Purpose of Birkot Ha-Mitzvot
What is the role, purpose, or function of the blessing said before performing a mitzva? An analysis of the laws governing this blessing, especially the timing and placement of this blessing, may shed light on this question.
The Talmud (Pesachim 7b) teaches:
All blessings should be said over le-asiyatan [upon the performance of the mitzva] … except for the blessing over tevila (ritual immersion).
What does “over le-asiyatan” refer to and why should it be said specifically then? Seemingly, these questions may be related to a far more fundamental question: Why do we say a blessing before fulfilling a mitzva at all?
One might view the birkat ha-mitzva as a type of preparation for the mitzva. This idea is articulated in different ways.
The Ritva (Pesachim 7b, s.v. kol ha-mitzvot) explains:
The reason why the Rabbis said that one should say the blessing upon performing the mitzva is in order that the person should sanctify himself before [the mitzva] through the blessing, and reveal and announce that he is doing [the mitzva] because God commanded him.
The Ritva explains that the blessing said before performing a mitzva is meant to help the person prepare for the mitzva, almost like the more recent custom of saying “heneni mukhan u-mezuman le-kayem”.
Others suggest that the blessing said before performing a mitzva is similar to the blessings said before eating food. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:3) writes:
Just as we recite blessings for benefit which we derive from the world, we should also recite blessings for each mitzva before we fulfill it.
The Talmud (Berakhot 35a) teaches that one may not benefit from this world without first saying a blessing. R. Soloveitchik, based upon this passage from the Rambam, suggested that one similarly may not be permitted to perform a mitzva without first saying the appropriate blessing. This notion is based on a larger philosophical principle related to whether man may turn to and engage God without first asking “permission.” Although this idea is beyond the scope of this shiur, in brief, R. Soloveitchik asserts that without first acknowledging and thanking God by saying a blessing, one may not even perform a mitzva.
Alternatively, one might suggest that the birkat ha-mitzva is not a preparation for the mitzva, but rather an expression of praise, a type of birkat ha-shevach that we say upon fulfilling a mitzva. It is possible that the Ritva, in the continuation of the passage cited above, alludes to this. He writes:
In addition, the blessings are part of one’s service of the soul, and it is appropriate that the “service of God” should precede the “service of the body.”
This debate may affect the proper time in which one should say this blessing. The Talmud’s phrase, “over le-asiyatan,” can be translated as “before” or “upon” fulfilling the mitzva. If the blessing serves as preparation for the mitzva, it would seem that it should only be recited before it is performed.
An interesting ramification of this debate may be whether the blessing may be said after performing the mitzva. The Or Zaru’a (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 1:25) rules that if one does not say the blessing before performing the mitzva, it may be said afterwards. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:5) disagrees.
Apparently, the Rambam, who compares the birkot ha-mitzvot to the birkot ha-nehenin, views the birkat ha-mitzva as a “matir,” something that permits one to fulfill the mitzva, or possibly as a preparatory act before the mitzva (like the Ritva), and he therefore rules that the blessing is no longer valid or necessary after the mitzva has been completed. In contrast, the Or Zaru’a must view the blessing as a birkat ha-shevach, a blessing of praise, which may be said shortly after fulfilling the mitzva as well. The halakha is in accordance with the Rambam.
Interestingly, the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 9:3) cites a view that maintains that the blessing should be say “be-sha’at asiyatan,” during the performance of the mitzva. This is especially relevant for mitzvot that are fulfilled over a period of time. Similarly, the Ra’avia (Hilkhot Lulav 691) writes:
All blessings should be said upon the performance [of the mitzva]. My father and teacher R. Yitzchak ben R. Mordekhai explained, while quoting our teach the Riva, that the phrase “over” does not come to exclude one who says the blessing while performing the mitzva, as long as the mitzva is fulfilled over a period of time.
Although the Ra’avia implies that reciting the blessing in this manner is be-dia’vad, not the ideal manner, the Ba’al Ha-Maor (cited by the Abudraham) rules that one should say the blessing specifically during, and not before, its performance.
Apparently, the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or offers third approach. The blessing does not prepare one for the mitzva, nor does it praise God for the mitzva; rather, the blessing in meant to integrate into the performance of the mitzva itself. In other words, while the actual performance of the mitzva is usually physical, the blessing adds a personal, spiritual element to the mitzva itself. This idea may be rooted in the Talmud (Berakhot 15a), which, according to the Tosafot Rosh, implies that had birkot ha-mitzvot been mi-de’oraita, failing to recite the blessing would even have prevented one from fulfilling his obligation.
The Talmud mentions one exception to the rule of “over le-asiyatan” – tevila. The Rishonim offer different explanations of this exception. Some Rishonim (Rif, Pesachim 3b-4a; Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 11:7; Rosh, Pesachim 1:10) explain that the gemara refers only to the immersion of a convert. Tosafot (Pesachim 7b, s.v. al ha-tevila), for example, explain:
Rabbeinu Chananel, in the name of the Gaon, [explains that the Talmud refers only to] the immersion of a convert, who is not fit before the immersion [to say the blessing]… But [in the case of] other immersions, including that of a ba’al keri, one may say the blessing before immersing.
It is not clear whether this view maintains that a convert should not say the blessing before immersion for technical reasons, as he is not yet Jewish, or whether the Tosafot maintain that fundamentally there should be no blessing over the conversion of a non-Jew; this blessing only appears to be a birkat ha-mitzva, while in essence it is really a birkat ha-shevach, a blessing of praise said immediately after witnessing the beautiful sight of a non-Jew accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven.
Other Rishonim understand “tevila” in a broader sense. Tosafot (ibid. and Berakhot 51a, s.v. me-ikara), for example, explain that just as the blessing of a convert was established after the immersion, so too all other immersions, including even the netilat yadayim before the meal, precede the blessing.
Interestingly, Tosafot (Pesachim, ibid.) suggest another approach as well. Since the drying of the hands (niguv yadayim) is also considered to be a significant part of the mitzva, one who says the blessing after washing but before drying his hands is still considered to have said the blessing “over le-asiyatan.”
Although the Talmud only mentions one exception to the rule of over le-asiyatan, the Rishonim discuss other mitzvot upon which the blessing is said after the performance of the mitzva.
For example, the Rishonim discuss the proper time for reciting the blessing upon taking the arba minim. Some Rishonim (see Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:6) write that one recites the blessing and then picks up the bundle of the arba minim from the table. However, many Rishonim offer other concerns. For example, the Talmud (see Sukka 42a; see also Pesachim 7b) teaches that “when one lifts [the arba minim], he has fulfilled the mitzva.” Thus, saying the blessing after picking up the arba minim may be too late!
Tosafot (Pesachim 7b, s.v. la-tzeit; see also Tosafot, Sukka 29a, s.v. over) offer a number of possibilities. First, Tosafot suggest that one should take the lulav upside down, as one does not fulfill his obligation until he holds the four species in the manner in which they grow (ke-derekh gedilatan). He can thus hold the four species but still say the blessing, as he has not yet fulfilled his obligation. Alternatively, upon taking all four species, one should simply have in mind not to fulfill the obligation until after the blessing. Both of these suggestions accord with the language of the Talmud, which states that one should say the blessing before the mitzva is performed.
Tosafot (ibid., s.v. be-idana; see also Rosh, Sukka 3:33 and Ran Sukka 20b, s.v. mi-deparkhinan) then suggest that although one has already fulfilled the mitzva as soon as he lifts the arba minim, since one has not “completely finished the mitzva,” as the shaking of the lulav (nanu’a) is part of the mitzva, one may still recite the blessing.
R. Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640) asks a fascinating question in his commentary to the Tur (Bayit Chadash 521). He observes that the suggestion of taking the arba minim in an abnormal manner, such as turning over the etrog before the blessing, seems problematic, as when one takes even one of the minim properly, he has partially fulfilled the mitzva. The blessing should therefore no longer be considered to have been recited “over le-asiyatan,” before performing the mitzva! The Bach suggests that even though one may take all four minim separately, the mitzva is retroactively only fulfilled after taking all four minim. There is no inherent value in taking each species alone.
Practically, the Shulchan Arukh (521:5) rules that one should recite the blessing before taking the etrog or while holding the etrog upside down. The Gra (521:5) writes that it may be preferable to take all four species in a normal manner and to have in mind not to fulfill the mitzva until after the blessing. (Sefer Arba’at Ha-Minim Ha-Shalem, p. 352, relates that this was the practice of the Chazon Ish.) Nevertheless, it is customary to recite the blessing when holding all four minim but while the etrog is upside down.
We find a similar discussion regarding the lighting of the nerot Shabbat. Some Rishonim maintain that by saying the blessing of “le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat,” the person has accepted Shabbat and may therefore no longer light the fire. The Shulchan Arukh (268:5) rules that women should say the blessing before they light the candles, but the Rema adds:
One should say the blessing after the lighting, and in order that it should be considered to be over le-asiyato, he should not benefit from it until after the blessing, and one puts her hand over her eyes during the time of lighting.
“Al” or “Le”
There are two different formulas of birkot ha-mitzvot. Some are phrased: “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu al…” (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding…”); others are formulated in the infinitive: “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu le …” (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to…”). The Talmud (Pesachim 7a-7b) cites a debate regarding the proper text of the blessing recited before bedikat chametz, the search for chametz that is performed on the night of the 14th of Nissan, the night before Pesach:
R. Yehuda said: One who searches [for chametz] must say the blessing. What blessing does he pronounce? R. Pappi said in Rava's name: “[Who has commanded us] to remove leaven” (le-va’er chametz). R. Papa said in Rava's name: “[Who has commanded us] regarding the removal of leaven” (al bi’ur chametz).
The gemara first suggests that the two sides in this debate disagree as to whether the formulation of “al” (“regarding”) implies past or future tense. However, the Talmud then suggests that there may be another difference; when one performs a mitzva that he is personally obligated to fulfill, such as when a father is performing the circumcision of his own son, the proper formula is in the infinitive (“la-mul”), while when performing the mitzva for another person, the formula is “regarding” (“al ha-mila”).
The Talmud then observes that when taking the lulav, a mitzva that one is personally obligated to perform, the formula is “regarding the taking of the lulav” (and not “to take the lulav”). The gemara explains that “there it is different, because in the [very] moment that he lifts it up, his duty is fulfilled.” As we discusses last week, this statement is very difficult to understand, as if one fulfills the mitzva immediately upon lifting the lulav, he should not recite the berakha; one is not supposed to say a blessing after the mitzva has been performed. Some (Tosafot, Pesachim 7b, s.v. be-idana) explain that the mitzva of taking the lulav actually lasts throughout the course of the lifting and the shaking (na’anu’im) of the lulav.
The Talmud concludes that the proper blessing upon searching for chametz is “al bi’ur chametz,” but it does not further explore this question, and the Rishonim are therefore left to suggest different patterns for when different formulas are employed.
Interestingly, Tosafot (s.v. ve-hilkhata) report that the Ri “did not find a reason for all of the blessings.” Other Rishonim, however, suggest different rules and parameters, some of which reflect their understandings of different mitzvot.
Different Theories Concerning Al and Le
Some Rishonim (Riva, cited by the Rosh, Pesachim 1:10, and the Ramban, Pesachim 7b, s.v. de-amrinan) suggest a general rule based on the exceptions mentioned by the gemara. They explain that the standard formula for a birkat ha-mitzva is in the infinitive, “le,” unless the mitzva can be fulfilled through an agent (shaliach), such as mila (circumcision) and bi’ur chametz, in which case the “al” formula is used. Furthermore, if the blessing may be said after the performance of the mitzva, such as in the case of lulav (as mentioned by the gemara), tevila, and netilat yadayim, the blessing is also not phrased in the infinitive.
The Rosh (1:10) cites Rabbeinu Tam, who offers a different approach:
And regarding that which they distinguished between “al” and “lamed” [“le”], Rabbeinu Tam offered a reason. [He explained that for] all mitzvot that are performed immediately, it is appropriate to say “al” upon them, such as “al mikra megilla,” “al ha-tevila,” “al netilat yadayim,” “al hafrashat teruma,” “al akhilat matza,” and “al akhilat maror.” However, “le-haniach tefillin,” “le-hitatef ba-tzitzit,” and “lei-shev ba-sukka” are continuous. Therefore, the language [even] implies that one is “adorned with tefillin” and “enveloped by the tallit” and “sitting in the sukka” to eat and dwell the entire day.
This principle compels Rabbeinu Tam to explain other mitzvot whose blessing is phrased in the infinitive. For example, regarding the Chanuka lights, upon which one recites, “le-hadlik ner shel Chanuka,” Rabbeinu Tam explains: “And in lighting the Chanuka lights there is a continuity, as it says (Shabbat 21b): ‘The mitzva lasts from sunset until there are no more people in the market.’” Similarly, regarding shofar, upon which, according to Rabbeinu Tam, one says, “le-shmo’a kol shofar,” he explains, “There is a continuity [even] during the interruptions between the sounds, as the primary fulfillment of the mitzva is during the recitation of the [Mussaf] blessings.” Finally, regarding Hallel, upon which one says, “li-kro et ha-Hallel” (or “li-gmor et ha-hallel”), he explains, “In the recitation of Hallel one interrupts, and the congregation answers.”
In addition to defining certain mitzvot as “continuous,” Rabbeinu Tam adds another rule: “For any mitzva that is not always obligatory, it is not appropriate to say ‘al.’” Therefore, he explains:
[Since] the prophets instituted that “Israel should recite [Hallel] at every important epoch and at every misfortune (may it not come upon them) and when they are redeemed they recite [in gratitude] for their redemption” (Pesachim 117a), therefore the formula li-kro et ha-Hallel is fitting, as it is not a constant obligation (eina chova tamid).
The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:11-15) suggests a different approach:
Whoever performs a mitzva for his own sake, whether it is an obligation incumbent upon him or not, should recite a blessing, [praising God “who sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us] to perform (le)…” In contrast, if he performs a mitzva on behalf of another person, the form of the blessing is [“who sanctified us... and commanded us] regarding the performance of (al)…” What is implied? Before donning tefillin, one recites the blessing “to put on tefillin;” before wrapping oneself in tzitzit, one recites the blessing “to wrap...;” before sitting in the sukka, one recites the blessing “to sit in the sukka.” Similarly, one recites the blessings “to kindle the Sabbath light” and “to complete the Hallel.” Similarly, if one affixes a mezuza on one's own house, one should recite the blessing “to affix a mezuza;” if one erects a guardrail on one's roof, one should recite the blessing “to erect a guardrail.” Should one separate teruma for oneself, one should recite the blessing “to separate [teruma].” Should one circumcise one's own son, one should recite the blessing “to circumcise [one's] son.” Should one slaughter one's Paschal sacrifice or festive sacrifice, one recites the blessing “to slaughter...”
If, however, one affixes a mezuza for others, one should recite the blessing “regarding the affixing of a mezuza.” Should one construct a guardrail for others, one should recite the blessing “regarding the building of a guardrail.” Should one separate teruma for others, one should recite the blessing “regarding the separation of teruma.” Should one circumcise a colleague's son, one should recite the blessing “regarding the circumcision.” The same applies in all similar situations.
The Rambam explains that there is no permanent and established formula; whether one uses “le” or “al” depends on whether or not a person is performing the mitzva for himself or for another person.
The Rambam qualifies this view:
When one takes the lulav, one should recite the blessing “regarding the taking of the lulav.” [This form is used] because a person fulfills his obligation when he picks [the lulav] up. If one recites the blessing before taking the lulav, one should recite the blessing “to take the lulav,” as one recites the blessing “to sit in the sukka.” From this, one derives the principle that a person who recites a blessing after performing [a mitzva] blesses “regarding...” [the mitzva's] performance.
With regard to the washing of hands and ritual slaughter, since they are of a voluntary nature, even if a person slaughters on his own behalf, he should recite the blessings “concerning slaughter,” “concerning the covering of the blood,” and “concerning the washing of hands.”
The Rambam explains that when performing a mitzva which is not necessarily imperative, such as shechita or netilat yadayim, one also says “al.” Furthermore, when one says a blessing after having already started the mitzva, one says “al.” He insists that once one has decided to rid oneself of chametz, the mitzva has begun; therefore, before formally beginning the search, the appropriately blessing is “al bi’ur chametz.”
Finally, the Shiltei Giborim cites R. Yishayahi Di Trani (known as the Rid), who writes that one may choose to use either formula, “al” or “le,” unless one is performing the mitzva for another person, in which case one cannot use the infinitive and must say “al.”
This question regarding whether a blessing should be formulated as “al” or “le” not only raises interesting theories about the text of the blessings, but also leads to fascinating discussions regards the nature of certain mitzvot.
Mitzvot Aseh Sheha-Zeman Gerama
The mishna (Kiddushin 1:7) teaches that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, known as mitzvot aseh sheha-zeman gerama.
Every positive precept dependent upon a set time, men are obligated to observe but women are exempt. But those positive precepts not dependent upon a set time, both men and women are obliged to observe. All negative precepts, whether or not they are dependent upon a set time, are obligatory upon both men and women.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 34a) teaches that this exemption is derived from tefillin.
From where do we derive that women are exempt from positive precepts dependent upon a set time? It is derived from the mitzva of tefillin; just as women are exempt from wearing tefillin, so too they are exempt from all positive precepts dependent upon a set time.
The gemara (ibid.), and the Rishonim (see, for example, Abudraham Sha’ar 3, Birkat Ha-Mitzvot, R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch Va-Yikra 23:43, Mishpetei Uziel 4 Inyanin Kelali’im 4, Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:49, et. al.) discuss this exemption, and its rational.
The Rambam, at the end of his list of positive precepts (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot), lists eight commandments from which women are exempt, due to them being time bound commandments: keri’at shema, tefillin (head), tefillin (arm), tzitzit, sefirat ha-omer, sukka, lulav, and shofar. He also lists mitzvot from which women are exempt despite that they are not time bound, and time bound mitzvot, both Biblical (Kiddush on Shabbat, fasting of Yom Kippur, Matza on Pesach, Simchat He-Regel, Hakhel, Korban Pesach) and Rabbinic (Nerot Chanuka, Keri’at Ha-Megilla, arba kosot on Pesach, Hallel on the evening of Pesach).
The Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shana 33a; see also Sifra Parshata 2) cites a debate between R. Yosi and R. Shimon regarding whether women may fulfill time-bound mitzvot. They argue with regard to the mitzva of teki’at shofar and “semikha” (placing one’s hands on the sacrificial animal). The discussion revolves around whether or not “nashim somkhot reshut” (placing the hands by women [on a sacrifice] is optional).
Seemingly, we must first ask why R. Yehuda does not permit women to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shana, or place their hands on a sacrifice in the Temple, and how one views a mitzva performed by a woman. Rashi (s.v. ha-nashim) explains according to R. Yehuda, if a woman fulfills a time bound mitzva from which she is exempt, she violates the Biblical prohibition of bal tosef (adding on to the mitzvot). The commentators, including the Maharsha (ibid.) disagree with this understanding. Others (Ran 9b s.v. garsinan; see also Tosafot Eiruvin 96a s.v. mikhal) explains that R. Yehuda is only strict regarding certain mitzvot, such as teki’at shofar and semikha. These Rishonim may disagree as to when a mitzva is performed by a woman, she is considered to have “fulfilled” the mitzva, or not.
Even according to R. Yosi, who permits women to fulfill these mitzvot, one may question whether the fulfillment (kiyum) is the same as the fulfillment of a man. The ramifications of this question are beyond the scope of this shiur.
Blessing before a Time Bound Commandment
Some Rishonim maintain that women should not say the birkat ha-mitzvot before performing a time bound mitzva. Of these Rishonim, some imply that women do not say the blessing as there is no actual fulfillment of the mitzva (see, for example, Rambam Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9 and Hilkhot Ma’aseh Ha-Korbanot 3:5). Others imply that the problem may be technical; a woman cannot say the text of the blessing, “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu al…” (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding…”, as they were not actually commanded to fulfill the mitzva (Hagahot Maimoniot ibid., 40; see also Rosh Kiddushin 1:49 and Ran Rosh Ha-Shana 9b s.v. u-le’inyan).
Other Rishonim disagree and insist that women may say a blessing before fulfilling a time bound commandment (Rabbenu Tam, as cited by Rosh Kiddushin 1:49 and Tosafot Rosh Ha-Shana 33. s.v. ha). They clearly maintain that the phrase “asher kideshanu” should be understood as referring to all of the Jewish people, as a whole).
Interestingly, the Shibolei Ha-Leket (Seder Rosh Ha-shana 295) cites R. Yishaya, who rules that although women may fulfill time bound commandments, they must do so without saying a blessing, as if they were to say a blessing, that may demonstrate that they are performing the mitzva because they believe they are obligated, which may be a violation of bal tosef (adding on to the Torah). This may be rooted in an interested passage in the Rambam. The Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 2:9) writes that one who establishes a rabbinic enactment but claims it is of Biblical origin, violates bal tosef. In other words, blurring the lines between a Biblical and Rabbinic mitzva may be viewed as a form of bal tosef.
The Rema (OC 589:6) records that it is customary for women say to the blessing before fulfilling time bound mitzvot. This is indeed the practice of Ashkenzic women.
Within the Sephardic community, there are different rulings. On the one hand, the Shulchan Arukh (ibid.) rules that “although women are permitted to blow [the shofar] … they do not say the blessing.” On the other hand, R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724 –1806), known as the Chida, in his Birkei Yose (OV 654:2; see also Kaf Ha-Chaim 589:23) records that the custom of some Sephardic women, in the land of Israel, was to say the blessing before fulfilling time bound mitzvot. In more recent years, other authorities (Mishpetei Uziel CM kelalim 4 and Tzitz Eliezer 9:2) affirmed that the custom of some Sephardic women is to say the blessing. R. Ovadia Yosef, in numerous response (see, for example, Yabi’a Omer OC 1:40) insists that Sephardic women should not say birkot ha-mitzvot, in accordance with the view of the Shulchan Arukh. He even rules that Sephardic women should not say the Bikot Keriat Shema, and the blessings said before and after Pesukei De-Zimra (Yabi’a Omer OC 3:6); others disagree (see Kaf Ha-Chaim 70:1).
The Halakhic Status of Minhagim
Does one say a berakha before performing a “minhag” (custom)? Before we address this question, we must first relate to the halakhic status of minhagim.
There are many types of “minhagim.” Some minhagim refer to a custom to refrain from certain practices or behaviors, at times to avoid violating a prohibition (see Pesachim 50b) and at times for other reasons (such as kitniyot, cherem de-Rabbeinu Gershom, etc.). At times, the term “minhag” may simply refer to the common practice regarding a specific halakhic, or even non-halakhic, question. The term may refer to the practices and customs of a given geographical area regarding prayers and other ritual matters. The term “minhag” may also refer to new practices instituted by the prophets, Chazal, or more recent Rabbinic or communal leadership. Examples include taking (and hitting) the arava on Hoshana Rabba (Sukka 44a), Yom Tov Sheni (Beitza 4b), and reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (Ta’anit 28b).
The Rishonim debate the status of certain customs, as well as the obligation to observe them. The Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 1:1-2) writes:
The members of the Supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem are the essence of the Oral Law. They are the pillars of instruction from which statutes and judgments issue forth for the entire Jewish People. Concerning them, the Torah commands: "You shall do according to the laws which they shall instruct you” (Devarim 17:11). This is a positive commandment…
Any person who does not carry out their directives transgresses a negative commandment, as [the verse] continues: "Do not deviate from any of the statements they relate to you, neither right nor left."
We are obligated to heed their words whether they are learned them from the Oral Tradition, i.e., the Oral Law, derived on the basis of their own knowledge through one of the attributes of Biblical exegesis and it appeared to them that this is the correct interpretation of the matter, or instituted the matter as a safeguard for the Torah, as was necessary at a specific time. These are the decrees, edicts, and customs instituted by the Sages. It is a positive commandment to heed the court with regard to each of these three matters. A person who transgresses any of these types of directives transgresses a negative commandment.
This is derived from the continuation of the above verse in the following manner: "According to the laws which they shall instruct you" - this refers to the edicts, decrees, and customs which they instruct people at large to observe to strengthen the faith and perfect the world…
The Rambam implies that one who does not observe certain customs violates a biblical commandment. The Ramban, however, disagrees in his comments to the first “shoresh” of the Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot. The Acharonim discuss this debate at great length.
Blessing over a Custom
The Talmud (Sukka 44a) discusses the practice of taking and hitting the arava branch on the seventh day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Rabba. The gemara cites a debate regarding the origin of this practice.
It was stated: R. Yochanan and R. Yehoshua b. Levi differ. One holds that the rite of the willow-branch is a “yesod nevi’im” (an enactment of the prophets) and the other holds that the willow-branch is a “minhag nevi’im" (a custom of the prophets). It can be concluded that it was R. Yochanan who said that it is a “yesod nevi’im," since R. Abbahu stated in the name of R. Yochanan: The rite of the willow-branch is a “yesod nevi’im." This is conclusive….
Further on (ibid. 44b) the Talmud relates:
Aibu related: I was once standing in the presence of R. Elazar b. Tzadok when a man brought a willow-branch before him, and he took it and shook it over and over again without reciting any blessing, for he was of the opinion that it was merely a usage of the prophets.
The Talmud concludes that since the practice of taking the arava on Hoshana Rabba is a “minhag nevi’im,” a custom from the prophets, no blessing is recited.
The Rishonim debate whether one should derive from this passage that a blessing is never said before performing a minhag. For example, Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16) writes:
[A blessing is not recited over] all practices that are customs. [This applies] even to a custom established by the prophets – for example, taking the willow branches on the seventh day of Sukkot. Needless to say, a blessing is not recited over customs established by the Sages – such as reading Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and on the intermediate days of Pesach.
The Rambam refers to the ancient custom of reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, as recorded by the Talmud (Ta’anit 28b):
Rav once came to Babylonia and he noticed that they recited the Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. At first, he thought of stopping them, but when he saw that they omitted parts of it he remarked: It is clearly evident that it is an old ancestral custom with them.
The Rambam rules that since the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is merely a custom, one does not say a birkat ha-mitzva before its recitation (see also Hilkhot Chanuka 3:7).
Why should one not say a blessing upon performing a custom, such as taking the arava or saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh? There are a number of possible explanations.
Some (see, for example, Rashi, Sukka 44a) explain that since one does not violate the Biblical prohibition of “lo tasur” if he fails to perform the action, he cannot say the formula “ve-tzivanu” (“[regarding which] we have been commanded”). This somewhat technical explanation assumes that the Biblical prohibition of “lo tasur” does not include Rabbinic customs. According to the Rambam cited above, however, we may need to search for a different explanation.
R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (1886 – 1959), R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s uncle, known as the Griz, offers a different explanation:
According to the Rambam, the reason that one does not say a blessing over a custom is not because one cannot say “ve-tzivanu” (as we have been commanded), as in truth, according to the Rambam, the status of custom is akin to all Rabbinic enactments … Rather, the reason [we do not] say the blessing over a custom relates to their legal title, as they are not considered to be mitzvot, and one only says blessings over mitzvot… Blessings were only instituted for mitzvot, and these have a different status, that of a custom, and not a mitzva… even though their levels of obligation are identical.
The Griz maintains that while the prohibition of la tasur applies equally to both enactments and customs, including the ones under discussion, the is a still a fundamental difference between an enactment, which was endowed with the qualities of a mitzva, and a custom, which the Rabbis embraced but which remains precisely that – a custom.
Interestingly, the Griz’s nephew, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903 – 1993), disagrees. He explains that according to the Rambam in Hilkhot Mamrim, one only violates “lo tasur” if he rejects Rabbinic enactments and customs. In that sense, there is no difference between a takana (enactment) and a minhag (custom). However, regarding their actual obligation, there is certainly a difference. At times, the Rabbis enacted a takana or mitzva, a full obligation, upon which they instituted a blessing. A minhag, however, refers to situation in which the Rabbis accepted an established custom and recognized it as obligatory, but its level and status is still lower than that of a takana. It therefore is not worthy of a blessing.
According to the Rambam, he explains, one only says a blessing over an obligation (chiyuv). This, of course, is similar to the Rambam’s view regarding time-bound mitzvot (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9), regarding which he rules that women do not say a blessing before performing a mitzva from which they are exempt.
Interestingly, R. Soloveitchik suggests that this may not be the proper understanding of the Rambam. Indeed, the Rambam may actually agree with the explanation of Rashi, cited above. The Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 1:1) implies that “lo tasur” only applies to those customs instituted as a “safeguard for the Torah.” Therefore, it would not apply to the custom of taking the arava on Hoshana Rabba. If so, the Rambam may agree with Rashi that one cannot say a blessing over a custom, as the formula “ve-tzivanu” cannot be said.
Other Rishonim disagree and maintain that one may say a blessing over a custom, such as Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. This is the view of Rabbeinu Tam in numerous places (Sukka 44b, s.v. kan; Arakhin 10a, s.v. shemona asar; Berakhot 14a, s.v. yamim; Ta’anit 28b, s.v. amar). He explains that while taking the arava is viewed as “tiltul” (picking up, taking), saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is a more significant act.
What is the reason behind, and the significance of saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh? Tosafot (Sukka 44b) explains that Hallel on Rosh Chodesh “is no worse than reading from the Torah.” In other words, as R. Soloveitchik explains (ibid.), Rabbeinu Tam maintains that one says a blessing over a “kiyum ha-mitzva,” the fulfillment of a mitzva, and not necessarily over an obligation (chiyuv). Therefore, as we learned last week, he also believes that women should say the birkot ha-mitzva before fulfilling a time-bound mitzva, from which they are exempt. In this case, reading Hallel is a fulfillment of the mitzva of “keri’at kitvei kodesh,” similar to keri’at ha-Torah, and therefore one may say a blessing. The Ra’avad (ibid.) agrees but explains that one says a blessing before saying Hallel because it is an act of “shevach ve-hoda’ah,” praise and thanksgiving. Others view saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh as a type of, or remembrance of Kiddush Ha-Chodesh, a sanctification of the new moon (Shita Mekibetzet, Berakhot 14a, Me’iri Ta’anit 28b).
Interestingly, the Shulchan Arukh (OC 422) cites two opinions. He first cites a view that an individual does not say a blessing over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, but a tzibbur does. He then cites the Rambam, who maintains that even a community does not say the blessing. The Rema records that the custom in Ashkenaz is that even individuals say Hallel on Rosh Chodesh with a blessing.
The Rishonim discuss whether one says a blessing when saying Hallel on Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach. The Kesef Mishna (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16) cites the Ramban, who maintains that one should say the blessing when reciting Hallel on Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach, but not on Rosh Chodesh. The Ramban apparently maintained that saying Hallel on Chol Ha-Mo’ed is a fulfillment, a kiyum, of the mitzva of simchat ha-chag. This is consistent with the Ramban’s view cited elsewhere (end of shoresh 1 of Sefer Ha-Mtizvot), according to which Hallel on the festival is mi-de’oraita due to the simchat ha-chag.
The Ra’avad maintains that while saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is a fulfillment of the mitzva of Kiddush Ha-Chodesh, one should not say the blessing on Rosh Chodesh. He subsequently records that it is customary to say the blessing on both Rosh Chodesh and Chol Ha-Moed as an expression of shevach and hoda’ah, noting the sanctity of the day.
It is customary in Ashkenazic communities to say the blessing on both Rosh Chodesh and Chol Ha-Mo’ed.
This debate regarding whether one says a blessing over a minhag appears in other contexts as well. For example, the Talmud (Pesachim 53b) relates that it is customary (not obligatory) to light candles for Yom Kippur. The Rosh (Yoma 8:27) rules that one should say a blessing, like on Shabbat, as one lights for “shalom bayit.” The Mordekhai (Pesachim 609) disagrees and rules that one should only say the blessing when Yom Kippur occurs on Shabbat.
Similarly, some Rishonim (see Rivash 111) rule that a blessing is said before lighting Chanuka lights in the beit kenesset, as it is customary to light in the synagogue.
Interestingly, while the Shulchan Arukh rules that one does not say a blessing over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, he writes that one says a blessing before lighting on Yom Kippur (610:2) and on Chanuka in the synagogue (671:7). The Acharonim (see, for example, Chakham Tzvi 88; Sha’arei Teshuva, ibid. 10) note this apparent contradiction in the Shulchan Arukh and offer numerous suggestions (not always compelling) to reconcile this contradiction.
One might suggest, as we noted above, that the Shulchan Arukh does not categorically reject saying a blessing over a custom. Rather, he maintains that one may only say a blessing before a proper “kiyum,” fulfillment of a mitzva. Although Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and Chol Ha-Mo’ed is merely an additional prayer, lighting candles on Yom Kippur – a fulfillment of shalom bayit – and in a beit kenesset on Chanuka – a fulfillment of pirusmei nissa – are considered to be significant enough acts relating to the nature of the day, and are deserving of a blessing.
Hefsek Before Performing the Mitzva
The notion of “interruptions” applies to all types of blessings, including birkot he-nehenin and various birkot ha-shevach. At times, an interruption may invalidate the blessing and a person must repeat the blessing before performing or continuing to perform a mitzva. We will discuss various situations in which one might be required to repeat the birkat ha-mitzva.
The Talmud mentions a “hefsek,” an interruption due to which one might be required to repeat the blessing, appears in two separate contexts.
In one place (Berakhot 40a) the Talmud discusses one who speaks in between saying a blessing and eating food:
Rav said: [If the host says to his guests,] “Take, the blessing has been said; take, the blessing has been said,” he [the host] need not say the blessing [again]. If he said [between the blessing and the eating], “Bring salt, bring relish,” he must say the blessing [again]. R. Yochanan, however, said that even if he said, “Bring salt, bring relish,” the blessing need not be repeated.
The Talmud assumes that if one interrupted for no reason, one must say the blessing again. If, however, one’s interruption relates to the meal, the blessing is not repeated. Accordingly, the Shulchan Arukh (167:6) rules:
One should eat immediately and not speak between the berakha and eating. If he spoke, he must repeat the blessing, unless he spoke regarding that which he said the blessing. For example, if he said the blessing over the bread and before he ate he said, “Bring the salt or relish, give the food to this person, give the food to the animal, etc.,” one need not repeat the blessing.
Thus, if one interrupts after saying the blessing and asks for salt or asks his guest to wash his hands, one need not repeat the blessing. The Rema adds that preferably, one should not interrupt at all.
In another place (Menachot 35a; see also Chullin 86b – 87a), the Talmud discusses speaking in between different parts of a mitzva:
R. Chisda said: If a man spoke between the putting on the [hand-] tefilla and the [head-] tefilla, he must make another blessing.
The gemara refers to one who says the blessing before putting on the tefillin shel yad (hand-tefillin), put on the tefillin, and then spoke before donning the tefillin shel rosh (head-tefillin), who needs to say another blessing. (Incidentally, the Rishonim debate whether one generally says one blessing, “le-haniach tefillin,” over the tefillin shel yad, and a different blessing, al mitzvat tefillin, over the tefillin shel rosh, and if he interrupts, he must say both blessings before continuing [Tosafot, Menachot 36a, s.v. lo], or if one generally recites only one blessing before the tefillin shel yad over both tefillin, unless he interrupts, in which case he says “al mitzvat tefillin” before donning the tefillin shel rosh.)
The Rishonim (see, for example, Rashi and Tosafot, Menachot 36a) understand that these two passages relate the same, universal principle: if one speaks between the blessing and its action, one must repeat the blessing. The Rishonim debate whether responding to Kaddish and Kedusha also constitutes an interruption (see Rosh, Hilkhot Tefillin 15; Mordekhai, Menachot, Halakhot Ketanot; Teshuvot Ha-Rashba 5:13; Shulchan Arukh 25:9-10).
Although the Talmud only mentions speaking (sicha) as a form of hefsek (interruption), the Rishonim and Acharonim discussion whether there are other possible interruptions. For example, the Acharonim (see Shulchan Arukh 8:13; Magen Avraham, ibid. 17; Taz, ibid. 11; and Be’ur Ha-Gra, ibid. 25) debate whether the blessing one says at home over the tallit katan may cover wearing the tallit gadol as well after walking to synagogue. In other words, does walking from one place to another constitute a hefsek between the blessing and the performance of the mitzva? Similarly, the Magen Avraham (ibid. 14) notes that a long pause (hefsek gadol) would also cause one to repeat the blessing, although he does not define what constitutes a long pause.
Hefsek in the Middle of a Mitzva – Bedikat Chametz
The sources mentioned above relate to interrupting between the blessing and the ma’aseh ha-mitzva. The Rishonim discuss whether one who interrupts in the middle of a mitzva must repeat the blessing. Generally, speaking during the performance of a mitzva is permitted, such as while wearing tzitzit or tefillin or while sitting in a sukka, and even when it is prohibited, such as during the recitation of Hallel (see Berakhot 14a), the reading of the Megilla, or during the blowing of the shofar, it is not viewed as a “hefsek.” Therefore, a new blessing is not required.
There may be exceptions to this rule, which may depend more upon the definition of the mitzva than the rules of interruptions. For example, the Rishonim discuss whether or not one may talk during bedikat chametz (search for chametz) after one has already said the blessing and started the search. The Rosh (Pesachim 1:6) cites three opinions. According to the first view (R. Hai Gaon), one should not speak during the search, but if he does, he does not need to repeat the blessing. According to the second opinion (R. Sa’adia Gaon), one who speaks during the search must repeat the blessing. According to the third view, that of the Rosh himself, one may talk during the search, but he should try not to engage in idle chatter so that he will focus in the mitzva. Although the Shulchan Arukh (432:1) rules in accordance with the third opinion, that of the Rosh, the Taz (ibid. 3) accepts the second view and explains that unlike the case of sukka, “as long as he has not finished, it is considered to be the beginning of the mitzva.”
Although intriguing, this debate reveals more about the mitzva of bedikat chametz than the laws of interruptions. According to the Taz, one has apparently not fulfilled the mitzva until the search for chametz is complete, while according to others (see Arukh Ha-Shulchan 432:3) the mitzva is fulfilled during the entire search. One might argue that one who is distracted from the search for an extended period of time must repeat the blessing, but that is not due to the laws of hefsek; we will return to that question next week.
Hefsek in the Middle of a Mitzva – Concluding a Mitzva (Gemar Ha-Mitzva)
At times, an interruption may constitute a “conclusion” of the mitzva, and the one who wishes to continue fulfilling the mitzva must say another blessing. This may depend upon the nature of the specific mitzva at hand.
For example, some maintain that an action may constitute an interruption, even if one still intends to continue fulfilling the mitzva. The Talmud (Sukka 46a) relates:
R. Mari the son of Shmuel’s daughter remarked: I noticed that Rava … [would rise] early, he would go to the bathroom, emerge, and wash his hands, put on his tefillin, and recite the blessing, and when he had to attend to his needs a second time, he would go to the bathroom, emerge, wash his hands, put on his tefillin, and recite the blessing again.
The Beit Yosef (OC 8:14; see Shulchan Arukh 8:14) derives from this passages that even though Rava clearly had in mind to put his tefillin on again, the act of removing them constituted an interruption, which required him to say another blessing when he put his tefillin on again. Similarly, he discusses whether one who removes his tallit, even though he intends to put it back on, should say the blessing again when he does so. Other Acharonim (Darkhei Moshe, ibid., and Bayit Chadash, ibid.; see Rema, ibid.) disagree and explain that according to Rava, entering a bathroom constitutes a hefsek, as one is not permitted to enter a bathroom while wearing tefillin. However, one who interrupts a mitzva – for example, if he removes his tallit with the intention of putting it on again immediately – does not say another blessing.
Interestingly, the Rishonim (Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, 6a s.v. ve-amar; Nemukei Yosef, Hilkhot Tzitzit 12) also discuss whether one whose tallit falls off must say the blessing before putting it back on. They apparently disagree as to whether this too constitutes an interruption. The Shulchan Arukh (8:15) rules that if ones tallit falls off completely, he should repeat the blessing. The Mishna Berura (39) explains that this case is worse than the previous case, in that he did not explicitly have in mind to continue the mitzva. He adds (41) that according to some Acharonim, even if his tallit falls off of his shoulders but remains in his hands, he must still say the blessing again.
Although one is generally permitted to talk during the performance of a mitzva (see above), Rabbeinu Tam (cited by Rosh, Chullin 6:6; Tosafot, Chullin 86, s.v. u-mekhasei disagrees) rules that one who speak in between slaughtering animals must say another blessing. He explains that “when he interrupted and spoke in between, he completed the mitzva upon which he blessed and he must say another blessing.” Rabbeinu Tam limits this chiddush to certain mitzvot, those that one can complete at any moment, excluding shofar, Hallel, and Megilla. This discussion is continued by the Acharonim (see Shulchan Arukh, YD 19:5; Taz 9; Shakh 7; and in Nekudot Ha-Kesef, et. al.).
Saying One Blessing before Repeating a Mitzva
Seemingly, one can question whether “da’at” (intention) can constitute an interruption in two different scenarios.
It seems that all would agree that if one has in mind to complete a mitzva and then decides to continue it, he must say another blessing. Indeed, the Rashba (Chullin 86b, s.v. modeh) writes that “a ritual slaughterer… if he turned his intention from slaughtering, he must say another blessing over the shechita.”
But what if one intended, when he said the blessing, to perform a certain action, and he then decides to add additional actions? In order to understand this case, we must first analyze a situation in which one performs multiple mitzvot.
There are certain mitzvot which one can perform multiple times in sequence, such as shechita and mila. The Rishonim discuss whether one can say one blessing before performing the same mitzva numerous times. The debate emerges from different understandings of a passage in the Talmud. The mishna (Chullin 86b) teaches:
If a person slaughtered a hundred wild animals (chayot) in one place, one covering suffices for all; if [he slaughtered] a hundred birds (ofot) in one place, one covering suffices for all; if [he slaughtered] a wild animal and a bird in one place, one covering suffices for both. R. Yehuda says: If he slaughtered a wild animal, he should cover up its blood and then slaughter the bird [and cover it up also].
The mishna discusses the laws of kisuy ha-dam, the covering of the blood required after slaughtering wild animals (chayot) or bird (ofot). The mishna teaches that according to the Rabbis, one covering of the blood suffices for numerous animals and different species, while according to R. Yehuda, each species should have its own kisuy ha-dam. The gemara adds that despite this ruling, R. Yehuda maintains that with regard to the blessing, he has only to say one blessing.
We will not discuss R. Yehuda’s view in this context, but most Rishonim explain that this statement reveals that even according to the Rabbis, the shochet says one blessing before slaughtering many animals. However, some Rishonim disagree. For example, the Ittur (Sha’ar 3, Hilkhot Mila) explains that if one slaughters two animals in one action, he says only one blessing. If, however, one slaughters numerous animals in multiple actions, one must say a blessing before each and every shechita. The Ittur believes that a blessing can only be said over one mitzva.
How are we to understand the opinion of most Rishonim, who maintain that one may say one blessing before fulfilling a mitzva multiple times? We must look at the laws of interruptions for some guidance.
As we mentioned above, one who has in mind to complete a mitzva must say another blessing if he decides to continue to fulfill the mitzva. The Rosh (Chullin 6:6) raises another, less obvious issue:
Is a case in which he only had the intention to slaughter one bird, and after he slaughtered it they brought him another bird, he must say a blessing over the shechita, just as a servant must say a blessing over each and every piece of bread.
Why does the Rosh maintain that the shochet must say another blessing in this case?
Seemingly, we can offer a number of suggestions, which may help us to understand how one may recite one blessing before fulfilling a mitzva multiple times.
On the one hand, we may understand that he views each and every shechita as a separate mitzva, worthy of a blessing. Only when the shochet has numerous shechitot in mind can the blessing cover each shechita. Alternatively, the numerous shechitot may be viewed as one unit, upon which one says one blessing. The Rosh may believe that at times, such as when another bird is brought to the shochet, it is considered to be a different unit, and the original blessing therefore does not suffice. How should we define a unit? Either the shochet’s intention when he said the blessing defines the “unit” of this mitzva or the unit remains undefined, and only after the shochet turns his intention away from the slaughtering does he need to say another blessing.
We may find a practical difference between these understandings in the Tur (YD 19), who cites the Sefer Mitzvot Katan (Semak):
The Sefer Mitzvot Katan writes that if when they brought him more animals, he still has other animals before him upon which he already said the blessing, he does not need to say another blessing on the new animals.
The Tur disagrees:
It does not seem reasonable to distinguish. Rather, upon any animal that was not before him when he said the blessing he must say a berakha, unless he had in mind [when he said the blessing] for all [animals] which will be brought before him.
It seems that the Semak and the Tur disagree regarding our question. According to the Tur, his attention at the time of the blessing defines the unit upon which the blessing falls, whereas according to the Semak, all animals are part of the “unit,” and a new blessing is only required if the shochet turned his attention away from the mitzva.
Interestingly, the definition of a “unit” may differ from mitzva to mitzva. In one place (YD 19:6), the Rema rules that if one brings a shochet similar animals to those that he is currently slaughtering, he does not need to say another blessing. But if one brings him different animals, he must say a blessing. Elsewhere, regarding the laws of brit mila (YD 265:5), he rules that whenever another child is brought to the mohel who was not present when he said the blessing, he must say another berakha. The Acharonim (see Shakh 265:15) note the apparent contradiction.
Apparently, the Rema maintains that one should apply different standards and definition to shechita and mila. Regarding shechita, he views all (similar) animals as one “unit” upon which one may say one blessing. In contrast, the Rema must believe that multiple babies cannot be defined as a “unit,” and therefore only babies present when the blessing is said are covered by the berakha.
Similarly, while the Shulchan Arukh (19:6) rules in accordance with the Semak that if additional animals are brought to the shochet while he is slaughtering he does not need to say another blessing, elsewhere (OC 8) he rules that if one is brought a second tallit that he did not have in mind to wear when he said the blessing, he must say another blessing. Apparently, the Shulchan Arukh views multiple shechitot as one unit, while tzitzit are viewed as individual mitzvot, which one must have in mind when saying the blessing.