Birkot Ha-Torah

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT HA'AZINU

 

BIRKOT HA-TORAH

 

By Rav Binyamin Tabory

 

 

            The Ramban added seventeen mitzvot asei which, in his view, the Rambam mistakenly omitted from his listing of the mitzvot.  Among them is the obligation to recite a berakha when learning Torah, a mitzva which the Gemara (Berakhot 21a) deduces from the verse in Parashat Ha'azinu, "When I proclaim the name of Hashem, give praise to our God" (Devarim 32:3).  The Ramban emphasizes that birkat ha-Torah should, indeed, be counted as an independent mitzva, rather than be viewed simply as part of the mitzva of talmud Torah.  Just as eating the korban Pesach and relating the story of the Exodus constitute two separate mitzvot, the Ramban argues, so must we count Torah study and birkat ha-Torah as two, independent mitzvot.

 

            It is interesting to note that the Ramban (based on the Gemara) interpreted the phrase, "When I proclaim the name of God" as referring to Torah study.  This interpretation is consistent with the Kabbalistic concept expressed by the Ramban himself (in the introduction to his commentary to the Torah) that the entire Torah is comprised by the names of God.  There seems to be an alternate, hidden method of reading the Torah in a manner in which the name of God is the basis of every verse.  

 

The position of the Rambam, who did not count birkot ha-Torah as one of the 613 mitzvot, may be understood in one of two ways.  He perhaps agreed with the Ramban that birkot ha-Torah constitutes a Torah obligation, but felt that inasmuch as birkot ha-Torah are a necessary prerequisite for Torah study, this obligation is naturally subsumed under the mitzva of talmud Torah.  The Ramban, as mentioned, explicitly dismissed such a notion, but this may very well have been the Rambam's rationale. Indeed, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh, who generally follows the opinion of the Rambam, stated explicitly that birkot ha-Torah are of Biblical origin (Mitzva 430).  Following the Rambam's view, he did not count this as a separate mitzva; this comment concerning birkot ha-Torah appears amidst the Chinukh's discussion of birkat ha-mazon.  Alternatively, one might claim that the Rambam denied the Biblical origins of birkat ha-Torah entirely.

 

            The practical ramification of this issue arises in a situation where a person is unsure whether he is obligated to recite birkot ha-Torah.  Generally, in situations of uncertainty, Halakha permits one to follow the lenient possibility regarding rabbinically mandated obligations, but requires that one act stringently with regard to Torah obligations.  According to the Ramban, a person in doubt concerning birkot ha-Torah certainly must recite them, since a Torah obligation is at stake.  However, the Shulchan Arukh seems to have ruled that birkot ha-Torah are not a Biblical obligation.  He writes, "All berakhot – if someone is in doubt if he has recited them, he should not recite them… except for birkat ha-mazon which is required by the Torah."  By not singling out birkot ha-Torah, the Shulchan Arukh strongly implies that they are included under the category of "all berakhot."  On this basis, Rav Ovadya Yosef ruled that birkot ha-Torah are all rabbinic in nature and need not be recited in situations of doubt (Yabia Omer 3:27)

 

            A second fundamental issue regarding birkot ha-Torah involves the nature of these berakhot.  We generally classify berakhot into three categories: berakhot recited before the performance of mitzvot, berakhot recited before deriving some pleasure (such as eating and drinking), and berakhot expressing praise and gratitude, which one recites upon encountering some extraordinary phenomenon.  Into which category would we place birkot ha-Torah?  Of course, this question becomes more acute if we assume that these berakhot are only rabbinic in origin.  The only berakha that we know to originate from the Torah – birkat ha-mazon – may be of a distinct, unique nature and thus need not fall into any group (though it is certainly a berakha of praise and gratitude).  Likewise, if we were to assume that birkot ha-Torah constitute a Torah obligation, we would not necessarily be compelled to classify them in one of these three groups.  Assuming its obligation originates from Chazal, however, we must determine its essential character and nature.

 

            Tosafot (Berakhot 11b) asked why do we not recite birkot ha-Torah every time we learn, just as we recite a berakha every time we enter and eat in a sukka.  By drawing this comparison between birkot ha-Torah and the berakha recited over the mitzva of sukka, Tosafot appear to take the position that birkot ha-Torah should be seen as a birkat ha-mitzva, which we recite over the mitzva of Torah study.

 

            The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 47:14) ruled that women also recite birkot ha-Torah – this despite the fact that women are exempt from the formal obligation of talmud Torah (Kiddushin 29b).  The Vilna Gaon (ad loc.) explained the Shulchan Arukh's ruling as based on the tradition that women who perform mitzvot from which they are exempt nevertheless recite the berakhot over those mitzvot.  Clearly, the Gaon also considered birkot ha-Torah akin to other birkot ha-mitzva.

 

            Earlier, the Shulchan Arukh codified (ibid. 47:2) that one does not recite birkot ha-Torah if he only thinks or meditates about Torah; only when a person studies verbally or writes Torah does he recite the berakha.  The Gaon (ad loc.) questioned this ruling and argued that inasmuch as one fulfills the mitzva of talmud Torah even without verbal articulation, why does one not recite the berakha over thinking about Torah?   Once again, the Gaon here takes a clear stand regarding the nature of birkot ha-Torah, viewing these berakhot as birkot ha-mitzva, which should thus be recited whenever the mitzva of talmud Torah is fulfilled.

 

            We should note, however, that the Gaon's argument concerning women's obligation in birkot ha-Torah seems very difficult to understand.  In this context he addresses the ruling of the Mechaber, Rav Yosef Karo, and argues that women may recite this berakha just as they may recite the berakha over any mitzva they perform, even those from which they are exempt.  However, the Shulchan Arukh himself explicitly ruled (O.C. 17:2) that women may not recite a berakha over the performance of a mitzva from which they are exempt.  If the Gaon merely intended that Halakha follows the Ashkenazic custom permitting women to recite a berakha in such a case (Rama, ad loc.), we would still need an explanation for the Shulchan Arukh.  If the Shulchan Arukh generally forbids women from reciting a berakha over mitzvot from which they are exempt, why does he require that they recite birkot ha-Torah?

 

            Rav Velvel Soloveitchik zt"l (Chidushei Ha-Griz - Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16) cites an explanation from his father, Rav Chayim zt"l.  Rav Chayim claimed that this berakha is not a standard birkat ha-mitzva.  Rather, it stems from a unique halakha, that Torah requires a berakha.  Although Rav Chayim did not use this exact terminology, he appears to consider birkot ha-Torah a berakha of praise and gratitude.  It thus follows that women, although they are not obligated to learn Torah, must nevertheless recite this berakha when they study, since the very encounter with Torah requires the recitation of birkot ha-Torah.  On this basis, we might explain the Shulchan Arukh’s ruling that meditation does not require a berakha.  True, as the Gaon argued, one indeed fulfills the mitzva of Torah study by simply thinking in Torah.  However, the meeting with Torah (or the "cheftza shel Torah," in Brisker terminology) must be done verbally or by writing in order to create the phenomenon of Torah in the world, and thus generate an obligation of birkot ha-Torah.

 

            The text of the berakha according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 7:10), which is codified by the Shulchan Arukh (ibid.), seems to corroborate this explanation.  Whereas the Ashkenazic custom is to say, "… who commanded us to occupy ourselves with Torah," the Rambam’s version reads, "… who commanded us with regard to the words of Torah."  This phraseology strongly implies that birkot ha-Torah do not fall under the category of birkot ha-mitzva, but rather constitute special berakhot recited on the very concept of Torah.

 

            We have thus seen two fundamental disputes concerning birkot ha-Torah: 1) whether they are Biblically required or were instituted by Chazal, and 2) whether they should be viewed as birkot ha-mitzva or as berakhot recited over the phenomenon of Torah.  One might suggest distinguishing between the three (or four) different berakhot over Torah recited daily.  Our discussion revolved mainly about the first berakha (“la-asok be-divrei Torah” or “al divrei Torah”).  Many Acharonim maintained that there are a number of important differences between the various berakhot, and thus the points raised in this shiur would not necessarily apply to the other berakhot. (See Sha'agat Aryeh; Minchat Chinukh, mitzva 430; Lekach Tov, 11; et al.)