Daily Blessings - Birkat HaTorah

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            Two months ago, in the eleventh shiur, we discussed the concept of a "berakha," a blessing, within the general context of eating.  Before tasting any food, a blessing must be uttered.  That shiur attempted to explain what it means to "bless God," and why the institution of berakha was so central in Judaism.  I shall, of course, not repeat what I wrote then, but today's shiur, which will discuss the various berakhot recited every day, will be to a certain extent based on that previous one.  If you do not recall it, you might want to review it.

            There are all sorts of berakhot (the plural of berakha) formulated for different occasions.  Today, I wish to examine those berakhot that have become part of the daily routine of the halakha-observing Jew.

            First, we have to categorize the different types of berakhot.

1.  Birkat ha-nehenin (enjoyment) - berakhot recited before benefiting from the world, usually before eating something. I discussed this category last year.

2.  Birkat ha-mitzva - a berakha recited before performing a mitzva.  Two weeks ago, for instance, before eating matza, we recited a berakha (actually, we recited two berakhot; a birkat ha-mitzva, and a birkat ha-nehenin before eating).  This sort of berakha is characterized by the formula "asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav" - "Blessed are You, HaShem, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to" do whichever mitzva we are about to perform.

3.  Birkat hodaya (gratitude) - a berakha expressing gratitude for something we have received.

4.  Birkat shevach (praise) - a berakha expressing praise, wonder, or appreciation for a phenomenon in which God's power, presence, or grace is found.  The last two categories, which are often very close, are sometimes combined into one.  It is not always clear whether the emotion behind a berakha is gratitude or praise.

            Let us start from birkat ha-mitzva.  This would not appear to fit into our topic of daily berakhot.  This kind of berakha is said not on a daily basis, in the sense that each day requires its recitation, but as the particular mitzva arises.  Of course, there are mitzvot which are performed every day - or nearly every day - and therefore the berakha is recited every day as well; for instance, tefillin or tzitzit.  But clearly, there is not a direct obligation to recite this berakha every day - it merely happens that way.  The obligation is to recite the berakha whenever the mitzva arises, which could be twice a day, or once every two days.

            So why do I choose to begin with this category?  There is one exception to the apparent rule that the cause of a birkat ha-mitzva is the mitzva and not the day.  This exception is not a minor one - according to many halakhic opinions, this berakha is one of only two that are directly mandated by the Torah and not by rabbinic ordinance.  This berakha is birkat ha-Torah, the berakha recited before Torah study.

"Blessed are You, HaShem, our God Master of the world, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to engage in words of Torah."

            This berakha is inserted into the daily prayer service at the very beginning.  Now, the logic of birkat ha-mitzva would dictate that we should only recite this berakha if we are about to "engage in words of Torah."  But in this case, we are about to engage in prayer!  No problem - examination of the siddur, the prayer book, reveals that immediately after the berakha there is a short section which consists of no more than a few verses from the Torah and a quote from the Talmud.  So the berakha is, in fact, followed by Torah learning.  But one gets the distinct impression that the Torah sections were appended to the berakha in order to satisfy the basic requirement of a birkat ha-mitzva, with the berakha itself somehow of primary importance.  In other words, we have here a berakha followed by Torah study, rather than Torah study preceded by a berakha.  This, in fact, is how the Rambam defines the recitation of this berakha.

"One is obligated to recite these blessings (on the Torah) every day, and afterwards to learn a little Torah" (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:11). 

Notice: The Rambam does not write, "one is obligated to learn Torah every day and to bless beforehand."  Of course, one is obligated to learn every day, but that is not cited by the Rambam in "The Laws of Prayer."  Here the Rambam is stating explicitly that there is an obligation to recite daily this berakha, which in turn engenders an obligation to learn afterwards in order that the berakha should have meaning.

            [Incidentally, since we have seen the Rambam's directive to "learn a little Torah," the VBM maintains a daily-updated website for that purpose, called SALT - Surf A Little Torah - with short, five-minute Torah bytes.  If you net-connect regularly, that is a good place to start - http://www.vbm-torah.org/salt.htm - And now, after that word from our sponsor, back to the shiur].

            So, why is this berakha a daily requirement?  A quick examination of the language of the berakha indicates the answer.  In fact, this berakha is not one berakha at all, but two (or possibly three, depending on how one punctuates it).

Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the world, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to engage in words of Torah.

And may You, HaShem our God, make the words of Your Torah pleasant in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people the house of Israel; and let us and our descendants, and our descendants' descendants, and the descendants of all Your people the house of Israel, all of us know Your name and learn Your Torah for its own sake.  Blessed are You, Who teaches Torah to His people     Israel.

Blessed are You, HaShem, our God king of the world, who has chosen us from all the peoples, and given us His Torah.  Blessed are You, Who has given the Torah.

            (This last berakha will undoubtedly be familiar from another context - it is the berakha recited before reading the Torah in the synagogue, the opening berakha of an aliya).

            Since, a mitzva requires only ONE berakha before it, the very fact that this berakha is complex indicates that something is different here.  Looking at the last part, we see immediately what it is - the berakha refers not merely to the mitzva of learning Torah, but to the identity of Israel, of the Jewish people, as the people of the Torah.  Torah is not merely a very important book, it is the defining characteristic of what makes Jews unique.  Receiving the Torah from God is the content of that oft-misused and misunderstood phrase, "chosen people."  Learning Torah, then, is not merely an important mitzva, but the activity which most directly expresses Jewish identity.  To learn Torah is to immerse oneself in God's choice.

            We now understand the significance of the first of our daily berakhot - first in importance, that is (it is not the first to be recited in the morning).  This is especially true if we remember the meaning of "berakha," as explained in last year's shiur.  The "blessing" represents the secret of creativity in the world, of the principle of growth, of the increasing presence of God which rests on our shoulders.  Since the "chosenness" of Israel is through the presence of God's gift - the Torah - by affirming this relationship through the daily recitation of these berakhot, we reaffirm and increase, as it were, the very presence of God and His Torah in our midst.  We "bless" God, meaning we accept to be the bearers of His presence - in this case, His presence in the Torah which we will learn during the day.  Since this particular manifestation of God, the Torah, is the principal ingredient in our identity as Jews, and the principal revelation of God outside the natural world of creation, it is a "must" from the very first moment of the day.

            The sections found in the siddur immediately after the berakha are there to provide a "taste" of Torah, something to which the berakha can relate.  It would not make a difference which sections were chosen, and it would in fact be desirable if one sat down and proceeded to learn something new each day.  But over the years, together with the standardization of the siddur, these sections have also been formalized.  There is, however, one principle found in the actual selections that is very significant.  There are three sections:

1.  A selection from the Torah - the priestly blessing.

2.  A selection from the Mishna (the 2nd-century rabbinic code of law) - a listing of mitzvot that "have no limit," i.e., there is no maximum in how much should be done.

3.  An addition to the mishna (a "beraita") - a listing of mitzvot for which the ultimate reward should not be expected in this world but only in the next, the last of which is "the study of Torah, equal to all the others."

            These three sections are an attempt to encompass the three types of Torah learning, based on three different kinds of Torah literature.  The first is "Torah she-bikhtav" - the written Torah (the Bible).  Here we have sacred literature, in the sense that the words themselves are considered sacred.  When one studies Bible, one is analyzing the exact words, for the sentence structure, the phraseology, the syntax, and the very letters themselves carry the holiness of the text.

            The next two types are "Torah she-ba'al peh" - the oral law, the expansion and commentary on the written law.  Here, the particular word is not sacred, but the subject matter is.  This sphere is divided into two examples, because the type of learning associated with each is very different.  The first, exemplified by the Mishna, is a code of law.  One learns in order to KNOW, to summarize a conclusion.  The famous (relatively) modern example of a halakhic code is the Shulchan Arukh, written four hundred years ago by R. Yosef Karo in Safed.  The second example is intended to exemplify "gemara," the continuing analysis and discussion of halakha, questioning and answering, analyzing and probing, in a never-ending ever-growing body of literature and human endeavor which continues to this day and forms the major part of what yeshiva learning is about.

            Immediately in the morning, we apply the berakha of Torah, the chosenness of Israel, to all three divisions of Torah: the first, the actual word of God; the second, the summation of His will and commandments; the third, our attempts to delve ever-deeper into the meaning of Torah and understand it and its infinite ramifications and implications.  The third, incidentally, is no less an expression of the divine chosenness of Israel than the first two - perhaps even more so.  We indeed add to Torah, based on our understanding of it. Clearly, this third section is all the more in need of a berakha, in the sense of the blessing of fruitful creativity, even more perhaps than the first two.

            A cursory examination of the particular sections chosen by Jewish tradition for the morning Torah learning reveals that all three refer to berakha, to increase, vitality, and creativity.  The first, the Biblical section, is the priestly blessing - God's blessing to the people.  The second is a list of mitzvot where it is appropriate to do more - there is no upper limit to what a man can and should accomplish.  The third is a list of mitzvot which "produce fruit," i.e., have an effect in this world, even as the "principal" is untouched and preserved for the next world.  Here too, we see the principle of creativity and increase.  Since the essential element here was the birkat ha-Torah, the berakha, with these sections added in order to give the berakha a focus, these selections are especially appropriate.

            Before concluding, I would like to pass on to you an explanation I heard from my teacher and master, Rav Soloveitchik zt"l, concerning the phrasing of the first berakha on the Torah - "who has commanded us to engage in the study of Torah."

            Normally, every time one performs a mitzva, one is obligated to recite a berakha beforehand.  If one would put on tefillin twice in one day, for instance, the berakha would be repeated.  In the case of Torah, the halakha is that the berakha is recited only once in the morning, even though there may be several separate occasions during the day when one will actually study.  The reason, offered by the medieval French commentator, R. Yaakov Tam, is that the obligation to study Torah is based on the verse, "You shall think about them day and night."  Since the mitzva is incumbent at all times, it is not necessary to repeat the berakha once one has awakened.

            Now this explanation is extremely difficult.  If one did indeed occupy oneself continually learning day and night, there would be no need for a second berakha.  But since that is not the case, and after reciting the berakha and praying in the morning, one ate breakfast, went to work, checked e-mail, and only later sat down for another hour of (VBM?) Torah study, why is there not an obligation to recite the berakha before actually learning a second time?

            The Rav zt"l answered that what R. Tam was saying is that Torah, unlike other occupations, remains in our awareness even when we are busy doing something else.  The Rav called this "latent awareness."  When a mother goes to work, has she forgotten her child who is in a play school?  Is she unaware of her baby?  She is not actively thinking about the child, but she remains latently aware, the love and worry remaining in her consciousness, submerged perhaps, but never far from the surface.  So it is with Torah, with the gift by which God chose the Jews.  It is a vital part of my identity, and one could as soon completely divorce oneself from consciousness of oneself.  Hence, the berakha of the morning continues to sanctify all Torah that will be learnt during the day.

            This, added the Rav, is the meaning of the berakha.  We do not say, "who commanded us to study Torah," but "who commanded us to BE ENGAGED in the study of Torah."  This encompasses much more than the actual study of a particular text. It refers to the mental immersion and attachment to Torah that is present in our awareness, as a mother is aware of the cry of her baby.  Even when the surface consciousness turns to business, schooling, or eating, the latent awareness is engaged in the study of Torah.  This berakha must be said every day, every morning, because its internalization helps define the consciousness of the Jew.

            Next week we shall discuss all the other daily berakhot, found mostly in the first few pages of the morning prayer service.