The giving of the Torah, as detailed in Parashas Yisro, raises the issue of birkas hatorah—the beracha that is recited before engaging in Torah study. As we will see below, many see birkas hatorah as a beracha of thanks for the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Before we study Torah, we thank Hashem for giving it to us.
The importance of this blessing is underscored by a passage of the Gemara (Bava Metzia 85b) which teaches that the reason for the destruction of the Mikdash was that the Jewish People did not recite the preliminary blessing before studying Torah. The Ran (Nedarim 81a), echoing Rashi (Bava Metzia), explains that omitting the beracha implied a lack of value: the Torah was not worth reciting a beracha over.
In the present article we will explore the significance of the special blessing over the Torah. Is this beracha a Torah mitzvah? What kind of a beracha is it—a blessing over a mitzvah, or a blessing of praise to Hashem? Must one study Torah immediately after reciting the blessing? And what should one do in case of doubt concerning its proper recitation?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The primary source for birkas hatorah is noted in the Gemara (Berachos 21a), relying on the Pasuk: “When I call out the Name of Hashem, let us bring exaltation to our G-d” (Devarim 32:3). The Name of Hashem is the Torah itself; before studying the Torah, we must “call out the Name” with a blessing.
Another Gemara (Berachos 48b) cites Rabbi Yishmael, who derives the obligation from the mitzvah of birkas hamazon: If we are obligated to make a beracha for chayei sha’a, for life in this world, how much more so are we obligated to bless over chayei olam, the eternal life of Torah.
These sources indicate the nature of the blessing we recite over Torah study. Based on its biblical source, many authorities maintain that birkas hatorah is a Torah mitzvah. For instance, Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 430) states that all berachos are of rabbinic source, with the exception of birkas hamazon and birkas hatorah, which are biblically mandated. Indeed, the wording of the Gemara itself asks for the Torah (de’Oraisa) source for birkas hatorah, again indicating the Torah nature of the obligation.
Although the Rambam does not mention the mitzvah in his Sefer Hamitzvos, the Ramban (Additional Mitzvos, mitzvah no. 15) writes, “We are instructed, each time we read the Torah, to thank Hashem for the great kindness he did us in giving us His Torah…. just as the Torah instructs us to thank Hashem after eating, so too we thank Hashem for the Torah.” Is also stands to reason that if the Gemara pins the Destruction of the Temple on failure to recite the beracha, that birkas hatorah is, indeed, Torah mandated.
However, the Megillas Esther explains that according to the Rambam perhaps the Pasuk mentioned by Chazal is an asmachta—a support for the halachic ruling, yet not a true Torah source. The blessing, according to the Rambam, is thus rabbinic and not Torah-mandated. However others, including the Sefer Hachinuch, maintain that even the Rambam agrees that the beracha is Torah-mandated. Concerning the attribution of the Destruction to neglect of birkas hatorah, the Rambam himself (Pe’er Hador no. 42) seems to espouse a different understanding than applying it to the blessing, explaining that the scholars of the generation would refrain from receiving aliyos to the Torah, giving them instead to amei ha’aretz.
When in Doubt
The question of the Torah or rabbinic nature of birkas hatorah will make a practical difference in cases of doubt: when a person does not remember whether he recited birkas hatorah or not.
The Shaagas Aryeh (no. 24) famously addresses this issue, and follows the Ramban in ruling that when a person is unsure whether he recited birkas hatorah or not, he should repeat the berachos. This is based on the rule that safeik de’Oraisa le’chumra—in cases of doubt concerning a Torah precept, we must be stringent.
Nonetheless, the Shaagas Aryeh clarifies (no. 25) that if a person is unsure whether he recited all three of the morning berachos recited as birkas hatorah, he should only repeat one of the three—preferably asher bachar banu. This is because the Torah obligation is fulfilled with one beracha alone. By contrast, the Pri Chadash (as cited by the Be’er Heiteiv, Orach Chaim 47:1) rules that all three berachos should be recited if a person is unsure whether he already recited birkas hatorah, since all three are considered one unit.
On the other hand, other authorities, in deference to the Rambam, rule that in cases of doubt a person should not recite birkas hatorah (see Machazik Brachah and Matei Yehuda, cited in Shaarei Teshuvah, Orach Chaim 47).
The Mishnah Berurah (47:1) initially notes the opinion of the Shaagas Aryeh, who requires a person in doubt to recite the beracha before learning. Although he also brings the dissenting opinion that follows the Rambam, he writes that it is difficult to rely on this minority opinion, especially given the gravity of learning Torah without reciting the beracha in advance. He concludes that if possible, the person in doubt should hear the beracha from someone else and tell the person to have in mind to be motsei him with the beracha (or have in mind to fulfill the beracha with the recitation of Ahavah rabah in Shacharis, and learn right after davening).
Note that Sephardic Poskim, including the Kaf Hachayim and Rav Ovadia Yosef (cited in Halachah Berurah, Vol. 3, p. 375), generally rule that a beracha should not be recited. This follows the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 209:3), who writes that when doubt arises concerning any berachos we do not recite the beracha again, except for birkas hamazon—implying that not for birkas hatorah. This ruling is also in line with the general inclination of Sephardic authorities to be extremely careful not to recite a beracha in vain.
Praise or Mitzvah Blessing
In ruling that birkas hatorah is a Torah mitzvah, the Ramban writes that “we are instructed to thank His Name each time we read the Torah, for the great goodness that He bestowed upon us in giving us the Torah.” The Ramban also equates the beracha, as the Gemara (cited above) also implies, with birkas hamazon: we thank Hashem even for our food, and of course we must do so for the giving of the Torah.
The Chinuch, who as we saw also rules that the beracha is a Torah mitzvah, mentions likewise that the obligation is “to thank Him before reading the Torah.” This implies that the blessing, according to these authorities, is a birkas hodo’o, a blessing that gives thanks to Hashem. Like birkas hamazon, the Chinuch states that it is a Torah-mandated beracha.
The Rambam, however, writes (Hilchos Tefillah 7:11): “On each day a person must recite these three blessings, and then must read a little from the Torah, which is customarily done with birkas kohanim.” The Rambam’s emphasis on juxtaposing reading from the Torah to reciting the beracha seems to indicate that this is a birkas hamitzvah, a blessing that we recite prior to performing a mitzvah.
Since the beracha is being recited on the mitzvah of Torah study, we must recite the beracha immediately prior to performing the mitzvah—learning Torah.
Interruption by Sleep
Concerning somebody who sleeps during the day, the Shulchan Aruch rules: “A fixed sleep on one’s bed during the day is considered an interruption. Some say that it is not considered a break, and this is the common practice” (Orach Chaim 47:11). The first opinion is that of the Rosh, while the second is the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam (cited in Tosafos Berachos 11B and cited in the Beis Yosef from the Agur, based on Rabbeinu Tam).
Despite the common practice mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berurah (47:25) cites many authorities (including the Gra, the Chayei Adam and the Peri Chadash) who rule that one should make a blessing, and comments that one who does make a blessing has not committed a wrong.
It stands to reason that perhaps the Rosh sees birkas hatorah as a birkas hamitzvah, which is therefore subject to the rules of interruption (though of a type somewhat different to regular blessings on mitzvos). When a person sleeps it is impossible for him to learn, so that sleep is considered an interruption, and following sleep a person must recite a new blessing. Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, perhaps maintains that birkas hatorah is similar to the daily blessings of praise to Hashem, which are recited once a day, and are not subject to interruption.
What happens when somebody didn’t sleep for an entire night? According to the Rosh, if one stayed up all night there should be no need to recite birkas hatorah, since no interruption was made. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam, a new day obligates a new blessing. Since the common practice concerning sleeping during the day follows the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, it seems that based on this opinion one should recite Birkas HaTorah if awake all night.
This argument is made by the Magen Avraham (47:12), though he adds that one should preferably find somebody who slept to recite the blessing on his behalf, since according to the Rosh the blessing cannot be recited. Several authorities concur with this ruling, including the Shulchan Aruch Harav. However, the Gra and the Chayei Adam rule that a beracha should not be recited under the circumstances, and even the Mishnah Berurah rules that out of doubt, one should not recite a beracha after staying up all night.
A Dual Beracha
There remains reason to doubt the dichotomy we have outlined above. For example, the principle ruling of the Mishnah Berurah clearly follows the Rosh, meaning that the beracha is a daily blessing, a birkas hashevach (in accordance with the Ramban) rather than a birkas hamitzvos. Yet, the same Mishnah Berurah says that a person must learn Torah immediately following birkas hatorah.
This ruling is based on one interpretation of Tosafos (Berachos 11b), and the Mishnah Berurah (47:19) writes that most authorities (including the Gra, who as noted above also sides with the Rosh) agree that birkas hatorah must be immediately followed by Torah study, without any interruption.
This indicates that even according to the Rosh and the Ramban’s approach, there is also a mitzvah element to birkas hatorah. Indeed, the Gra makes this explicit in his discussion of women’s recitation of the beracha. While the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 47:14) rules that women recite birkas hatorah, the Gra argues that this ruling does not square with the Shulchan Aruch’s own ruling (Orach Chaim 17:2) forbidding women from reciting a beracha on a mitzvah they are not obligated to perform.
It seems that even if we assume that birkas hatorah is a birkas shevach, a daily expression of praise to Hashem for giving us the Torah, it retains an element of a birkas hamitzvah too.
It can be suggested that the Sages enacted giving praise for the giving of the Torah in the form of a birkas hamitzvah. This is why it has some characteristics of birkas hashevach, and some of birkas hamitzvos (see also Rav Chaim of Brisk’s explanation in Chiddushei Rav Chaim, Berachos 11:16). The Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim 2, 3) and many others say that the beracha of la’asok is a birkas hamitzvo and asher bochar is a beracha of thanks – birkas hodo’oh.