Shiur #67: Birkot Ha-Mitzvot (3)

  • Rav David Brofsky

Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus 
Rav Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut

This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the worldwide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.

Last week, we continued our study of the birkot ha-mitzvot, blessings recited before performing mitzvot. We noted that there are two different formulas of birkot ha-mitzvot. Some are phrased: “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu al…” (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding…”); others are formulated in the infinitive: “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu le …” (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to…”). The gemara (Pesachim 7a-b), as well as the Rishonim, offer different explanations as to when each nosach should be employed. The discussion leads to interesting perspectives regarding the nature and parameters of numerous mitzvot.

This week, we will discuss when these blessings are recited and whether they are recited when there is technically no obligation to perform the mitzva.

Mitzvot Aseh She-Hazeman Gerama

The mishna teaches that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, known as mitzvot aseh she-hazeman gerama.

Every positive precept dependent upon a set time, men are obligated to observe but women are exempt. But those positive precepts not dependent upon a set time, both men and women are obliged to observe. All negative precepts, whether or not they are dependent upon a set time, are obligatory upon both men and women. (Kiddushin 1:7)

The Talmud (Kiddushin 34a) teaches that this exemption is derived from tefillin:

From where do we derive that women are exempt from positive precepts dependent upon a set time? It is derived from the mitzva of tefillin; just as women are exempt from wearing tefillin, so too they are exempt from all positive precepts dependent upon a set time.

The gemara and the Rishonim and Acharonim (see, for example, Abudraham, sha’ar 3, Birkat Ha-Mitzvot; R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 23:43; Mishpetei Uziel, vol. 4, Inyanin Kelali’im 4; Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:49, et. al.) discuss this exemption and its rational.

At the end of his list of positive precepts in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, the Rambam lists eight commandments from which women are exempt because they are time-bound commandments: keriat shema, tefillin (head), tefillin (arm), tzitzit, sefirat ha-omer, sukka, lulav, and shofar. He also lists mitzvot from which women are exempt despite the fact that they are not time-bound, as well as time-bound mitzvot in which they are obligated, both Biblical (Kiddush on Shabbat, fasting of Yom Kippur, matza on Pesach, simchat ha-regel, hakhel, korban Pesach) and Rabbinic (nerot Chanuka, keriat ha-Megilla, arba kosot on Pesach, Hallel on the night of Pesach).

            The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 33a; see also Sifra, parshata 2) cites a debate between R. Yosi and R. Shimon regarding whether women may fulfill time-bound mitzvot. They disagree with regard to the mitzva of tekiat shofar and “semikha” (placing one’s hands on the sacrificial animal). The discussion revolves around whether or not “nashim somkhot reshut” (placing the hands by women [on a sacrifice] is optional).

            Why doesn’t R. Yehuda permit women to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shana or place their hands on a sacrifice in the Temple? How does he view a mitzva performed by a woman? Rashi (s.v. ha-nashim) explains that according to R. Yehuda, if a woman fulfills a time-bound mitzva from which she is exempt, she violates the Biblical prohibition of bal tosef (adding on to the mitzvot). The commentators, including the Maharsha (ibid.), disagree with this understanding. Others (Ran 9b, s.v. garsinan; see also Tosafot, Eiruvin 96a, s.v. mikhal) explain that R. Yehuda is only strict regarding certain mitzvot, such as teki’at shofar and semikha. These Rishonim may disagree as to whether or not it is considered as if the woman has “fulfilled” the mitzva if she performs it.  

            Even according to R. Yosi, who permits women to fulfill these mitzvot, one may question whether the fulfillment (kiyum) is the same as the fulfillment of a man. The ramifications of this question are beyond the scope of this shiur.

Blessing Before a Time-Bound Commandment

            Some Rishonim maintain that women should not say the birkat ha-mitzvot before performing a time-bound mitzva. Some of these Rishonim imply that women do not say the blessing because there is no actual fulfillment of the mitzva (see, for example, Rambam, Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9 and Hilkhot Ma’aseh Ha-Korbanot 3:5). Others imply that the problem may be technical; a woman cannot say the text of the blessing, “asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav vetzivanu al…” (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding…”), as they were not actually commanded to fulfill the mitzva (Hagahot Maimoniot, ibid., 40; see also Rosh, Kiddushin 1:49, and Ran, Rosh Hashana 9b, s.v. u-le’inyan).

            Other Rishonim disagree and insist that women may say a blessing before fulfilling a time-bound mitzva (Rabbenu Tam, as cited by Rosh, Kiddushin 1:49, and Tosafot, Rosh Hashana 33, s.v. ha). They clearly maintain that the phrase “asher kideshanu” should be understood as referring to the Jewish People as a whole.

Interestingly, the Shibolei Ha-Leket (Seder Rosh Ha-Shana 295) cites R. Yishaya, who rules that although women may fulfill time-bound commandments, they must do so without saying a blessing. If they were to say a blessing, that might demonstrate that they are performing the mitzva because they believe they are obligated, which may be a violation of bal tosef (adding on to the Torah). This may be rooted in an interested passage in the Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 2:9), who writes that one who establishes a rabbinic enactment but claims it is of Biblical origin violates bal tosef. In other words, blurring the lines between a Biblical and Rabbinic mitzva may be viewed as a form of bal tosef.

The Halakha

The Rema (OC 589:6) records that it is customary for women say to the blessing before fulfilling time-bound mitzvot. This is indeed the practice of Ashkenazi women.

Within the Sephardi community, there are different rulings. The Shulchan Arukh (ibid.) rules that “although women are permitted to blow [the shofar] … they do not say the blessing.” In contrast, R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724 –1806), known as the Chida, records in his Birkei Yosef (OC 654:2; see also Kaf Ha-Chaim 589:23) that the custom of some Sephardi women in the land of Israel was to say the blessing before fulfilling time-bound mitzvot. In more recent years, other authorities (Mishpetei Uziel, CM, kelalim 4, and Tzitz Eliezer 9:2) affirmed that the custom of some Sephardi women is to say the blessing. R. Ovadia Yosef, in numerous responsa (see, for example, Yabi’a Omer, OC 1:40; see also Ben Ish Chai, Nitzavim 17) insists that Sephardi women should not say birkot ha-mitzvot, in accordance with the view of the Shulchan Arukh.  He even rules that Sephardi women should not say the Birkot Keriat Shema and the blessings said before and after Pesukei De-Zimra (Yabi’a Omer, OC 3:6). However, others disagree (see Kaf Ha-Chaim 70:1).

Next week, we will discuss whether one says a blessing before performing a minhag