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Berachos over Mitzvos: Make a Blessing or Not

As part of the declaration of bikkurim, which is found at the beginning of Parashas Ki Savo, we are reminded of the obligation to recite blessings over mitzvos.

Detailing the statement that must be made by a person bringing bikkurim to the Mikdash in Jerusalem, the verse reads: “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.”

We thus learn that the separation of maaser requires a blessing before it. This, indeed, is the case with most mitzvos: we are generally required to recite blessings before the fulfillment of mitzvos.

However, there are mitzvos that are exceptions to the rule. We do not recite a blessing before honoring parents. Nor 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 but some examples of mitzvos over which we do not recite berachos.

In the current article we wish to explore the reason for these exceptions to the rule. Why is it that many mitzvos are fulfilled without reciting a berachah before them? What is the idea of making berachos before mitzvos, and what are the general rules determining when a berachah is made and when it isn’t?

A Blessing for All Mitzvos?

Do all mitzvos require a blessing before their performance?

A passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 41b) suggests an affirmative answer: 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 Yerushalmi does not indicate which blessing 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. Indeed, this is the clear implication of the passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, which states: “All mitzvos require a blessing before them.

The Chareidim proceeds to quote a halachic opinion that agrees that we recite 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 with 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 explanation of the Jerusalem Talmud, a blessing must be recited before the performance of all mitzvos. However, the custom does not follow this principle, and makes distinctions among various mitzvos.

The Mitzvah of Blessing: A Torah Obligation?

It is important to outline the source and nature of the basic obligation to recite blessings over mitzvos.

As noted at the outset, the words of the verse, “I have not transgressed any of Your commandments, and I have not forgotten,” are interpreted by the Midrash (Sifri, as quoted by Rashi) as referring to the obligation to recite blessings over mitzvos: “I have not forgotten to bless You over the separation of maaser.” The implication is that recitation of such blessings is a Torah obligation.

The biblical source of the obligation seems apparent from the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 41b), which also 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, explains the Talmud, compares the Torah to mitzvos: “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). The Yerushalmi says that just as one is obligated to recite a blessing before the study of Torah, so must one recite a blessing before the performance of other mitzvos.

This Torah derivation of the Jerusalem Talmud makes no distinction between one mitzvah and another.

Rabbinic Blessings

The Peri Megadim (General Introduction to the Laws of Blessings, chap. 15) writes that the recitation of blessings before the performance of mitzvos is only a rabbinic obligation, explaining that the verse quoted by the Yerushalmi is an asmachta – a support for the idea, but not a formal source for a Torah mitzvah.

His ruling is supported by a well-known passage of the Babylonian Talmud, which states explicitly that blessings over mitzvos are not a Torah requirement, but only a rabbinic obligation.

The Gemara (Berachos 15a) writes that the reason that 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.” If a rabbinic obligation, distinctions between different mitzvos are easy to understand: 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, “All mitzvos require a blessing before them,” the Babylonian Talmud says only, “For all mitzvos, the blessing must be recited before the performance.” Rather than implying a requirement to recite a blessing before all mitzvos, the Babylonian Talmud’s statement can be understood as an instruction to recite the blessing – where applicable – before (rather than after) the performance of the mitzvah. It remains possible that no blessing is recited before some mitzvos.

“Who has Sanctified us with His Mitzvos”

The custom, as mentioned above, is to recite blessings of mitzvos selectively. There are many mitzvos before which we recite no blessing. What are the reasons for this? For which mitzvos do we recite blessings, and for which don’t we?

Rabbi Binyamin ben Matisyahu (a leading halachic authority of the sixteenth century; Shut Binyanim Ze’ev no. 169) relates to the mitzvah of honoring parents: Why is no blessing recited in advance of performing the mitzvah, for instance in serving a parent food or drink? Surely this is performance 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 specifically over those actions that separate Israel from nations of the world. Because honoring parents does not fall under this category, no blessing is recited.

The source for this interpretation is the words of the blessings: “Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us.” Interpreting “sanctification” as meaning “separated,” it is argued that the blessing applies only to 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 security fence on a roof (in his opinion), executing judgment, and over negative prohibitions such as theft. The reason for this is, “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 the blessing over mitzvos is not recited for rational mitzvosmitzvos that we would perform even without the Torah’s instruction. These include Rabbeinu Bachya (Bamidbar 15:38), Shem Aryeh (Orach Chaim, no. 1), and Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Choshen Mishpat, 427:10), among others.

The rationale, once more, is that mitzvos which would be performed even without the Torah instruction, do not separate Jews from other nations. The Aruch Ha-Shulchan stresses that we really perform the mitzvah just because Hashem commanded it – yet, for rational mitzvos the mitzvah act does not give explicit expression to this idea, and therefore no berachah is recited.

Bless the Security Fence?

The above-mentioned ruling of the Roke’ach returns us to the issue of reciting a berachah over building a maakeh, which was discussed in the article for Parashas Ki Teitzeh. As noted in the article, the main question discussed by halachic authorities is whether or not the berachah can be recited even when the guardrail is built by non-Jewish laborers. Authorities agree (i.e. disagree with the Roke’ach), however, that if a guardrail is erected by a Jew, a blessing is certainly recited.

The Sedei Chemed (Berachos no. 16) lists a number of authorities, including many rishonim and acharonim, who rule that a blessing is recited prior building a security fence on a roof. This does not appear to agree with the statement that blessings are not recited over rational mitzvos, for surely building a security fence upon a roof is a precautionary measure is generally practiced by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Yet, there is room to argue that the mitzvah is not strictly rational. As we noted in our article, the Chazon Ish writes that the obligation to fence a rooftop is a chiddush of the Torah, for in general people who climb on rooftops are aware of their precarious situation, and take the necessary precautions to avoid calamity. In spite of the general safety of rooftops, the Torah nonetheless obligates us to build a maakeh.

Similarly, the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (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 rational obligation.

Other opinions maintain that a berachah can be recited even prior to the fulfillment of rational mitzvos, and even for mitzvos that are performed by Jew and non-Jew alike. Even in those actions that are rational acts (by Jews and non-Jews alike) Hashem has sanctified us, raising the very same actions to the holy level of a mitzvah.

Indeed, Rabbi Shmuel Wosner (Shut Shevet Halevi Vol. 2, no. 111, sec. 1) goes so far as to express wonder at the above interpretation of the Binyamin Ze’ev. He argues that there is greater reason to recite a blessing over honoring parents than over regular mitzvos, for we thereby declare our wish to honor parents specifically because the Torah commands it.

Mitzvos Involving a Third Party

The Rashba suggests an alternative distinction between mitzvos. Addressing the question of which mitzvos blessings are recited over, he writes (Vol. 1, no. 18, 254) that many mitzvos are excluded from reciting a blessing because they are dependent on the wants, needs and consent of a third party.

On account of their dependence on another person, who is able to uproot the mitzvah at will (for example, by the parent foregoing his honor, or by refusing to accept the proffered drink – see 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 similar mitzvos. The Rambam (Berachos 12:2), who states that a blessing must be made in advance of every mitzvah that is bein adam la-Makom (between man and Hashem), appears to follow the same principle.

The Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 54) adds that the dependency principle applies specifically to mitzvos that are bein adam le-chaveromitzvos whose basic nature is between man and his fellow, such as charity, loans, paying salaries, and so on. The mitzvah is directed at the other, so that his prerogative to refuse is central. For mitzvos that are bein adam la-Makom, dependency on a third party does not affect reciting a berachah.

We can thus understand that with regard to kiddush Hashem the Pischei Teshuvah (Yoreh De’ah 157:6) writes that a blessing should be recited upon sanctifying the name of Hashem by giving up one’s life: “Who sanctified us with His mitzvos, and commanded us to sanctify His Name in public.” Though dependent on a third 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 third party, 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.

Constant Mitzvos

Why is no blessing recited when making aliyah to the Land of Israel?

The Or Zaru’a (Berachos 140) suggests a different principle for when berachos are made over mitzvos, and when no berachah is recited. 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 ha-ben, eating matzah, Torah study (which is fulfilled by some study of Torah day and night), and so on.

However, mitzvos 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 believing in Hashem, over loving Him or heeding His instructions, or over honoring one’s parents, for these are mitzvos that apply the whole time.

Rabbi 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 Avnei 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

There remain a number of mitzvos for which the explanations above are not applicable, and for which other rationales are suggested. For instance, no blessing is recited over telling the tale of our redemption from Egypt, for being joyous on festivals and for eating three meals on Shabbos. Different reasons are given for different mitzvos, and discussing each and every one of them would turn this article into a full book!

Beyond the principles mentioned above, it is important to note that although many authorities discuss the blessing made over various mitzvos, virtually all limit their discussion to why a blessing is or is not recited over mitzvos. The discussion of the actual halachic question of whether or not  to recite a berachah, is not generally found in writings of poskim.

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.”

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