Shavuos is the Yom Tov that celebrates the giving of the Torah. The Torah is the essence of the Jewish nation, and learning it is considered by our Sages to be the greatest mitzva.1 Every morning we recite "Birchas HaTorah", the blessings on the Torah. It is said that the way a person recites his Birchas HaTorah in the morning affects his Torah learning throughout the day. The Shulchan Aruch states that a person must be very careful in fulfilling the mitzva of Birchas HaTorah. 2 The Mishna Berura explains that this means a person should be wary not to learn before he has recited these brachos; and that he should say them with gratitude to Hashem for giving us His Torah.
It would seem then, that Shavuos is a most appropriate time for us to show our gratitude for the Torah by saying Birchas HaTorah in the appropriate manner. Ironically, it is precisely on this day that many people don't say Birchas HaTorah themselves, but rather listen to someone else's brachos, because they have stayed up all night learning. 3
Let us now examine the nature of Birchas HaTorah. By analysing why we recite Birchas HaTorah, we will not only gain greater insight into this special bracha; we will also come to a greater appreciation of the Torah itself.
All the brachos we recite are rabbinically ordained; with the exception of Birchas HaMazon , Grace after eating bread which is a Torah commandment. Many authorities, however, are of the opinion that the recitation of Birchas HaTorah is also a Torah commandment.
There are, essentially, three categories of brachos:
a) Birchos hamitzvos - blessings we recite before performing a mitzva, for example; 'al netillas yadayim' when washing for bread, or, 'lehani'ach tefillin' before putting on tefillin.
b) Birchos hanehenin - blessings we recite before partaking in certain physical pleasures such as eating and drinking, for example; 'hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz' before eating bread.
c) Birchos hashevach vehoda'ah - blessings of praise and thanksgiving, for example; the bracha we say when hearing thunder, or, 'shehecheyanu' which we say on joyous occasions.
Birchas HaTorah seems to fall into the category of birchas hamitzvos as it is a bracha we say prior to fulfilling the mitzva of learning Torah. This assumption, however, raises several difficulties.
Firstly, why do we say more than one bracha on the Torah? There is a dispute as to how many brachos we say in Birchas HaTorah. Some consider it to be two brachos: 'la'asok bedivrei Torah', and 'asher bachar banu'. Others say there are three brachos, as they consider the bracha of 'la'asok' to be two brachos, with 'veha'arev na' being the additional bracha. Everyone agrees however that we say more than one bracha. If Birchas HaTorah is one of the birchos hamitzvos, why should it differ to all other mitzvos where only one bracha is recited?
Secondly, given that women are exempt from the mitzva of learning Torah, there is a dispute between Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, and the Rema, as to whether women may recite a bracha when fulfilling a mitzva they are exempt from. 4 For example, if a woman chooses to shake lulav, may she make the bracha 'al netillas lulav'?
Rav Yosef rules she may not, as she cannot say, "who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to..." because she is not commanded to do it. The Rema, however, states that she may make the brachos, as the statement of "commanded us" can refer to the Jewish nation as a whole, even though it does not refer to women specifically. In the laws of Birchas HaTorah, however, the Shulchan Aruch rules that women do say these brachos. 5 If Birchas HaTorah is a birchas hamitzva, how can Rav Yosef permit women to say these brachos, contrary to his ruling on all other mitzvos?
Thirdly, if we consider Birchas HaTorah as birchas hamitzvos, we will have difficulty in understanding the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch that even though Torah must not be learned prior to the recitation of Birchas HaTorah, this is only if the words of Torah are said verbally. Thinking thoughts of Torah, on the other hand, is permissible. 6 If Birchas HaTorah is a blessing on the mitzva of Torah study, we seem to be at a loss to explain this. The mitzva of studying Torah is fulfilled both by speaking and by thinking. Why then should we not recite a bracha over thoughts of Torah?
In his commentary to Shulchan Aruch, the Vilna Gaon states that Birchas HaTorah are in fact birchas hamitzvos. He also raises the last two questions that we asked on the Shulchan Aruch, (how can women say these brachos, and why do Torah thoughts not require Birchas HaTorah), and disagrees with both of these rulings. He says, that women should not say Birchas HaTorah according to the general ruling of the Shulchan Aruch,7 and that even thinking Torah thoughts requires a bracha. 8
From a response of the Rashba we can see that he too considers Birchas haTorah to be birchos hamitzvos. He was asked why we only make a bracha before studying Torah and not afterwards. He answered that learning Torah is a mitzva and we only make brachos before performing a mitzva, not afterwards. 9 There are those who seem to understand Birchas HaTorah not as birchas hamitzva, but rather as one of the other two categories of brachos. The Ramban has a listing of mitzvos that differs from the Rambam's list of mitzvos The Ramban writes there that we are commanded to thank Hashem every time we learn Torah for the great goodness He has done to us-for giving us His Torah, and informing us the way of life that is pleasing to Him through which we shall inherit the World to Come. Just as we have been commanded to bless Him after eating, we have been commanded with this blessing. 10
It seems from his words that the bracha on Torah study isn't on the mitzva of learning, but rather for the fact that we received the Torah. This would seemto be from the category of birchos hoda'ah rather than birchos hamitzvos. In his summation he compares Birchas HaTorah to bentching after eating bread. His comparison could be understood to say that just as Birchas HaMazon is a bracha which we are commanded to recite by the Torah, so too is Birchas HaTorah. It is possible, however, he means to point out that just as bentching is a birchas hoda'ah, so too is Birchas HaTorah a birchas hoda'ah, not a birchas hamitzva.
If we are correct in assuming that the Ramban considers Birchas HaTorah to be a birchas hoda'ah rather than a birchas hamitzva, we may offer an answer to the second question; 'how can women say Birchas HaTorah?' If the Shulchan Aruch considers Birchas HaTorah as a birchas hoda'ah, then there is no reason why women should not say it. The Shulchan Aruch only restricted them from saying birchos hamitzvos from which they are exempt, as they can not say "and commanded us." This reason does not apply to birchos hoda'ah. The Minchas Chinuch suggests this on his own accord, without quoting the Ramban. 11 He, however, points out that the beginning of the first bracha, "Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to toil in the word of Torah", implies that it is a birchas hamitzva. He therefore goes on to say that possibly the first bracha is a birchas hamitzva. However the second bracha is a birchas hoda'ah. He concludes that according to this, women should only say the second bracha. This is not apparent from the words of the Shulchan Aruch. According to this we may understand why more than one bracha is made (question number one), the reason being that the first one is a birchas hamitzva, and the second one is a birchas hoda'ah. The third question, 'why don't we say Birchas HaTorah on Torah thought', still remains unanswered.
The Steipler Gaon suggests that Birchas HaTorah, besides being a birchas hamitzva, might also be from the category of birchas hanehenin. 12 Learning Torah gives a person great pleasure as it says, "The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart." "…They are more desirable than gold, -than even much fine gold; Sweeter than honey, - than drippings from the combs." 13 It is for this reason that a person on Tisha b'Av, or, who is mourning is forbidden to study Torah. 14 Since a person derives pleasure from his Torah study, it is possible to say that the brachos on Torah are birchos hanehenin. He points out that from the words of the first bracha, "Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos..." it seems that it is a birchas hamitzva. He concludes, therefore, that the first bracha is indeed a birchas hamitzva, whereas the second one is a birchas hanehenin.
This is a similar approach to that of the Minchas Chinuch stated above. According to this approach, we can answer why women can say Birchas HaTorah. Even though they are exempt from the mitzva of learning, they too get pleasure from Torah when they learn and they may therefore say the bracha. This is a reason for women to say the second bracha, but not the first, as the Steipler also says. This is also a reason to recite the two brachos; one on the mitzva, and one on the pleasure. It does not, however, answer why no bracha is said on thinking in learning, as through thought, too, a person gets pleasure 15.
It is told that every year on the yahrtzeit of the Chazon Ish, the Steipler, who was the Chazon Ish's brother-in-law, gave a shiur in the Kollel Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. 16 One year he mentioned in the shiur the idea that the second bracha in Birchas HaTorah is a birchas hanehenin. One of the Kollel men present asked if this was contrary to what the Gemara states in Tractate Brachos. 17 The Gemara discusses the brachos of bentching after eating and Birchas HaTorah before learning. The Gemara asks if we should say a bracha after learning just as we do after eating. It answers that we cannot compare one to the other. With eating, because the person had pleasure, we understand why a bracha should be made afterwards. This is not the case with learning. This seems to disprove the Steipler's theory. The Steipler answered that it was a good question that required further study. No further answer is quoted from the Steipler. It is noted, however, that this very question was asked over a century ago to the Sochachover Rebbe, the author of the Eglei Tal.
He answered that a person does derive pleasure from learning Torah, however, in order to necessitate a bracha after something, the benefit must still be felt after its completion. This is true with eating, where a person feels satisfied even after having eaten. This is not the case with learning Torah, where the pleasure is only during the learning and not afterwards. Therefore, even though the pleasure gained may necessitate a bracha prior to learning, it does not do so afterwards. This is the meaning of the Gemara in Brachos.
Concerning question number one, as to why we make more than one bracha, the Levush offers an original answer. He claims that the first bracha is a bracha acharona (a bracha made after something) for yesterday's learning, whereas the second bracha is the bracha recited before today's learning. 18 He explains that even though it would have been more appropriate for the bracha acharona to have been said yesterday when one finished his learning for the day, it is not possible to do so. A bracha acharona is said only when one has finished that which requires a bracha. One bentches when one has finished his meal, and plans to stop eating for now. With Torah study this is impossible, as a person has to learn as much as is possible for him. The obligation to learn is constant, and even when lying in bed at night a person should think thoughts of Torah. It is therefore impossible to say that a person has finished his learning for the day until he actually falls asleep. The first opportunity for him to make this bracha is the next morning. Therefore, upon awakening, he makes a bracha acharona on yesterday's learning and a bracha rishona for today.
In the footnotes on the Levush, it is brought that someone questioned the validity of making a bracha acharona the following day. He argues that surely this case is no different to a case where one forgot to bentch after his meal and remembered a few hours later. The halacha is that he lost his opportunity to bentch as the food had already been digested. All the more so here, where a new day had arrived, so surely it's too late to make a bracha acharona. The Levush was not at all flustered by this argument. He answered, "You wanted to compare this to bentching after the food has been digested. It appears to me that they are not comparable at all. For after digestion, there is no remnant from that meal; not even its taste, but here, what digestion has taken place? If you compare forgetting to digestion, does a person forget overnight what he had learned the previous day? Since the benefit of the learning remains, and no 'digestion' of the knowledge gained, has taken place, a bracha acharona may be said even the following day."
We have mentioned three reasons as to why we say two brachos on the Torah; namely that one is on the mitzva and the other is either on the pleasure gained from the learning or thanking Hashem for giving us His Torah. Another approach is that one is a bracha acharona and one a bracha rishona. We should note, however, that those answers don't hold true according to the Vilna Gaon, as his opinion is that both brachos are on the mitzva of studying Torah. We need, therefore, another reason why, unlike other mitzvos, more than one bracha is made on this mitzva. An explanation of this is offered in the name of Rabbeinu Yona.
He says that if Birchas HaTorah is considered to be three separate brachos ,as explained above, then they correspond to the three levels of Torah: Chumash, Mishna and Gemara. We thank Hashem individually for each one of these special gifts. If the brachos are considered to be two, then we are thanking Hashem for both Torah shebichsav (the Written Law) and Torah she'ba'al peh (the Oral Law). 19
We have not yet answered the third question. Why does the Shulchan Aruch rule that no bracha is required when thinking Torah, as even through thought the mitzva of Torah study is fulfilled? The answer to this may be found in a question that the Minchas Chinuch asks on the Vilna Gaon's opinion that Birchas HaTorah is said over thinking thoughts of Torah 20. The Minchas Chinuch points out that we don't make a bracha on bittul chometz. The Beis Yosef says the reason for this is that even though it is a mitzva, we don't make brachos on mitzvos fulfilled merely by thought. 21 Many answers are offered to explain the ruling of the Vilna Gaon. This may, however, be the very reason that the Shulchan Aruch rules that no bracha is made on thoughts of Torah. May our analysis of Birchas HaTorah enhance its daily recital, and may Hashem grant us the opportunity to fulfil the mitzva of learning Torah and to enjoy the sweetness of its words.
1 Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam, the study of Torah is equivalent to all the other mitzvos combined ,Peah 1:1.
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