The Blessings over the Torah (1)

  • Rav David Brofsky



            One of the first berakhot we recite each morning is birkat ha-Torah – the blessing over the Torah. Chazal, in numerous places, stress the importance of birkat ha-Torah. For example, the gemara (Nedarim 81a) asks,


Why is it unusual for scholars to give birth to sons who are [also] scholars? … Ravina said: Because they neglect to first utter a blessing over the Torah [before they learn].


Rav Yehuda said in Rav's name: What is meant by, 'Who is the wise man, that he may understand this … for what is the land destroyed? (Yirmiyahu 9:11)' Now, this question was put to the Sages, Prophets, and Ministering Angels, but they could not answer it, until the Almighty Himself did so, as it is written, 'And the Lord said, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have NOT OBEYED my voice, NEITHER WALKED therein.' But is not 'have not obeyed my voice' identical with, 'neither walked therein'? — Rav Yehuda said in Rav's name: [It means] that they neglected to first recite a benediction over the Torah…


The commentators ask, is it possible that they really did not recite birkat ha-Torah before learning Torah? The Ran, in his well-known comments on this gemara, explains:


I found in the hidden writings of Rabbenu Yona z"l … they were certainly constantly engaged in Torah, and therefore the scholars and prophets were confused as to why the land was destroyed, until God Himself, who knows the innermost feelings of one's heart, explained that they did not recite the berakhot over the Torah. In other words, the Torah was not important enough to them that it should be worthy of a berakha, as they were not engaged in Torah for the proper reasons and as a result they belittled its berakha. That is what is meant by "they did not walk therein" - in other words, with the proper intention and for its own sake. These are the words of the pious teacher and they are fine and worthy of he who said them…"


This week, I'd like to discuss different aspects of birkat ha-Torah, and some practical ramifications.


Source for Birkat ha-Torah


The gemara (Berakhot 21a) implies that the concept of birkat ha-Torah is of biblical origin (mi-deorayta). The gemara asks,


Where in the Torah do we find birkat ha-Torah? As it says, 'When I proclaim the name of the Lord, ascribe ye greatness to our God…' (Devarim 32:3).


The Ramban, in his comments to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Shikhachat ha-Asin, Mitzva 15), affirms that there is a biblical obligation "to thank God (every time we read the Torah) for the great good he did for us by giving us His Torah…" The Chinukh (Mitzva 130) concurs that this is the ONLY berakha, aside from birkat hamazon, which is mi-deorayta. He further explains that despite the similarity between birkat ha-Torah and birkat hamazon, the timing of these two berakhot is different. Since it is human nature to recognize physical favor only after benefiting, birkat hamazon is recited AFTER eating. Upon Torah, however, which is appreciated by the intelligence, we are enjoined to acknowledge God through reciting these berakhot even before studying. 


However, others disagree. The Megilat Esther, for example, in his commentary on the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Mitzva 15), claims that the Rambam's omission of birkat hatorah from his Sefer ha-Mitzvot strongly implies that the obligation is only rabbinic.


The Mishna Berura (47:1) notes that the Sha'agat Aryeh (R. Aryeh Leib ben R. Asher Gunzberg, 16951785) rules that birkat hatorah are mi-deorayta, and therefore in a case of doubt, one should recite them. We will offer other solutions for situations of doubt later in this shiur.


Content of the Berakhot:


The gemara (Berakhot 11b) asks,


What berakha is said [before the study of the Torah]? — Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shemuel… Asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav LA'ASOK BE-DIVREI TORAH. Rabbi Yochanan used to conclude as follows: 'Make pleasant (ha-arev na)… barukh atah Hashem HA-MELAMED TORAH LE-AMO YISRAEL'.  Rav Hamnuna said: '… ASHER BACHAR BANU (who hast chosen us) from all the nations and given us Thy Torah. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who givest the Torah'.  Rav Hamnuna said: This is the finest of the benedictions. Therefore let us say all of them.


The gemara cites a debate as to the proper berakha recited before studying Torah. According to Shemuel, the formula of a birkat ha-mitzva, concluding with "LA-ASOK BE-DIVREI TORAH" is sufficient. Rabbi Yochanan adds that one should say an addition paragraph, concluding with "HA-MELAMED TORAH LE-AMO YISRAEL". And Rav Hamnuna asserts that the berakha of "ASHER BACHAR BANU" is the finest of the berakhot, as Rashi explains, because it praises the Torah AND the Jewish people. Finally, Rav Hamnuna rules that one should recite ALL of these berakhot.


The Rishonim, however, debate whether Rabbi Yochanan is merely lengthening ShEmuel's berakha, or adding a second berakha. In other words, are there actually TWO, or THREE berakhot?


This debate is reflected by the different versions of this blessing. The Rosh (Berakhot 1:13), for example, writes that there are only two berakhot, and there the middle text begins "VE-ha'erev na" (AND they should be pleasant) implying a continuation. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefila 7:10), on the other hand, lists three separate berakhot, and begins the middle berakha "ha-erev na," implying that it begins a new berakha.


Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Arukh 47:6) rules in accordance both with Rav Hamnuna, who rules that one must say ALL of the berakhot, and with the Rosh, as does the Rema (although he notes that the custom was in accordance with the Rambam). Therefore, one who hears birkat ha-Torah from another person, on Shavuot morning, for example, should NOT answer amen until the conclusion of the entire berakha.


The Nature of These Berakhot


As we discussed in our last shiur, we can generally speak of three types of berakhot:

a) Birkot ha-shevach (blessings of praise, such as those recited on thunder and lightning)

b) Birkot ha-mitzvot (blessings upon mitzva performance, such as tefillin or lulav)  

c) Birkot ha-nehenin (blessings recited before benefiting from this word, such as the berakhot said before eating)


How would we categorize birkat ha-Torah? On the one hand, the first berakha contains the standard formulation of "asher kideshanu" which seems to indicate that it is a birkat ha-mitzva (although "la-asok be-divrei torah," or even "lilmod," as some say, is hardly a defined ritual). On the other hand, the other blessing refers to the greatness of Torah, and Am Yisrael, without mentioning a commandment to learn, which fits better into the birkat ha-shevach category. Finally, the source (Berakhot 21a), as mentioned above ('When I proclaim the name of the Lord, ascribe ye greatness to our God…'[Devarim 32:3]), speaks of a song of praise, and not a simple blessing before performing a mitzva.


Interestingly, the Rambam discusses this berakha in the laws of tefilla (7:10-11), as opposed to merely citing it as the appropriate blessing before learning, in Hilkhot Talmud Torah. From this one might deduce that the Rambam views birkat ha-Torah as a type of general prayer of praise, and not as a birkat ha-mitzva. This understanding may be strengthened by the gemara's suggestion that we learn birkat ha-Torah from birkat ha-mazon.


Yet, there may be ample evidence to suggest that birkat ha-Torah is a type of birkat ha-mitzva, as we'll demonstrate throughout this shiur.


Learning Immediately After Birkat ha-Torah


If we assume that birkat ha-Torah is indeed a birkat ha-mitzva then the same halakhot should apply. Specifically, a birkat ha-mitzva must be followed immediately by performance of the mitzva. By ascertaining whether this principle applies to birkat ha-Torah too, we can try establish the nature of this berakha. We will therefore examine the following two questions:

1) Must one learn immediately following birkat ha-Torah in order to justify or validate the berakha?

2) If one is engaged in other activities and pursuits during the day, must one make a new berakha upon returning to learning?


The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) requires Torah study to immediately follow the berakha in order for it to count as a birkat ha-Torah. [The context there is slightly different, as we will see in next week's shiur, but the principle is the same.]


This led the Tosafot (Berakhot 11b) to cite the following question:


We do not learn after our morning prayers, as we are busy and engaged in other activities until the middle of the day, or even later. Why then do we NOT recite birkat ha-Torah again when we begin to learn?

The Ri responded that we do not rule in accordance with that Yerushalmi, and therefore one need not learn immediately after reciting the berakha

But the French communities are accustomed to say verses of birkat kohanim, and the mishna (Peah 1:1) "eilu devarim" and the beraita (Shabbat 127a) - based on the Yerushalmi.


This piece presents two opinions whether one must learn immediately after reciting birkat ha-Torah. The French communities, as well as the Rambam (hilkhot tefilla 7:11), require that one learn IMMEDIATELY after the berakhot. Accordingly, this would seem to prove that birkat ha-Torah is a birkat ha-mitzva (see also Ramban Berakhot 11a and Rashba Teshuvot 1:47).


Those who disagree, such as the Ri, and the Rosh (Berakhot 1:13) may view birkat ha-Torah as a birkat ha-shevach (see Magen Avraham 47:12), instituted to be recited daily like the other birkot ha-shachar (see last week's shiur). Alternatively, they may still maintain that birkat ha-Torah is a birkat ha-mitzva, but disagree as to the definition of a hefsek (interruption between the berakha and the mitzva). Under certain circumstances, a break or interruption between the berakha and the mitzva might be allowed.




Tosafot (Berakhot 11b), for example, ask why each time one eats in a sukka, he makes a new berakha, whereas the birkat ha-Torah said in the morning suffice for the whole day? They explain that when one is engaged in other activities during the day, "one has never really taken his mind off learning, as every moment he is obligated to learn…"


Similarly, the Rosh (1:13) explains that "people are always engaged in Torah. Even when they go out to their activities they rush back in order to learn and their mind is ALWAYS on their learning and therefore it does not constitute an interruption…"  


Both the Tosafot and the Rosh believe that birkat ha-Torah IS a birkat ha-mitzva, and therefore the notion of hefsek should be relevant, but is not applicable here, due to the unique nature of talmud Torah.


[Obviously those who view birkat ha-Torah as a birkat ha-shevach would not be concerned about hefsek. Rabbenu Tam, for example, cited by the above Tosafot, rules that if one wakes up to learn in the middle of the night, the berakhot recited the previous morning cover his learning, until the next morning.]


Practical Cases of Hefsek


Based on the continuous nature of the obligation to learn Torah, we have seen that the category of hefsek seems not to apply. However, there are instances which would nevertheless constitute a hefsek.


1. The Rosh (Responsa 4:2) writes that one who does not usually resume learning later in the day, SHOULD repeat birkat ha-Torah, if he decides to resume learning. The Magen Avraham (47:9) believes that this may be deduced from the Shulchan Arukh, and is definitely explicit in the Shulchan Arukh HaRav (47:7).


2. Similarly, the Tzelach (Berakhot 11b) suggests that a woman who is exempt from the formal obligation of talmud Torah, might be obligated to recite the berakhot each time they wish to learn, as she generally does not intend to return to her learning. The Tzelach acknowledges, however, that his idea cannot be found in the Rishonim or Acharonim.


3. A similar discussion arises regarding one who is INCAPABLE of learning during the day. For example, must one who enters a bathhouse, or bathroom (where it is prohibited to learn), or one who sleeps during the day, recite birkat ha-Torah when he returns to his learning? In those situations, it is difficult to claim that he was still engaged in, or imminently returning to, his learning.


The Hagahot Maimonoyot (hilkhot tefilla 7:10) cites Rabbenu Simcha, who rules that after entering a bathroom, or sleeping, one MUST repeat birkat ha-Torah. He then cites his teacher, who disagreed, as one still had in mind to return to learning. Accordingly, one should repeat birkat ha-Torah only after a sheinat keva (long sleep) which implies a definite break in consciousness.


Most Rishonim reject the position of Rabbenu Simcha, regarding entering a bathroom or a light sleep. However, many, such as the Rosh (Berakhot 1:13) and the Maharam bar Rav Baruch (as cited in the Teshuvot HaRashba 1:851), rule that after a sheinat keva one MUST indeed recite birkat ha-Torah. Others (see Agur siman 1 and Rabbenu Tam above) argue that even a sheinat keva does not constitute a hefsek and one need NOT repeat birkat ha-Torah.


The Shulchan Arukh (47:11), regarding one who sleeps sheinat keva during the DAY, cites both opinions, and notes that the custom is in accordance with the more lenient opinion. The Acharonim (see Beit Yosef, Peri Chadash 47:25 and Mishna Berura 47:28) explain that one who slept at night and then woke up to learn should certainly recite birkat ha-Torah, against the opinion of Rabbenu Tam, who opined that one recites birkat ha-Torah only once each day.


The Mishna Berura (47:25) questions this ruling, and cites many Acharonim, including the Gra and the Chayye Adam, who insist that one SHOULD recite the berakhot after a sheinat keva. This is especially compelling in light of the Sha'agat Aryeh's  argument (cited by Mishna Berura 47:1) that since most Rishonim view birkat ha-Torah as a mitzva de-orayta, once should repeat at least the second berakha of "asher bachar banu" in a case of doubt. He concludes, based on the Peri Megadim, that one who recites these berakhot "lo hifsid" (does not lose out).


[Incidentally, what is considered a sheinat keva? The Rosh (Berakhot 1:13) describes it merely as one who sleeps on his bed. The Biur Halakha (4:16), regarding what type of nap may warrant an additional netilat yadayim during the day, cites three opinions. He summarizes that some say a sheinat keva is anything more than three to four hours, others argue that it is more than half an hour, and yet others insist that any sleep over three minutes is keva! ]




Aside from those pious individuals who avoid daytime sleep in order to circumvent this halakhic doubt, the common custom is not to repeat birkat ha-Torah after sleeping during the day (and certainly not after returning to one's learning later in the day). Some explain that we view all daytime sleep as a sheinat aray (a short nap). Some propose hirhur ("thinking" of) the berakhot upon waking (Kaf HaChayyim 25). The Mishna Berura (47:13) suggests having in mind during the berakha of ahavat olam of the evening prayer that it should exempt one from birkat ha-Torah (as we shall discuss next week).


Next week, we will continue our study of this question, and we will delve into other aspects of birkat ha-Torah.



[For part 2 of this shiur see here]