The Nature of a Birkhat Ha-Mitzva

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
Berakhot can generally be divided into three distinct categories: birkhot ha-nehenin, birkhot ha-shevach, and birkhot ha-mitzva. A birkhat ha-nehenin is recited upon an item that delivers physical pleasure, and a birkhat ha-shevach is recited upon an experience that triggers an opportunity to praise God. The o essence of a birkhat ha-mitzva, however, is less obvious. What aspect of the mitzva experience is targeted by a birkhat ha-mitzva?
An interesting machloket between the Rambam and Ra’avad may help us determine the target of a birkhat ha-mitzva. In Hilkhot Sukka (6:2), the Rambam rules that a berakha is recited upon performing the mitzva of sukka only when one sits, and not simply when he enters. Even though the performance of the mitzva has commenced upon entry, the berakha is delayed until sitting begins. Evidently, the fulfillment of a mitzva does not generate a chiyuv to recite a berakha until an action, a ma’aseh mitzva, is executed. By contrast, the Ra’avad claims that a berakha is recited immediately upon entry, presumably once the actual kiyum ha-mitzva commences.
Essentially the Rambam and the Ra’avad debate whether a birkhat ha-mitzva is recited upon a kiyum ha-mitzva (which begins immediately) or only upon a ma’aseh mitzva (which in the case of sukka only occurs later, when the person actually sits in the sukka). According to the Rambam, a kiyum ha-mitzva is too abstract to warrant a berakha; only a physical action is concrete enough to anchor a birkhat ha-mitzva.
The reverse case would involve reciting a berakha after the action has been completed but while the kiyum ha-mitzva is still enduring. As is well known, a birkhat ha-mitzva must be recited prior to the mitzva, a principle known as “over le-asiyatan.” Does the over le-asiyatan requirement disqualify a berakha recitation after the mitzva has begun, requiring it to be exclusively prior to the mitzva? Or does this principle merely eliminate post facto berakha recitation, after the mitzva has completely concluded? Many mitzvot culminate and terminate immediately (such as the mitzva of lulav), thus rendering this question irrelevant; if the berakha is not recited immediately, the mitzva will pass and no berakha may be recited. However, some mitzvot – such as tefillin and tzizit – extend over a duration of time after the physical act has concluded. Must the berakha be recited before donning tefillin and tzizit, or may it be recited as long as the person still wears the tefillin and tzizit? This is an interesting debate cited by the Yerushalmi (Berakhot, ch. 9) and discussed by the Rivam and the Ra’avya (siman 691).
Presumably, the debate also surrounds the question of whether the berakha targets the act of the mitzva or the kiyum ha-mitzva. If the berakha targets the act, it must be recited before the act; if it targets the kiyum ha-mitzva, it can be recited as long as the mitzva is still enduring and unfolding – namely, as long as the tefillin or tzizit are still upon the person’s body.
This question as to whether the berakha targets an action or a kiyum is implicit in many of the comments of the Rishonim regarding the reason for the rule of over le-asiyatan. The Rivam and Ra’avya debate whether over le-asiyatan demands a prior recitation of a berakha or merely disqualifies a post facto recitation. However, they do not address the fundamental issue: Why shouldn’t a berakha be recited after the conclusion of the mitzva?
Both the Ramban (Emunah U-Bitachon, ch. 7) as well as the aforementioned Ra’avya compare a birkhat ha-mitzva to a birkhat ha-nehenin. This is an odd association, as a birkhat ha-nehenin is typically viewed as a matir, a halakhic activity that authorizes the use of something previously forbidden (such as shechita, which removes the incumbent prohibition upon meat and allows its consumption as kosher food). All food is the Divine province, and a berakha authorizes human utility. How is a birkhat ha-mitzva comparable to this experience of authorization?
R. Soloveitchik claimed that a birkhat ha-mitzva authorizes us to perform an act of a mitzva. Not only are foodstuffs forbidden for human use prior to an authorizing berakha, but even ritual/mitzva activities are Divine province and cannot be performed without prior authorization through a berakha. This is an extremely provocative concept, but it is indeed implicit in the comments of the Rishonim stated above. Viewed this way, the berakha is recited upon the act of the mitzva and authorizes the performance of that act.
The Ritva (Pesachim 7b) claims that the berakha assists us in generating the proper mindset / kavana, for a more profound performance of the mitzva. Although a person can generate proper kavana without a berakha, undoubtedly the berakha enables a more focused mind-frame for performing the mitzva.
Although this function of the berakha is very different from the previous suggestion, they share one commonality – the berakha targets the action, the ma’aseh mitzva. According to R. Soloveitchik, the berakha authorizes the performance, whereas according to the Ritva, the berakha contributes to a mindset that enriches the performance of the act of the mitzva.
By contrast, the Rosh (Berakhot 9:23) claims that a birkhat ha-mitzva is a birkhat ha-shevach, praising God for the experience of fulfilling His will. The Rosh compares it to a classic birkhat ha-shevach, which is normally recited after an experience (such as hearing thunder). Although a birkhat ha-mitzva is similar to a birkhat ha-shevach, it is recited before the mitzva, in order to praise HKB”H for the opportunity to fulfill His commandments.
This view of birkhot ha-mitzva implies that the berakha is targeting the kiyum ha-mitzva, the fulfillment of the mitzva, and not the ma’aseh mitzva.
It is possible that these two different models of birkhot ha-mitzva pertain to different scenarios. The Ramban (Pesachim 7a) suggests that the conjugation of a birkhat ha-mitzva would differ based on whether the mitzva can be performed by others on one’s behalf. Most mitzvot are considered mitzvot she-bigufo; they cannot be performed by an agent, but must be performed personally. A few mitzvot (most notably mila and bedikat chametz) can be delegated to an agent, however. According to the Rambam, the former category of mitzvot generate a berakha beginning with the letter “lamed” to highlight the personal nature of the mitzva. The latter category, in contrast, generates a berakha with the term “al,” indicating a less direct mitzva.
These differing conjugations of the berakha may reflect different “targets” of the berakha. Personal mitzvot that cannot be delegated to others generate a berakha upon the action, which is personal and non-exportable. This berakha upon the ma’aseh mitzva is conjugated with a “lamed,” which reflects an action. By contrast, mitzvot that can theoretically be executed by agents generate a berakha upon the kiyum and not the action, since the action per se is not incumbent upon the berakha reciter. Since its berakha targets the kiyum ha-mitzva, it is conjugated with the phrase “al,” which is more abstract and can address the fulfillment of the mitzva rather than the action of the mitzva.