that they are not satisfied. . . . (The text concludes with another tangential matter, leaving the question of women's status hanging).

[1] Note the implication that they do have an obligation of some sort.


Translated by Elka Klein

©  Elka Klein, 1998. The text may be used for non-commercial educational purposes, including use course packets.  Further publication in other forms (including by university presses) requires permission. Do not reproduce this text on other websites.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998