Shiur #17: Birkat Ha-Nehenin

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The majority of the sixth perek of Masekhet Berakhot is dedicated to the laws of birkat ha-nehenin. The Torah legislates a berakha AFTER eating a meal (birkat ha-mazon), and the Rabbanan added the requirement to recite a berakha before eating any item. As the gemara itself asserts, "It is forbidden for a person to receive pleasure from this world without reciting a berakha, and whoever partakes of this world without a berakha is considered as having stolen from Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu." As such, a typical birkat ha-nehenin extends beyond the role of birkat ha-shevach. There are many events which require the recitation of a blessing of praise (shevach): natural events, historical events, personal events, etc. Instinctively, one may have classified birkat ha-nehenin under that category; namely, upon the event of partaking of Hashem's world we must first offer Him praise and only then partake. However, the gemara's phraseology – equating this violation with theft (or, according to a different account, with me'ila, stealing from hekdesh) – clearly casts berakha rishona (the berakha recited before eating) as a matir - a necessary prior step to authorize use of an item. Halakha demands various matirin: shechita permits the animal's meat for consumption, separating teruma renders the remainder of the produce permissible, kiddushin and nisu'in permit a woman to her husband, the korban ha-omer is matir use of new grain, and sacrificing the intestines of a korban allows the various other parts of the korban to be eaten. Similarly, a berakha permits eating the desired item.

Several halakhot reinforce this sense that a berakha rishona serves as a matir to authorize use of the item. Tosafot in Yoma address the issue of the minimum quantity of food requiring a berakha rishona. Using the Biblical form of berakha acharona (the blessing recited after eating) as a paradigm for berakha rishona would not require a blessing on a small quantity. Biblically, a person must recite birkat ha-mazon only if he eats to the point of satiation; and even the smaller, Rabbinically ordained shiur (minimum quantity) requires either a ke-zayit of a ke-beitza of food. Should berakha rishona follow similar criteria and be required only when some minimum quantity is eaten? Refuting this logic, Tosafot claim that even a small amount of food requires a berakha rishona. Since the gemara in Berakhot admonished a person who did not recite this berakha and deemed him a thief, any amount would mandate a berakha. Tosafot thus base the recitation of berakha rishona before eating even insignificant quantities on the fact that it has the quality of matir (which birkat ha-mazon, recited AFTER eating, presumably does not).

A second consequence of this quality of matir is presented by Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Commenting on a Tosafot in Berakhot (12), he claims that a person in doubt as to whether he recited a berakha may have to be machmir, rather than meikil. Instinctively, we might have expected a safek of this kind to be resolved in a lenient manner, since the mitzva of berakha rishona is mi-derabanan (of rabbinic origin), and we always act leniently in situations of sefeikot surrounding Rabbinic law. In fact, the Rambam, and, by consequence, the Shulchan Arukh, apply this policy also to the realm of birkot ha-nehenin. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, however, disagrees, suggesting that the resident issur upon eating food without a berakha should force stringency in the instance of safek. The connotation of 'stringency' under these circumstances is a bit atypical. On the one hand, a berakha should be recited to avoid the safek of partaking without one. Alternatively, this berakha may be unnecessary (as one may have already been recited), thus constituting a berakha she-eina tzerikha (which may be Biblically forbidden). Hence, the safest policy is to demand a cessation of eating to avoid the two (mutually exclusive) prohibitions which may adhere. In any event, Rabbi Akiva Eiger outright rejects the option of continuing to eat under the assumption that this Rabbinic safek may be resolved leniently, similar to other rabbinic prohibitions. The presence of an issur, he contends, precludes that option. Rabbi Akiva Eiger's famous dissenting opinion is rooted in a statement by the Sefer Ha-mikhtam to Berakhot (35a).

A third manifestation of birkat ha-nehenin's function as a matir may be sensed in a gemara in Berakhot (51a), which addresses the case of someone who completed eating without reciting a berakha. The gemara records a machloket between Ravina, who demanded the recitation of a berakha even after the food has been completed, and the narrator of the gemara, who ruled that no berakha is recited. Perhaps this debate reflects the question of whether or not we should classify birkat ha-nehenin exclusively as a matir. Ravina held that it does not function solely as a matir, and therefore demanded a berakha even if eating has ceased. The gemara itself may have confined birkat ha-nehenin to the capacity of a matir, and thus recognized no utility in reciting it once eating has completely terminated.

Though this would appear to the be the logical foundation of the gemara's position, the actual formulation is more complicated. In defending the meaninglessness of a berakha rishona after eating, the gemara invokes a famous concept known as 'dichuy.' Taken form the world of hekdesh, this disqualification occurs if an item was temporarily suspended from its suitability as a korban. Even though its suitability is subsequently restored, we rule 'ho'il ve-idchei idchei' – once it was debarred, it can no longer be utilized. Following similar logic, the gemara posits that once this person has missed his opportunity to recite a berakha, he can no longer recover that opportunity. Indeed, the comparison to hekdesh and the formal laws of dichuy is startling and requires further elaboration. One thing, however, is glaring: had the gemara believed that the matir function of birkat ha-nehenin precludes its recitation after eating has finished, no invocation of the concept of dichuy is necessary. By invoking the concept, the gemara may be marginalizing the issue of matir and searching (quite creatively) for an alternate logic to explain the absence of berakha rishona after eating has concluded.