The Nature of the Berakhot Recited Prior to Kriyat Shema
Many mitzvot asei are preceded by a berakha known as a birkat ha-mitzva. On the surface, the same rule seems to apply to the mitzva of kriyat shema, which is prefaced by not one, but two berakhot – during both shacharit as well as ma'ariv. Are we to treat these berakhot as classic birkot ha-mitzva?
At least one gemara throws this definition into question. The gemara in Berakhot (13a) discusses someone who reads the sections of kriyat shema from a Torah during the time in which he is obligated to recite kriyat shema. According to the gemara, if he intends through this reading to fulfill the mitzva of kriyat shema, he fulfills the mitzva. The Yerushalmi deduces from this gemara that the berakhot of kriyat shema are not me'akeiv kriyat shema. Apparently, during this 'recital' of Torah, the individual did not recite berakhot along with his reading. Rather, he continued reading his text and merely intended this recital as kriyat shema, as well. This gemara itself - though pointing to a separation between kriyat shema and its berakhot - does not conclusively negate the status of these berakhot as birkot ha-mitzva. In general, the non-recitation of a birkat ha-mitzva does not invalidate the performance of the mitzva. Ideally (le-chatkhila), the berakha should be recited prior to the mitzva, but be-di'eved the mitzva is still valid even in the absence of the berakha.
A different gemara, though, allows the recitation of berakhot without kriyat shema, confirming the fact that the berakhot are not just birkot ha-mitzva - else they could not be uttered without the performance of the mitzva. The mishna in Berakhot (9b) establishes three hours into the morning as the deadline for reciting shema. If one missed this opportunity, the gemara says (according to one version), he does not forfeit the berakhot; he may recite the berakhot after three hours independent of kriyat shema, which may not be recited after that time.
The Rashba – in his responsa (#319) - infers this notion from the gemara and thereby answers Tosafot's question on Rashi in Berakhot (2a). Rashi instructed those who daven in minyanim which take place before evening to daven with the minyan and repeat kriyat shema at home after nightfall. One of Tosafot's questions was that this practice ignores the birkot kriyat shema, which ostensibly would not be repeated at night. The Rashba answers that these berakhot - according to Rashi - are independent of kriyat shema - and zeman kriyat shema, for that matter. Hence, one fulfills his requirement through the berakhot recited during davening – even though he davened before nightfall and did not append the berakhot to a halakhically meaningful shema. The shema will be performed independent of the berakhot, at home.
The Ramban opposed the Rashba and concluded that the berakha of ahava rabba, which immediately precedes kriyat shema, is indeed a birkat ha-mitzva. Therefore, he ruled that no hefsek should occur between the berakha of ahava rabba and kriyat shema. Invoking this principle, he opposed the minhag of reciting 'Keil Melekh Ne'eman' prior to kriyat shema, as this would constitute a hefsek. (Even if we accept the Ramban's premise, that ahava rabba is a birkat ha-mitzva to kriyat shema, we might disagree with his ruling. Namely, we might allow the recitation of 'Keil Melekh Ne'eman' between ahava rabba and kriyat shema; as Keil Melekh Ne'eman (which is an elongated amen) enhances kriyat shema, it might not constitute a hefsek. See especially the Me'iri, in Magen Avot siman 11, who asserts this point.)
As proof, the Ramban cites an earlier gemara (11b) which claimed that if a person forgot to recite birkot ha-Torah (the birkat ha-mitzva recited upon Torah study) in the morning and already finished davening, he need not recite since the berakha after davening, since ahava rabba excuses him from this berakha. Doesn't this gemara suggest that indeed ahava rabba is a birkat ha-mitzva upon the mitzva of reciting kriyat shema? As the mitzva of kriyat shema resembles the mitzva of talmud Torah, the birkat ha-mitzva of kriyat shema would exempt the birkat ha-mitzva of talmud Torah. If ahava rabba is not a birkat ha-mitzva, this rule becomes perplexing.
It should be noted that while the Ramban designates ahava rabba as a birkat ha-mitzva, he clearly agrees that the first berakha - yotzer or - is considered an independent birkat ha-shevach rather than a birkat ha-mitzva. The Ramban proves this from the gemara in Megilla which claims that somebody blind from birth should not recite this berakha, since he has never benefited from light. This halakha accords with the principle that birkot ha-shevach are recited only if benefit was obtained. This distinction between ahava rabba – a birkat ha-mitzva which might not tolerate a hefsek - and yotzer or - an independent birkat ha-shevach – serves as the basis for an interesting halakhic discussion: answering amen. In siman 59, the Shulchan Arukh rules that a person should recite amen after hearing the chazan say the berakha of yotzer or, while in siman 60 the Rema rules that no amen should be recited after hearing the berakha of ahava rabba. (Hence the minhag to complete this berakha along with the chazan, rendering amen unnecessary in any event).
If the Ramban is correct, that ahava rabba is a birkat ha-mitzva, we would expect it to be tethered to shema. Namely, whenever we recite shema, we should be expected to recite this berakha. In fact, Rabbenu Yona, in the beginning of Berakhot, requires someone who davened before nightfall to repeat BOTH kriyat shema as well as the berakha of ahava rabba at night. This halakha clearly indicates that he, too viewed ahava rabba as the birkat ha-mitzva to kriyat shema - why else would it be repeated a second time at night?
It may well be that the question of whether ahava rabba is a birkat ha-mitzva has already been debated in the gemara. The mishna in Tamid (cited by the gemara in Berakhot 11b) asserts that in the Beit Hamikdash, (to save time) only one of the birkot kriyat shema was recited (while the second berakha was apparently recited afterwards). The gemara cites a machloket as to whether yotzer or was recited or ahava rabba. Shmuel, who holds that ahava rabba was recited, possibly viewed it as a birkat ha-mitzva; hence it should not be separated from kriyat shema. Alternatively, Reish Lakish, who claimed that yotzer or was recited, might have viewed ahava rabba as a birkat ha-shevach. Under no pressure to link it to shema, they recited yotzer or first (to maintain the proper sequence) and recited ahava rabba only later on.
One gemara the Ramban does not address is on 10b, where the gemara calls for the recital of birkot kriyat shema after three hours when kriyat shema is no longer applicable. If ahava rabba is a birkat ha-mitzva, how do we allow its recitation independent of shema? Several possible solutions come to mind:
1) Is recitation of shema after three hours completely meaningless, or does some secondary form of the mitzva still apply, allowing for the recitation of ahava rabba? See the Rambam, who claims that after three hours one does not fulfill the mitzva of kriyat shema 'bi'zemana,' perhaps implying that some inferior type of kriyat shema still exists.
2) Even if no mitzva of kriyat shema exists after three hours, reciting kriyat shema still fulfills the mitzva of talmud Torah. Does ahava rabba function in this capacity as well? Does it also serve as a birkat ha-mitzva (where relevant) on talmud Torah – independent of kriyat shema?