I have not transgressed any of Your commandments, and I have not forgotten.
Rashi: “I have not forgotten to bless You over the separation of maaser”
A part of the broad structure of berachos that we recite on a day-to-day basis is birchos ha-mitzvos—blessings that are made prior to the fulfillment of a mitzvah. Yet, short reflection will reveal that there are many mitzvos for which we do not recite a blessing. These include such common mitzvos as honoring parents, visiting the sick, writing a sefer torah, and many others.
The distinction between different mitzvos with regard to reciting a blessing requires scrutiny. Why do some mitzvos require a blessing, whereas others do not?
A Blessing for All Mitzvos?
Do all mitzvos require a blessing before their performance?
A glance at a short paragraph in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 41b) suggests an answer in the affirmative: “Rabbi Chagai and Rabbi Yirmiyah went into a store. Rabbi Chagai hurried to recite a blessing. Rabbi Yirmiyah told him, “You have acted properly, for all mitzvos require a blessing”.
The Talmud does not indicate which blessing it was that Rabbi Chagai hurried to recite. The Chareidim, however, in his commentary to the Jerusalem Talmud, 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 why Rabbi Chagai recited this novel berachah is that one must recite a blessing before the performance of all mitzvos. Indeed, this is the clear implication of the Jerusalem Talmud (loc. cit.), which states that “all mitzvos require a blessing before them.”
The Chareidim proceeds to quote a halachic opinion that concurs with the maxim of reciting a blessing before all mitzvos: “Rabbeinu Eliyahu used to recite a blessing whenever he would give charity or lend money to the poor, and so concerning all mitzvos.” However, the Chareidim concludes 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 set apart from others.”
It thus emerges that according to the Jerusalem Talmud, a blessing must be recited before the performance of all mitzvos. However, the custom does not follow this principle, but makes distinctions between different mitzvos. Why does our halachic practice deviate from the simple statement of the Jerusalem Talmud that “all mitzvos require a blessing before them”?
The Mitzvah of Blessing: Biblical or Rabbinic?
Perhaps we can find an answer to the above question by investigating the basic obligation of reciting blessings over mitzvos.
From the words of the verse (Devarim 26:13), “I have not transgressed any of Your commandments, and I have not forgotten,” the Midrash (Sifri, as quoted by Rashi) derives the obligation of reciting blessings over mitzvos: “I have not forgotten to bless You over the separation of maaser.” The seeming implication is that recitation of such blessings is a Torah obligation.
The biblical source of the obligation is also apparent from the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 41b), which also derives the requirement to recite a blessing for mitzvos from a Torah verse (Shemos 24:12): “and I shall give you the stone Tablets and the teaching and the mitzvah.” The verse, explains the Talmud, compares the Torah to mitzvos: “Just as Torah requires a blessing, so mitzvos require a blessing.” ((However, see Peri Megadim (General Introduction to the Laws of Blessings, chap. 15), who writes that the recitation of blessings is only a rabbinic obligation, and the verse quoted by the Jerusalem Talmud is only an asmachta. )) As a Torah commandment, we can well understand that the Jerusalem Talmud endorses the recitation of a blessing for all mitzvos, making no distinctions between one mitzvah and another.
However, a well-known passage of the Babylonian Talmud states explicitly that blessings over mitzvos are not a Torah requirement, but only 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.” As a rabbinic obligation, distinctions between different mitzvos are well 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 Jerusalem Talmud 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.” Rather than implying the requirement to recite a blessing before all mitzvos, the statement can be interpreted as an instruction to recite the blessing, wherever applicable, before (rather than after) the performance of the mitzvah. For some mitzvos, however, no blessing at all is recited.
Who Has Sanctified Us with His Mitzvos
The clear custom, as mentioned above, is to recite blessings of mitzvos selectively—there are many mitzvos for which we recite no blessing. What are the reasons for this? For which mitzvos do we recite blessings, and for which don’t we?
R. Binyamin ben Matisyahu (a leading halachic authority of the sixteenth century; Shut Binyanim Ze’ev, no. 169) relates briefly to the mitzvah of honoring parents: why do we not recite a blessing before performing the mitzvah, for instance in serving a parent food or drink? Surely this performs a Torah commandment no less than wearing a tallis or eating matzah?
The 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 only on those actions that separate Israel from nations of the world, and cannot apply to mitzvos that are practiced even by non-Jews.
The source for this line of interpretation is the words of the blessings: “Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us.” Interpreting “sanctification” as meaning “separated,” it can be argued that the blessing applies only to mitzvos that tangibly set Jews aside from non-Jews. Arguing that blessings are not recited over such mitzvos as building a security fence on a roof, executing judgment, and over negative prohibitions such as theft, the Rokeach (no. 366) presents a similar argument: “the blessing of ‘who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us’ implies us, and not non-Jews.”
In fact, a number of prominent authorities concur that a blessing over mitzvos is not recited for “rational” mitzvos—mitzvos that we would perform even were it not for the Torah’s instruction. These include Rabbeinu Bachya (Bamidbar 15:38), Rabbi Akiva Eiger (glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 240:1), Shem Aryeh (Orach Chaim, no. 1), Aruch Hashulchan (Choshen Mishpat, 427:10), among others. The rationale, once more, is that “rational” mitzvos do not separate Jews from other nations.
Bless the Security Fence?
By contrast with the opinions mentioned above, the Sedei Chemed (Berachos, no. 16) cites a lengthy list of authorities, including the vast majority of rishonim and acharonim, who rule that a blessing is recited prior to the building of a security fence on a roof—an action that fulfills the mitzvah of ma’akeh. This does not appear to concur with the statement that blessings are not recited over “rational” mitzvos—indeed, one of the mitzvos specified by the Rokeach as not requiring a blessing is the construction of a ma’akeh.
The Aruch Hashulchan (loc. cit.), who finds difficulty with the blessing over the mitzvah of ma’akeh, argues that ma’akeh is not a “rational” mitzvah. Logic, he states, decrees that whoever climbs on the roof has to take his own precautions (he does not mention the concern of children climbing on the roof). Yet, unless we assume that non-Jews picked up the custom from Jewish origins, it can hardly be argued that the mitzvah separates us from others, for it is certainly the general way of the world to build fences on roofs.
Leaving aside the possible solution offered by the Aruch Hashulchan, we can therefore state that most authorities endorse blessings even over “rational” mitzvos, and even on mitzvos that are performed by Jew and non-Jew alike. As to the wording of the blessing, “who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us,” it can be argued that the words apply to all mitzvos equally. Even in those actions that are performed as mundane acts by non-Jews, Hashem has sanctified us, raising the very same actions to the holy level of a mitzvah.
Indeed, Rabbi Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Halevi, vol. 2, no. 111, sec. 1) goes so far as to expresses wonder at the above interpretation of the Binyamin Ze’ev. In his opinion, there is greater reason to recite a blessing over honoring parents than over regular mitzvos, in order to declare that we do not honor them because this is the way of the world, but because it is a mitzvah of Hashem.
Mitzvos Involving a Third Party
The Rashba suggests an alternative distinction between different mitzvos. Addressing the question of which mitzvos – blessings are recited over, he writes (vol. 1, no. 18 and 254) that the reason why we do not recite a blessing prior to many mitzvos is because these mitzvos are dependent on the wants and needs of a third party. On account of their dependency on another person, who is able to “uproot” the mitzvah at will (for example, by the parent foregoing his honor, or by his refusing to accept the requested drink ((The former reason is suggested by the Rashba (no. 18); the latter is given by the Vilna Gaon (glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 8). )) ), no blessing is recited over them.
The Rashba thus provides us with a key distinction for understanding 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.
It is interesting to note that with regard to the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, the Pischei Teshuvah (Yoreh De’ah 157:6) quotes that a blessing should be recited upon giving up one’s life for the sake of sanctifying the Name: “who sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us to sanctify His Name in public.” Although the mitzvah depends on a third party (the murderer), a blessing can be recited because once a person decides to give his life away, he fulfills the mitzvah even if he is ultimately saved from death.
The Power of the Custom
Yet, there are many mitzvos that do not fit the explanation of the Rashba, and which we nonetheless do not recite a blessing over. These include writing a sefer torah, recounting the tale of our redemption from Egypt, being joyous on festivals, eating three meals on Shabbos, hag’alas keilim, among several others. Poskim suggest a variety of reasons for each of them, and we reserve their discussion for future opportunities.
For now, we may perhaps end our analysis by noting that whereas many authorities discuss the blessing over various mitzvos, virtually all limit their discussion to why a blessing is not recited over mitzvos, and not to the actual halachic question of whether or not a blessing should be recited. The primary “halachic decisor” on this topic is the custom, and the halachic discussion follows in its wake. We conclude with the concluding words of the Rashba: “In the final analysis, go and see the custom of the people.”