Introduction to Berakhot

  • Rav David Brofsky


the laws of THE Berakhot




This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Joseph and Phyllis Eisenman
in honor of Judah L. Eisenman



Shiur #01: Introduction to Berakhot

Rav David Brofsky



This week, we will begin our study of the laws of berakhot. Although the first few lectures will be dedicated to general topics related to the laws of berakhot, our shiurim this year will focus, for the most part, upon the laws of birkot ha-nehenin, and more specifically the blessings recited before eating and drinking.

We will begin with a brief introduction of the laws of berakhot, including the different types of berakhot, the structure of a berakha (the centrality of God’s name and Kingship and the opening and closing of each berakha), and the language, enunciation, and the intention required for each berakha. In addition, we will relate to the possibility of changing and abridging the formula of the berakhot, as well as the addition of new berakhot after the completion of the Talmud.  

We will also dedicate a number of shiurim to certain general principles and rules that govern the recitation of berakhot, including the prohibitions of reciting a berakha le-vatala and a berakha she-eina tzerikha (berakhot recited in vain and unnecessary berakhot), safek berakhot, mistakes in berakhot, and reciting a berakha for another person. Afterwards, we will introduce the category of birkot ha-nehenin. We will then discuss the different berakhot recited over food and drink, including Ha-Motzi, in the context of which we will briefly summarize the laws of netilat yadayim, the washing of one’s hands before eating bread. We will then examine the berakhot of Ha-Gefen, Mezonot, Ha-Etz, Ha-Adama and Shehakol and determine which foods require each berakha. We will address the proper order of berakhot when one eats many foods and how one recites berakhot over mixtures of foods (ikar and tafel). Finally, we will discuss the laws of hesech ha-da’at and shinui makom and their impact upon the laws of berakhot.  

I hope that our study of the laws of berakhot will not only be of great interest and practical import, but will also be spiritually edifying, as the Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) records in the name of R. Yehuda: “He who wishes to be pious should fulfill… matters of berakhot.” 

The Different Categories of Berakhot and Their Source 

R. Shmuel ben Chofni (d. 1034) enumerated seven types of berakhot: blessings on food, drink, smell, appearance, hearing, the performance of mitzvot and feeling. Although experientially his division of blessings may be correct, the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:2) enumerates three halakhic-conceptual categories of berakhot: birkot ha-nehenin, birkot ha-mitzvot and birkot ha-hoda’a.  

The first category, birkot ha-nehenin, are recited before eating, drinking, or smelling. The second category, birkot ha-mitzvot (blessings reciting upon performing a mitzva), are usually characterized by the formula “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav” (“He who has sanctified us by commanding us”) and are recited before the performance of a mitzva, such as tzitzit, tefillin, shofar, arba minim, sukka, matza, netilat yadayim, etc. The third category, birkot ha-hoda’a, are expressions of gratitude and praise to God, which are reciting on numerous occasions, including after eating, after using the bathroom, upon hearing thunder or seeing lightning, etc. Interestingly, while the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 10:1) implies that tefillot are considered to be birkot ha-hoda’a, the Abudraham adds a fourth category: birkot ha-tefillot.  

At times, the Rishonim debate the proper identification of some berakhot. For example, the Rishonim question whether the birkot ha-torah, birkot keri’at shema, and birkat eirusin should be understood as birkot ha-mitzva or birkot ha-hoda’a. Each example carries its own halakhic ramifications.  

The Talmud states that the blessings were instituted by the rabbis of the Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola:  

It has also been stated: R. Chiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola) instituted for Israel blessings, prayers, sanctifications, and havdalot. (Berakhot 33a) 

Although this implies that all the blessings are of Rabbinic origin, the Rishonim note that there may be a few exceptions. First, the Torah (Devarim 8:10) teaches that after eating one should bless God. The Talmud discusses the origins of each of the berakhot of birkat ha-mazon (Berakhot 48b). In addition, some Rishonim (Ramban, Introduction to the Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot; Chinukh 130) maintain that birkot ha-Torah are also of Biblical origin. Second, there may be certain Biblical commandments that are fulfilled through the recitations of a blessing. For example, one fulfills the Biblical obligation of remembering the Sabbath through the recitation of Kiddush. Similarly, the Rambam and others maintain that the Biblical obligation of daily prayer is fulfilled by recited the nineteen blessings of the tefillat Shemone Esrei (Rambam, Mitzvat Asei 5 and Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1). However, all agree that the text of these blessings (aside from Birkat Ha-Mazon) was formulated by the rabbis of the Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola.  

The Structure of a Blessing 

Halakhically speaking, there are four essential components of a blessing:  the opening and ending of “barukh,” the Shem Ha-Shem (name of God), the mention of His kingship, and the specific content of each blessing. As we shall see, if one omits one of these components, one has not fulfilled his obligation and must repeat the blessing.  

Regarding whether a blessing must open or conclude with the “barukh” formula, the gemara teaches: 

It has been taught: All benedictions commence with “barukh” and close with “barukh,” except the blessing over fruits, the blessings said over the performance of precepts, one blessing which joins on to another, and the last blessing alter the recital of the Shema… and the blessing Ha-Tov Ve-Hametiv. (Berakhot 46a) 

The gemara rules that all blessings must begin and end with the “barukh” formula, but with notable exceptions: the “blessings of fruits,” the blessings of mitzvot, when one blessing is recited after another (berakha ha-semukha le-chaverta), the last of the birkot keri’at Shema (Emet Va-Yatziv), and the final blessing of Birkat Ha-Mazon, “Ha-Tov Ve-Hametiv.”           

Regarding the first two exceptions, birkat ha-peirot and birkat ha-mitzvot, the Rishonim disagree as to why they begin but do not conclude with the barukh formula. Tosafot (s.v. kol; see also Pesachim 104b, s.v. kol) simply explain that since these blessings “are short,” there is no need to conclude with “barukh” as well. Rashi (s.v. ke-detanya; see also Pesachim 105a, s.v. hoda’a hi; Ketubot 7b, s.v. midi), however, explains that when a blessing is “entirely one unit of praise, and there is no supplication or another theme which interrupts,” then there is no need to conclude with “barukh.” However, a complex blessing, such as Kiddush, Yotzer Or (the first blessing of the birkot keri’at Shema), or Avot (the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei), must conclude with a blessing. The blessing recited over blossoming fruit trees each spring – “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees to give mankind pleasure” – may be an example of a long blessing that contains only one theme and therefore does not conclude with a blessing.  

            Initially, we might suggest that these differing approaches allude to a much more fundamental question: How are we to understand the Talmudic statement, “All benedictions commence with ‘barukh’ and close with ‘barukh’”? Does the gemara mean that by definition, every long blessing should begin and end with the “barukh” formula? On the one hand, Rashi explains that as long as the blessing is simple and expresses only one theme, only one “barukh” is necessary. Rashi implies, however, that a complex blessing, made of different themes, must both begin and conclude with “barukh.” Tosafot, on the other hand, implies that there is simply no need for a short blessing to begin and end with barukh. However, theoretically, a longer blessing should ideally begin and end with “barukh”. Why? 

            This question lies at the heart of the next “exception” – berakha ha-semukha le-chaverta. The gemara teaches that when one blessing follows another, it need not open with the “barukh” formula. We might suggest two explanations for this principle. 

On the one hand, we might suggest that every long and complex blessing must, by definition, both begin and end with the “barukh” formula. However, when one blessing is adjacent to another, the opening formula of the first blessing may be applied to the second blessing as well. Indeed, Rashi (Pesachim 104b, s.v. yesh) explains that “the first [blessing] which opens with ‘barukh’ exempts [the second]”. In other words, even though this blessing appears not to open with “barukh,” the “barukh” from the previous blessing functions as the opening for the second blessing as well. According to Rashi, a complex blessing inherently MUST begin and conclude with “barukh,” and the “barukh” of the adjacent blessing suffices.  

On the other hand, we might suggest that although there is no inherent objection to a long and complex blessing not opening with the “barukh” formula, and there are indeed examples of such blessings, the Rabbis generally objected to “dangling berakhot” which do not begin with “barukh.” In other words, the Rabbis preferred that blessings be “framed” between two “barukh” formulas. This preference may be merely “cosmetic” or it may also be experiential – the Rabbis insisted that a blessing begin with “barukh” so that the person reciting the blessing will be aware that he is addressing God. Therefore, Tosafot (Pesachim 104b, s.v. chutz) explain that “since the first blessing concludes [with ‘barukh’], there is no need to begin the second [blessing] with ‘barukh.’” Tosafot apparently do not believe that all complex blessings must by definition begin and end with barukh, but they do maintain that blessing must be properly framed between two “barukhs.”  

Are there any differences between these two approaches? Seemingly, these different approaches may impact upon which berakhot may function as opening blessings for adjacent blessings. 

            1. Must the first and second blessing share a common theme? If the “barukh” of the first blessing functions as the opening for the second blessing as well and the two blessings become almost like one long blessing, then one might suggest that the first blessing should share a similar theme with the second. Accordingly, the Ran (Chiddushei Ha-Ran, Pesachim 104b, s.v. u-verakha) explains that the blessings of Kiddush and Havdala all open with “barukh” and the principle of “berakha ha-semucha le-chaverta” is not applied because they are “shenei inyanim,” two different topics. Other Rishonim, who offer different reasons for why the blessings of Kiddush and Havdala open with “barukh,” most likely disagree and maintain that since the need for a blessing to open and conclude with “barukh” is merely cosmetic or experiential, theoretically any blessing may be used.  

            2. Can the first blessing be a berakha ketzara (short blessing)? The Rishonim disagree as to whether a berakha ketzara, such as a birkat ha-mitzva, can serve as the opening for the blessing which follows. If we maintain that all long blessings must fundamentally open and conclude with “barukh,” or that a person should begin a blessing with “barukh” in order to internalize that he is standing before God, then a birkat ha-mitzva may also function as the opening blessing of the adjacent berakha. If, however, an opening blessing fulfills a cosmetic need, in this scenario, it would not be clear whether the second blessing is really a continuation of the first or whether it is a second, independent blessing, and a short blessing therefore would not suffice. For example, in the birkot ha-Torah, it is not clear whether “ve-ha’arev na” is a continuation of the opening blessing (noten ha-Torah), or whether is functions as an independent, second blessing. The Rishonim debate this issue (see, for example, Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafot, Pesachim 104b, s.v. chutz).   

            This question may also relate to a broader issue: Is the requirement to open and conclude with “barukh” only relevant to blessings which were established in order to be recited consecutively or does it apply to all blessings? The Rishonim discuss this issue in the context of the blessing of Sheva Berakhot and Elokai Neshama (see Rashi, Ketuvot 8a, s.v. same’ach tesamach; Tosafot, Berakhot 44a, s.v. kol; and Pesachim 104b, s.v. chutz, etc.) as well as Tefillat Ha-Derekh (see Tur 110, who cites the Maharam Mi-Rotenburg). 

            Next week we will continue our discussion of the structure of berakhott and discuss the place of the Shem Ha-Shem and the mention of God’s kingship in the berakha.