The gemara in Brachot 46a discusses various laws of who takes precedence in leading Birchat HaMazon (grace after meals). The gemara cites the view of Rabi Yochanan in the name of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, who states that the head of the household should break bread, and the guest should lead Birchat HaMazon (i.e. lead the zimun). While the former law makes logical sense, why should the guest be privileged to lead Birchat HaMazon? Why should the head of the household not also be entitled to this honor? The gemara responds by reasoning that the guest leads Birchat HaMazon so that he can bless his host. Following up on that law, the gemara presents the text of the blessing that should be said, praising the host and praying to Hashem to protect him and all of his possessions.

Rosh notes, and the Tur (O.C. 201) codifies, that this law applies even when the head of the household is of greater stature than his guests. In other words, the regular rules of who takes precedence that we normally observe in Judaism do not apply in this case in order that the host may receive his blessing (and, in fact, the Mordechai and Rambam [Berachot 2:7] rule that when there is no host, then the greatest person present should lead the zimun). The Beit Yoseif notes that according to the Sefer Ohel Moed, the guest only leads if he is found to be worthy in the eyes of the head of the household. Otherwise, the head of the household may revoke the privilege and pass it on to someone else, or even lead the zimun himself (see also Rabbeinu Yonah). Even further, Ritva writes that since this entire law is to benefit the head of the household, he can opt to forgive his honor and lead the zimun himself (this is also codified by Rosh, the Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch).

So far, so good. This law seems to be fairly simple, and there is a minimum of disagreement, if any at all. That being the case, why is it that this custom virtually disappeared from Ashkenazic circles, and only now is making a bit of a comeback? Part of the key to this dilemma is solved for us by the Aruch HaShulchan. He notes that Birchat HaMazon today is not what it was in the times of the gemara. The original practice was that the one who was chosen to lead the zimun would actually say the entire Birchat HaMazon out loud for the benefit of those who did not know the words and did not have a printed text in front of them (printing then was not what it is today). Thus, there would come a point when a guest leading the zimun in front of his host would come to a point where he would bless his host out loud. Today, however, Jewish education and Jewish printing presses have created a society wherein most people know are have access to Birchat HaMazon, and thus can say the entire thing to themselves. One by-product of this phenomenon is the fact that not every person who leads the zimun says the entire Birchat HaMazon out loud. A second by-product is that every person now has the opportunity to bless their host by themselves. Indeed, this is the ruling of the Aruch HaShulchan (as well as the Orach Mishpat O.C. 42), that each person should say the blessing for the head of the household in their recitation of the Birchat HaMazon.

Historically, there have been some siddurim which have included this prayer, and others which have omitted it. Rav Sa'adiah Gaon does include it, and prefaces it by writing that anyone who eats at his friend's home should recite this prayer. While Rambam does refer to it in his laws of Berachot, it is not to be found in his text of the prayers (as contained in the Oxford Manuscript), and it is missing as well in a liturgy from Rome, and from the siddur of the Chatam Sofer. On the other hand, Rav Yissachar Yaakovson notes that it is included in the Machzor Vitri (which serves as the basis for many of the prayer customs of Ashkenazic Jewry), as well as in the Sephardic and Yemenite siddurim. It is to be found as well in the siddur of the GR"A. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook includes both this special prayer from the gemara, as well as the "harachaman" that is generally found in must Ashkenazic texts. More recent siddurim, such as those put out by ArtScroll and Metsudah, have included this blessing in their versions of Birchat HaMazon.

We should point out that Rav Yaakov Emden, in his commentary on the siddur, was amazed that this blessing had virtually disappeared from the standard liturgy, and he himself did include it. The Mishna Berura also wonders why recitation of this blessing had ceased to be a common practice among Ashkenazic Jews. Rav Adin Steinsaltz, in HaSiddur VeHatefilla, comments that Ashkenazim fulfill their obligation to say this blessing by reciting the "harachaman" that is said in praise of the head of the household, even though this is but a pale reflection of the full text given in the gemara.

Finally, I have been told by Mordy Friedman that when asked about what one should do, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein replied that while one should certainly say this blessing (not just the person leading the zimun, as per the Aruch HaShulchan, but everyone), it should not be said out loud. Since the practice is no longer to do so, it would possibly be a problem of "yuhara," or religious pomposity, to make a public display of saying this blessing once it's recitation has become a rarity.

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