Beit Midrash

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Chapter ten-part one

Birkot HaTorah – The Blessings on the Torah


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. The Value of Birkot HaTorah
After the Land of Israel was destroyed, and the nation of Israel was exiled, a major question arose, reflected in the words of the prophet (Jeremiah 9:11): "Why has the land been destroyed?" Certainly, everyone knew that we were exiled from our land as a result of our sins, but the question was: what was the fundamental sin behind the spiritual collapse that led to the destruction? The Chachamim, the prophets, and the ministering angels were asked this question and did not know how to answer, until HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself explained, "Hashem says: ‘Because they abandoned My Torah which I had given them’" (ibid., 9:12). Chazal interpret this to mean that they did not recite the blessing on the Torah before engaging in its study (Nedarim 81a). That is to say, although they actually learned Torah, they did not relate to it as Divine instruction. Because of this, they were considered to have forsaken the Torah of Hashem. For anyone who learns Torah as if it is just one of the wisdoms of the world is not considered one who learns Torah at all. However, when we recite Birkot HaTorah properly, indeed we approach Torah out of faith and attachment to the One who granted it to us.
The Chachamim further inquire (Nedarim 81a): why is it that not all the sons of talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) continue in their fathers’ paths and become talmidei chachamim themselves? For without a doubt the fathers wanted their children to follow in their footsteps and become engrossed in Torah all their lives, and strove to educate them in that direction. If so, why did they not all succeed ? Moreover, in those days, it was widely accepted that every son continue in his father’s profession: sons of carpenters became carpenters, sons of farmers became farmers, and so on. Consequently, the Gemara’s question is all the more perplexing - why don’t a relatively large percentage of sons of talmidei chachamim become talmidei chachamim themselves? There are a number of explanations brought in the Talmud, the last one being Ravina’s, which states that it is because they do not recite Birkot HaTorah before learning. In other words, many times, sons of talmidei chachamim learn Torah only because they see their fathers learning; as sons like to mimic their fathers, they too, strive to learn Torah. However, Torah can only be acquired by learning for the sake of Heaven (l’shem Shamayim), out of a personal desire to attach oneself to the One who grants us the Torah, and therefore, those sons who learn out of compulsion, routine, or merely mimicking their fathers, do not see blessing in their learning.

2. The Content of the Torah Blessings and the Ruling Regarding Ahavat Olam
Birkot HaTorah are comprised of three parts. In the first part, we bless Hashem who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to occupy ourselves with the study of Torah. In the second, we request that the Torah, which Hashem taught His nation Israel, be pleasant to us, that we merit learning it with desire, and that we and our offspring have the privilege of understanding the depth of its content. 1
In the third part, we bless and thank Hashem for choosing us from among all the nations and giving us His Torah. The Chachamim say (Berachot 11b) that this is the prime berachah of Birkot HaTorah, since it mentions the unique virtue of the nation of Israel, that Hashem "chose us from among all the nations" and, because of this Divine selection, consequently "gave us His Torah." This is the nature of Israel’s soul, that it is attached and devoted to Hashem and His Torah, and therefore only the nation of Israel can receive the Torah and with it illuminate the world. Among the nations of the world, there may be righteous and devout gentiles, but this is a personal piety of individual people who lack the ability to repair the entire world. As seen from our long history, only the nation of Israel can serve Hashem within a national framework and strive to uplift and rectify the world in the path of truth and kindness.
Based on this, it is clear why the Ahavat Olam berachah ("Ahavah Rabbah," according to Nusach Ashkenaz), which we say before the recital of Shema, can replace Birkot HaTorah. The main part of this prayer refers to Hashem’s love for Israel and its conclusion is, "Who chooses His people Israel with love." Additionally, the subject of Torah is mentioned at length, for Israel and the Torah are inseparable.
In practice, one who is not certain as to whether he recited Birkot HaTorah can have kavanah to fulfill his obligation of Birkot HaTorah when reciting Ahavat Olam. Likewise, one who forgets to recite Birkot HaTorah before praying and arrives at Ahavat Olam should have in mind to fulfill his obligation of Birkot HaTorah when saying it, and after the prayer service remember to learn words of Torah as one does after Birkot HaTorah (Shulchan Aruch 47:7). 2

3. Is the Recital of Birkot HaTorah a Biblical Commandment?
"Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav, where do we learn that [the obligation to] recite a blessing prior [to learning Torah] is biblical? As it is written (Deuteronomy 32:3), ‘When I proclaim Hashem’s Name, ascribe greatness to our God’" (Berachot 21a). The interpretation of this verse is that the entire Torah is comprised of the names of HaKadosh Baruch Hu (Zohar, part 2, 87:1; Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 10) for He is completely concealed from us, and through the Torah HaKadosh Baruch Hu is revealed to the world. Hence, we learn that the Torah is the names of HaKadosh Baruch Hu and through it He is manifest. That is the meaning of the verse, "Ki Shem Hashem ekra," "When I proclaim Hashem’s Name" – before learning Torah, "Havu godel l’Elokeinu," "Ascribe Greatness to our God" – recite a blessing for the Giver of the Torah.
In practice, the Rishonim are divided concerning the question of whether these words should be taken literally, making the recital of Birkot HaTorah before learning a biblical commandment. According to the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 209:3), reciting Birkot HaTorah is a rabbinic enactment and what Chazal extrapolated from the verse is none other than an asmachta (a reference). Based on this, in a case of doubt, one must be lenient and refrain from reciting the blessings, and that is the custom of the Sephardim (Kaf HaChaim 47:2). According to the majority of Rishonim, among them the Ramban and the Rashba, the source for the mitzvah to recite Birkot HaTorah is biblical. Therefore, when a person is uncertain as to whether or not he recited Birkot HaTorah, he must be stringent and recite them, in keeping with the rule, sefeika d’oraita l’chumra (we are stringent concerning matters of biblical uncertainty), and that is the minhag of the Ashkenazim (Mishnah Berurah 47:1). 3
However, all opinions agree that if there is a person present who did not yet recite Birkot HaTorah, it is preferable to fulfill one’s obligation by hearing him recite them and in that way avoid uncertainty. When there is no such option, if one is about to pray and recite Ahavat Olam (or Ahavah Rabbah), he should have kavanah to fulfill his obligation of Birkot HaTorah in his recital of that berachah. Nevertheless, if the time to pray has not yet arrived, and there is no one whom he can hear recite the berachot, according to those who maintain that the obligation to recite Birkot HaTorah is biblical, he must be stringent and recite them out of uncertainty. It is sufficient to recite only the third berachah, "Asher bachar banu" ("Who chose us,") for it is the most important from among Birkot HaTorah.

^ 1.The Rishonim and Acharonim disagree regarding how many berachot are included in Birkot HaTorah. According to Rabbeinu Tam, Rosh, and others, there are two berachot, and the second part is a continuation of the first. Therefore, one must begin "V’Ha’arev" with a connecting vav (vav hachibur) and Amen is not recited upon the conclusion of the first part. According to the Rambam and others, there are three berachot; hence the word "Ha’arev" is recited (without a vav) and Amen is to be answered after the first part. The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 47:6, writes that it is preferable to start "V’Ha’arev" with a vav in order to fulfill the obligation according to all opinions. The Mishnah Berurah 47:12 writes that it is the opinion of most Acharonim not to answer Amen at the end of the first part. Therefore, it is best to say it quietly in order to avoid uncertainty. Nonetheless, the Ben Ish Chai and Kaf HaChaim 47:10 and 47:13 write that one should answer Amen after it, even though we say "V’Ha’arev" with a vav, for that is what Rav Chaim Vital testified in the name of the Ari.
^ 2.The source for this is in Berachot 11b where it mentions that the berachah is called "Ahavah Rabbah" according to Nusach Ashkenaz and "Ahavat Olam" according to Nusach Sephard (following the opinion of rabbanan there). Concerning one who forgets to recite Birkot HaTorah and arrives at Ahavat Olam, the Mishnah Berurah 52:9 writes that he should have in mind to fulfill his obligation when reciting Ahavat Olam. Additionally, see Bei’ur Halachah s.v. "Poteret," where it seems from Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah that one must have kavanah explicitly in this berachah in order to fulfill his obligation. However, according to the Rosh, even without kavanah, one fulfills his obligation b’dieved by saying it, and that is what is inferred from the Acharonim. They further debate whether one must learn Torah immediately afterwards. The Yerushalmi writes that one is required to learn and that is the opinion of the majority of Rishonim. However, some say (Tosafot Berachot 11a) that the Bavli disagrees, and therefore, according to them it is unnecessary to learn immediately after its recital. Further, they are uncertain as to whether Shema can be considered learning. In order to avoid uncertainty, one must learn something immediately after praying. (According to most poskim, the recital of Shema is not considered learning; see Mishnah Berurah 17 and Bei’ur Halachah in the name of Rabbi Akiva Eiger.) However, even if a person did not learn, he fulfilled his obligation b’dieved (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 6; Kaf HaChaim 17). Additionally, we do learn at the end of the prayer service, for the recital of U’va L’Tzion was instituted so that every Jew would learn verses from the books of the prophets (Nevi’im) every day, and for that purpose the words were translated, as explained further in this book 23:2. Similarly, we say Pitum HaKetoret and Tanna D’vei Eliyahu for the sake of learning Chazal’s words, as is clarified further in this book 23:5.
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