The Source of Berakha Rishona

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


A previous shiur in this series addressed the nature of birkhot ha-nehenin, and in particular the berakha recited upon food prior to ingestion. Should this berakha be viewed as a classic birkhat ha-shevach, an opportunity to praise Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu upon enjoying the “fruits” of his world? Or (and possibly in addition) does the berakha act as a legal matir? Typically, ACTIONS can eliminate states of issur and confer permissibility. For example, the ACT of shechita cancels the issur of eiver min ha-chai and induces permissibility to eat the meat. Can birkhot ha-nehenin be viewed in this light? Are foodstuffs considered prohibited to eat prior to the recital of a berakha? The food – like all other material – is owned by Hashem, and only be reciting a berakha is it permissible to take for ourselves..


This shiur will address a related question – the source of birkhot ha-nehenin and the language that Chazal employ to describe the halakha. Can we deduce from these sources or syntaxes that a berakha rishona can indeed be viewed as a matir?


The initial attempt of the gemara in Berakhot (35a) to provide a source for berakha rishona surrounds a pasuk which is unrelated to the notion of matir. The source describes the procedure regarding the fruit harvest of the fourth year (known as neta revai). Unlike the fruits of the first three years, which are forbidden as orla, the fruits of the fourth year can be eaten according to the rules of ma'aser sheni. The Torah describes this process as "Kodesh hilulim la-Hashem," eaten along with praising Hashem. R. Akiva suggests that this precedent – praising Hashem while eating – serves as a model for a different form of EATING and PRAISING - namely a berakha rishona. Clearly, R. Akiva suggests viewing a berakha rishona as a shevach, not a legal authorization or matir.


However, the gemara questions and ultimately rejects R. Akiva's suggestion, primarily because this pasuk could only serve as precedent for produce (about which the laws of revai apply), but not fish, poultry, and other foods. Recognizing the inefficacy and limitations of this pasuk as a source, the gemara declares, “Elah [contrary to the previous logic, which suggested a Biblical source], it is sevara” – logic dictates the recital of a berakha rishona because a person cannot receive benefit from this world without a berakha.


This final formulation raises two questions. First, is a halakha derived from logic considered a de-oraita requirement or de-rabbanan. This question has major implications in terms of situation of safek. The Pnei Yehoshua raises this issue and cites parallel examples, a very famous one being the laws of ha-motzi mei-chavero alav ha-raya, which may either be based on a pasuk or derived from halakhic logic.


For our purposes, the more important question concerns the gemara’s final retort. Is the gemara completely REJECTING the original pasuk-based logic, which rendered berakha rishona a shevach? If so, it is likely that the berakha is now cast as a matir. Indeed, the final syntax, "a person is forbidden from benefitting FROM THIS WORLD without a berakha,” makes the berakha appear to be a matir. Moreover, very often, the word "elah" is employed to indicate a complete rejection of previously stated logic in favor of a different model. In this context, the term may indeed reflect a complete rejection of berakha rishona as shevach in favor of a matir model for berakha rishona.


Alternatively, the gemara may not be completely rejecting the shevach model. The concluding statement does not explicitly identify the matir component and the "elah" may just be rejecting the prospect of deriving berakha rishona from a PASUK. Perhaps berakha rishona remains SHEVACH, but instead of being deduced from a pasuk is inferred from halakhic logic.


This question must also be gauged based on the ensuing statements in the gemara. Subsequently, the gemara cites a beraita that also describes a prohibition to benefit from this world without reciting a berakha. However, it adds that benefitting without a berakha constitutes me’ila, abusing hekdesh items for deviant purposes. Associating berakha rishona with hekdesh MAY draw berakha rishona closer to the world of matir; just as hekdesh is legally forbidden for use until its matir (shechita or pidyon) occurs, food is similarly forbidden until its matir (a berakha) is recited. However, this association may be more general in nature; just as abusing hekdesh/me’ila is forbidden and entails an insult to hekdesh, so is omitting a requisite shevach inappropriate and insulting.


The ensuing gemara (the third syntax) appears to ratchet up the "matir" language by citing Shmuel, who claims that benefitting from food without a berakha is akin to benefitting (illegally) from hekdesh based on the pasuk, “La-hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah,” which describes the complete and sweeping ownership of Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu. Not only does Shmuel speak of mei'la, he also cites a pasuk that alludes to Hashem’s ownership. This may bring us closer to defining a berakha rishona as a matir.


In fact, the next stage of the gemara cites R. Levi, who, like Shmuel, cites the verse of “La-Hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah,” but with a different angle. He cites the apparent contradiction between that verse and another verse, “Ha-shamayim shamayim la-Hashem ve-ha-aretz natan li-vnei adam.” The second verse asserts a more limited ownership to Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu while awarding terrestrial ownership to man. R. Levi resolves this "contradiction" by claiming that prior to a berakha, Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu owns everything; after the recital of a berakha, man owns the earth (presumably a reference to earth-based food). This approach does not merely allude to me’ila-like repercussions to eating without a berakha or to the general ownership of Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu. Instead, it traces that ownership and the manner in which the berakha affects Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu’s “hold” upon the world. He programmed a dynamic whereby prior to reciting a berakha, “La-Hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah,” and after a berakaha, “ve-ha-aretz natan li-vnei adam.” This language of R. Levi is the most compelling language regarding the role of berakha rishona as a matir.


A final formulation offered by the gemara in the name of R. Chanina bar Pappa may also convincingly attest to the role of berakha rishona as matir. He claims that whoever receives benefit from this world without a berakha is considered a thief. The apparent reading of this statement suggests that the berakha authorizes intake of benefit; without that authorization, the person has stolen benefit from Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu – implying the role of berakha as a matir.


Rashi, however, declines this proof and reinterprets the gemara in a manner that avoids viewing berakha rishona as a matir. He writes that without reciting a berakha, the person has stolen THE BERAKHA which he should have offered Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu. There may be theological factors forcing Rashi away from explaining that a person has actually stolen the food by not reciting a berakha, for if indeed Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu maintains ownership and is omnipresent, how can a person actually STEAL from Him? The model of mei’la is more relevant, since that crime entails diverting items from intended use, but theft may not be applicable regarding Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu. Either way, Rashi’s interpretation does not cast the berakha as matir, even within R. Chanina’s very dramatic language of theft. Berakha rishona is merely a mitzva to praise Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu upon the event of eating; by omitting that berakha and mitzva, a person has “deprived” Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu of the praise He” deserves.”


Interestingly, Rashi is consistent in rejecting the matir identity of a berakha rishona. In his comments to Berakhot (17b), he exempts an onen (someone who has yet to bury a deceased relative) from the obligation of berakha rishona. If indeed a berakha were a matir and food were forbidden without a berakha, an onen would still be obligated in berakha rishona, since he cannot violate any issur – including the prohibition of eating without a berakha. Rashi appears to ignore the matir element, instead merely viewing the berakha as a mitzva to offer shevach. Hence, an onen is excused from this mitzva, as he is from other mitzvot.


The Bavli’s sources and syntax are extremely vague and invite multiple interpretations. However, the Yerushalmi’s language is far more clear in viewing berakha rishona as a matir. Initially, the Yerushalmi cites the verse of “La-Hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah” as attesting to Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu's ownership and the role of a berakha in enabling benefit. However, unlike the Bavli, which is discreet about the MANNER In which a berakha enables lawful benefit, the Yerushalmi actually articulates that a berakha is “matir lo,” thereby directly assigning the matir status to a berakha rishona. To be sure, the language of the Yerushalmi is a bit awkward, as it writes that a person cannot benefit until “she-yatiru lo kol ha-mitzvot” (literally, he authorizes for himself mitzvot). Regardless of the overall meaning of the phrase, however, the Yerushalmi’s intent to define berakha rishona as a matir seems clear.


Furthermore, the continuation of the Yerushalmi compares the world to a vineyard owned by another. Based on this setup, the Yerushalmi asks “What is the method for redeeming/acquiring fruit from this vineyard? It replies that the method of redemption is a berakha.” This is in many ways the most graphic image establishing berakha as a matir. By equating it DIRECTLY with pidyon, the Yerushalmi seems consistent in its view of berakha rishona as matir.