Shiur #65: Birkot Ha-Mitzvot

  • Rav David Brofsky

This week, we will begin our study of birkot ha-mitzvot, blessings recited before performing a mitzva. In the upcoming shiurim, we will discuss the function and nature of these blessings, as well as their relevant halakhot.


What is the role, purpose, or function of the blessing said before performing a mitzva? An analysis of the laws governing this blessing, especially the timing and placement of this blessing, may shed light on this question.


The Talmud (Pesachim 7b) teaches:


All blessings should be said over le-asiyatan [upon the performance of the mitzvah] … except for the blessing over tevila (ritual immersion).


What does “over le-asiyatan” refer to and why should it be said specifically then? Seemingly, these questions may be related to a far more fundamental question: Why do we say a blessing before fulfilling a mitzvah at all?


One might view the birkat ha-mitzva as a type of preparation for the mitzva. This idea is articulated in different ways.


The Ritva (Pesachim 7b, s.v. kol ha-mitzvot) explains:


The reason why the Rabbis said that one should say the blessing upon performing the mitzva is in order that the person should sanctify himself before [the mitzva] through the blessing, and reveal and announce that he is doing [the mitzva] because God commanded him.


The Ritva explains that the blessing said before performing a mitzva is meant to help the person prepare for the mitzva, almost like the more recent custom of saying “heneni mukhan u-mezuman le-kayem”.


            Others suggest that the blessing said before performing a mitzva is similar to the blessings said before eating food. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:3) writes:


Just as we recite blessings for benefit which we derive from the world, we should also recite blessings for each mitzvah before we fulfill it.


The Talmud (Berakhot 35a) teaches that one may not benefit from this world without first saying a blessing. R. Soloveitchik, based upon this passage from the Rambam, suggested that one similarly may not be permitted to perform a mitzva without first saying the appropriate blessing. This notion is based on a larger philosophical principle related to whether man may turn to and engage God without first asking “permission.” Although this idea is beyond the scope of this shiur, in brief, R. Soloveitchik asserts that without first acknowledging and thanking God by saying a blessing, one may not even perform a mitzva


            Alternatively, one might suggest that the birkat ha-mitzva is not a preparation for the mitzva, but rather an expression of praise, a type of birkat ha-shevach that we say upon fulfilling a mitzvah. It is possible that the Ritva, in the continuation of the passage cited above, alludes to this. He writes:

In addition, the blessings are part of one’s service of the soul, and it is appropriate that the “service of God” should precede the “service of the body.”


This debate may affect the proper time in which one should say this blessing. The Talmud’s phrase, “over le-asiyatan,” can be translated as “before” or “upon” fulfilling the mitzva. If the blessing serves as preparation for the mitzva, it would seem that it should only be recited before it is performed.

An interesting ramification of this debate may be whether the blessing may be said after performing the mitzva. The Or Zaru’a (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 1:25) rules that if one does not say the blessing before performing the mitzva, it may be said afterwards. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:5) disagrees.

Apparently, the Rambam, who compares the birkot ha-mitzvot to the birkot ha-nehenin, views the birkat ha-mitzva as a “matir,” something that permits one to fulfill the mitzva, or possibly as a preparatory act before the mitzva (like the Ritva), and he therefore rules that the blessing is no longer valid or necessary after the mitzva has been completed. In contrast, the Or Zaru’a must view the blessing as a birkat ha-shevach, a blessing of praise, which may be said shortly after fulfilling the mitzva as well. The halakha is in accordance with the Rambam.


Interestingly, the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 9:3) cites a view that maintains that the blessing should be say “be-sha’at asiyatan,” during the performance of the mitzva. This is especially relevant for mitzvot that are fulfilled over a period of time. Similarly, the Ra’avia (Hilkhot Lulav 691) writes:


All blessings should be said upon the performance [of the mitzva]. My father and teacher R. Yitzchak ben R. Mordekhai explained, while quoting our teach the Riva, that the phrase “over” does not come to exclude one who says the blessing while performing the mitzva, as long as the mitzva is fulfilled over a period of time.


Although the Ra’avia implies that reciting the blessing in this manner is be-dia’vad, not the ideal manner, the Ba’al Ha-Maor (cited by the Abudraham) rules that one should say the blessing specifically during, and not before, its performance.


Apparently, the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or offers third approach. The blessing does not prepare one for the mitzva, nor does it praise God for the mitzva; rather, the blessing in meant to integrate into the performance of the mitzva itself. In other words, while the actual performance of the mitzva is usually physical, the blessing adds a personal, spiritual element to the mitzva itself. This idea may be rooted in the Talmud (Berkahot 15a), which, according to the Tosafot Rosh, implies that had birkot ha-mitzvot been mi-de’oraita, failing to recite the blessing would even have prevented one from fulfilling his obligation.


The Talmud mentions one exception to the rule of “over le-asiyatan” – tevila. The Rishonim offer different explanations of this exception. Some Rishonim (Rif, Pesachim 3b-4a; Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 11:7; Rosh, Pesachim 1:10) explain that the gemara refers only to the immersion of a convert. Tosafot (Pesachim 7b, s.v. al ha-tevila), for example, explain:


Rabbeinu Chananel, in the name of the Gaon, [explains that the Talmud refers only to] the immersion of a convert, who is not fit before the immersion [to say the blessing]… But [in the case of] other immersions, including that of a ba’al keri, one may say the blessing before immersing.


It is not clear whether this view maintains that a convert should not say the blessing before immersion for technical reasons, as he is not yet Jewish, or whether the Tosafot maintain that fundamentally there should be no blessing over the conversion of a non-Jew; this blessing only appears to be a birkat ha-mitzvah, while in essence it is really a birkat ha-shevach, a blessing of praise said immediately after witnessing the beautiful sight of a non-Jew accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven.


Other Rishonim understand “tevila” in a broader sense. Tosafot (ibid. and Berakhot 51a, s.v. me-ikara), for example, explain that just as the blessing of of a convert was established after the immersion, so too all other immersions, including even the netilat yadayim before the meal, precede the blessing.


Interestingly, Tosafot (Pesachim, ibid.) suggest another approach as well. Since the drying of the hands (niguv yadayim) is also considered to be a significant part of the mitzva, one who says the blessing after washing but before drying his hands is still considered to have said the blessing “over le-asiyatan.”


Although the Talmud only mentions one exception to the rule of over le-asiyatan, the Rishonim discuss other mitzvot upon which the blessing is said after the performance of the mitzva.


For example, the Rishonim discuss the proper time for reciting the blessing upon taking the arba minim. Some Rishonim (see Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:6) write that one recites the blessing and then picks up the bundle of the arba minim from the table. However, many Rishonim offer other concerns. For example, the Talmud (see Sukka 42a; see also Pesachim 7b) teaches that “whenone lifts [the arba minim], he has fulfilled the mitzvah.” Thus, saying the blessing after picking up the arba minim may be too late!


            Tosafot (Pesachim 7b, s.v. la-tzeit; see also Tosafot, Sukka 29a, s.v. over) offer a number of possibilities. First, Tosafot suggest that one should take the lulav upside down, as one does not fulfill his obligation until he holds the four species in the manner in which they grow (ke-derekh gedilatan). He can thus hold the four species but still say the blessing, as he has not yet fulfilled his obligation. Alternatively, upon taking all four species, one should simply have in mind not to fulfill the obligation until after the blessing. Both of these suggestions accord with the language of the Talmud, which states that one should say the blessing before the mitzva is performed.


Tosafot (ibid., s.v. be-idana; see also Rosh, Sukka 3:33 and Ran Sukka 20b, s.v. mi-deparkhinan) then suggest that although one has already fulfilled the mitzva as soon as he lifts the arba minim, since one has not “completely finished the mitzva,” as the shaking of the lulav (nanu’a) is part of the mitzva, one may still recite the blessing.


R. Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640) asks a fascinating question in his commentary to the Tur (Bayit Chadash 521). He observes that the suggestion of taking the arba minim in an abnormal manner, such as turning over the etrog before the blessing, seems problematic, as when one takes even one of the minim properly, he has partially fulfilled the mitzva. The blessing should therefore no longer be considered to have been recited “over le-asiyatan,” before performing the mitzva! The Bach suggests that even though one may take all four minim separately, the mitzva is retroactively only fulfilled after taking all four minim. There is no inherent value in taking each species alone.


 Practically, the Shulchan Arukh (521:5) rules that one should recite the blessing before taking the etrog or while holding the etrog upside down. The Gra (521:5) writes that it may be preferable to take all four species in a normal manner and to have in mind not to fulfill the mitzva until after the blessing. (Sefer Arba’at Ha-Minim Ha-Shalem, p. 352, relates that this was the practice of the Chazon Ish.) Nevertheless, it is customary to recite the blessing when holding all four minim but while the etrog is upside down.


We find a similar discussion regarding the lighting of the nerot Shabbat. Some Rishonim maintain that by saying the blessing of “le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat,” the person has accepted Shabbat and may therefore no longer light the fire. The Shulkhan Arukh (268:5) rules that women should say the blessing before they light the candles, but the Rema adds:


One should say the blessing after the lighting, and in order that it should be considered to be over le-asiyato, he should not benefit from it until after the blessing, and one puts her had over her eyes during the time of lighting.


Next week, we will continue our study of the birkot ha-mitzvot