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Shiur #03: Changes to the Matbe'a Ha-Berakha

  • Rav David Brofsky


the laws of THE Berakhot



Shiur #03: Changes to the Matbe'a Ha-Berakha

Rav David Brofsky



Last week, we further discussed the four essential components of a blessing:  the opening and ending of a berakha with “barukh,” the Shem Ha-Shem (Name of God), the mention of Malkhut (His Kingship), and the specific content of each blessing. We previously discussed the halakhot regarding the opening and conclusion with “barukh,” as well as the centrality of Shem and Malkhut in the matbe’a ha-berakha (the blessing formula). This week, we will conclude our discussion of the components of a blessing. 

The Talmud teaches (Berakhot 33a) that “The Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola) instituted for Israel blessings, prayers, kedushot, and havdalot.” The Rambam, based upon this passage, concludes: 

The text of all the blessings was ordained by Ezra and his court. It is not fit to alter it, to add to it, or to detract from it. 

In this lecture, we will discuss whether and when one may change the opening of closing of a blessing and whether one may add or detract from its content.  

Lengthening and Detracting from a Blessing 

            The mishna (Berakhot 11a) discusses the blessings recited before and after the morning and evening recitation of the Keri’at Shema, the Birkot Keri’at Shema: “In the morning, two blessings are to be said before it and one after it. In the evening, two are said before it and two after it.” 

The mishna continues and refers to two types of blessings, long and short, whose textual integrity must be maintained:  

One long and one short. Where they [the Sages] laid down that a long one should be said, it is not permitted to say a short one. Where they ordained a short one, a long one is not permitted. [A prayer] which they ordered to be concluded [with a benediction] must not be left without such a conclusion; one which they ordered to be left without such a conclusion must not be so concluded. 

The mishna does not explain which berakhot are considered to be “long” and which are “short.” The Rishonim disagree regarding this question.  

Rashi (Berakhot 11a, s.v. achat aruka ve-achat ketzara) views this statement as a continuation of the previous line of the mishna, which discusses the evening prayers. Accordingly, he explains that the “long” blessing refers to “Emet Ve-Emuna,” while the “short” blessing refers to “Hashkiveinu.” While the Ra’ah (s.v. matnitin) assumes that Rashi understood “long” and “short” to refer to the actual length of the blessings, the Me’iri (s.v. ve-amar) explains that “long and “short” refer to whether the blessing contains one or more themes. 

The Rambam (Peirush Ha-Mishna, Berakhot 1:11) explains that the “long” and “short” blessings refer to the structure of the blessings. The blessings “Yotzer Or” and “Ha-Ma’ariv Aravim,” the first blessings said in the daily or evening prayers, are considered to be “long” because both open and close with “barukh.  

            According to Rashi, the mishna means that one may not shorten or lengthen the inner text of a blessing. In addition, one may not add or omit the “barukh” ending of a blessing. Rashi would therefore certainly not permit inserting piyutim into the berakhot. The Rambam’s interpretation, in contrast, relates only to the ending of the blessing; one may not add or detract from the barukh formula at the beginning or conclusion of a berakha. According to the Rambam, the mishna does not relate to adding or detracting from the body of a blessing. Elsewhere, however, the Rambam forbids the insertion of piyutim into one’s prayers (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam 244). Furthermore, he writes: 

This is the greatest reason for the lack of intention and why the average Jew allows himself to talk [idly in the middle of tefilla]… In addition, these piyutim are at times written by poets and not scholars… 

            Interestingly, Rabbeinu Tam reads this mishna in a completely different manner. He understands “one is long and one is short” as teaching that “if one wishes, he may lengthen them, or if one wishes one may shorten them” (see Ritva, Berakhot 11a, s.v. be-shachar; Tosafot, Berakhot 11a, s.v. achat). Rabbeinu Tam’s only concern is that one may not add to or omit the opening or concluding “barukh” formula. Seemingly, Rabbeinu Tam would permit the insertion of piyutim, which were authored especially for the various blessings before and after Keri’at Shema. Interestingly, the Ra’ah (s.v. be-shachar) also permits the recitation of piyutim, arguing that the mishna only prohibits permanently changing the text established by the Rabbis. 

The Tur (OC 68) cites a responsum of R. Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia (1170 – 1244), known as the Ramah, who does not accept the recitation of piyutim during the Birkot Keri’at Shema. Although he acknowledges that it is common practice to recite this piyutim, he relates that he quietly finishes reciting the blessings and waits for the congregation to finish reciting the piyutim. After recording the debate regarding whether one is permitted to insert piyutim into the Birkot Keri’at Shema, the Tur concludes that his father, the Rosh, did not accept this practice. Elsewhere (OC 112), however, he permits inserting piyutim into the first three blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei. It is possible that the Tur distinguishes between berakhot, whose content was set and established by the Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola, and tefilla, which by definition is meant to be more fluid and dynamic. (See Beit Yosef, OC 112 and the Bach, who discuss the ruling of the Tur.)  

            R. Yosef Karo (Shulchan Arukh, OC 68 and 112:2) rules that one should not insert piyutim into the Birkot Keri’at Shema or the blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei. The Rema (OC 68), however, records the opinion of those who permit inserting piyutim, writing that this is indeed the prevalent practice. Furthermore, he writes that one who prays with a congregation that inserts these piyutim should not separate himself from the congregation and should say the piyutim with them. The Mishna Berura (6) adds that when praying alone, one should not insert piyutim into the Birkot Keri’at Shema.  

Changing the Content of a Blessing 

We discussed above whether one may lengthen the text of a blessing through the recitation of piyutim. May one actually change the content and structure of a blessing? The gemara (Berakhot 40b) relates: 

[For it was taught:] If a man sees a loaf of bread and says, “What a fine loaf this is! Blessed be the Omnipresent that has created it!” he has fulfilled his obligation [of saying the blessing of Ha-Motzi]. If he sees a fig and says, “What a fine fig this is! Blessed be the Omnipresent that has created it!” he has fulfilled his obligation [of saying Borei Peri Ha-Etz]. These are the words of R. Meir. R. Yose says: If one alters the formula of blessings established by the Sages, he has not performed his obligation. 

Although some Rishonim rule in accordance with R. Yose, ruling that one who changes the formula of a blessing has not fulfilled his obligation (see Me’iri, s.v. kevar, and Shitat Ha-Ribav 28b in name of Rif), most Rishonim (see, for example, Rosh, Berakhot 6:23, and Ritva, Hilkhot Berakhot 2:22) rule in accordance with R. Meir. 

The Rishonim disagree as to whether according to R. Meir, one may alter the formula of a blessing le-khatchila. The Rambam writes: 

The text of all the blessings was ordained by Ezra and his court. It is not fit to alter it, to add to it, or to detract from it. Whoever alters the text of a blessing from that ordained by the Sages is making an error. (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:5) 

In contrast to one who does not mention God’s name and His Kingship, one who alters a blessing errs, but fulfills his obligation.            

            The Rashba (Berakhot 11a) disagrees, and brings a proof from next passage of this gemara, which relates that “Benjamin the shepherd made a sandwich and said, “Blessed be the All-Merciful, the Master of this bread.” Rashba explains that the Rabbis did not establish a rigid formula for each blessing. Rather, as long as one maintains that theme of the blessing, one may alter its formula, even le-khatchila. 

Interestingly, although the Rambam cited above writes that one who alters the formula of a blessing “is making an error,” implying that one has fulfilled his obligation be-di’avad, in accordance with the position of R. Meir, elsewhere (Hilkhot Keri’at Shema 1:7), the Rambam rules that one who changes the formula of the blessing must “return and recite the blessing as it was established.” The Vilna Gaon (OC 68) suggests that the Rambam changed his mind between writing the laws of Berakhot and those of Keri’at Shema! Alternatively, the Kesef Mishna explains that in Hilkhot Keri’at Shema the Rambam was referring to one who changes the structure of the blessing; he therefore does not fulfill his obligation. In Hilkhot Berakhot, however, he refers to one who changes the content of the blessing, who has fulfilled the mitzva be-di’avad.  

The Shulchan Arukh (OC 167:10) rules that one who recites the blessing in Aramaic but mentions God and His Kingdom has fulfilled his obligation. Elsewhere (OC 187:1), he cites two opinions regarding whether one fulfills the obligation if he changes the actual structure of the blessing, condensing the first blessing of Birkat Ha-Mazon, which begins and concludes with “barukh,” into one single blessing.  

Next week, we will discuss the prohibition of reciting an unnecessary blessing, or a blessing in vain, and the principle of sefak berakhot le-hakel.