Shiur #01: Birkot Ha-nehenin: Halakhic and Philosophical Underpinnings

  • Rav Yair Kahn

Translated by David Silverberg

Sources and questions for shiur #01 of gemara Berakhot.



1)   35a – "Keitzad mevarkhin… la-avihem she-ba-shamayim"; 48b – "Tanu Rabanan minayin le-birkat ha-mazon min ha-Torah…achrei khein yokhelu ha-kru'im."

2)   20b – "Ba'al keri…u-le-achareihem"; 21a – "Amar Rav Yehuda…tiyuvta."

3)   Tosefot, 35a s.v. lifnei, ela; Rashba, 48b s.v. ha de-afligu; Penei Yehoshua, 35a s.v. b-gemara ela sevara.

4)   12a – "Peshita…chatima azlinan," Tosefot s.v. lo le-atuyei [until "pa'am acheret"].

5)   50b – "Amar Rav Yehuda…idchi," Rashba s.v. ve-ha-tanya.




1)   Do the derashot through which we derive the obligation of birkot ha-nehenin actually provide a Biblical basis for this obligation, or do they constitute merely an asmakhta – a Biblical allusion to a rabbinic obligation?

2)   According to the conclusion of our sugya, that the birkot ha-nehenin obligation stems from a sevara (logical inference), rather than from a Scriptural source, is it a Torah or rabbinic obligation?

3)   What is the halakha in a situation where one is unsure whether he must recite a berakha?

4)   What should one do if he forgot to recite the berakha before he ate – should he recite the berakha even though he finished eating, or not recite a berakha at all?



1.   Biblical or Rabbinic Obligation?


Our Mishna begins by delineating the various types of birkot ha-nehenin (berakhot recited over certain forms of physical enjoyment).  Before we deal with these berakhot themselves, we will discuss the fundamental underpinnings of birkot ha-nehenin generally.  As we will see, these underpinnings may be introduced based on the Gemara's discussion at the beginning of this chapter regarding the source of birkot ha-nehenin.


     The Gemara brings a number of suggestions as to the origin of birkot ha-nehenin.  Our sugya begins with an attempt at deducing this obligation from a verse concerning neta revai (fruit grown during a tree's fourth year, which must be brought to and eaten in Jerusalem): "For the Rabbis taught: 'kodesh hilulim le-Hashem' [literally, 'sacred for giving praises to the Lord'] – this teaches that they require a berakha both before and after [eating].  On this basis Rabbi Akiva said, it is forbidden for a person to taste anything before reciting a berakha."  (See also Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim 3:9.)  Then, the Gemara suggests deducing birkot ha-nehenin through the deductive reasoning of a kal va-chomer: "When one is satiated he blesses – all the more so when he is hungry."  Finally, the Gemara concludes that logic itself dictates this obligation: "Rather, logic dictates that it is forbidden for a person to derive benefit from this world without a berakha."


     On the surface, our sugya maintains that birkot ha-nehenin are required as a Torah obligation.  This is also the implication of the sugya later (48b), which brings additional derashot to establish the obligation of birkot ha-nehenin.  However, all this stands in direct opposition to an earlier sugya, in the third chapter, regarding a ba'al keri  - one who experienced a semenal emission, who, in Talmudic times, was forbidden by force of Ezra's enactment from prayer and Torah study.  The Mishna (20b) forbids a ba'al keri from reciting the berakhot before and after keri'at shema, and from reciting berakhot before partaking of food; he does, however, recite birkat ha-mazon after eating.  The Gemara (21a) comments, "Rabbi Yochanan said: We learned…[the obligation to recite] a blessing before [eating] food through a kal va-chomer from the blessing over Torah… If Torah, which does not require [a berakha] afterward, requires [a berakha] beforehand, then food, which requires afterward, certainly requires before it."  The Gemara proceeds to dismiss this argument by noting that Torah brings one chayei olam – eternal life, and thus its requirements of berakhot cannot necessarily be applied to food, which provides only temporary sustenance.  Secondly, the Gemara notes, the Mishna's ruling, forbidding a ba'al keri from reciting berakhot before eating, clearly indicates that this requirement is rabbinic in origin.  Otherwise, it could not be superseded by Ezra's enactment forbidding a ba'al keri from reciting berakhot.


     This sugya, then, appears to explicitly portray birkot ha-nehenin as a rabbinically mandated obligation, seemingly in direct contradistinction to our sugya in the sixth chapter.


     To resolve this apparent contradiction, some Rishonim viewed the derashot recorded in our sugya as merely asmakhtot – allusions in the text for a rabbinic enactment, rather than an actual Biblical source.  This is the explanation offered by Tosefot (35a s.v. lefanav): "This is not [truly] a kal va-chomer, for if so, [reciting] a berakha before [eating] would originate from the Torah, and earlier (21a)…with regard to a ba'al keri, it appears that it is does not originate from the Torah."  (See also Tosefot s.v. ela; the Ritva writes this, as well, regarding the derashot recorded on 48b.)


     The Rashba (48b s.v. ha de-afligu), by contrast, held that the origin of birkot ha-nehenin is subject to a debate among the Tanna'im: "That which the Tanna'im debate here as to from where [we derive] the berakha before eating bread, and they all maintain that it is [mandated] from the Torah – we follow none of them.  Rather, the berakha before [eating] originates from the Rabbis, like the view in the Mishna…regarding a ba'al keri – 'over food he recites a berakha afterward, but not beforehand,' meaning, because [the berakha]afterward is from the Torah, and [the berakha] beforehand is not from the Torah."  Although the Rashba argues with the other Rishonim in explaining our sugya, he concedes that according to the accepted Halakha, birkot ha-nehenin are only mi-de-rabanan.


     The Penei Yehoshua questions this position in light of the conclusion of our sugya, which bases the birkot ha-nehenin obligation on sheer logic.  He writes, "It appears from the writings of all the poskim that according to this conclusion here, every birkat ha-nehenin is mi-de-rabanan… In my humble opinion, this seems very difficult, for throughout the Talmud it seems that anything derived through logic is from the Torah.  In fact, the Talmud [often] asks, 'Why do I need a verse – it can be deduced logically!'."  Meaning, a halakha derived through logical deduction has the status of a Torah obligation.  Indeed, we find that according to Talmidei Rabbenu Yona (25a in the Rif, s.v. mai takantei), one who derives benefit without reciting a berakha must bring a korban me'ila (the sacrifice required when one inadvertently derives benefit from an item of hekdesh).  Clearly, this view considers birkot ha-nehenin a Torah obligation.


     This question as to whether birkot ha-nehenin originates from the Torah or from rabbinic enactment will yield ramifications in a situation of safeik berakha – when one is unsure as to whether he must recite a berakha.  We generally assume that in cases of doubt, we must act stringently with regard to Torah obligations (safeik de-orayta le-chumra), while when it comes to rabbinic law, we may rely on the lenient possibility (safeik de-rabanan le-kula).  What, indeed, is the halakha when there arises a situation of doubt concerning an obligation to recite a birkat ha-nehenin?  The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 2:14) writes that if one is unsure as to whether or not he recited birkat ha-mazon, he must recite it, whereas with regard to birkot ha-nehenin, he writes (ibid. 8:12) that since their source is the words of sages, one should not recite them in situations of doubt.  This ruling runs consistent with the Rambam's introduction to Hilkhot Berakhot: "There is a mitzvat asei from the Torah to bless after eating food, as it says, 'You shall eat and be satiated, and you shall bless'…and from the words of the Sages to bless over every food beforehand and only then partake of it… It is similarly [required] from the words of the Sages to bless after everything one eats and everything one drinks, provided that he drinks a revi'it or eats a ke-zayit."  This is indeed the predominant view among the Rishonim and later authorities.


     By contrast, Tosefot cite the position of the Ri, who rules stringently regarding cases of safeik berakhot (see 12a s.v. lo le-atuyei), perhaps indicating that the Ri perceived birkot ha-nehenin as a Torah obligation.  (However, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his Gilyon Ha-Shas, suggests a different approach to explaining the Ri's position.)


2.   Defining the Berakha


As mentioned, according to the conclusion of our sugya, the obligation of birkot ha-nehenin is based upon the logical assumption that one may not partake of this world without first reciting a berakha.  From this logical reasoning we may also derive the nature of birkat ha-nehenin, as a matir – something that renders permissible that which was previously forbidden.  Before one recites a berakha, he may not partake of the food, regardless of whether we speak in terms of me'ila (deriving benefit from hekdesh) or of plain theft.  The berakha serves to permit the food for consumption, through a process similar to the "redemption" of hekdesh property or as a sort of acquisition, allowing the individual to partake of this world.


     At the beginning of our sugya, by contrast, it appears that birkat ha-nehenin classifies as a type of birkat ha-shevach – a blessing of praise.  Recall that Rabbi Akiva enlisted the verse, "kodesh hilulim" as the source for the obligation to recite a berakha before and after eating, clearly indicating that we deal – at this stage – with praise.  Moreover, Rabbi Akiva's derasha points to a connection between the berakhot recited before and after eating, and clearly the berakha recited after eating cannot possibly be defined as a matir, but rather as an expression of praise.  By extension, then, the berakha recited before eating likewise cannot – in Rabbi Akiva's view – be seen as a matir.  We may infer this perspective also from the kal va-chomer proposed by the Gemara: "When one is satiated he blesses – all the more so when he is hungry."  If the berakha before eating constitutes a matir, it certainly cannot be derived on the basis of the berakha recited after eating, which does not belong to this category at all.  And even after we establish the requirement of a berakha before eating by force of this kal va-chomer, it must resemble the berakha recited after eating, on which it is based.


     Consider a situation of one who forgot to recite a berakha before eating.  Does he recite the berakha after he eats?  The Gemara addresses this question in the seventh chapter (51a): "They asked Rav Chisda: One who ate and drink without reciting a berakha – should he go ahead and recite the berakha?  He said to them: One who ate garlic and his breath emits an odor – should he then eat more garlic so that his breath emits an odor?  Ravina said: Therefore, even if he completed his meal, he should go and recite the berakha, as it is stated in a berayta: If one immersed and emerged [from the mikva], he says when he emerges, 'Barukh…asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu al ha-tveila.'  [The Gemara responds:] But this is incorrect.  There, the individual was originally unfit [for reciting the berakha]; here, the individual was originally fit, and once he was cast away [from the berakha], he is cast away [and can no longer recite the berakha]."  According to Ravina, one must recite the berakha he had forgotten even if he already completed his meal, but the Gemara dismisses his view.  Seemingly, this sugya establishes that a birkat ha-nehenin has no place after one has finished eating.  Yet, the Rashba (50b s.v. ve-ha-tanya) cites the view of the Ra'avad who accepts Ravina's position.  Clearly, the Ra'avad did not view birkat ha-nehenin as only a matir; after all, there is no need to permit food for consumption after one has already eaten.  Necessarily, then, it entails a dimension of praise as well.


3.   The Religious Significance of Berakhot


Probing a bit deeper, it would seem that a berakha functions as a matir insofar as it expresses the awareness that "the earth and all that it contains belong to the Lord" (Tehillim 24:1).  Reciting a berakha before eating essentially amounts to a declaration of kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim – accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven.  Only after a person acknowledges that the Almighty is the Master of the world does God allow him to partake of that world, in the spirit of, "the earth – he gave to human beings."


     In this context, it is worth addressing the placement of Masekhet Berakhot within the Mishnaic order of Zeraim.  This seder deals mainly with the laws and mitzvot related to agricultural work and produce.  And yet, astonishingly enough, it begins specifically with Masekhet Berakhot.  At first glance, this masekhet, which deals with the laws of shema, prayer and berakhot, bears no connection whatsoever to the rest of Seder Zeraim.  The commentaries suggest various explanations regarding this issue.  But in light of what we have seen, there indeed exists a clear, substantive connection between Masekhet Berakhot and Seder Zeraim.


     Orla fruits – the fruits that grow during a tree's first three years, from which the Torah proscribes deriving benefit –express the theme, that one may not derive benefit from the world without recognizing that "the earth and all that it contains belong to the Lord."  The same can be said regarding the laws of teruma and ma'aser: the produce is initially forbidden for consumption, until the owner separates the required terumot and ma'aserot.  The concept of separating terumot and ma'aserot is similarly based upon the recognition that everything originates from the Almighty.  Although practically speaking teruma is given to the kohen, in truth, the teruma is given to God.  The Torah indeed writes with regard to teruma, "All the best of oil, wine and grain – the first parts, which they present to the Lord, I give to you" (Bamidbar 18:12).  Clearly, the underlying concept of separating teruma is giving a portion to God.  The Torah likewise comments regarding bikkurim, "The first of all that is in their land that they bring to the Lord – is yours" (ibid. 13).  Ma'aser, too, which is given to the Levi'im, essentially constitutes a gift to the Almighty – "For the tithes of the Israelites that they set aside for the Lord as a gift to the Lord – I gave to the Levi'im as their portion" (ibid. 24).  There is yet another category of ma'aserma'aser ani, the tithe distributed to the poor.  I heard from my esteemed teacher, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, that this tithe, too, stems from the fact that the Almighty is Master over everything.  Gifts to the poor therefore involve not only compassion and assistance to the poor, but an obligation to separate a special tithe for them, and leave them certain portions of one's produce (leket, shikhecha and pei'a).


     Thus, we find several ways in which a landowner expresses the notion that all his produce has been given to him from God.  Only after he separates terumot and ma'aserot to God, with a keen awareness that "the earth and all that it contains belong to the Lord," is it permitted for him to use the produce as if it belongs to him, in the spirit of "the earth – he gave to human beings."


     This notion finds expression in other contexts in Seder Zeraim, as well.  For example, the prohibition of kil'ayim (combining multiple species) is rooted in the awareness that God created the world, as the Ramban writes (Vayikra 19:19): "The reason for kil'ayim is that Hashem created [different] species in the world… and prescribed through their power that they produce their own species and never deviate, as it says regarding all of them, 'according to its species'… So one who grafts two [different] species changes and negates creation, as if he thinks that the Almighty did not sufficiently complete His world and he seeks to assist in His creation of the world, to add more creatures… And this is the reason for, 'you shall not plant your field with two kinds' – which, according to our Sages (Kiddushin 39) refers to grafting.  And [the Torah] forbade [sowing] different species of seeds, as well, because they will [thereby] change in nature and form as they absorb from one another, such that each kernel will be as if it has been formed from two species."

     The laws of shemitta, too, forbid tilling the land during the seventh year, demanding that we instead rely only on God.  Thus, shemitta serves as a poignant expression to the fact that everything originates from God, as the Torah writes in the section dealing with shemitta and yovel, "for the land is Mine" (Vayikra 25:23).  It is therefore forbidden for a landowner to keep his fruits only for himself, and he must rather open his field to all to come and equally partake of its yield – "on the seventh you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, so that the poor of your nation may eat" (Shemot 23:11).


4.   Kodesh Hilulim Le-Hashem


We might, however, discover yet another aspect of the function of birkot ha-nehenin from the derivation of this obligation from neta revai.  While the orla prohibitions clearly express the notion that "the earth and all that it contains belong to the Lord," on the fourth year, this declaration of faith itself does not suffice.  We are rather obliged to bring the fourth year's produce, which the Torah describes as "sacred for giving praises to the Lord," and eat the fruit in Jerusalem.  In order to understand the spiritual meaning underlying these laws, we must first understand that a berakha functioning as a matir indeed allows one to perform the act of eating, but despite the critical importance of the awareness that the food is given to us by God, it cannot bring about any actual change in the act of eating itself.  Eating is an act that every creature must perform in order to survive; it is but an animalistic process conducted by the human body, regarding which we might say, "u-motar ha-adam min ha-beheima ayin" (man is not superior to the animal).  Despite the religious cognizance regarding our rights to the food, the act of eating is and remains a purely physical act.


     On the fourth year, we do not redeem the sacred fruits to extricate them from their status of sanctity.  Instead, we are required to bring them to Jerusalem and eat them amidst praise and thanksgiving as an act of avodat Hashem.  In this manner, the act of eating itself undergoes a fundamental transformation.  It is no longer a bodily action that characterizes all living creatures; suddenly, the act of eating becomes a hallowed performance of avodat Hashem.


     The same can be said about berakhot.  By reciting birkot ha-nehenin before and after eating, the eating itself assumes a religious dimension.  Despite its being a necessary act for the survival of all living things, an act of eating accompanied by the praise of a berakha sets the human being apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.  The berakha transforms the food into kodesh hilulim and defines one's meal as a distinctly human and religious event.


     We have already seen that many of the laws of Seder Zeraim are founded upon the cognizance of the Almighty's authority and thereby correspond to birkot ha-nehenin in terms of its function as a matir.  There are other halakhot, however, that correspond to neta revai and are based upon the sanctification of the act of eating and its transformation into a form of avodat Hashem.  Such is the case regarding ma'aser sheni and bikkurim, and perhaps also teruma and shemitta fruits, whose consumption constitutes a mitzva.


     In summary, we have seen that Seder Zeraim, with which the Mishna begins, deals not with avodat ha-adama (work of the land), but rather with avodat Hashem – the service of the Creator.  Hashem granted us Eretz Yisrael and gave us the land, but only on condition that we accept the yoke of divine kingship and attribute everything to Him.  In addition, we are bidden to transform the physical act of partaking of the land's produce into an act of divine service.  These concepts run through the entirety of Masekhet Berakhot, and through them, the question regarding the placement of Masekhet Berakhot in Seder Zeraim is easily resolved.



Sources and questions for shiur #2:


1)  35b – "Gufaba'ei berukhi."

2)  44b – "Ve-ha-shoteh mayim le-tzim'o… umtza."

3)  Rashi, 36a,  s.v. de-it lei hana'a; Tosefot, s.v. keivan.

4)  Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 8:2.

5)  38a – "Shatita… ba'ei berukhi"; Tosefot, s.v. ve-ha ditnan; Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 3:3.

6)  Chiddushei Ha-Ra'a, 35b, s.v. amar Rav Yehuda, 38a, s.v. shatita.




1)  According to the Gemara's conclusion (35b) – "This informs us that since one derives benefit from it, he must recite a berakha" – which type of hana'a (benefit) requires a berakha, and which type is exempt from a berakha?

2)  Logically, what berakha achrona should one recite when drinking oil of the anigron drink to soothe his sore throat?  Is this the implication of the Rambam's formulation (Hilkhot Berakhot 8:2)?

3)  Why does one recite she-hakol over shatita raka according to Tosefot?  According to the Ra'a?