Reflections Upon Birkot HaTorah

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Yeshivat Har Etzion

Reflections upon Birkot Ha-Torah

By Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


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 Chaim, 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.C. 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.C. 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.C. 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" (Tehillim 119:97). 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.

If this concept (of the intertwining of norm and yearning) is elucidated through the substance and sequence of entire berakhot, others are expressed via specific phrases or even a single word; and, of these, several may be noted. One is the term "lishmah" with which - in most current readings, although not, inter alia, the Rambam's - the body of "ve-ha'arev na" concludes. The thrust of the word is itself multifaceted. At one plane, it relates to the motivation of Torah study - as, by the same token, of other mitzvot. Lishmah defines the ideal of serving the Ribbono Shel Olam for His sake rather than for our own; in order to enhance the Kingdom of Heaven rather than for the pursuit of adventitious reward. In this vein, as the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:2-5), in particular, emphasized, it is integrally related to the mitzva of ahavat Hashem, the call to love the Ribbono Shel Olam with our whole being, and to serve Him accordingly. (On the Ramban's view, the concept is also related to a kindred mitzva, "le-avdo be-khol levavkhem" - to serve Him with all your heart. See his animadversion upon the Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot, Assei 5.)

At a second plane, however, the term is more narrowly focused. It posits Torah knowledge as an independent value (to the extent that, within a religious context, any value can be independent). It utterly rejects, for instance, the perception of the study of Gemara as pseudo-philosophy; and, as Rav Haym Volozhiner so vigorously contended, even cavils at reducing talmud Torah to the instrumental role of inducing religious experience or commitment. Our faith in Torah, all Torah, properly studied, as illuminating and ennobling is, of course, profound and abiding; and the emphasis upon relating it to the whole of the spiritual life is beyond question. Yet, Torah study cannot be animated solely by such ancillary concerns, however worthwhile - not if we wish to be included among "those who know Your name and who study Your Torah for its own sake." That appellation is reserved for those for whom the bare fact that a text or an idea is devar Hashem is reason enough for its study.

Moving from the personal to the public arena, we encounter two additional themes in the berakha recited at the conclusion of keriat ha-Torah. The phrase, "ve-chayei olam nata be-tokheinu" - "And eternal life He has implanted within us," has been diversely interpreted. The Tur (O.C. 139) sees it in juxtaposition to the preceding phrase ("Who gave us the Torah of truth") and explains:

To wit: "The Torah of truth" refers to the written Torah, and, "And eternal life He has implanted within us," to the oral Torah, as it is written (Kohelet 12:11), "The words of the wise are as goads and as nails well fastened."

The conclusion, alludes to a Gemara in Chagiga (3b) which takes the word netu'im (i.e. well fastened) in the literal sense of "planted," and, in this vein, amplifies the organic metaphor in order to expound the efflorescence and diversity of Torah:

"Well planted:" just as a plant grows and increases, so the words of the Torah grow and increase. "The masters of assemblies:" these are the disciples of the wise, who sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit. Should a man say: How in these circumstances shall I learn Torah? Therefore the text says: "All of them are given from one Shepherd". One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: "And God spoke all these words."

The organic element is endemic to the world of Torah she-be'al peh, generally, to which the Gemara and the Tur relate. Unlike written Torah, clearly defined and wholly delimited, it is marked by growth and development. These qualities are especially characteristic, however, of the yeshiva world, within which chiddush, the capacity for creative innovation, is held in such high regard. The organic moment is doubly significant. First, it lends a vitalistic cast to Torah learning, to be marked, ideally, by both verve and imagination. Secondly, it deepens the basis of normative commitment by investing submission to the authority of Halakha with an open-ended character. Historicists and Conservative ideologues champion development as a liberating factor, freeing an adapting present from the onerous shackles of a fossilized past. Properly perceived, however, it is no less an obligating factor, imposing, in effect, boundless commitment. As such, it is, most aptly, the vehicle of the covenantal relation of na'asseh ve-nishma, "We shall implement and heed." As the Bet Halevi noted (Bet Halevi al Derush U-mili De-aggadta, Jerusalem, 5707, p. 121; see also p. 130):

But Torah she-be'al peh has no bound or limit, and in every generation new laws and halakhot are innovated... And it is with this intention that Israel then said, Na'asseh ve-nishma, as the import of na'asseh is that they took upon themselves to do all that they were told then, while ve-nishma refers to the future, that they took upon themselves to heed, further, the words of the sages of every generation, all that would be discovered subsequently as Torah novellae.

The Ravya (I:181, sec. 168) interprets "ve-chayei olam nata be-tokheinu" in a wholly different vein. He cites and rejects the view that it refers to Torah, and presents, alternatively, his own explanation. Birkot ha-Torah, he suggests, relate to both Torah and other themes:

Part refers to Torah and part refers to Israel and other mitzvot, such as, "And eternal life He has implanted within us," which refers to other mitzvot and to gemilut chasadim, in which Jews are always engaged, and we thank God for both.

The import of the passage is striking. However, an obvious question arises. Granted that "other mitzvot and gemilut chasadim" are important, but why are they cited in a berakha over Torah? Oughtn't Chazal rather have instituted a birkat ha-chesed, to be recited prior to visiting the sick or attending a funeral? The answer is equally obvious. Torah which is divorced from other mitzvot, which is devoid of meaningful relation to chesed, is inherently flawed. Torah is, optimally, Torat chesed, an organic whole within which both orders are integrally fused. Hence, the component of gemilut chasadim is included in birkat ha-Torah, under the rubric of chayyei olam.

In conclusion, quite apart from their content, a word about the role which Chazal ascribed to birkot ha-Torah. With reference to the pesukim in Yirmeyahu (9:11-12),

Who is the wise man, that he may understand this, and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord hath spoken, that he may declare it? Wherefore is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through it? And the Lord saith: Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not hearkened to my voice, neither walked thereto,

Rav comments (Nedarim 81a):

Are not "they have forsaken my law" and "they have not hearkened to my voice" the same? Rav states: It means that they did not say a berakha prior to learning Torah.

To learn Torah without a preceding berakha does not merely constitute failure to fulfill a particular halakha. It entails - and here, we return to our point of departure - missing the essence of Torah itself. Learning without praise, thanksgiving, and petitionary aspiration is learning which fails to realize the joy and the marvel, the awe and the wonder, of talmud Torah. To learn with insouciance or indifference, or even with presumed dispassionate objectivity grounded in intellectual curiosity, is to reduce devar Hashem to an academic discipline. Hence, as the Rav stressed (see his Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mori z"l [Jerusalem, 5745], pp. 1-2), on the basis of the Rambam, talmud Torah sans berakhot does not merely miss out on a mitzva; it constitutes a positive violation. In effect, such learning disregards, perhaps even implicitly denies, the unique character of Torah; small wonder, then, that there is an issur.

This theme is complemented by an elaboration of the Maharal (see the introduction to Tiferet Israel; and cf. Turei Zahav, O.C. 47:1). Addressing himself to the Gemara in Nedarim, he asks how is it conceivable that Rav could have interpreted the pasuk as ascribing the decimation of the land to the failure to recite birkot ha-Torah when neviim repeatedly saw it as caused by the most heinous of sins - idolatry, fornication, and murder? He responds that, unquestionably, it was over these that the country was punished. Rav, however, sought to confront another question: If, as Chazal assumed, people then engaged in Torah study, how could they have become so degenerate and dissolute? Where was the illuminating and ennobling influence of Torah study - "For its light stimulates regeneration?" With respect to this query, Rav responds that those who fail to utter birkot ha-Torah, who, therefore, implicitly approach learning without tremulous awe, relegating confrontation with the divine word to the exercise of rational inquiry, are impervious to that light. Only when Torah is perceived as it is and related to as such, does genuine and pervasive spiritual illumination occur.

By the same token, this sense of Torah's uniqueness is the spirit in which we, who do recite birkot ha-Torah - suffused by the duty to persist, brimming with prayerful anticipation of joy, filled with humble gratitude for having been singled out as the chosen recipients of the Ribbono Shel Olam's own Torah, - approach it. Above all, overwhelmed by the sheer marvel. In the words of the Tur (O.C. 47; the final phrase alludes to Mishlei 8:30):

And, in his berakha, one should think of the convocation at Sinai, that He chose us from among all the nations; brought us near to Mount Sinai and made us to hear His words out of the fire, and gave us His sacred Torah which is the base of our lives - His precious vessel with which He reveled daily.

It is with this intent, with an eye to these aspirations, out of souls yearning for their realization, that a yeshiva is conceived. Beyond conception lies fulfillment; beyond the dream, implementation. Toward these, we labor with might and main. For siyata di-shemaya, for divine assistance in their achievement, we bless and pray, with humility and hope.