Zimun and Models of Communal Leadership

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Elli Fischer

The familiar “zimun” (or “mezuman”), wherein three people who ate together must recite Birkat Ha-mazon together, prefaced by a formulaic “invitation” to bless G-d, is introduced by the first mishna in the seventh chapter of Berakhot: “Three who ate as one are obligated to make a zimun.”

The Gemara (Berakhot 45a) begins its discussion of zimun by asking: “Whence is this matter [derived]?” Rashi explains that the inquiry is specifically about the number three: How do we know that three people are fit to jointly bless G-d? The Gemara offers two prooftexts:

Asi says, “For Scripture states: ‘Praise (plural) the Lord with me, and we will exalt His name together’ (Tehilim 34:4).” R. Abahu says, “From here: ‘When I call the name of the Lord, attribute (plural) greatness to our G-d’ (Devarim 32:3).”

In each verse, a speaker, in the first-person singular, exhorts others, in the second-person plural, to praise G-d. That is, three people, one speaker and an audience of at least two, are required to dramatize these verses.

Yet even if the two prooftexts achieve the same goal, they are far from identical. In the first place, the former verse is from Tehilim, whereas the latter is from Ha’azinu, Moshe’s parting poem at the end of Devarim—that is, from the Torah itself. Usually a prooftext from the Torah is considered stronger than a prooftext from elsewhere in Scripture, but in this case the prooftexts seem to be on equal footing. If anything, commentators from Rashi (45b s.v. “de-ika”) to Rav Soloveitchik (in the chapter titled “Ehad Mevarekh Birkat Ha-mazon Le-kulam” in Vol. II of Shi’urim Le-zekher Abba Mari Za”l) grant pride of place to the verse from Tehilim, all but ignoring the prooftext from Devarim.

Upon closer scrutiny, it seems that the two verses are also quite different in their content. They do not envision the same scene. In the verse from Tehilim, the speaker exhorts the audience to praise G-d along with him. In the verse from Ha’azinu, the speaker informs his audience that he alone will call out in G-d’s name, and that they should respond by giving praise. The verses model two distinct forms of leadership: in the Tehilim model, the leader’s job is complete once he has inspired his audience to join him in exalting G-d’s name. The hierarchy dissolves and the entire group offers praise together. In contrast, in the Ha’azinu model, the leader remains the leader. He alone calls out in G-d’s name, and the audience responds to his overtures by praising G-d.

It is no stretch to extend these models to other forms of communal leadership. After all, the requirement of zimum is itself premised on the principle that a communal meal generates a communal obligation to praise G-d. Three people who eat together form a mini-community, which in turn has an obligation to become a holy community. If they form a community around food but fail to elevate that community by praising G-d together, then the community is godless (Avot 3:3, and see R. Yona ad loc.), even if each member of the community prays individually.

The leadership modeled in Ha’azinu, and indeed by Moshe throughout his career, is one where the gap between leader and followers is immense, like that of a shepherd tending to his flock. The leadership modeled in Tehilim strives to eliminate the gap between leader and follower.

Historically, Moshe-style leadership is indeed most common. However, by giving primacy to the verse in Tehilim, perhaps the Gemara and our sages are acknowledging that the type of leadership it models is superior. Perhaps we are not yet ready for a society in which one can extemporaneously lead without being a “leader” and then immediately dissolve back into the community, but it remains something to which we may aspire.

Elli Fischer (SBM 97) is a rabbi, writer, translator, and Jewish heritage travel consultant who lives in Modi’in, Israel.
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