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Shiur #05: The Nature of Birkot Ha-Nehenin

  • Rav David Brofsky


the laws of THE Berakhot


Shiur #05: The Nature of Birkot Ha-Nehenin

Rav David Brofsky



             The mishna (Berakhot 35a) records the various blessings that are recited before eating, known as “birkot ha-nehenin. 


What blessings are said over fruit? Over fruit of the tree one says, “Who creates the fruit of the tree,” except for wine, over which one says, “Who creates the fruit of the vine.” Over that which grows from the ground one says, “Who creates the fruit of the ground,” except over bread, for which one says, “Who brings forth bread from the earth.” Over vegetables one says, “Who creates the fruit of the ground.” R. Yehuda, however, says: “Who creates diverse kinds of herbs.” 

The Talmud investigates the origin of this obligation and offers a possible Biblical source. After questioning the validity of this Biblical source, the gemara concludes: “The fact is that it is a reasonable supposition (sevara) that it is forbidden for a man to enjoy anything of this world without saying a blessing.” Tosafot (s.v. ela) explain that although initially the gemara thought that the obligation to recite a blessing before eating may be a Biblical obligation, the gemara’s conclusion indicates that the source was merely an “asmachta” and that the obligation is of Rabbinic origin. 

Some Rishonim, however, suggest that we can distinguish between the different berakhot. Rabbeinu Chananel (s.v. ve-asikna), for example, interprets the passage differently, concluding that the birkot ha-nehenin, or at least some of them, are mi-de’oraita. Similarly, the Rashba (Berakhot 48b, s.v. hakhi) suggests that some opinions cited in the Talmud believe that the berakha over bread may be mi-de’oraita.  

Interestingly, R. Ya’akov Yehoshua Falk (1680-1756) insists in his Pnei Yehoshua (Berakhot 35a, s.v. be-gemara) that even a halakha described as a “sevara” should be viewed as a Biblical obligation (see Bava Kama 46b). R. Yechezkel Landau (1713 –1793), known as the Noda Bi-Yehuda after his book of halakhic responsa, disproves R. Falk’s claim (Tzlach, Berakhot 35a).  

The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:1-2) rules that all blessings, aside from birkat ha-mazon, are mi-derabbanan.   

Nature of Birkot Ha-Nehenin 

The Acharonim, based upon different Talmudic passages, disagree as to the nature of the birkot ha-nehenin. On the one hand, the gemara (Berakhot 35a) implies that birkot ha-nehenin serve as a “matir,” a formula which permits the eating of food: 

Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a benediction, he commits me’ila (misuse of sacred property for secular purpose). What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man. What will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offense! Said Rabba: What it means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he should teach him blessings and he should not violate me’ila.

R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: To enjoy anything of this world without a blessing is like violating me’ila, as it says. “The earth and its fullness is the Lord's” (Tehillim 24:1). R. Levi contrasted two texts. It is written, “The earth and its fullness is the Lord's,” and it is also written, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth has He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16). There is no contradiction: In the one case, it is before a blessing has been said; in the other case, after.

R. Chanina bar Papa said: To enjoy this world without a blessing is like robbing the Holy One, blessed be He, and the community of Israel. 

This passage, which equates one who eats food without a blessing and one who misuses sacred property or one who steals from God, implies that a berakha permits one to eat food, which otherwise belongs to God.  

            On the other hand, other sources indicate that a birkat ha-nehenin is a birkat ha-shevach, a blessing of praise, recited before eating food. For example, the passage mentioned above that the gemara suggested was the Biblical source for reciting birkot ha-nehenin, “the fruit thereof shall be holy, for giving praise unto the Lord” (Vayikra 19:24), implies that birkot ha-nehenin are a “praise unto the Lord.” In addition, the following passage may imply that a birkat ha-nehenin is not simply a “matir” recited before eating: 

R. Chisda was asked: If one has eaten and drunk without saying a blessing, should he say the blessing afterwards? He replied: If one has eaten garlic so that his breath smells, should he eat more garlic so that his breath should go on smelling? Ravina said: Therefore, even if he has finished his meal, he should say the blessing retrospectively, since it has been taught: If a man has taken a ritual immersion and come out of the water, he should say on his emerging, “Blessed be He who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning immersion.” This, however, is not correct. In that case [of immersion], the man at the outset was not in a fit state to say a blessing; in this case, the man at the outset was in a fit state, and once it has been omitted it must remain omitted. 

The gemara questions whether one who forgot to say a blessing before eating may make the berakha afterwards. The gemara suggests that just as we do not say that one who has “eaten garlic so that his breath smells should he eat more garlic so that his breath should go on smelling,” forgetting to say a blessing before eating does not preclude one from say the blessing after having eaten. This assumption clearly does NOT view birkat ha-nehenin as a “matir,” but rather as a blessing a praise for He has provided the food he is currently eating.  

            The gemara concludes that one should not recite the blessing after eating, but not necessarily because the initial understanding was rejected. 

Although the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 4:2) rules that one who forgot to recite ha-motzi and has finished his meal may not say the blessing of ha-motzi afterwards, the Ra’avya (Teshuvot U-Bi’urei Sugyot 972) disagrees. The Ra’avya rules in accordance with Ravina; accordingly, one who forgot to recite a birkat ha-nehenin may recite the blessing afterwards. The Shulchan Arukh (OC 167:9) rules in accordance with the Rambam; thus, one who forgets to say a blessing and has already finished his meal does not say a birkat ha-nehenin (but does say a berakha acharona).  

There may be halakhic differences during these two approaches.  

For example, the Rishonim debate whether the principle of “safek berakhot le-hakel” applies only to birkot ha-mitzvot or to birkot ha-nehenin as well. Some Rishonim (Rif, Berakhot 6a; Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 8:12) rule that in a case of doubt, the principle of “safek berakhot le-hakel” applies to birkot ha-nehenin. Other Rishonim (Ri, Berakhot 12a, s.v. lo; Me’iri (Berakhot 35a, s.v. vekhol ha-neheneh) disagree and insist that the rule should be “safek berakhot le-chumra.” Therefore, when in doubt, one must recite the blessing if one continues to eat. R. Akiva Eiger (Gilyon Ha-Shas, Berakhot 12a) cites the Maharsha (Pesachim 102), who explains that while one can still fulfill a mitzva even without reciting the blessing, one in is not permitted to eat without first say a birkat ha-nehenin; the principle of safek berakhot le-hakel should therefore not apply to birkot ha-nehenin. In other words, these berakhot are not considered to be merely birkot ha-shevach, but rather they “matir” (permit) one to eat. Accordingly, in case of doubt, one cannot eat without first saying a blessing. 

Furthermore, the Acharonim disagree as to why the principle of safek berakhot le-hakel applies to birkot ha-nehenin at all. Many explain that since the obligation to recite a birkat ha-nehenin before eating is only mi-derabbanan, the principle of “safek de-rabbanan le-kula” applies. Alternatively, the Pnei Yehoshua (see above) explains that even if the obligation to recite a birkat ha-nehenin before eating is mi-de’oraita, the principle of “safek berakhot le-hakel” (when in doubt one does not recite a blessing) may still apply to birkot ha-nehenin (see below), due to the prohibition of reciting unnecessary blessings. 

In addition, this question may challenge us to understand the numerous cases in which a birkat ha-nehenin is not said. For example, this gemara mentions that at times, po’alim (day workers, see Berakhot 16a), a ba’al keri (one who experiences a seminal emission, see Berakhot 20b), and one who inadvertently put food into his mouth without a blessing (Berakhot 60b) can eat food without first saying a berakha. Some explain that since the birkat ha-nehenin is simply a birkat ha-shevach, be-di’avad, in extenuating circumstances, one may eat without saying a berakha, as birkot he-nehenin are merely another example of birkot ha-shevach. Alternatively, some suggest that the prohibition to eat without first saying a blessing only exists when there is actually an obligation to recite a blessing! Therefore, in a case in which there is no obligation or one is unable to say a blessing, the prohibition does not exist.

Interestingly, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo 1:18:8) discusses this issue and concludes the birkot ha-nehenin cannot be based upon the notion that one who does not recite a blessing “steals” from God. He derives this from the laws of aninut, which teach that an onen (a person whose relative has just recently passed away, before the burial) is exempt of the positive mitzvot of the Torah. He notes that had the berakhot have been viewed as a “matir” then an onen would have been required to say the blessing.  

Next week, we will continue our study of birkat ha-nehenin.