Reciting Berakhot upon Attempted Mitzvot
The mitzva of sefirat ha-omer – to count the intervening days between Pesach and Shavuot - constitutes an interesting anomaly. Usually, berakhot are recited only when performing mitzvot involving concrete, physical actions (sitting in the sukka, eating matza or donning tefillin). Berakhot are also recited upon learning Torah, but clearly this experience surpasses mere verbal activity. Berakhot are not generally recited upon verbal actions - tefilla, birkat ha-mazon, and perhaps sippur yetziat mitzrayim. Yet, the verbal act of sefirat ha-omer is, indeed, accompanied by a berakha.
Tosafot in Ketubot question this berakha, particularly in comparison to the counting of a zav/zava, which does not require a berakha. Certain individuals who experience impure, bodily issue must count seven days prior to immersing in a mikva and attaining tahara. (Practically, nowadays we treat every nidda as a safek zava and require these same seven clean days). Though she must count seven days, no berakha is recited over the counting. Tosafot offer the following explanation for the difference between omer and zava: "[A berakha is recited only] regarding counts which are performed each year which can always be completed – such as sefira. Zava, however, which might be disrupted by impurity, is not counted [with a berakha]." The Shela (Sha'ar Ha'otiyot) comments on this Tosafot that the threat of disruption cancels the potential berakha of a zava because of the specter of berakha le-vatala. If the seven days are interrupted by impurity, the previously recited berakha is thereby rendered 'for naught' since that counting was unsuccessful. By contrast, omer is definite and the certainty of success associated with this process enables the recitation of a berakha. The Minchat Chinukh (330:3) likewise adopts this position in denying the recitation of a berakha upon the counting of a zava.
This reasoning - the concern for disruption and possible berakha le-vatala – gives rise to an interesting question. When performing mitzvot which may 'fail,' do we indeed refrain from reciting a berakha out of concern for the issur of berakha le-vatala? The gemara in Pesachim (7b) considers reciting the berakha over shechita only after the shechita, out of concern that the pending shechita will be disqualified and the berakha will thus become le-vatala. By rejecting this timing, and scheduling the berakha before the act of shechita, the gemara perhaps indicates that berakhot may be legitimately recited upon mitzvot which might subsequently be disqualified. The berakha is not necessarily recited upon the successful performance of the mitzva, but rather upon the attempt. Even if that attempt fails, the berakha is still valid. This would then yield the opposite conclusion to that reached by Tosafot: although the seven days of counting might be disrupted, the woman should nevertheless recite a berakha since at the moment she makes an attempt at the fulfillment of this mitzva. The Radvaz (teshuva 1102) questions Tosafot's logic from a different berakha - the berakha of anenu recited during a ta'anit tzibbur. The berakha is recited despite the prospect that the full fast will not be completed. Similarly, shouldn't a zava recite a berakha upon her attempt to reach seven clean days, for even if these days are interrupted, the berakha will not have been 'for naught'?
Perhaps we may differentiate between the berakha of anenu during a ta'anit and the counting of a zava. Fasting part of a day is not an empty experience. In fact, halakha allows for a ta'anit sha'ot, in which a person initially commits to fasting for only a few hours. Ideally, a person aims for a complete day's fast and recites a berakha upon this unfolding experience. However, even if he fails and breaks his fast, the hours already fasted are halakhically meaningful. By contrast, the counting of a zava depends entirely upon its successful completion. One or two clean days followed by subsequent impure ones have no halakhic significance whatsoever, and a berakha recited upon these days can be considered absolutely meaningless.
An additional mitzva upon which a berakha is recited despite the potential failure is bedikat chametz. If one has already thoroughly cleaned his house for Pesach, there exists the likelihood that after reciting a berakha over his bedika he will not discover any chametz. In fact, the Ari Ha-kadosh, in light of this concern, established the popular minhag to intentionally place ten chametz pieces in hiding so as to ensure the discovery of SOME chametz over the course of the bedika. However, the simple reading of the Shulchan Arukh suggests reciting the berakha even without placing these pieces – despite the possibility that no chametz will be found. Does this example not suggest that berakhot may be recited upon attempted mitzvot, even if those attempts might subsequently fail?
A berakha might be recited on bedika despite potential failure but the same logic would not apply to sefira. Bedikat chametz is, by definition, an attempt to discover chametz, rather than the successful discovery of chametz. After searching comprehensively for chametz, a person no longer violates the issur of chametz - even upon chametz which he did not succeed in locating, and even if he did not perform bittul (the verbal renunciation of one's chametz). Many Rishonim claim that the very act of earnest and extensive searching for chametz excuses one from violation of the issur even if unfound chametz exists. He performed all that halakha demanded of him, and undiscoverable chametz does not render one in violation of the prohibition. If so, then we recite the berakha not on the discovery of chametz, but on the search for chametz; whether or not any chametz was found is inconsequential. By contrast, counting pure days is an object-oriented mitzva - to succeed in reaching the aftermath of seven clean days. Failure to do so would clearly render the berakha 'for naught.'