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Reflections Upon Birkot HaTorah (Part 1 of 2)


Not surprisingly, few texts are as pregnant with concepts central to the definition of a yeshiva and its goals as birkot ha-Torah.  Within the space of several lines - recited either prior to daily Torah study or before and after keriat ha-Torah in public - are encapsulated a number of major themes which express aspects of the traditional Jewish conception of Talmud Torah, in particular, and of the religious life, generally.  In seeking to understand the nature and aspirations of our own yeshiva, it behooves us, therefore, to reflect, however cursorily, upon the substance of these berakhot.

At the outset, we are confronted by the question of the nature of the berakhot, and how, with respect to their origin and obligation, they are to be classified.  At one level, this entails determining whether they have been mandated mi-de'oraita or mi-derabbanan - an issue which was debated by Rishonim, with the Ramban insisting that they had been prescribed by the Torah while the Rambam evidently held that, like most berakhot, they were of Rabbinic origin.  [See Ramban's list of mitzvot assei which he held had been omitted by the Rambam in the latter's Sefer Hamitzvot (printed after the section on mitzvot assei), no. 15.  For fuller discussions, see Sha'agat Aryeh, 24-25, and, especially, Torat Refael, Orach Haym, 1.]  At a second level, however, irrespective of origin, the character of the berakhot is at issue.  That, in turn, may very well hinge upon textual factors; and this in two respects, one more general, and the other, quite specific.

With regard to personal birkot ha-Torah, the Gemara (Berakhot 11b) cites three different berakhot recited by three Amoraim, and then concludes: "Hence," i.e., in order to encompass the various themes included in the respective formulations, "Let us recite all of them;" and such is, of course, our familiar practice.  It should be noted, however, that, prima facie, the texts point in different directions.  The first, "Asher kidishanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu la'asok be-divrei Torah," is framed as a birkat ha-mitzva, cut from the same cloth as similar assertions recited prior to lighting candles or eating in a Sukka.  The second, "Ve-ha'arev na Hashem Elokeinu et divrei Toratkha be-finu," is a petitionary plea for learning characterized by pervasive sweetness and light.  The last, "Asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim ve-natan lanu et Torato," is a paean of thanksgiving for collective chosenness manifested through the revelation of Torah to Knesset Israel.

Given this variety, one naturally asks what is the normative core of the obligation to recite birkot ha-Torah.  The question may very well be out of court, as it is entirely conceivable that the obligation is multifaceted.  Nevertheless, the quest - particularly, with respect to a possible de'oraita dimension - persists.  Rav Haym Soloveitchik (Brisker), in a novellum preserved both through oral tradition and in a volume of his son, Rav Yitzchak Zev (Chiddushei Maran Riz Halevi, p. 10), contended that the obligation did not derive from the fact that Torah study was a mitzva prior to whose performance a berakha must be recited.  It related, rather, to Torah per se, qua object, as a gift which the Ribbono Shel Olam, with munificent grace, had conferred upon us, irrespective of the command to study it.

In support of this contention - which, of course, consorts better with the latter berakhot, but which he, evidently, advanced even with regard to the first - Reb Haym adduced several proofs.  First, although the Mechaber in Shulchan Arukh (O.H. 589:6) accepted the view that women should not recite a berakha prior to performing a mitzva from which they have been exempt, he nevertheless simply states, "Women recite birkat ha-Torah" (O.H. 47:14; cf. Rosh Hashana 33a, Tosafot, s.v. Ha).  This can be easily understood if the berakha is over the object of Torah rather than over the mitzva to study it.  Similarly, the argument is buttressed by the institution of berakhot around keriat ha-Torah, although there is presumably no independent mitzva to read in public.  Conversely, the Mechaber (O.H. 47:4; see also the source in Sefer Ha'agur, Tefilla, 2) sets down that if a person meditates upon Torah matters without articulating them, he should not recite a berakha, although he is patently fulfilling the mitzva.

Perhaps the most trenchant proof in support of Reb Haym's thesis was offered by Rav Aryeh Pomoranchik, in his Emek Berakha (p. 5).  The Gemara (Berakhot 11b) cites views that a berakha should be recited only when certain tracts of Torah are studied, to the possible exclusion of Midrash, Mishna, or Talmud.  These are obviously mainstays of Torah study; hence, the apparent inference that the berakha relates to Torah per se - and, therefore, conceivably confined to its Scriptural epicenter.

These arguments can be rebutted.  It may be rejoined, for instance, that women, too, albeit in a more limited vein, are obligated to study Torah; that keriat ha-Torah is an independent institution, invested with its own sui generis structure, unrelated to our topic; that no berakhot are recited in performing mitzvot, such as the love of God or one's fellow, which are not manifested by objective expression; and that the Gemara concludes that study of any aspect of Torah requires a berakha precisely because it rejected Reb Haym's contention.  Nevertheless, halakhic arguments aside, the thesis is amply supported by a simple textual point.  Both in the Bavli (Berakhot 21b) and in the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 7:1), birkot ha-Torah are treated as of a piece with those over food, before and after - birkot ha-nehenin and birkat ha-mazon, respectively.  Obviously, the analogy only holds insofar as Torah qua object is the focus.  It is, of course, arguable that the Gemara is confined to the last berakhot or their equivalent, but that "la'asok be-divrei Torah" is an ordinary birkat ha-mitzva.  Nevertheless, the cogency of the core concept is clearly implicit in the Gemara's comparison.

The validity of this thesis, even with regard to the first berakha, presumably depends - at least, up to a point - upon a textual factor.  The prevalent Ashkenazi version reads "la'asok be-divrei Torah," "to engage in Torah matters," thus focusing upon the activity, presumably normative, of Torah study.  However, Sephardim generally accept the reading - found in basic Geonic sources, the Rif and the Rambam, and even among some chakhmei Ashkenaz - "al divrei Torah," "over Torah matters," which posits Torah itself at the heart of the berakha, and thus sets it apart from the ordinary birkat ha-mitzva.  Nevertheless, the Ashkenazi formulation, too, bespeaks uniqueness.  The verb employed is not lilmod, "to study," but la'asok, the term generally used to denominate commerce.  What is envisioned is clearly not merely an act, or even a series of acts, but an enterprise.  Even for the ordinary individual, belabored by the demands of a secular career, Torah is ideally defined as a calling.  For the layman, too, it is, in a very real sense, to be a vocation, with all that the concept implies, quantitatively and qualitatively, in terms of aspiration and commitment.  Commenting on the pasuk, "Im be-chukkotai telekhu," "If ye walk in my statutes," Chazal state (Sifra, Bechukkotai, 2):

"Can this refer to mitzvot?  When it says, 'And ye shall keep my commandments and do them,' mitzvot have already been cited.  So how am I to understand, 'If ye walk in my statutes?'  That you are to be laboring in Torah."

"To be laboring in Torah" - that is the demand and the expectation; and it is to that commitment that birkot ha-Torah relate.

The emphasis upon committed effort is further sharpened - indeed, radically so - by another textual variant.  We, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, conclude the second berakha by addressing "ha-Melamed Torah le-ammo Israel," "He who teaches Torah to His people, Israel."  This is also the coda cited in most editions of the Rambam's Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:10).  In a responsum (Teshuvot HaRambam, ed. J. Blau, p. 333), however, he rejects this formulation categorically: "But whoever concludes 'ha-melamed Torah' errs, for God does not teach it to us, but, rather, has commanded us to study and to teach it.  And this is grounded upon a principle of our faith - to wit, that the enactment of mitzvot is in our hands, not by divine compulsion to perform or neglect them."  The critique is a ringing assertion of human freedom, and, as such, refers to the full range of spiritual experience.  Nevertheless, given the specific thrust of lihyot amelim ba-Torah, it is particularly apt with respect to this most critical and sensitive sphere.

The Rambam's version has not, of course, gained acceptance.  The spirit which animated it, however, has had a broad and profound influence, especially as regards Talmud Torah.  I am reminded, in this connection, of an anecdote - I presume it has numerous analogues - told to me by the Rav's mother, Rebbetzin Pesia Soloveitchik z"l - about an ordinary laborer in the town of Pruzhan, who, upon being blessed by well-wishers that he should become a great talmid chakham by virtue of miraculous giluy Eliyahu, demurred with the rejoinder that he would be most appreciative of supernal assistance in any other area, but as to growth in Torah, he aspired to attain that on his own.

However Torah study be denominated, the conjunction of the first two birkot ha-Torah - indeed, on Tosafot's view (Berakhot 46a, s.v. Kol), they are components of a single berakha - is striking, in one sense, and so typically Jewish in another.  The first focuses upon Torah study as a normative duty, the second relates to it as a prospective joy.  The conjunction reflects our overarching attitude to talmud Torah, in particular, and to avodat Hashem, in general.  On the one hand, we learn because we must.  No category is more central to Yahadut than mitzva.  A Jew exists as a metzuveh - as a called and commanded being.  He acts in response to duty, irrespective of inclination.  We have been collectively defined as servants of God, "avadai hem;" and to serve is to discharge one's task, regardless of desire or gratification.  What the Rambam (Hilkhot Klei Hamikdash 3:1), on the basis of the Sifra, stated with respect to Leviyim -

"And it is a positive commandment that Leviyim be ready and directed for the service of mikdash, whether they want to or not, as it is stated, 'But the Leviyim alone shall do the service of the tent of meeting.'" -

is true, analogously, of every Jew.  So, we should, and would, learn Torah, even if it did not attract or inspire us, even if we were not "turned on" in the slightest.

Obviously, however, we do want to be inspired - and much more.  Our commitment to obligation and the moral law is no less fervent than Kant's, and we could subscribe to the substance of Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty."  But we do not share the Kantian polarization of duty and inclination or the idealization of inner struggle as the basis, if not the definition, of moral existence.  We acknowledge that "Who is a hero?  He who conquers his will;" but the notion that moral and spiritual greatness is conditional upon the exercise of heroism is wholly foreign to us.  Correspondingly, we categorically reject the persistent Christian antithesis of law and love.  In sum, Yahadut is law and law and law.  It is, also, love and love and love.

So, we should, and would, learn Torah - as we would fulfill other mitzvot - even if it were, to our palate, castor oil.  We aspire, however, to experience it as milk and honey; and it is for that level of gratification, at once spiritual and visceral, that we pray in imploring "ve-ha'arev na."  The fusion of duty and joy, obligation and gratification, commitment and fulfillment, is central to our view of avodat Hashem; and it receives special emphasis with respect to talmud Torah.  "Oh how I love Thy law!  It is my meditation all the day."  In describing it, Chazal (Eruvin 54b) resorted to metaphors of elemental passionate experience - an infant sucking at his mother's breast, bride and groom on their wedding night:

"R. Samuel bar Nachmani expounded: With reference to the Scriptural text, 'Loving hind and a graceful roe etc.,' why were the words of the Torah compared to a hind?  To tell you that as the hind has a narrow womb and is loved by its mate at all times as at the first hour of their meeting, so it is with the words of the Torah.  They are loved by those who study them at all times as at the hour when they first made their acquaintance.  'And a graceful roe'?  Because the Torah bestows grace upon those who study it.  'Her breasts will satisfy thee at all times.'  Why were the words of the Torah compared to a breast?  As with a breast, however often the child sucks it so often does he find milk in it, so it is with the words of the Torah.  As often a man studies them so often does he find relish in them."

The conjunction of the first two birkot ha-Torah - all the more so, if they are, truly, a single berakha - is, then, a remarkable testament to the inextricable intertwining of norm and yearning at the center of Jewish existence and experience.


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