Berakhot 49

Who has a seat at the table?

The mishnah that opened this chapter (back on page 45a) excludes women and slaves (among others) from communal recitation of Birkat Hamazon, the final Grace After Meals. However, on today’s daf one maverick rabbi, Rabbi Zeira, seeks to include women and slaves — at least partially — in this ritual.

Rabbi Zeira is known for dramatic flare. Instead of just telling his story, he builds up to it:

Rabbi Zeira asked Rav Hisda to teach a mishnah.

Rav Hisda responded: I haven’t yet finished learning the simple prayer of Birkat Hamazon and you ask me to teach a mishnah!?

Rabbi Zeira replied: What do you mean? Of course a scholar like you knows Birkat Hamazon!

Now that he has Rav Hisda’s attention, Rabbi Zeira relates what happened when he was invited to lead Birkat Hamazon at none other than the table of the Exilarch, the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community.

Today, the text of Birkat Hamazon is fixed with a few variations between Jewish communities. But in the third century, the text of the Birkat Hamazon was in flux. An invitation to lead Birkat Hamazon at a high-profile table with other scholars in attendance was therefore tantamount to a test of that person’s Torah knowledge and social etiquette. So this invitation was a big moment for Rabbi Zeira.

But, when given the stage, Rabbi Zeria chooses to play by his own rules, rather than fulfill his hosts’ expectations. His version of Birkat Hamazon omits thanks to God for three things usually included in the Grace After Meals: God’s covenant with the Jewish people, Torah and the kingship of David. In response to this glaring omission, one of the respected guests, Rav Sheshet, glared at him across the table. Or, as Rabbi Zeira put it: He stiffened his neck over me like a snake — uncurled and prepared to strike.

Rav Hisda, the rapt listener, asks: Why did you skip these blessings? Rabbi Zeira explains that he omitted mention of covenant, Torah and Davidic kingship because these three divine gifts exclude women and slaves. Women are excluded from the covenant in that they are not circumcised (the sign of male admission to the covenant). Similarly, women and slaves do not have access to Torah (learning Torah was then the province of men) or kingship. Since women and slaves can’t thank God for these privileges with a full heart, these should not be part of the blessing.

Rabbi Zeira does not argue that the position of women and slaves should be ameliorated so that they can have access to the power and respect that come membership in the covenant, knowledge of Torah and kingship. On the other hand, his surprising version of Birkat Hamazon does remind the prestigious party of diners that some Jews in his time had been relegated to the periphery, and yet they still deserve a place at the table. His performance at the Exilarch’s table, the seat of Babylonian power, makes a powerful point that the standard liturgy should be crafted in broad language to include as many types of Jews as possible. Or maybe he just enjoyed making waves at the Exilarch’s house.

Read all of Berakhot 49 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 21, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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