Attention to the Meaning of Blessings

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein




Attention to the meaning of Blessings

Rav Elyakim Krumbein*





            The Shulchan Arukh writes (OC 193): "If two people ate… and one knows [how to recite the grace after meals] and the other does not, the one who knows should recite grace, and the other fulfills his obligation, provided that he understands Hebrew, only that he does not know how to recite grace…. But if he does not understand [Hebrew], he does not fulfill his obligation through hearing.


            The Mishna Berura (ad loc.) writes in the name of the Magen Avraham that there are those who disagree and say that if a person hears grace being recited in Hebrew, he fulfills his obligation even if he does not understand, and that indeed women are accustomed to fulfill their obligation through hearing grace being recited by others, even though they do not understand what is being said. The Mishna Berura concludes, however, that it is preferable that the person repeat the grace word for word after the one reciting it, "for in such manner he fulfills his obligation according to all authorities." The source of this disagreement is a dispute between Rashi and the Tosafot cited by the Rosh (Berakhot 7:6).


            The Ba'al ha-Tanya (Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav 185) disagrees with the Magen Avraham and the Mishna Berura and says that according to the more stringent position, it does not help to repeat the grace word for word after the one reciting it, because a person cannot fulfill his obligation to recite grace in a language that he does not understand, not only if he hears grace being recited by others, but even if he recites it himself. The Ba'al ha-Tanya explains:


For I cannot apply to this: "And you shall bless the Lord your God," because he does not understand the words of the blessing that he utters with his mouth. [This is true] even if he knows whom he is blessing, and it is his intention to bless God with these words, and all the more so [does he not fulfill his obligation] if his heart was directed at something else while he was reciting the blessings, even if he understands Hebrew.


            The Ba'al ha-Tanya argues that grace after meals is not a mitzva that involves mere recitation, but rather it belongs to that class of mitzvot that have two components – "a duty of the limbs" and "a duty of the heart." Thus it is similar to the mitzvot of keri'at shema and prayer, which require more than mere recitation; indispensible for their fulfillment is some internal experience – acceptance of the yoke of heaven or heartfelt beseeching of mercy, respectively. Similarly, the fulfillment of the mitzva of grace requires both verbal recitation and attention to the meaning. This stands in contrast to most other mitzvot, which even if their purpose is to nurture and develop a certain experience, this element is not indispensible for their fulfillment. For example, even though the Torah explicitly states that the purpose of the mitzva of sitting in the sukka is "that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths" (Vayikra 23:43), even one who is unaware of the meaning of the mitzva fulfills his obligation by dwelling in the sukka.




            The Magen Avraham and the Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav apparently disagree about how to understand a certain passage in tractate Megilla, a passage which is the focus of the disagreement between Rashi and the Tosafot noted above, whether women who do not understand fulfill their obligation through hearing.


            The Mishna (Megilla 17a) states:


If one who does not understand Hebrew hears it [the megilla] read in Hebrew, he has fulfilled his obligation.


The Gemara raises a question (18a):


But he does not know what they are saying? [The Gemara answers:] He is on the same footing as women and ignorant people. Ravina strongly objected: And do we know the meaning of "ha-achashteranim benei ha-ramakhim"? But all the same we perform the mitzva of reading the megilla and proclaiming the miracle.


Rashi there explains: "And proclaiming the miracle – even though people do not understand what they hear, they ask and they are told what this reading is and how the miracle took place, and they are informed."


            Rashi proves that women fulfill their obligation when they hear grace being recited by another person from this law that even one who does not understand Hebrew fulfills his obligation when he hears the megilla read in Hebrew. The Tosafot reject this proof, arguing that the Gemara itself does not accept this principle and asks: "But he does not know what they are saying," and it is only because fulfillment of the mitzva of megilla depends on "proclaiming the miracle" that it suffices to hear the megilla even if one does not understand what he heard – and this does not apply in the case of grace after meals.


            The viewpoint of the Tosafot that women must understand what they are hearing depends on how we understand the Gemara's objection: "But he does not know what they are saying." The Magen Avraham maintains that understanding what is being said is a condition for applying the principle "shome'a ke-oneh," i.e., that hearing is effective just like reciting. In order to fulfill one's obligation through hearing as a substitute for recitation, we require a higher level of "hearing," which includes understanding. The Ba'al ha-Tanya, on the other hand, thinks that this interpretation is difficult, for even "proclaiming the miracle" can be achieved without understanding. In the end the principle of "shome'a ke-oneh" must be invoked in order to fulfill the mitzva, and according to the Magen Avraham this is conditional on understanding the language. Thus, it is difficult to understand the Gemara's answer according to the Magen Avraham.


            According to the Ba'al ha-Tanya, the Gemara's objection itself relates to the mitzva of "proclaiming the miracle." That is to say, since the mitzva of megilla involves not only reading the text, but also the personal experience of "proclaiming the miracle," it follows that the one who hears the megilla being read, as well as the one who actually reads it, must understand the meaning of the words. To this the Gemara answers that in the case of "proclaiming the miracle," we can waive the requirement of understanding the text that is read, because even one who does not understand it will eventually become aware of its general content, and this is enough. But – argue the Tosafot – this answer is only valid in the context of the mitzva of megilla. As far as other mitzvot are concerned, the assumption that underlies the Gemara's objection - "But he does not know what they are saying" – remains in place. The assumption is that regarding a mitzva of recitation that requires "a fulfillment in the heart" – the experiential fulfillment must stem from an understanding of the text that must be recited, and that a general comprehension without a precise literal understanding does not suffice. The Tosafot apparently assume that the mitzva of grace after meals requires "a fulfillment in the heart," and therefore it is clear to them that this mitzva cannot be fulfilled in a language that is not understood, based on the Gemara in Megilla.


            It may be asked: What is the Tosafot's source that the mitzva of grace requires "a fulfillment in the heart"?  While it stands to reason that it is preferable to recite the grace while paying attention to the meaning of the words, it does not necessarily follow that the absence of such attention should invalidate the recitation.




            There is a hint in the wording of the Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav that this principle is derived from the Gemara in Sota. The Mishna there (32a) spells out those texts which "may be recited in any language" as opposed to those which "must be recited in Hebrew." The Gemara there investigates the sources for all these cases. Regarding the allowance to recite the grace after meals in any language, the Gemara notes: "Because it is written: 'And you shall eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord your God' – [we derive that it is valid] in any language that you recite the blessing." Rashi (ad loc.) understands that there is no real source for this law. Rather, what the Gemara means is that there is no hint in the Torah that the grace must be recited specifically in Hebrew, and so it may be inferred that it may be recited in any language (accordingly, Rashi’s version of the text lacks the term: "From where do we derive this?").


            The Tosafot (ad loc.) disagree. They understand that an explicit source is needed to allow grace to be recited in any language (see there the reason for this). The derivation is as follows:


"And you shall bless the Lord," that is to say, since the blessing, and the praise, is directed toward God, you can recite the blessing in any language that you wish, and presumably, in a language that you know, so that you may wholeheartedly offer praise for your benefit. And so too we find in the Yerushalmi: "'And you shall bless' – so that he should know to whom he recites the blessing."


            That is to say, the derivation does not relate directly to the language in which the blessing must be recited, but rather to the definition of the obligation, and it is from this definition that we may draw a conclusion about the language. The blessing is "directed toward God" and must be recited "wholeheartedly," and therefore it need not be recited in Hebrew. On the one hand, this means that one may recite the grace in any language, but on the other hand, this leads to a certain stringency. Namely, the grace can only be recited in a known and understood language, for otherwise the blessing cannot be recited "wholeheartedly." Thus, the Ba'al ha-Tanya's assumption is almost explicitly stated in Tosafot in Berakhot, namely that the grace after meals requires "a fulfillment in the heart," and that this is derived from the verse, "And you shall bless the Lord." Only that according to Rashi in Sota there is no proof, and it stands to reason that Rashi is consistent with his own position that in fact one may recite grace even in a language that he does not understand.




            Does the Tosafot's stringency also apply to other blessings? Logically it would seem that if this is required for grace after meals, a blessing required by the Torah, the Sages would have followed this fundamental definition with respect to blessings that they instituted as well, insisting that one meet the criterion of, "And you shall bless the Lord your God." Accordingly, attention to the meaning should be indispensible with respect to all blessings. This is the understanding of the Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav based on the Tosafot and Rabbeinu Yona in Berakhot who do not specify otherwise. But he also brings the Tosafot in Sota who explicitly state that this requirement applies exclusively to grace after meals. They ask why it is that the rest of the blessings are not mentioned in the Mishna in Sota among those texts which "may be recited in any language." They answer that the Mishna only mentions those things which must be recited in an understood language, and it would seem that the Mishna maintains that regarding other blessings, there is no such limitation. Of course, their proof may be rejected, for it is possible that the Mishna includes the other blessings under grace after meals, which serves as their prototype.


            The following practical conclusions emerge from this discussion: There would have been room to say that regarding those blessings that must be recited by Torah law (grace after meals, and perhaps also the blessing recited over the Torah), if one recited the blessing without attention to its words, the blessing must be repeated, for there is a disagreement whether he has fulfilled his obligation, and in cases of uncertainty regarding a Torah law, we follow the stringent opinion. In practice, however, it is clear that one should not act in this manner, since the Posekim have noted that the general practice follows Rashi, and women fulfill their obligation even when they don't understand what they hear, and therefore the law is in accordance with this position at least in pressing circumstances and bedi'avad (after the fact). But in light of what has been said above, one should be especially careful to pay attention to the meaning of the blessings, especially grace after meals. This is certainly desirable regardless, but now it becomes clear that by strict law as understood by some of the Rishonim, if one recites a blessing without paying attention to its meaning, it is as if he has not recited the blessing.


By the merit of reciting blessings with a whole heart, may we merit a blessed life.


(Translated by David Strauss)

* Based on a shiur delivered in the Yeshiva, Motzaei Shabbat, Parashat Chayei-Sara, 5753 (1992).