Question: I learned that the mezamen (leader of zimun) should recite—if not all of Birkat Hamazon aloud—at least the first beracha and the ends of berachot. Most people do neither. What should I do and/or tell others to do?
Answer: There are two reasons for mezamen to recite aloud parts of Birkat Hamazon.
The original institution of zimun was for only mezamen to say Birkat Hamazon, with the others being yotzei by listening. The practice has developed that rarely is one person motzei others with reciting a text when not necessary. The reason is that being motzei is not easy, because it requires intention on both sides (Mishna Berura 8:13), concentration of the one listening (Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 183), and likely also the latter’s understanding of the Hebrew text (Mishna Berura 183:28). The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 183:7) says tha, although, everyone should recite Birkat Hamazon, it is proper for the others to do so silently at the same pace that the mezamen does it aloud—thus, uniting them in a way that resembles full zimun (Mishna Berura 183:27).
The above is not a requirement, and the broad minhag is not to do so. Some explain the advantages. If they listen to mezamen as they recite it, they may not concentrate well and might not have in mind to be yotzei with their own recitation (see Avnei Yaakov 31). We do not recommend, in places it is unusual, for mezamen to read the whole Birkat Hamazon aloud. Beyond the pluses and minuses, it is also likely to give the impression of “holier than thou.”
It is somewhat common to tone down the above by reciting only the ends of the brachot. While listening/responding to this is insufficient to be yotzei, there may be value in joining for Birkat Hamazon’s most important parts, and it gives people the zechut of answering “amen” (see Shabbat 119b). It is positive to do this. If the responders do not keep pace with mezamen, it is unclear if they should answer “amen” to mezamen who are in the midst of a bracha (see Mishna Berura 183:30; Dirshu 183:24; Yeshuot Moshe III:19).
The other element of reading aloud applies only to the first bracha (“ … hazan et hakol”). Rav Nachman (Berachot 46a) says that the zimun ends before Birkat Hamazon’s first bracha; Rav Sheshet says that the first bracha is part of zimun. (It is not a full part of zimun, as we recite it even without one, but Rav Sheshet requires zimun to be connected to the beginning of Birkat Hamazon (Tosafot ad loc.) One difference between the opinions is until what point one who stops eating to answer zimun has to wait before resuming eating (ibid.). The Shulchan Aruch (OC 200:2, based on the Rif and Rambam) rules like Rav Nachman. The Rama (ad loc.) paskens like Rav Sheshet, that one waits until “hazan et hakol” to resume eating. Likely, another difference between them is whether the mezamen recites the first bracha aloud (see Beit Yosef, OC 183).
We rule that we do not trust ourselves to be yotzei with mezamen, even for the first bracha (see ibid.). Still, the Mishna Berura (183:28) says that mezamen should do at least that bracha aloud, so people can read along with him (they go ahead at the end of the bracha, so they can answer “amen”) and get an element of zimun. So, why doesn’t everyone do this?
Explanations begin with the fact that Rav Nachman is not a “rejected” opinion so that Ashkenazim can rely upon him in this regard (see Tzitz Eliezer ibid.). They may assume that their concentration on their own recitations is better that way (see Piskei Teshuvot 183:15) or for kabbalistic advantage (see Kaf Hachayim, Orach Chayim 183:38). Still, we recommend for mezamen to recite the first bracha aloud, when this is not a rare practice.
There is less reason to recite the first bracha aloud with a zimun of 10. The Tur (Orach Chayim 200, accepted by Mishna Berura 200:9 and Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim 31:2) says that in such a case, Rav Sheshet agrees that one who stopped can resume eating before the first bracha of Birkat Hamazon, because by adding the name of Hashem, the zimun is a self-standing bracha. If so, having the mezamen say the first bracha aloud is similar to his reciting all of Birkat Hamazon aloud.
Considering all the possible viabilities, you should not “correct” people.
Rabbi Mann is a dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of “Living the Halachic Process, Volumes 1 and 2” and “A Glimpse of Greatness.”