At the beginning of Parashas Ki Savo we are reminded, as part of the declaration of Bikkurim (bringing the first fruit to Jeruaslem) of the obligation to recite blessings when performing a mitzvah.
The Torah prescribes a statement that must be made by a person bringing bikkurim to the Mikdash, which includes the following clause: “I have not transgressed any of Your commandments, and I have not forgotten” (Devarim 26:13). Rashi explains: “I have not forgotten to bless You over the separation of maaser.”
It seems that the separation of maaser requires a blessing before it—though as many commentaries note (see Hakesav Vehakabalah), the wording of the beracha is certainly only rabbinic, and not ordained by the Torah itself. This, indeed, is the case generally: we are required to recite blessings before the fulfillment of mitzvos.
However, there seem to be many mitzvos that are exceptions to the rule. We do not recite a blessing before honoring parents. Neither is a berachah recited before giving charity, before visiting the sick, or before making aliyah to the Land of Israel. Similarly, no blessing is recited in advance of fulfilling the daily mitzvah of prayer, or before writing a Sefer Torah.
These are some examples of many mitzvos over which we do not recite berachos.
In the present article we will discuss the idea of reciting blessings over mitzvos and explore the reason for the exceptions to the rule. What is the underlying concept of reciting berachos over mitzvos? What are the general rules determining when the berachah is made? Why is it that many mitzvos are fulfilled without reciting a berachah before them? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
A Blessing for All Mitzvos?
The Yerushalmi (Berachos Chap. 6, p. 41b) tells us that Rabbi Chagai and Rabbi Yirmiyah once entered a store together. Rabbi Chagai hurried to recite a blessing. Rabbi Yirmiyah told him: “You have acted appropriately, for all mitzvos require a blessing.”
The Yerushalmi does not indicate which blessing it was that Rabbi Chagai hurried to recite. The Chareidim, however, in his commentary to the Yerushalmi, explains that he recited the following blessing: “Who sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us to inspect weights and measures, and to fix prices.”
As the Chareidim explains, the reason Rabbi Chagai recited this novel berachah is that one must recite a blessing before the performance of all mitzvos. These Sages came to the store to check weights and measures, as beis din is required to do, and they therefore recited a blessing in advance of performing the mitzvah.
Indeed, this is the clear implication of the Yerushalmi, whose words appear to be unequivocal: All mitzvos require a blessing before them. The Chareidim quotes a halachic opinion that concurs: “Rabbeinu Eliyahu used to recite a blessing whenever he would give charity or lend money to the poor, and so concerning all mitzvos.”
However, his conclusion is that the common custom does not follow this ruling: “This is not the common custom. Rather we recite blessings over certain mitzvos, and not over others. The Rashba has already been asked concerning this practice and strained himself to explain why some mitzvos are different from others.”
It thus emerges that according to one opinion in the Yerushalmi a blessing must be recited before the performance of all mitzvos. However, the custom does not follow this principle, and makes distinctions between mitzvos.
A Torah Obligation of Blessing
What is the source for reciting blessings over mitzvos?
As noted at the outset, the words, “I have not transgressed any of Your commandments, and I have not forgotten,” are interpreted by the Mishnah (Maaser Sheini 5:11, as quoted by Rashi) as referring to the obligation of reciting blessings over mitzvos. The implication is that recitation of such blessings is a Torah obligation. However, the Torah seems to assume that we know the obligation from elsewhere. What is the actual source?
The Yerushalmi (Berachos, loc. cit.) derives the requirement to recite a blessing for mitzvos from a Torah verse: “And I shall give you the stone tablets and the teaching and the mitzvah” (Shemos 24:12). The verse compares the Torah to performance of mitzvos. Based on this comparison, the Gemara states: “Just as Torah requires a blessing, so mitzvos require a blessing.”
According to many authorities (see Shaagas Aryeh 24), reciting a blessing before the study of Torah is a full Torah mitzvah, which the Sages derive from the verse, “When I call out the name of G‑d, ascribe greatness to our G‑d” (Devarim 32:3; Berachos 21a). It would seem that perhaps according to the Yerushalmi, just as one is obligated to recite a blessing before the study of Torah—a full Torah obligation—so one must recite a blessing before the performance of other mitzvos.
If we assume it is a Torah commandment (see also Shut Har Tzvi, Vol. 2, Kuntress Mili Debrachos, others disagree-see below), we can understand why the Yerushalmi endorses the recitation of a blessing before all mitzvos, making no distinctions between one mitzvah and another.
Yet, in the Talmud Bavli we find an explicit statement that blessings over mitzvos are not a Torah requirement, but only a rabbinic obligation.
The Gemara (Berachos 15a) writes that the reason why failure to recite a blessing before separating tithes does not invalidate the tithing is because, “a blessing is [only] rabbinic, and [the fulfillment of the mitzvah] does not depend on the blessing.” By contrast with the Yerushalmi’s opinion, if it is a rabbinic obligation, distinctions between different mitzvos are understood: for some mitzvos Chazal enacted a blessing, whereas for others they did not.
In this connection, it is interesting to note that whereas the Yerushalmi states that, “All mitzvos require a blessing before them,” the Babylonian Talmud makes no such statement, teaching instead that, “for all mitzvos, the blessing must be recited before the performance.” This means that, when a blessing is recited, it must (generally) be recited before performing the mitzvah. In some instances, however, no blessing is recited.
Note that the Peri Megadim (General Introduction to Blessings, chap. 15) writes that the recitation of blessings before the performance of mitzvos is only a rabbinic obligation, as we find in the Bavli. He also writes that the verse quoted by the Yerushalmi is an asmachta—a support for the idea, but not a formal source for a Torah mitzvah—so that he maintains that even the Yerushalmi agrees the obligation is rabbinic.
Involvement of a Second Party
When is a beracha recited, and when not?
Addressing the question of which mitzvos blessings are recited over, the Rashba (Vol. 1, no. 18, 254) writes that many mitzvos are excluded from reciting a blessing because they are dependent on the wants and needs of a second party.
Due to their dependency on another person, who is able to forego the mitzvah at will (for example, by the parent foregoing his honor or refusing to accept a requested drink—see Vilna Gaon, annotations to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 8), no blessing is recited over them.
The Rashba thus provides us with a key distinction to understand why we do not recite a blessing prior to many mitzvos, such as giving charity, honoring parents, visiting the sick, mishloach manos on Purim, and other similar mitzvos. This could also be the rationale behind the words of the Rambam (Berachos 12:2), who rules that a blessing must be made in advance of every mitzvah that is bein adam la-Makom (between man and Hashem).
Shut Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 54) adds that the dependency principle of the Rashba applies specifically to mitzvos that are bein adam lechavero—mitzvos whose basic nature is “between man and his fellow”—such as charity, loans, paying salaries, and so on. The point is that the mitzvah is directed at the other, so that the other’s prerogative to refuse is central. For mitzvos that are bein adam la-Makom, dependency on a second party does not affect the issue of reciting a berachah.
Concerning the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, we therefore find in the Pischei Teshuvah (Yoreh De’ah 157:6) that a blessing should be recited upon giving up one’s life for sanctifying the name of Hashem: “Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to sanctify His Name in public.” While dependent on a second party (the murderer), this mitzvah is classified as bein adam la-Makom, and therefore the berachah applies.
An alternative explanation is that although the mitzvah depends on a second party, a blessing may be recited because once a person decides to give his life away, he fulfills the mitzvah even if he is ultimately saved from death.
Separation from non-Jews
An additional distinction is suggested by Rabbi Binyamin ben Matisyahu (Shut Binyanim Ze’ev no. 169), who relates to the mitzvah of honoring parents: Why is no blessing recited in advance of performing the mitzvah, for instance when serving a parent food or drink? Surely this fulfills a Torah commandment no less than wearing a tallis or eating matzah?
Shut Binyanim Ze’ev answers that no blessing is recited prior to honoring parents because the concept of honoring parents is practiced even by non-Jews. Blessings for mitzvos, according to the Binyamin Ze’ev, are recited specifically over those actions that separate the nation of Israel from nations of the world. Because honoring parents does not fall under this category, no blessing is recited.
This original interpretation is based on the words of the blessing: “Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us.” Sanctification, according to Shut Binyamin Ze’ev, is understood as meaning “separated,” “distinguished.” It can therefore be argued that the blessing is recited only for those mitzvos that set Jews aside from non-Jews.
The Roke’ach (no. 366) presents a similar argument, explaining that blessings are not recited over such mitzvos as building a fence on a roof, executing judgment, and over negative prohibitions such as theft. The reason for this is that “the blessing of ‘Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us’ implies us, and not non-Jews.”
In fact, several prominent authorities concur that the blessing over mitzvos is not recited for mitzvos that are rational—that we would perform even were it not for the Torah’s instruction. These include Rabbeinu Bachya (Bamidbar 15:38), Shut Shem Aryeh (Orach Chaim, no. 1), and the Aruch Hashulchan (Choshen Mishpat, 427:10), among others.
The Aruch Hashulchan stresses that although we perform the mitzvah because Hashem commanded it, the mitzvah act itself does not articulate this concept, since it is also performed based on human reason. Therefore, he explains, no berachah is recited.
Blessings Over Rational Mitzvos
Other authorities do not agree with this distinction.
According to most authorities, a berachah is recited even over the fulfillment of rational mitzvos, including those mitzvos performed by Jew and non-Jew alike. Even concerning actions that are performed as rational acts (by Jews and by non-Jews) Hashem has sanctified us, raising the very same actions to the holy level of a mitzvah, so that the blessing remains appropriate.
Indeed, Rav Shmuel Wosner zt”l (Shut Shevet Halevi Vol. 2, no. 111, sec. 1) goes so far as to express wonder at the above interpretation of Shut Binyamin Ze’ev. In his opinion, there is all the more reason to recite a blessing over honoring parents than over regular mitzvos, for doing so declares our wish to honor parents specifically because the Torah commanded it.
A good example of a blessing over a rational mitzvah is the case of maakeh, building a fence for a roof. The Sedei Chemed (Berachos no. 16) lists many authorities, both early (rishonim) and late (acharonim), who rule that a blessing is recited prior to the building of a fence on a roof (this is also the accepted ruling). This does not appear to concur with the statement that blessings are not recited over rational mitzvos: it seems perfectly rational to build a fence on a roof, and the precautionary measure is generally practiced by Jews and non-Jews alike.
In defense of Shut Binyamin Ze’ev and those who concur with him, it can be argued that the mitzvah of maakeh includes non-rational elements. For example, the Chazon Ish (Choshen Mishpat, Likkutim 18:2) writes that the obligation to fence a rooftop is a chiddush of the Torah, since in general people who climb to rooftops are aware of their precarious situation, and take precautions to avoid calamity. Despite this, the Torah obligates us to build a maakeh.
Following similar lines, the Aruch Hashulchan (Choshen Mishpat 427:10) writes that a blessing is recited over the mitzvah of maakeh because pure logic would obligate each person to look after himself, and the mitzvah is therefore not a totally rational obligation. Nonetheless, the simple understanding of the mitzvah of maakeh remains an eminently logical safety precaution, which calls us to search for additional distinctions in the matter of berachos over mitzvos.
Why is no blessing recited by somebody making aliyah to the Land of Israel?
The Or Zaru’a (Berachos 140) suggests a different principle for when berachos are made over mitzvos. Explaining that the intention of the berachah is to express our fondness of the mitzvah, the Or Zaru’a writes that a berachah can only be recited over mitzvos that are in some way time related, occurring at intervals or at set times.
Thus, a berachah is recited over tefillin, milah, pidyon haben, eating matzah, Torah study (which is fulfilled by some study of Torah at day and at night), and so on.
However, mitzvos that apply continuously, and whose obligation is constant, do not require a blessing: Since they apply without interruption, a specific expression of fondness is not appropriate. Thus, no blessing is recited over our emunah in Hashem, over loving Him or heeding His instructions, or over honoring one’s parents: these mitzvos apply the whole time.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky (without referring to the Or Zaru’a) explains that this is the reason why no blessing is recited upon moving to the Land of Israel. Because it is a mitzvah that applies constantly, no blessing was enacted over it (cited in Aveni Chen, p. 169). The same explanation can perhaps be given for why no blessing is recited in advance of writing a Sefer Torah.
The Power of the Custom
We have addressed some of the mitzvos over which berachos are not recited and mentioned some of the explanations that are given for this. Of course, there are many others, and for some of them we need recourse to individual explanations.
In our article on shilu’ach haken, we mentioned that no blessing is recited, possibly because we cannot be sure that the mitzvah will be successfully fulfilled—the bird might fly away before we get a chance to drive her off. This is one reason given by Tosafos in Brachos 11B why one doesn’t say a brocho over sleeping in a Succa, because maybe one won’t fall asleep
Likewise, no blessing is recited over telling the story of our redemption from Egypt—though some say there is goeil Yisroel— for being joyous on festivals, for eating three meals on Shabbos, and for a number of other mitzvos. Different reasons are given for different mitzvos; discussing each and every one of them would turn this short article into a full book!
Beyond the principles mentioned above, it is important to note that although many authorities discuss the blessing over various mitzvos, virtually all limit their discussion to why a blessing is not recited over mitzvos. The discussion of the actual halachic question of whether or not a berachah is recited is not generally found in writings of poskim.
The reason for this is that in respect of the latter question, the primary halachic authority is not the posek, but rather the custom. We recite or refrain from reciting berachos based on the common custom: The task of authorities in this area is not to decide, but rather to explain.
We conclude with the concluding words of the Rashba, in his analysis of berachos over mitzvos: “In the final analysis, go and see the custom of the people.”