Birkot Ha-Torah (2)

  • Rav David Brofsky



            Last week, we began our discussion of Birkot Ha-torah.  We questioned the source, level and scope of this obligation, as well as its nature. 


            Some view these berakhot as birkot ha-shevach, instituted to acknowledge and praise God for the phenomenon of Torah, just as Birkot Ha-shachar acknowledge aspects of the natural order.  Others equate them with birkot ha-nehenin, arguing that one is prohibited from engaging in talmud Torah (Torah study) and thereby benefiting before properly, and formally, asking God's permission.  Yet others argue that Birkot Ha-torah may be a type of birkot ha-mitzva, to be said prior to learning Torah, just as we precede most mitzvot with a berakha.  Based upon these understandings, we discussed whether there is a notion of hefsek (interruption) between the berakha and future learning, and what, if anything, might constitute a hefsek.


            This week, we will continue our discussion of the nature of Birkot Ha-torah, addressing numerous practical questions. 


One Who Stays Awake the Entire Night:


            What if one is AWAKE for an entire night? Can the Birkot Ha-torah which one recited the previous morning cover the following day?


            Presumably, those Rishonim who are more sensitive to questions of hefsek, as they view Birkot Ha-torah as birkot ha-mitzva (or even as birkot ha-nehenin), would most likely NOT require one to say Birkot Ha-torah in this situation.  On the other hand, those who are not concerned about interruption, arguing that Birkot Ha-torah are similar to the Birkot Ha-shachar which are recited once per day, may indeed require this person to recite the Birkot Ha-torah.  Indeed, this is how the Shulchan Arukh Ha-rav (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) presents the question (47:7).  He concludes that, preferably, one should hear the berakha from another person, but if not, he should say the berakha himself.


            The Mishna Berura (47:28) cites a debate among the Acharonim.  The Chayei Adam, Peri Chadash and Gra rule that one should NOT say Birkot Ha-torah if one was awake all night, while the Magen Avraham and Eliya Rabba rule that one SHOULD say the berakhot. 


            Ideally, one should try to hear the berakhot from another person.  If this is not possible, one may rely on "Ahava Rabba," the second blessing preceding the morning Keriat Shema (in Ashkenazi congregations; in the Sephardic tradition, it is called "Ahavat Olam").  The Mishna Berura (47:28) rules that one should have in mind that the recitation of Ahava Rabba should exempt him from Birkot Ha-torah, and study a verse or mishna after one's tefilla, as we will see.


            However, the Mishna Berura (47:28) cites the opinion of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who offers a brilliant solution to this quandary.  He suggests that if one engages in sheinat keva (significant slumber) the day before, one may then recite Birkot Ha-torah the next morning, even if one remained awake all night.  He argues that, "mi-ma nafshakh," whichever opinion one follows, one would be so obligated: if the berakha is meant to be recited daily, one should always recite it the next morning; alternatively, if they are birkot ha-mitzva, then they should be recited after an interruption, such as a long afternoon nap!  Therefore, everyone would agree that in such a case one should certainly recite Birkot Ha-torah.


The Relationship between Ahava Rabba and Birkot Ha-Torah:


As mentioned above, the Gemara (Berakhot 11b) states:


"…After saying the Keriat Shema, he need not make the berakha, as he has already fulfilled his obligation through the berakha of Ahava Rabba."


Furthermore, the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:5) explains that Ahava Rabba is effective, provided that one "studies right away."


            The Rishonim debate the authority, and the ramifications, of this Yerushalmi.  While, apparently, all agree that reciting Ahava Rabba may, in certain circumstances, exempt one from Birkot Ha-torah, they question whether this passage from the Yerushalmi is at all authoritative; and even if so, does it reflect a normative principle, applicable to Birkot Ha-torah, or is it unique to Ahava Rabba?


            The Tzarfatim (French), for example, as brought above, would recite Torah passages after Birkot Ha-torah, in deference to the Yerushalmi.  Apparently they understood that this Yerushalmi reflects a normative principle: one must learn after reciting Birkot Ha-torah in order for them to be effectual.


            The Rosh (Berakhot 1:12), on the other hand, argues that only after Ahava Rabba does one need to study immediately, but not after Birkot Ha-torah.  The requirement to immediately engage in study after Ahava Rabba, he explains, reflects the WEAKNESS of Ahava Rabba, which was NOT originally instituted as Birkot Ha-torah.  Only if one learns Torah immediately afterwards is it evident that the intention is to exempt oneself from the standard Birkot Ha-torah. 


The Ri (Berakhot 11b), who predates the Rosh, also suggests this approach, but he argues that in any case our Gemara does NOT accept this passage from the Yerushalmi; he rules that one is NOT required to recite Torah passages immediately after reciting Birkot Ha-torah or Ahava Rabba. 


            The Rishonim also debate whether, assuming that one MUST study after Ahava Rabba, whether the blessing covers one's learning for the entire day, or only such study as immediately follows one's tefilla.


            The Rashba (Berakhot) cites the opinion of the Ra'avad, who notes that there are actually two textual variations of the Yerushalmi.  According to one version, which reads "ve-hu she-kara al atar" "if one reads right away," one who merely recites KERIAT SHEMA immediately following the berakha of Ahava Rabba need not recite Birkot Ha-torah for the rest of the day.  However, according to the second version, which reads "ve-hu she-shana al atar," "if one studies right away," the berakha covers Keriat Shema as well as Torah study immediately following one's tefilla.  If one stops studying Torah and wishes later to return to it, one must recite Birkot Ha-torah.


            The Shulchan Arukh (47:7-8) rules that the berakha "exempts one from Birkot Ha-torah as long as one studies immediately afterwards."  He also raises a question whether reciting Keriat Shema alone is sufficient, or whether one should actually study other Torah passages, as one does after reciting Birkot Ha-torah, following the conclusion of tefilla.  The Mishna Berura (13) writes, in the name of the Gra and other Acharonim, that Keriat Shema is NOT sufficient, and that one should study after tefilla.  He does, however, note that if one says Keriat Shema and its berakhot after the third hour of the day, it alone may be sufficient, as according to the Mishna (Berakhot 1:2), its value is "as a person who reads the Torah."


            In short, one who forgets to recite Birkot Ha-torah, and remembers while in the middle of Pesukei De-zimra, should stop and say Birkot Ha-torah, followed by its customary verses and passages (Mishna Berura 51:10), and then resume Pesukei De-zimra.  One who forgets to say Birkot Ha-torah and has already started Birkot Keriat Shema, should have in mind that the recitation of Ahava Rabba will exempt him from Birkot Ha-torah, and he should read other Torah passages immediately following his tefilla (Biur Halakha 52 s.v. U-mikol makom).  Furthermore, as mentioned previously, the Mishna Berura suggests employing this rule and having intention during Ahavat Olam, the parallel blessing preceding the evening Keriat Shema, in situations of halakhic doubt, such as one who sleeps during the day or one who did not have in mind to continue studying later in the day.


What Type of Study Requires Birkot Ha-torah:


            On the one hand, this question may depend upon a larger matter, discussed in the Gemara and Rishonim, whether we equate "hirhur" with "dibbur": is thought like speech or not?  For example, the Mishna (Berakhot 3:4) cites a debate whether a ba'al keri, one who has experienced a seminal emission, should 'think,' but not pronounce, Birkot Keriat Shema.  The Gemara (ibid., 20b) explains that this question depends upon a broader question of hirhur ke-dibbur.


            Most Rishonim rule that hirhur is NOT ke-dibbur (see Shulchan Arukh 62:4 with commentaries).  Therefore, it would seem that one may 'think' Torah before reciting the berakhot, and that is the ruling of Rav Yosef Karo (47:4). 


            Some, however, claim that even if we rule "hirhur lav ke-dibbur," that thought and speech are not equivalent, one might still prohibit thinking about Torah before reciting the berakhot.  The Gra (see Mishna Berura 47:7) suggests that since one also fulfills the mitzva of Torah study through thinking (see Yehoshua 1:8, "Ve-hagita bo"), the berakha must be recited before this form of learning. 


            Other Acharonim claim that it would still be permitted to think about Torah before the berakhot.  The Sha'agat Aryeh (24) suggests that the berakhot were instituted upon 'speaking' Torah, as the verse (Devarim 32:3) which serves as its source opens, "When I CALL the name of Lord…"  The Peri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav 47:2) argues that berakhot were ONLY instituted upon SPEECH; for this reason, there is no berakha upon bittul chametz, our act of nullification before Pesach, which is essentially a mental activity.


            The Rema (47:4) adds that one may rule ("lifsok") on a Torah matter, without giving the reason, before reciting Birkot Ha-torah.  The Mishna Berura cites the Gra, who once again disagrees, arguing that ruling can be no better than reciting a verse without its explanation!


            Regarding WRITING Torah, seemingly there should be no difference between hirhur and writing, and one who permits thinking about Torah before reciting its berakhot, should also permit one to write down Torah ideas. 


            The Tashbetz Katan (Rabbi Shimshon ben Tzadok, a student of the Maharam of Rotenberg), however, cites Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna (the Or Zarua) who requires one to recite Birkot Ha-torah before writing Torah (Ch. 194), as does the Avudraham.  The Shulchan Arukh (47:3), despite his lenient ruling regarding hirhur, rules that one should recite the berakhot before writing Torah. 


            The Mishna Berura cites different interpretations of this ruling.  Some feel that the "action" of writing Torah warrants a berakha in its own right, while other fear that one who writes generally enunciates as well.  He continues, however, that one who merely copies, without understanding, words of Torah, need not recite the berakhot.  He concludes that one who says Birkot Ha-torah should actually recite portions of Torah afterwards, not merely write divrei Torah.


            Finally, does one who recites verses as part of one's prayers need to say Birkot Ha-torah?


            The Tur (46) writes that his custom is to recite the Birkot Ha-torah immediately after "Elokai Neshama" and only afterwards to recite Korbanot (the passages dealing with the offerings) and other supplications containing verses.  In the Bet Yosef, Rav Yosef Karo cites the opposing opinions regarding this question.


            In the Shulchan Arukh, (46:9) he records both opinions, and concludes that it is correct to be stringent and to say Birkot Ha-torah BEFORE saying supplications.  The Rema notes that the custom is to act leniently, as the practice is to say Selichot and recite verses upon entering a shul, before saying Birkot Ha-torah.  The Rema concludes, however, that one should recite Birkot Ha-torah after Asher Yatzar, which the Mishna Berura interprets (46:28) as an endorsement of the Tur's practice of reciting Birkot Ha-torah BEFORE all other prayers. 


Women and Birkot Ha-Torah:


            Another interesting ramification of our original question, whether we view Birkot Ha-torah as birkot ha-mitzva or birkot ha-shevach, may be whether women are obligated in this mitzva.  Technically, women are exempt from the formal obligation of talmud Torah (see Kiddushin 29b); it seems inconceivable to require women to recite a birkot ha-mitzva on a commandment from which they are exempt!


            Therefore, it is curious that the Shulchan Arukh (47:14) rules that women recite Birkot Ha-torah.  While some suggest (see Gra and others) that just as women may recite berakhot on mitzvot from which they are exempt (see Tosafot Rosh Ha-shana 33a s.v. Ha and Rema 589:6), they may also recite the Birkot Ha-torah, this cannot explain the ruling of the Mechaber, who rules elsewhere (17:2), in accordance with the Rambam, that women may NOT recite berakhot on mitzvot aseh she-hazeman gerama, time-bound positive commandments, because they are exempt from them.  Consequently, we must find another way to explain the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh.  Seemingly, either women are not really exempt from learning Torah, or Birkot Ha-torah are not really birkot ha-mitzva!


            Some explain that while women may be exempt from the broad obligation of Torah study, there are aspects of learning in which they are obligated.  The Bet Yosef (47), for example, cites the Maharil, the source for his ruling, who mentions that women recite Korbanot daily.  He also notes that women are obligated to learn the halakhot directly relevant to them (see Semak and Sefer Chasidim 131).  In other words, women may still be obligated to recite Birkot Ha-torah despite these blessings being birkot ha-mitzva, even according to the Shulchan Arukh.


            The Griz (Rav Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik), in his Chiddushim on the Rambam's Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16), offers a different interpretation.  He explains that:


"I heard this from my father [Rav Chayim Soloveitchik]: he explained that regarding Birkot Ha-torah, the berakha is not recited on the fulfillment of the mitzva of learning torah, but rather it is an independent idea, THAT THE TORAH ITSELF REQUIRES A BLESSING.  So we learned in the Gemara (Berakhot 21a) from "When I call the name of Lord, ascribe greatness to our God" (Devarim 32:3); if so, this has nothing to do with the mitzva.  Although women may be exempt from the mitzvah of talmud Torah, they are certainly not excluded from the entity of Torah itself!  Their learning is considered talmud Torah, and therefore they should make a berakha, as the berakha has nothing to do with the fulfillment of the mitzva…"


The Griz is clearly suggesting that Birkot Ha-torah are NOT birkot ha-mitzva, but rather, birkot ha-shevach recited upon the very entity, or phenomenon, of Torah.



Next week we will briefly discuss the recitation of Korbanot and then begin our study of Pesukei De-zimra.