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Parashat Eikev begins with God’s promise of blessing and prosperity in reward for the proper observance of the mitzvot. Rashi, based on the Midrash Tanchuma and other Midrashic sources, comments that the Torah here refers specifically to the “mitzvot kalot” – the “light” mitzvot which people, in Rashi’s words, tend to “tread upon.” The rewards promised here are reserved for those who faithfully observe not only the “major” commands of the Torah, but also those mitzvot which people frequently belittle and fail to strictly fulfill. Chazal here warn against the tendency to feel content with adherence to the fundamental precepts of Torah law, without committing to the seemingly less important details and intricacies. We are not entitled to “tread” upon or neglect any mitzva, as Ben Azzai famously exhorts in Avot (4:2), “Hevei ratz le-mitzva kala” – we must “run after” and pursue even the “mitzvot kalot” whose importance and worth are less intuitively recognized.
While Chazal here warn us against the tendency to focus on the “major” mitzvot and neglect the “minor” commands, their comments are also instructive regarding the opposite tendency which we sometimes witness among those who focus only on specific “mitzvot kalot,” but neglect the “mitzvot chamurot.” Although such an approach is obviously unacceptable, we must nevertheless acknowledge the value of the “mitzvot kalot” which these people observe. As even “mitzvot kalot” are endowed with great significance and worth, the value of the small handful of “easy” mitzvot performed by those who are not generally observant must not be discounted.
Rav Meir Blumenfeld, in his Mishnat Yisrael commentary to Avot, insightfully suggests that this might explain another statement of Ben Azai, which is cited in the very next Mishna. After warning us to pursue even “mitzvot kalot,” Ben Azzai teaches, “Al tehi baz le-khol adam” – “Do not discount any person.” Rav Blumenfeld suggests that Ben Azzai speaks here of those who are generally lax in their mitzva observance but nevertheless cling to certain “mitzvot kalot.” While we must not approve of this religious lifestyle, we must not belittle the mitzvot that such people perform. Sincere, dedicated commitment even to a “mitzva kala” is worthy of admiration and respect, and Ben Azzai therefore warns us not to look disdainfully or dismissively upon people whose religious observance is limited to certain “easy” mitzvot. Since every mitzva is inestimably valuable, we cannot dismiss the importance of even isolated mitzvot performed by another person.
Significantly, Ben Azai focuses on one perspective in instructing us regarding our own conduct, and on the other perspective in relation to how we view others. For ourselves, recognizing the value and significance of every mitzva must propel us to pursue every mitzva and ensure to properly observe even those commands which appear less important than others. It means we cannot complacently pride ourselves for the mitzvot we properly perform if there are others which we do not properly perform. But when it comes to assessing other people, this principle mandates that we respect and recognize the importance of even the seemingly small and simple acts of goodness which they perform. Whereas for ourselves we must be demanding and unrelenting in the pursuit of perfection, when it comes to other people we are to respect even modest achievements and admire each and every mitzva they uphold.
The Midrash (Devarim Rabba, 3), commenting on the first verse of Parashat Eikev, discusses the halakhic issue of “menorah shel perakim” – a menorah which one assembles by attaching its various components. Assembling such a menorah on Shabbat, the Midrash comments, constitutes a violation of the Torah prohibition of boneh (constructing). Despite the fact that one merely attaches a few pieces to one another, without exerting much effort, he is nevertheless guilty of a Torah violation.
Many darshanim have sought to identify the relevance of this halakha to the opening verses of Parashat Eikev, in which the Torah promises great blessing in reward for observing the mitzvot. Some have suggested that the law of “menorah shel perakim” reflects the perspective that a product is far more than the combination of its various parts. The menorah shel perakim is not merely an assemblage of its components; it is something completely and fundamentally different from any individual part, and thus constructing it constitutes boneh. In the context of the Torah’s promise of reward for mitzva observance, this message is conveyed to remind us of the importance of collective commitment to mitzvot. We must not feel content with observing the Torah’s commands as individuals, and must rather strive to serve God together as a nation. When Am Yisrael serves the Almighty all together, the result is far greater than the sum total of each person’s efforts. Collective avodat Hashem is something fundamentally different from individual avodat Hashem, much as a “menorah shel perakim” is something far more than an assemblage of parts. As such, in addition to striving for our own, personal spiritual perfection, we must try to inspire others so we can serve God together collectively as a nation.
There is, perhaps, an additional message conveyed through the analogy of the “menorah shel perakim.” Namely, Torah observance is far more than the sum total of the Torah’s numerous laws. We must approach Torah life as not merely an “assemblage” of do’s and don’ts to which we strive to adhere, but rather as an overall lifestyle. Our strict observance of all the particular laws should result in a final “product” – a personality and lifestyle characterized by nobility, integrity, faith, and spiritual focus. Like a “menorah shel perakim,” religious life consists of numerous “components,” but is, ultimately, something greater than the sum total of the various parts, as it must lend our characters and our lives an overall unique quality and flavor.
The Torah in Parashat Eikev introduces the mitzva of birkat ha-mazon – blessing God after eating: “You will eat and be satiated, and you shall [then] bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you” (8:10).
Birkat ha-mazon is unique in that its recitation is required by force of Torah law, as opposed to other berakhot, which are required only by force of Rabbinic enactment. (The only other possible exception is birkat ha-Torah, which the Ramban famously regards as a Biblical obligation.) This unique stature manifests itself in the case of safeik – when one is uncertain whether he had recited birkat ha-mazon. The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 209), based on the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 2:14), rules that in light of the unique stature of birkat ha-mazon, one must recite birkat ha-mazon in such a case to ensure he fulfills his obligation. When it comes to other berakhot, one is not required to recite a berakha in situations of halakhic uncertainty, as the obligation to begin with is only mi-de’rabbanan (instituted by the Sages). Birkat ha-mazon, however, is a Biblical requirement, and therefore it must be recited even if one is unsure whether he is still obligated or has discharged his obligation. Although it is forbidden to recite an unwarranted berakha, and reciting birkat ha-mazon in a situation of uncertainty runs the risk of transgressing this prohibition, this must be done for the sake of ensuring that the Biblical requirement is satisfied.
A number of Acharonim raised the question of why we do not employ in this situation the solution of “hirhur” – thinking the words in one’s mind. The Gemara (Berakhot 20b) cites different views as to whether silently thinking words of a text can qualify as a legitimate recitation to fulfill a halakhic obligation. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:7) sides with the view that “hirhur ke-dibur” – thinking the words in one’s mind indeed suffices as a recitation. Why, then, does the Rambam require reciting birkat ha-mazon in situations of uncertainty? Seemingly, it would be preferable to employ the mechanism of “hirhur ke-dibur,” whereby one can fulfill his obligation without actually reciting the text, and thus without running the risk of reciting berakhot in vain.
The Ketav Sofer, in one of his responsa (O.C. 28), suggests that perhaps one violates the prohibition of berakha le-vatala (reciting a berakha in vain) even by “reciting” an unnecessary berakha through “hirhur” – in his mind, without saying the words. Just as – according to the Rambam – “hirhur” suffices to fulfill the requirement to recite a text because it is equivalent to verbalizing the words, it might also suffice to transgress the prohibition of “berakha le-vatala,” for the same reason. Perhaps, the Ketav Sofer writes, this is why the Rambam did not see “hirhur” as a solution in situations of uncertainty.
It should be noted, however, that many Acharonim did not accept such a notion, and maintained that even according to the view that “hirhur ke-dibur,” thinking the words of an unnecessary berakha does not violate the prohibition of “berakha le-vatala.” These include the Chida, in Birkei Yosef (O.C. 62), Peri Megadim (Eishel Avraham, 185:1), and Rabbi Akiva Eiger (notes to Shulchan Arukh, 185:4). Indeed, it is generally accepted that when a person is uncertain whether he must recite a berakha, he should think the words in his mind so he can at least ensure to fulfill the obligation according to the Rambam’s position. This recommendation clearly works off the assumption that thinking an unnecessary berakha in one’s mind does not violate the prohibition of “berakha le-vatala.” We are therefore left with our original question of why the Rambam did not require thinking birkat ha-mazon in one’s mind in situations of uncertainty, and ruled instead that one must actually recite the text.
Tomorrow we will iy”H explore a possible answer to this question.
Yesterday, we addressed the situation of one who is uncertain whether he recited birkat ha-mazon. Halakha requires one to recite birkat ha-mazon in such a case, because birkat ha-mazon constitutes a Torah obligation, and when it comes to Torah obligations we must act stringently in cases of uncertainty. Some Acharonim, however, wondered why the Rambam codifies this ruling, in light of his ruling elsewhere (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:7) that “hirhur ke-dibur” – one can fulfill a halakhic obligation by thinking a required text in his mind, even without verbalizing the words. Seemingly, this would be a preferable solution in situations of uncertainty, as one can thereby ensure to fulfill his requirement without running the risk of reciting berakhot in vain.
Rav Chaim Leib Eisenstein, in his Peninim Mi-bei Midresha, suggests an answer by reexamining the nature of the well-known halakha of “safeik de-orayta le-chumra” – that we must act stringently in situations of uncertainty pertaining to a Torah law. The simplest way of understanding this law is that given the severity of Biblical obligations, in situations of uncertainty we need to address the possibility that the requirement remains unfulfilled. According to this understanding, Halakha does not allow us to ignore this risk, and we must ensure to meet our obligation. However, as Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg discusses in his Mishmeret Chayim (vol. 1, Inyanei Berakhot, 11), there is another, less intuitive, way of understanding this halakha. Namely, perhaps Halakha establishes a definitive obligation in situations of uncertainty. Rather than a requirement to avoid the risk of neglecting a Torah obligation, the law of “safeik de-orayta le-chumra” introduces a new, clear-cut obligation to perform the act in question. Rav Scheinberg advances this theory to explain why, according to the Rambam, one must recite birkat ha-mazon in situations of uncertainty even though he then runs the risk of reciting berakhot in vain. Some Acharonim understood the Rambam’s comments elsewhere as suggesting that reciting a berakha in vain constitutes a Torah violation. We might have asked, then, why should one run the risk of violating this prohibition for the sake of ensuring to avoid the risk of neglecting the mitzva of birkat ha-mazon? Why does the risk of an unfulfilled mitzva override the risk of a Torah violation? Rav Scheinberg suggested that since Halakha imposes upon the person in this case a definitive obligation to recite birkat ha-mazon, he does not run the risk of reciting the berakhot in vain. He recites birkat ha-mazon not to avoid the risk of neglecting this mitzva, but rather in fulfillment of a definitive halakhic obligation.
Rav Eisenstein notes that this theory also explains why a person in a situation of uncertainty must recite birkat ha-mazon and should not just think the words in his mind. Once the law of “safeik de-orayta le-chumra” imposes a definitive requirement to recite birkat ha-mazon, there is no longer any risk of reciting the berakhot in vain. Therefore, there is no need to resort to the solution of “hirhur ke-dibur.” (Rav Eisenstein cites in this context the vague comments of the Tzelach in Masekhet Berakhot 21a, which appear to give this answer.)
The Torah in Parashat Eikev introduces the obligation of birkat ha-mazon by commanding, “You shall eat and be satiated – and you shall then bless the Lord your God” (8:10). The Torah obligation of birkat ha-mazon takes effect when one feels “satiated,” and not anytime he eats. And thus, although the consumption of a ke-zayit (the volume of an olive) constitutes a halakhic act of “eating,” it does not suffice for the Torah obligation of birkat ha-mazon. Chazal enacted a requirement to recite birkat ha-mazon even after eating just a ke-zayit, but the Torah obligation depends upon the experience of satiation.
In light of the fact that the Torah obligation does not depend upon the standard halakhic obligation of “eating,” the halakhic authorities address the question of whether this obligation is subject to the standard rule of “ke-zayit bi-khdei akhilat peras.” The standard halakhic definition of “eating” hinges not only on the quantity of food consumed, but also on the time frame. Namely, it requires eating a ke-zayit within the period of “akilat peras,” which most halakhic authorities have defined as either four or nine minutes. The question arises as to whether the quantity of “satiation” must be eaten within this time frame for the Torah obligation of birkat ha-mazon to take effect. Seemingly, once it’s been determined that birkat ha-mazon is not contingent upon the halakhic parameters of “akhila” (eating), there should be no such requirement. Indeed, the Kenesset Ha-gedola (cited by the Magen Avraham, 210:1) maintains that the Torah obligation applies even if one does not eat the requisite amount within the period of “akhilat peras.” One who eats to satiation bears a Biblical obligation to recite birkat ha-mazon regardless of how long it took him to eat this quantity.
The Magen Avraham, however, disagrees, and requires that the food be eaten within the period of “akhilat peras” for the obligation to take effect. It is unclear, however, how far the Magen Avraham goes in disputing the Keneset Ha-gedola’s ruling. The Mishna Berura (210:1) understood the Magen Avraham to mean that “akhilat peras” is never a factor with respect to the birkat ha-mazon obligation. The Peri Megadim (Eishel Avraham, 210:1), however, draws an interesting distinction – between the Torah obligation of birkat ha-mazon, and the Rabbinic requirement. As mentioned, the Torah obligation takes effect only if one eats the amount of satiation, whereas Chazal enacted a requirement to recite birkat ha-mazon even after eating just a ke-zayit. According to the Peri Megadim, the Magen Avraham concedes that if a person ate only a ke-zayit, he is required to recite birkat ha-mazon only if he ate the ke-zayit within the period of “akhilat peras.” Once Chazal required reciting birkat ha-mazon after eating just a ke-zayit, this requirement indeed depends on the halakhic definition of eating, and thus it takes effect only if one eats a ke-zayit within the period of “akhilat peras.”
Another intriguing question arises in a situation where one eats a ke-zayit within the period of “akhilat peras” and then continues eating after this period until he achieves satiation. The Mishna Berura writes that the person in this case bears a Torah obligation of birkat ha-mazon, since he has satisfied both conditions: he performed a halakhic act of akhila by eating a ke-zayit within the requisite time frame, and has also achieved satiation. The Minchat Chinukh (430), however, questions this point. He raises the possibility that the halakhic “akhila” and the satiation must occur simultaneously, meaning, one must eat the amount of satiation within a period of “akhilat peras.” Whereas the Mishna Berura maintained that the obligation takes effect even if one performed a halakhic act of “akhila” followed by the experience of satiation, the Minchat Chinukh considered the possibility that the experience of satiation must occur through a halakhic act of “akhila” in order for the Torah obligation to take effect.
(Based on Rav Asher Weiss’ Minchat Asher, Parashat Eikev)
The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (48b) notes that the text of birkat ha-mazon consists of four distinct berakhot, only the first three of which are required on the level of Torah obligation (“Ha-zan,” “Nodeh Lekha,” and “Rachem”). The fourth berakha, that of “Ha-tov Ve-ha’meitiv,” was instituted by the Sages following the fall of Beitar, after the Romans allowed the Jews to bring the victims of the massacre to burial.
The fourth berakha of birkat ha-mazon presents a unique situation where a Rabbinic requirement is treated with the severity of a Biblical obligation. The Magen Avraham (O.C. 184) rules that in a case of safeik, where one is unsure whether he had recited birkat ha-mazon, he must recite all four berakhot of the text. Intuitively, we would have required a person in such a case to recite only the first three berakhot, which are obligatory on the level of Torah law. Since we are generally lenient with regard to Rabbinic requirements in situations of safeik, we would have assumed that the fourth berakha is not recited in this case. The Magen Avraham, however, rules that once one must recite the first three berakhot, he must recite the fourth, as well, for otherwise he might belittle the importance of this fourth berakha. Although the Ramban (Shabbat 23) writes that one does not repeat the fourth berakha of birkat ha-mazon in situations of uncertainty, the Magen Avraham – and many later halakhic authorities – disagree, and require reciting all four berakhot in cases of safeik.
A similar issue arises in the case of one who is uncertain whether he recited birkat ha-Torah, which is also commonly assumed to constitute a Torah obligation. The Sha’agat Aryeh (25) writes that since the Torah obligation requires reciting only a single berakha, a person who is uncertain whether he fulfilled the obligation should recite only one of the two berakhot that comprise birkat ha-Torah. Specifically, he writes, one recites the berakha of “asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim,” and not the berakha of “la-asok be-divrei Torah,” as “asher bachar banu” is the primary portion of birkat ha-Torah.
The question naturally arises as to the distinction between birkat ha-Torah and birkat ha-mazon in this regard. Why does one recite the fourth berakha of birkat ha-mazon in situations of safeik, but not (according to the Sha’agat Aryeh) the first berakha of birkat ha-Torah?
Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, in his Eretz Tzvi (19), suggests an answer by noting the reason why we recite two different berakhot for birkat ha-Torah. The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (11b) cites different opinions as to which text should be recited for birkat ha-Torah, and it concludes that in light of the different opinions, we should recite all of the proposed texts. It clearly emerges from the Gemara that fundamentally, we only need to recite a single berakha for birkat ha-Torah, and it is only to satisfy the various different views that we recite two berakhot. This is not the case regarding birkat ha-mazon, with respect to which Chazal introduced a clear-cut obligation to recite a fourth berakha. Hence, whereas the fourth berakha of birkat ha-mazon is treated as an integral part of birkat ha-mazon – and thus as a Torah obligation – the additional berakha of birkat ha-Torah is not regarded with the same level of severity.
The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (31a) comments, “Wherever you find the power of the Almighty, there you find His humility.” As the Gemara proceeds to demonstrate, there are three contexts in Tanakh in which God’s unparalleled might is extolled and then His kindness and compassion are noted. One of the three examples cited by the Gemara is a pair of verses in Parashat Eikev (10:17), in which Moshe tells Benei Yisrael, “For the Lord your God is the God of gods…the great, mighty and awesome God…who brings justice to the orphan and widow.” As the Torah extols God unlimited might and power, it likewise extols His “humility,” how He concerns Himself with the plight of the underprivileged and the oppressed. (This Talmudic passage is included in the text of “Va-yitein Lekha” which many people are accustomed to reciting on Motza’ei Shabbat.)
It would seem that Chazal here seek to convey the message that talents are to be used for the benefit of others, and not for one’s own self-aggrandizing interests. God uses His might and power to come to the aid of the orphans and widows, to care for the needy and protect the vulnerable. Rather than “enjoy” His stature of greatness and simply asking that we give Him praise and honor, God channels His greatness towards meeting the vital needs of even the lowliest and most downtrodden people. The message for us is to view all our skills and achievements as tools for helping others rather than merely as sources of pride and gratification. Just as God uses His might to “bring justice to the orphan and widow,” to lend desperately-needed assistance to the underprivileged, we, too, must use all our “power” – our skills, talents, energy and resources – not to advance our own personal interests, but to help others and have as significant a positive impact upon the world as we can.