Birkat Ha-mitzvot Oveir La-asiyatan
The gemara (Pesachim 7b) affirms that the blessing over mitzvot must be recited BEFORE ("oveir") the performance of the mitzva, and that this ruling is universally accepted. The Yerushalmi's version differs (Berakhot 9:3): While R. Yochanan agrees with the view of the Bavli, Rav Huna and Shmuel disagree. According to them, the berakha must be recited, not before the mitzva, but DURING its performance ("bi-she'at asiyatan"). This option seemingly appears in the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:5-6), who allows recitation of a berakha on tefillin, for example, after they have been put on, as long as they have not been taken off. Furthermore, it does conform to the rule of "oveir la-asiyatan," since as long as the tefillin are worn, the mitzva will continue to be performed even after the berakha is made. Therefore, it is unwarranted, on the basis of the Rambam, to infer that one can make a berakha over a mitzva during its performance.
However, the Ba'al Ha-ma'or (as quoted in Avudraham's discussion of birkat ha-mitzvot) suggests otherwise: "It is not completely true that in all the mitzvot, the berakha PRECEDES the performance. The berakha over any mitzva whose performance extends over time, such as sitting in the sukka which one does all day, should be made only WHILE ENGAGED in its performance. The requirement of 'oveir la-asiyatan' is necessary only in mitzvot where, if one fails to make a berakha in advance, he cannot do so during, such as mila and shechita." The Ma'or in effect decides in favor of the Yerushalmi and prescribes that, whenever possible, the berakha be made during the performance of the mitzva. However, this does not contradict our sugya which mandates "oveir la-asiyatan" for mitzvot of momentary duration.
The position of the Ma'or, who prefers that the berakha be made after its performance has begun, is not accepted by the Acharonim (see for example Mishna Berura 8:2). At the same time, an option which mediates between the Ma'or and the Rambam does present itself le-halakha. The Maharam of Rottenburg is known to have put on his tallit katan without a berakha. When he put on his tallit gadol, he recited one berakha for both. The Mishna Berura reports that this custom is prevalent nowadays (ibid. 24), in order to avoid making the berakha in the morning with unclean hands. Allowing this course of action le-khatchila is quite problematic, since the mishna specifically prohibits performing a mitzva without a berakha (Terumot 1:2). How then may one put on tzitzit before blessing? The implication is that the berakha made later relates to the mitzva in its entirety - because when necessary, it is permissible to make the berakha "bishe'at asiyatan" rather than "oveir la-asiyatan", even though this course of action is not recommended under normal circumstances.
Understanding Birkat Ha-mitzvot - a prologue to the mitzva
The question of whether to recite the berakha before or during the mitzva undoubtedly hinges on our basic understanding of the purpose and character of birkat ha-mitzvot. If the berakha must come first, it is likely that Chazal desired it as a prologue or preparation for the mitzva. For example, it is reasonable to assume that the berakha concentrates one's kavana, thus enhancing the performance. The Noda Bi-Yehuda noted this function of birkat ha-mitzvot in a well-known responsum (Kama, Yoreh De'a 93).
A striking idea suggested by Rav Soloveitchik z.l. furnishes another basis for the prefatory function of birkat ha-mitzvot. The Rambam (Berakhot 1:3) juxtaposes and compares birkat ha-nehenin with birkat ha-mitzvot. The Rav inferred that the two share a common conceptual basis. As is well-known, the necessity for making a berakha over food is the fact that by right, man may not partake of nature's bounty, all of which belongs to Hashem. According to the gemara (Berakhot 35a) it is the blessing - man's admission of beholdenness to his Creator - which releases him from this moral stricture. The berakha is acting as a "matir" - an agent of release from a prohibition. Likewise, argued the Rav, it is not a foregone conclusion that man may engage in kiyum mitzvot. This privilege, too, may not be indulged without praising the One who made it possible. Birkat ha-mitzvot, like the berakha over food, act as a "matir." The mishna's prohibition against performing a mitzva without a berakha (see above), in this view, is not a mere derivative of the institution of birkat ha-mitzvot; it is its essence.
The Rav proved his point with an interesting observation. Shmuel is quoted in our sugya (as well as others): "All the mitzvot require a berakha before their performance." What issue is being addressed here? In the context of our sugya, it is clear that Shmuel is informing us of the position of the berakha vis-a-vis the mitzva, namely that it must precede it. However, the gemara in Sukka (39a) and Megilla (21b) uses Shmuel's statement to prove another matter - that all mitzvot require a berakha. These two assertions are totally distinct and appear to have nothing to do with each other; yet Shmuel's ruling is worded as though only one principle is being articulated. According to the Rav's understanding, one principle is indeed the foundation of both. Shmuel says that birkat ha-mitzva must come first, because its function is to permit the performance of the mitzva. From this it follows that performance of a mitzva requires, as a matter of principle, "permission." Hence, the scope of birkat ha-mitzvot cannot be in any way selective - all mitzvot require a berakha. (See Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka 39a.)
It goes without saying that according to the Rav's approach, we cannot countenance the reciting of the berakha during the execution of the mitzva, except on a be-di'avad basis. The Rambam's rejection of the opinions of the Ma'or and the Maharam is no coincidence; it is consistent with his basic view of birkat ha-mitzvot.
Expanding the Mitzva
Until now we explored the strict interpretation of Shmuel's halakha - the berakha must always precede the mitzva. Let us now turn to the opinion of the Ba'al Ha-ma'or - why should it be considered preferable to recite the berakha while actually performing the mitzva?
It appears that according to the Ma'or, the berakha is not conceived as a separate entity, but rather as an extension of the kiyum ha-mitzva. The decree of the Chakhamim was to create a new way of performing the mitzva - with a berakha. For this reason, the berakha should optimally be made together with the mitzva itself, and may precede the actual performance only if there is no choice.
This hypothesis is substantiated by other considerations as well. For example, there is the discussion of birkat ha-mitzva as a critical element in the kiyum ha-mitzva. The gemara in Berakhot (15a) seems to say that failure to make the berakha does not invalidate the mitzva because the berakha is only mi-derabbanan. Tosafot ha-Rosh infer explicitly that if the berakha were mi-de'oraita, the mitzva would in fact be invalidated. Clearly, the berakha is not viewed by the Rosh as a separate stage, but as part and parcel of the mitzva itself as without it the mitzva is invalid. Although we conclude that the mitzva is not invalidated, it is still possible to view the berakha as an integral part of the mitzva.
A further indication lies in the principle, enunciated by the Netivot (in his commentary to the Haggada) among others, that no birkat ha-mitzva is needed when the mitzva itself has the format of a berakha, as in the case of birkat ha-mazon or kiddush. Why not? Certainly such mitzvot are as much in need of kavana, or a "matir," as any other? The Netivot's rule is easily understood if "birkat ha-mitzva" is nothing else than the need to integrate a berakha in the fulfillment of the mitzva. This need is filled - perhaps even more effec- by casting the mitzva itself in the mold of a berakha.
The aim of achieving maximal integration of the berakha with the mitzva is also evident in the text of the Ra'avya (vol. 2, 526) regarding sefirat ha-omer. Unlike our custom "ha-yom yom echad la-omer," Ra'avya reads "she-hayom yom echad la-omer," thus joining the berakha and the counting itself in one statement. (The Ra'avya is quoted in Biur Ha-Gra, OC 489.)
At this point, it is pertinent to ask, what motivated the Chakhamim to require a berakha as part of the execution of the mitzva? I believe the answer is connected with our conception of mitzvot in general. We tend to view mitzvot as individual tasks, each one reflecting its own world of spirit and value. But at the same time, all mitzvot have something in common: they all come under the heading of the general mitzva of "avodat Hashem." The Rambam in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (mitzvat aseh 5) gives particular meaning to "avodat Hashem" as the source of the mitzva of prayer - the archetypal "service of the heart." Understood as an all-encompassing mitzva, avodat Hashem requires putting "heart" into a mitzva which otherwise meets the formal demands of halakha. This is the role of the berakha, according to the Ritva on our sugya - to provide a vehicle for personal involvement. The reason that the berakha comes first, he says, is that "service of the soul should precede service of the body." As a separate entity, the mitzva can exist without the berakha. But Chazal wanted to turn the individual mitzva into avodat Hashem, and for that end, the berakha and the mitzva need each other. Taken together, they comprise a complete whole.
This understanding, I suggest, underlies the Ba'al ha-Maor's opinion that the berakha should be said DURING the mitzva. However, it may also be relevant to the more accepted view, that the berakha should PRECEDE the mitzva. Even if we concede the basic point that the berakha is the complement of the mitzva, perhaps Chazal wanted the berakha to precede because of the Ritva's consideration. Also, aware that in mitzvot of short duration simultaneity is impossible, they may have opted for a uniform directive which could be applied in all situations. If we follow this last hypothesis, it would be reasonable to find - in situations where "oveir la-asiyatan" presents difficulties - that simultaneity becomes the course of action le-khatchila. This would explain the above-mentioned custom regarding tzitzit.
Saying the Berakha AFTER the Mitzva
Until now we have discussed saying the berakha BEFORE and DURING the mitzva. The gemara raises another possibility - saying the berakha AFTER the mitzva. True, the sugya limits this to tevila, because the person is not able to make the berakha before the immersion, and therefore an exception is made in this one case. [As to the reason why the berakha cannot be made until the tevila is completed - Rashi (s.v. De-akatei) and Tosafot (s.v. Al Ha-tevila) differ.] But there is another sugya in which tevila is taken as proof that other berakhot may also be recited afterwards:
The gemara in Berakhot (51a) quotes Ravina to the effect that one who neglected to say birkat ha-nehenin should do so even if he has finished eating. His proof is that the berakha over tevila is made after the immersion. Ravina apparently holds, that tevila is exceptional only in that its berakha may not be said in advance; as far as the possibility of making the berakha after the mitzva, the halakha in tevila is typical and demonstrates that be-di'avad, all birkot ha-mitzvot can be recited after the mitzva. Even more remarkable is that Ravina extrapolates from birkat ha-mitzvot to birkat ha-nehenin. Since the berakha over food is certainly a "matir," as we have already seen, logic dictates that it must precede the eating; how does Ravina presume to prove otherwise from birkat ha-mitzvot? The comparison of the two argues in favor of the Rav's understanding of the Rambam. If birkat ha-mitzvot is a "matir" and still, be-di'avad, is said after the mitzva, the same should indeed be true of birkot ha-nehenin.
But still, the question looms - if both birkot ha-mitzva and birkot ha-nehenin function as "matirim" of their respective actions, how is it logically possible to make the berakha after the fact? There are two options here, and I confess that I am not happy with either. One possibility is that both type of berakhot have another function besides being a "matir," and for this reason they can be made afterwards. The problem with this is that the presence of a dual function in birkat ha-mitzvot doesn't prove, as Ravina would have us believe, that a similar state of affairs persists in berakhot over food.
The second way to understand Ravina is to concede that the "matir" function describes both types of berakhot exclusively and completely, but that even so they can be made after the action, for a "matir" can work retroactively. Support for this may be garnered from the gemara on daf 77b, which theorizes that the meat of korbanot may be eaten BEFORE the blood is thrown, even though it may not be eaten "if there is no blood" (i.e., it spilled). Rashi (s.v. Dam ki leitei) explains that throwing the blood is a necessary "matir" for the meat. This implies that throwing the blood permits the meat retroactively. It is not our aim here to get involved in that sugya, but suffice it to say that with or without proof, the idea of a retroactive "matir" is certainly one to cause considerable discomfort.
Why is Ravina Rejected?
Be that as it may, the gemara rejects Ravina's opinion, but its reasoning is ambivalent. The sugya is unusually verbose on this point, and this allowed for different interpretations of the Rishonim.
There is no doubt that the gemara concludes that birkot ha-nehenin may not be said after eating. Is Ravina's opinion about birkot ha-mitzva rejected likewise? The Rambam - who allows a berakha after the mitzva only in the case of tevila - answers in the affirmative. In his view, this is the import of the gemara's distinction between tevila where "he was unable" to make the berakha beforehand, and berakhot over food. According to this criterion, all other birkot ha-mitzva are comparable to birkot ha-nehenin. This conclusion is consistent with the view that both types of berakhot are fundamentally alike - both are "matirim."
The Or Zaru'a (part 1, 25; quoted in Hagahot Oshri) argues that the sugya in Berakhot merely unravels the thread which Ravina uses to connect birkat ha-mitzva and birkot ha-nehenin. One of the factors in this de-coupling is that in birkot ha-nehenin, since "he was initially able to make the berakha and he was pushed aside, he remains pushed aside." Or Zaru'a interprets the concept of "dechiya" here as in the realm of korbanot - being "pushed aside" is a permanent obstacle, even when the reason for the dechiya has vanished. But what is the basis of the dechiya? The Or Zaru'a apparently thought that transgressing the prohibition of eating without a berakha is what "pushes him aside" and prevents him from reciting the berakha later. But this consideration is not relevant to birkot ha-mitzva, because the gemara thinks that there is no independent prohibition on performing a mitzva without a berakha. Unlike birkat ha-nehenin, birkat ha-mitzva is not a "matir", contrary to Ravina's initial assumption. There is consequently no dechiya in birkot ha-mitzva, and the berakha may be recited after the mitzva.
Halakha le-ma'aseh, the Shakh decides according to the Rambam. Despite the reservations of some Acharonim, this is the accepted view.
According to the Bavli and the Rambam, one is required to recite the berakha BEFORE performing the mitzva, unless this is impossible (eg. Regarding tevila).
According to R. Huna and Shmuel in the Yerushalmi, the berakha should be made DURING the mitzva.
According to the Ba'al Ha-Ma'or, where possible, one should make the berakha DURING the mitzva (eg. with regard to mitzvot that are performed over time). The berakha over mitzvot of momentary duration should be made BEFORE performance. It appears according to the Ma'or, the berakha is not conceived as a separate entity, but rather as an extension of the kiyum ha-mitzva.
Birkot ha-Mitzvot can serve as a preparation for the mitzva [Noda Be-Yehuda], as a "matir" [Rav Soloveitchik] as a vehicle for personal involvement in the mitzva [Ritva], or as an integral part of kiyum ha-mitzva [based on the gemara in Berakhot].
Sources and questions for next week's shiur "Places exempt from bedika":
1. Mishna 2a, gemara 8a "kol makom ... le-chapes acharav".
2. Gemara 8b "U-vameh amru ... di-shmuel".
3. Tosafot 8a s.v. Mita.
4. Tur OC
1. What are the 4 different opinions regarding the two rows that must be searched in a wine cellar? What is this argument based on?
2. What possible explanation can be offered to explain the Yerushalmi's exemption of searching cracks above 10 tefachim?
3. How does Rashi explain the difference between a high and low bed? How do Tosafot? What is the conceptual common denominator between them?