Birkot Ha-shachar

  • Rav David Brofsky



            The gemara (Berakhot 60b) teaches that as one rises in the morning, one should recite a list of blessings, each corresponding to one's activities upon awakening.


"When he wakes, he says: 'My God, the soul which You have placed in me is pure. … Blessed are You, O Lord, who restores souls to dead corpses.'

When he hears the rooster crowing, he should say: 'Blessed is He who has given the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.'

When he opens his eyes, he should say: 'Blessed is He who opens the eyes of the blind.'

When he stretches himself and sits up, he should say: 'Blessed is He who loosens the bound.'

When he dresses, he should say: 'Blessed is He who clothes the naked.'

When he draws himself up, he should say: 'Blessed is He who raises the bowed.'

When he steps on to the ground, he should say: 'Blessed is He who spread the earth on the waters.'

When he commences to walk, he should say: Blessed is He who makes firm the steps of man.'

When he ties his shoes, he should say: 'Blessed is He who has supplied all my wants.'

When he fastens his girdle, he should say: 'Blessed is He who girds Israel with might.'

When he spreads a cover over his head, he should say: 'Blessed is He who crowns Israel with glory'

When he washes his face, he should say: 'Blessed is He who has removed the bands of sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyes… Blessed are You, O Lord, who bestows loving-kindness upon Your people Israel'…"


            Our custom, as appears in our siddurim, is to recite two sets of berakhot each morning. The first set consists of birkat asher yatzar (generally recited after relieving oneself), E-lokay neshama (mentioned in the above gemara), and birkot ha-Torah. The second set contains fifteen berakhot, known as birkot ha-shachar. The above gemara lists eleven. Elsewhere, the gemara (Menachot 43b) instructs us to recite three more berakhot, i.e. the "she-lo asani" berakhot. The fifteenth berakha, "ha-noten la-ya'ef koach," does not appear in either Talmud, and was apparently composed later (see Tur and Bet Yosef OC 46).


            This week, we will discuss the birkot ha-shachar listed in the gemara cited above.


The Nature of These Berakhot


            The gemara (Berakhot 35a) teaches that it is prohibited to benefit from this world without first reciting a berakha. In fact, the gemara equates such behavior with me'ila (inappropriate use of items dedicated to the Temple). This comparison is generally applied to the berakhot made before eating and drinking.  The Mishna Berura (46:1) explains that this is also the rationale behind the establishment of birkot ha-shachar, in that one should recite a berakha upon every aspect of the natural order from which one benefits.


            The Rishonim, however, raise a fascinating question. There are three broad categories of berakhot: birkot ha-mitzva (recited before the performance of a mitzva), birkot ha-nehenin (recited before eating, drinking or smelling fragrances) and birkot ha-shevach (recited upon seeing or hearing something which warrants praise and gratitude). [We hope to study these categories in depth during the course of this year.]


            Clearly, the birkot ha-shachar are a type of birkot ha-shevach, i.e. blessing of praise. However, there may be different types of birkot ha-shevach. Most birkot ha-shevach are recited only after one has actually experienced the phenomenon upon which the berakha is recited. Therefore, only one who eats bread recites birkat ha-mazon, only one who hears thunder recites "she-kocho u-gevurato malei olam," and only one who sees a spectacular mountain or sea recites "oseh ma'aseh bereshit". On the other hand, is it possible that there are some birkot ha-shevach that one recites upon the mere existence of this natural occurrence, even if one has not actually experienced it oneself?


            The Rambam (Tefilla 7:7-9) writes that one should only recite these berakhot as one performs the associated actions. For instance, as one fastens one's belt one recites "ozer Yisrael bi-gevura," and as one puts on one's shoes one recites "she-asa li kol tzorki". Furthermore, one who does not experience one of these occurrences, such as a person who does not hear the rooster crowing, should not recite the corresponding berakha!


            Others disagree (see Tosafot Berakhot 60b, Ramban Pesachim 81, and the Geonim cited by the Kol Bo, 1), claiming that these berakhot refer broadly to the natural order created by God, and one must recite these berakhot whether or not one actually benefits from or experiences the specific phenomenon. 


            While Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Arukh OC 46:8) rules that one who does not benefit from the theme of a specific berakha should recite an abridged berakha (without mentioning God's name), the Rema rules that common practice is to recite all of these berakhot, regardless of one's personal experience. (Sefaradim also follow this practice, as it was endorsed by the Ari z"l.)


The Time of these Berakhot


1. Must these berakhot be recited by a specific time of day?


            The Mishna Berura (53:10) cites a debate among the Acharonim whether these berakhot may be recited the entire day (Gra and others), only until midday, or possibly only until the fourth hour, the latest time (according to Rabbi Yehuda) one can say the morning prayers. In the Bi'ur Halacha he stresses that optimally one should recite these berakhot during the morning hours.


            The She'elot U-Teshuvot Rav Pe'alim 2:8 (Rabbi Yosef Chaim ben Eliyau al-Chakam of Baghad, 1835–1909) explores a fascinating question. An onen (one who has lost a close relative who has yet to be buried) is exempt from the performance of positive mitzvot, including reciting all berakhot. Should an onen be required to recite birkot ha-shachar after the burial, even late in the afternoon?


            He cites the Magen Avraham (71:1), who writes that since an onen was exempt during the morning, which was the critical moment of obligation, there is no need to recite the berakhot later in the day. He, however, disagrees, claiming that fundamentally the obligation exists throughout the day, and therefore the onen should most certainly recite the berakhot after the burial, when he once again becomes obligated to perform positive commandments. This discussion obviously hinges upon our question of whether we view the birkot ha-shachar as an obligation inherently linked to the morning, or to the entire day.


            Practically, the Gra rules that one who forgot to recite birkot ha-shachar in the morning may recite them until he goes to sleep, and that seems to be our practice.


2. Does one who wakes up in the middle of the night have to recite the berakhot?


            Despite being referred to as "birkot ha-shachar" (the morning blessings), the Shulchan Arukh (47:13) rules that one who rises early may recite these berakhot even before dawn, except for the berakha of "ha-noten la-sechvi vina". The Mishna Berura (47:30) adds that these berakhot may be said from halakhic midnight onwards, and that the Acharonim agree that even "hanoten la-sechvi" may be recited before dawn, although it is preferable to wait until morning.


3. What about one who stays awake all night (a common question on Shavuot night)? 


            Seemingly, since we follow the opinion that the berakhot are recited regardless of whether or not one actually received the benefit described by the specific berakha, it would follow that if one were awake all night one should still recite these berakhot, as they are a daily obligation. This indeed is the ruling of the Arukh Ha-shulchan (46:13) and the Ari z"l.


            The Mishna Berura (46:24), however, cites those who question whether one who did not sleep should recite "E-lokay neshama" and "ha-ma'avir sheina," and therefore suggests that one hear these berakhot from another.


Women's Obligation?


            The Tur and Shulchan Arukh do not distinguish between men and women regarding birkot ha-shachar. Therefore, both the Mishna Berura (60:1) and Arukh Ha-shulchan (60:2) rule that women ARE obligated to recite birkot ha-shachar.


            The Mishna Berura writes that this question MAY depend upon whether birkot ha-shachar can be recited all day, or only during the morning. As he rules that bediavad, one may recite birkot ha-shachar even before going to sleep, in accordance with the Gra's view, he argues that birkot ha-shachar are NOT a time-bound commandment, and women are therefore obligated to recite them. Interestingly, some suggest that even if birkot ha-shachar may be recited only during the morning, that is not because the berakhot are intrinsically connected to the first hours of daylight (as is the case with shema). Instead, the timing of the berakhot is a function of the normal awakening time of the populace – which normally occurs in the morning.


            Furthermore, based on the gemara (Berakhot 35a) which prohibits us from benefiting from this world without first reciting a berakha, women would certainly be obligated to recite the birkot ha-shachar.


            Next week we will continue our study of the morning berakhot, focusing on the birkot ha-Torah.

            [For the full series, click here]