By Israel Drazin
All religions have antiquated practices that are vestiges of meaningful ancient practices, but are not useful today because of changes in modern behavior. The brief Jewish ceremony of Zimmum is an example.
Orthodox Jews consider meals reminders of the service on the ancient temple altar. Thus eating is a more elevated experience than simply supplying the body with food. Meals, for example, begin with washing hands, just as the ancient priests washed before offering sacrifices. Bread is sprinkled with salt, as were the sacrifices. While nothing is physically set aside for God during the meal, Orthodox Jews replace the sacrifices with discussions on the Torah.
The meal begins with a leader saying a blessing over the bread, thanking God for the food. The participants respond by saying “amen” when they hear the prayer, which the rabbis teach is as if they too said it. The meal ends when at least three men are present with the Zimmum ceremony. The leader tells the people at the meal’s end that they are ready to say the after-meal blessings, called benching, “blessings,” and they reply that they are ready to do so. As done today, the Zimmum is a vestige of what it once was. The leader does not recite the entire benching, which is comprised of about a half dozen blessings some of which are quite long and take up several pages in the prayer book. Each participant usually recites the blessings silently, the leader says the final words of each blessing loud, and the participants respond “amen.” Why do the participants need to respond “amen”? Since they are saying the blessings themselves, there is no need for them to hear someone else say them and participate vicariously. Besides, they do not hear the entire blessing; they are replying “amen” to a few words.
The famous Polish rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933) explained in his Mishnah Berurah (183:27) that in ancient times there were no prayer books and most people did not know the benching by heart. A man who knew the prayers would call to those who were eating together (zimmum means “invite”) and tell them that he is ready to recite the blessings and they can fulfill their requirement to say the blessings by responding “amen.” Today, when every participant can read the blessings, Kagan explains, Orthodox Jews perform a shortened truncated version of the ancient Zimmum practice to remember how the benching was said in the past: the leader does not read every word of each blessing, just the last few words, and the participants say “amen,” even though it makes no sense to do so.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) agrees with Rabbi Kagan in his book Festival of Freedom. However he bewails the fact that the benching is not said communally. He notes that humans, animals, and vegetation eat, but: “Man must not respond to hunger in the same manner as the beast or the brute in the field.” Humans must transform “primitive automatism into dignified activism” (1) be selective in what they eat, (2) realize that “eating serves a higher purpose,” making it possible to recognize God’s gifts and giving people strength to do the divine will, (3) eat with others and realize that people must share with others and show them respect, and (4) use the meal as an opportunity to learn. He considered the ancient communal Zimmum an “ideal practice” because it helped fulfill the third goal of a more elevated meal. He suggested that meal participants recite the entire benching or at least the first blessing together.
 Many Orthodox Jewish women today lead the Zimmum when three men are not present when three women are at the table.