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Disentangling a Sephardic-Ashkenazic Sukkah Misunderstanding

Part II

Very recently, an Ashke­nazic woman approached me, recounting what she perceived to be a bizarre incident. She was a guest at a Sephardic family on Sukkot, and before the husband began his recitation of Kiddush he announced that women should not respond “amen” to the bracha “Leishev BaSukkah.”

The Ashkenazic woman was shocked. She had never heard anything remotely similar to this halacha. Other Ashkenazic women who overheard this conversation also expressed surprise and bewilderment.

The underlying issue is a dispute between Rabbeinu Tam and the Rambam. All agree that women are exempt from performing mitzvot asei she’hazman grama. The dispute is whether a woman may recite a bracha if she chooses to perform positive time-bound mitzvot such as sukkah, lulav and shofar. The Rambam rules that they may not, whereas Rabbeinu Tam argues that women may recite a bracha if they choose to perform these mitzvot. Ashkenazic Jews follow Rabbeinu Tam, and Chacham Ovadia Yosef and his sons have convinced much of the Sephardic community with their convincing arguments that Sephardic Jews should follow the Rambam. Thus, while Ashkenazic women recite Leisheiv BaSukkah when they choose to eat a meal in the sukkah, many Sephardic women do not, although a considerable group of Sephardim maintain their tradition to recite brachot on Mitzvot Asseih SheHaZeman Gerama.

In his elder years, Chacham Ovadia wrote a responsum (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 9: Orach Chaim 60) that presents a great chiddush (novel idea). He argues that not only should Sephardic women refrain from reciting Leishev BaSukkah, they should not recite amen to this bracha after Kiddush on Yom Tov evenings. Answering amen, argues Rav Yosef, constitutes a hefsek (unwarranted interruption) between Borei Pri HaGefen (the Sephardic pronunciation) and women drinking the wine, after the bracha Leishev BaSukkah is recited by the man making Kiddush.

This is quite a chiddush. After all, it is an obligation to respond amen to a bracha that is recited (Rambam Hilchot Brachot 1:13 and Shulchan Aruch 215:2). Thus, it is no small matter to instruct a Jew to refrain from answering amen to a bracha that was recited in legitimate circumstances. Moreover, one would expect for Chacham Ovadia to cite a rich list of classic Sephardic halachic authorities to support his assertion, as he does in countless teshuvot. Yet surprisingly, there is a glaring omission of such sources.

Rav Yosef compares a woman responding amen to Leishev BaSukkah after Kiddush to a man who answers amen to Kaddish between placing on his tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh. Just as the latter constitutes a hefsek (Mishnah Berurah 25:36), so too does a woman responding amen to Leishev BaSukkah constitute an improper disruption between her hearing Borei Pri HaGefen and her drinking from the Kiddush wine.

Chacham Ovadia cites as a precedent a variety of mid- to late-20th-century Ashkenazic poskim such as Rav Zvi Pesach Frank (Mikra’ei Kodesh, Pesach, 2:138) who instruct Ashkenazic women whose practice is to recite Shehechiyanu upon lighting Yom Tov candles (Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 263:12) not to respond amen after their husband’s recital of Kiddush. They argue that the amen after Shehechiyanu during Kiddush is a hefsek since she has already recited Shehechiyanu after lighting candles. Thus, the amen is a hefsek between Borei Pri HaGafen (the Ashkenazic pronunciation) and the woman drinking from the wine.

However, this precedent is not beyond dispute. Rav Zvi Pesach elsewhere (Teshuvot Har Zvi Orach Chaim 1:144) raises the problem that if responding amen constitutes a problem, then the bracha itself creates an unwarranted interruption for a woman who recited Shehechiyanu beforehand.

Moreover, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:21:9 and 4:101) argues that Ashkenazic women may respond amen after Shehechiyanu even if she already recited Shehechiyanu. Besides the fact that no halachic authority raised this as an issue before the mid-20th century, Rav Moshe argues that the amen is not a hefsek. He argues cogently that since the husband is reciting Shehechiyanu at its proper time and place and thus hardly is regarded as a hefsek, so too the wife’s amen to this proper bracha is not classified as a hefsek. Although Rav Ovadia cites Rav Moshe’s objection, he does not respond to this substantial argument other than to express his disapproval of women reciting Shehechiyanu on candle lighting on Yom Tov (as he states in Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 3:34).

Accordingly, Chacham Ovadia’s ruling that women should refrain from answering amen to Leishev BaSkkah during Kiddush is far from indisputable. Even Chacham Ovadia (followed by his son Chacham Yitzchak in Yalkut Yosef) urges a woman to think about amen (hirhur) in case it is indeed proper for her to respond amen to Leishev BaSukkah.

Almost all of Chacham Ovadia’s rulings are rock solid with cogent argumentation and plentiful precedent cited. Usually after learning a teshuva of Rav Yosef one thinks, “This is enormously persuasive!” An example is his responsa insisting that Sephardic women should not recite a bracha on mitzvot asei she’hazman grama. However, his teshuva instructing women to merely think amen and not verbalize amen upon Leishev BaSukkah after Kiddush, with all the great respect owed Chacham Ovadia, leaves the reader with doubts as to its cogency. Perhaps this is why no classic Sephardic posek articulated a similar approach.

Finally, as indicated by the story recounted by the Ashkenazic women, even people who follow this ruling fail to grasp its nuances. The husband in the case we recounted at the beginning of our discussion announced before he began Kiddush that women should not answer amen, instead of saying they should merely think amen. Moreover, he did not take note of the Ashkenazic woman who could recite amen to the Leishev BaSukkah but refrain from answering amein to Shehechiyanu according to Chacham Ovadia (Teshuvot Chazon Ovadia 2 page 133).

Teshuvot Rivevot Ephraim (1:182) recommends refraining from issuing instructions to Ashkenazic women regarding answering amen to Shehechiyanu in order to avoid confusion, especially in light of the fact that it is highly questionable if it is truly necessary to refrain from answering amen. Similarly, it seems best to refrain from announcing prior to Kiddush on Yom Tov that Sephardic women should only think amen in response to Leishev BaSukkah.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

 Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.


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