The third of the Aseres Ha-Dibros instructs us in the prohibition of taking the Name of Hashem in vain (Shemos 20:6). The Gemara (Berachos 33a) derives from here the prohibition against making an unnecessary beracha, stating that one who does so transgresses the prohibition of taking the Name in vain.
The question of taking the Name of Hashem in vain raises questions that occur with some frequently.
Aside from the questions of a beracha made in vain (levatala) and an unnecessary beracha (she’eina tzericha)—which as we will explain are two separate categories—the name of Hashem is often used as everyday expressions. For instance, it is common to hear (in Hebrew or English) the expression of gratitude “Thank G-d,” or even the expression of astonishment “Oh my G-d.” Do these expressions involve a prohibition, or are they a legitimate mention of Hashem?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch mention only a single category, known as beracha she’eina tzericha. In their words, “Somebody who recites a beracha she’eina tzericha is considered taking the Name of Hashem in vain, and similar to somebody who makes a false oath” (Orach Chaim 215:4, based on the Rambam).
However, many authorities refer to two different categories of unnecessary berachos. In one case, the beracha is totally unnecessary, recited entirely outside its specific context. This type of beracha is often referred to as a beracha levatala—a blessing in vain. The other is a beracha recited in its proper context, but without need—it is a beracha that we could have managed without. This, in the parlance of many authorities, is referred to as a beracha she’eina tzericha (unnecessary).
Based on this distinction—see, for instance, Birkei Yosef (46:6), who writes on the subject at some length—the special stringency noted in the Gemara (of taking the Name of Hashem in vain) will apply only to a beracha levatala. Some common examples of a beracha levatala include the following instances:
If someone has already fulfilled his obligation concerning a particular beracha, yet recites it again mistakenly, this constitutes a beracha levatala (Mishnah Berurah 215:18; note that he refers to it as a beracha she’eina tzericha). For instance, when eating a bread meal the beracha over the bread exempts (regular) foods eaten during the meal. In this situation, if one recites a beracha on such a food anyway, such as on meat or potatoes, the beracha is levatala.
Another case of beracha levatala is when a person recites a beracha over food or before performing a mitzvah, but makes a forbidden interruption of speaking before eating the food or performing the mitzvah or before eating. The interruption invalidates the beracha, which is retroactively rendered levatala. Note that this will not apply if the relevant speech was necessary for the purpose of the mitzvah or the meal, in which case it does not constitute an interruption.
Likewise, when a beracha is recited out of its proper time and context, it will be levatala. If a person recites the Friday night Kiddush on Shabbos morning, having already made it on Friday night, it is a beracha levatalah, since he has already made the relevant Kiddush the night before (Teshuvos Hageonim, Sha’arei Teshuvah no. 115). If a person recites a beracha over Tefillin that are later discovered to be Pasul, the beracha is once again levatala (Mishnah Berurah 37:4), since no mitzvah is performed (for a tallis see Sefer Agur, Hilchos Tzitzis no. 8).
Beracha She’eina Tzericha
As noted, many understand that a merely unnecessary beracha (rather than in vain) is a lesser form of transgression. While this type of blessing is also improper, it is not as severe as a beracha levatala. Though unnecessary, this beracha is recited on the relevant action and in proper context, and is therefore not entirely in vain.
A case in point is when a person is ready to begin a bread meal, yet before doing so takes a food that would be exempted by the beracha on the bread, recites the appropriate beracha and eats it. The food could have been exempted from its particular beracha by making it part of the meal, while instead an extra and superfluous beracha was recited. The beracha is not levatala, since it was made over the appropriate food, which was subsequently eaten. However, it remains superfluous (Mishnah Berurah 215:18).
The same idea will apply when a person unnecessarily splits an eating session into two parts, making two berachos in place of one. For example, if a person wishes to eat an apple and an orange, the proper procedure is to recite the beracha over one, exempting both with the one beracha. If he recites a beracha, proceeds to recite the after-beracha (borei nefashos), and then recites a new beracha over the second one, this is a beracha she’eina tzricha (see Pischei Halacha, Berachos 1:8; Pischei Halacha, Berachos 1:8). This matter is especially discussed concerning a morning Shabbos meal that runs into the afternoon, at which stage some authorities permit splitting the meal in two (bentching and beginning again) to fulfill the obligation of three meals on Shabbos (see Teshuvos Rosh 22:4; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 291:3).
Torah or Rabbinic Prohibition
Some authorities maintain that a beracha levatala is a Torah prohibition. This is the Rambam’s opinion as understood by the Magen Avraham (215:6).
However, the majority view is that the prohibition is only rabbinic and not a full Torah prohibition. This is the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, Rashba, Ritva, Shita Mekubetzes and others (see commentaries to Berachos 33a, Rosh Hashanah 33b, Beitza 9a, and elsewhere). These opinions are mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah (215, 20).
Thought as noted above, the Gemara states that somebody reciting an unnecessary beracha transgresses the prohibition of taking Hashem’s name in vain, this is understood to be an asmachta alone, meaning an indirect support rather than a direct source. According to this opinion, the Torah prohibition is reserved for one who makes a false oath with the Name of Hashem.
The Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, as noted above, do not distinguish between a beracha levatalah and a beracha she’eina tzericha. However, those who do distinguish between them explain that the second, more lenient category should be avoided, but does not constitute a full prohibition. The Birkei Yosef (46:6) according to some opinions it is only a midas chassidus, proper conduct rather than actual prohibition.
Eating to Avoid a Beracha Levatala
What happens when one forgets that it is a fast day, inadvertently recites a beracha over food, and then remembers that it is a fast day?
Authorities debate this question. Some maintain that one should eat a small amount of the food, thereby refraining from the transgression of a beracha levatalah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 568:1).
However, many argue that one should not consume any food, and that the passive transgression of the beracha levatala is preferable to the active transgression of eating on a fast day. This holds true specifically if the beracha levatala transgression is only of rabbinic nature, parallel to the prohibition against eating on rabbinic fast days (see Da’as Torah 568).
Note that this does not apply to eating before Havdalah, which is not an intrinsic prohibition, but only on account of eating before performing a mitzvah. Thus, if one inadvertently recites a beracha before Havdalah one should eat something to avoid the beracha levatala, despite the transgression of eating before Havdalah (Rema, Orach Chaim 271:5, and Mishnah Berurah).
Likewise, if one makes a blessing over meat or wine in the Nine Days, one should eat a drop of the meat and the wine, since this is only a customary prohibition, while a beracha levatala is a full (rabbinic) prohibition (see Sedei Chemed, Asifas Dinim, Bein Hametzarim 5).
Making the Unnecessary Necessary
The challenge of the beracha levatala is ensuring that a beracha, once recited, should not be in vain. However, sometimes we are confronted with the opposite challenge. In some cases, as noted below, we will prefer to make a beracha, and need to ensure that the beracha should not be unnecessary (she’eina tzericha).
For instance, there is a general obligation to recite one hundred berachos every day (Shulchan Aruch 46:3). During the week, we generally recite one hundred berachos without making a special effort, on Shabbos (due to the shorten Amidah prayer) we find ourselves several berachos short.
Some authorities thus rule that it is permitted to cause a beracha she’einah tzericha on Shabbos so as to increase the number of berachos one recites, to ensure one completes the hundred-berachos quota. For example, the general rule is that when fruit are eaten in a meal, a beracha rishonah is required, but a beracha acharonah is not, since bentching exempts the fruit concerning the beracha acharonah.
According to these Poskim, it is permitted to delay eating the fruit until after birkas hamazon, so that one will recite both a beracha rishonah and a beracha acharonah over the fruit (Shelah, quoted in Magen Avraham 215:6; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 249, Kuntres Acharon 4; Aruch Hashulchan 206:12).
Others, however, state that one should not recite berachos unnecessarily even if he is doing so for the mitzvah of reciting a hundred berachos (Magen Avraham 215:6; Mishnah Berurah 46:14).
It is also permitted to recite a beracha she’eina tzericha where this is required to get out of a situation of doubt. For example, when a person is in doubt over whether he recited a particular beracha, it is permitted to change locations, which (for certain types of berachos) will obligate him in reciting a new beracha before eating again. Though changing locations unnecessarily (and causing an unnecessary beracha) is not permitted, the doubt involved will permit causing the extra beracha (Sha’arei Teshuvah 8:12).
Using the Name of Hashem Outside of Berachos
The above discussion refers specifically to reciting berachos. But what about using the Name of Hashem outside of berachos? For example, is it permitted to use Hashem’s name in the expression “Thank God,” or the Hebrew equivalent “Todah La’El”? Is it permitted to mention the name of Hashem as an expression of surprise (“Oh my G-d!”)?
When the name of Hashem is used as part of an expression of praise and thanks, it seems that there is no room for prohibition. This is explicit in the Chayei Adam (5:8), who writes concerning a beracha levatala that “this [prohibition] applies only when using the Name as part of a beracha; when used as an expression of praise and thanks, or prayer and petition […] it is permitted to mention the Name.” A similar ruling is given by the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Siman 3).
Thus, it is certainly permitted to use the words “thank G-d” and similar expressions of gratitude and praise, and there is no question that this permitted. At the same time, while noting that this is permitted, Piskei Teshuvos (215:18) writes that some are careful not to use names of Hashem in circumstances other than where this is obligatory (such as prayer and berachos).
Given that it is permitted to use the Name of Hashem in expressions of praise and thanks, how can it be forbidden to make a beracha levatala? Surely the wording of every beracha is also wording of praise and gratitude, even when, for instance, praise over a fruit is made outside the context of eating a fruit. How can this be forbidden?
The Penei Yehoshua (Berachos 33a) raises this question, and replies that while regular praise using the Name of Hashem is permitted, in the case of reciting berachos Chazal (assuming the prohibition is only rabbinic) forbade a beracha she’eina tzericha. He explains that the reason for this is similar to the rationale of bal tosif—not to add mitzvos to those of the Torah. Chazal wished to enact the special wording of berachos for specific occasions, and enacted that the wording should not be used outside of the specific context.
Concerning expressions of wonder that use the Name of Hashem, it seems that these should not be used, for even if not entirely in vain, they devalue the use of the Name of Hashem. For this purpose the rule will apply even to the English equivalent (G-d). It is interesting to note that in the opening of Shaar Ha-Yichud, the Chovas Halevavos mentions the common custom to use Names of Hashem as expressions of wonder. While he criticizes the people who use Hashem’s Names for their ignorance of the meaning of the Name and the concept of Yichud, he does not note that this invokes a prohibition of using the Name in vain.
Note that the principle halachic issue related to taking the Name in vain is the matter of making an oath with the Name. This requires a separate discussion, and we will please G-d address it in a separate article.