Rabbi Daniel Kaplan
When I call out the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our G-d. (Deuteronomy 32:3)
כִּי שֵׁם ה' אֶקְרָא הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלֹקֵינוּ. (דברים לב:ג)
Each chag has its own theme which encompasses the festival. Pesach is freedom, Sukkot is simcha (happiness) and Shavuot is Matan Torah (receiving the Torah). On Shavuot we focus our energies on the central mitzvah of a Jewish person’s life, Talmud Torah (Torah Learning). Every morning, before davening, we start our day by reciting Birkat Hatorah (the blessings of the Torah). Let us take a journey and analyse the nature of these berachot.
The Gemara1 explains that there are only two berachot which are Deorayta (a Torah commandment), Birkat Hamazon (Benching) and Birkat Hatorah. Therefore there is a practical halachic difference between these two berachot and other berachot we recite, according to the Pri Chadash. If one is in doubt whether he benched or said Birkat Hatorah, then he would be required to go and make the beracha again, in contrast with other berachot where this would not be required. For example, if one couldn’t remember if he made a beracha on his glass of coke that he started drinking a moment before, he does not have to go and say the beracha again.
It is fascinating to note that the Rambam (Maimonides) does not include Birkat Hatorah in his list of the taryag mitzvot (the 613 Torah mitzvot); however, the Ramban2 (Nahmanides) disagrees and counts it in the list of mitzvot that the Rambam "forgot". My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l3, offers an answer to the Rambam from the passuk "כי שם ה’ אקרא הבו גדל לאלוקנו" (“when I call out the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our G-d”) which the Gemara uses as its support for Birkat Hatorah as being a mitzvah deoryata, is really only an asmachta (although it is not explicitly a commandment, it is hinted to in the passuk). He proves this from the Rambam4 himself, where he places these berachot together with the other morning berachot instituted by the rabbis.
However, it is still perplexing that the Gemara seems to equate the berachot of Birkat Hamazon and Birkot Hatorah, yet when it comes to the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon, the Rambam does include it in his list of taryag mitzvot. Why then did the Rambam not go with the simple understanding of the Gemara, that Birkat Hatorah is deorayta?
In order to try to answer this question let us look at the nature of Birkat Hatorah. The Rambam5 defines three categories of berachot. Firstly there is Birkat Hodaya, ‘berachot of praise’, whereby we praise Hashem, for example, when we hear thunder. Secondly there are berachot we make when we do a mitzvah, like when we shake a lulav and etrog. Finally, the third type of berachot we make are Birkat Hana’ah, berachot of enjoyment, for example, before we eat a chocolate. The question then arises which group does Bircot Hatorah belong to?
On face value it would seem that Birkat Hatorah fits into the category of Birkat Hamitzvot, in that before we indulge in the mitzvah of learning Torah we make a beracha. But the Ramban6 writes that we are commanded to thank Hashem for this great gift that we have received every time we read a piece of Torah. Therefore, one may suggest that saying Birkat Hatorah is actually a beracha of praise and thanks to Hashem, in that we are truly grateful for the opportunity to partake of Hashem’s Torah.
I would like to suggest that the Rambam agrees that Birkat Hatorah are in the category of praise and thanks. If Birkat Hatorah fit into the category of Birkat Hamitzvot, why didn’t the Rambam include the halachot of saying these berachot in his Hilchot Talmud Torah? The place where he talks about the commandments of learning Torah. Rather, he includes them in his Hilchot tefila,7 in the laws relating to davening, in which a major part of davening is praising and thanking Hashem.
In addition, the Mechilta8 uses the exact same passuk that the Gemara used to prove that Birkat Hatorah is deorayta ("כי שם ה’ אקרא הבו גדל לאלוקנו") to teach us the procedure of saying the berachot before we read the Torah in public (ie, when people lein the Torah). With this said, maybe, according to the Rambam, there are two sets of Birkat Hatorah, firstly the ones an individual says in the morning and secondly the ones a community says when reading the Torah. Therefore, when the Gemara says that Birkat Hatorah is deoryata, it is referring to Birkat Hatorah before leining the Torah in public, but the berachot we say before davening is actually only derabanan (from the rabbis). The Rambam does not negate the Gemara but views the berachot that we say each morning as a praise and thanks to Hashem.
The Gemara9 explains that a cause for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash was that they learnt Torah but they didn’t say the berachot before they studied. Why was this act so terrible that it caused such a tragedy for us? Moreover, they were still learning Torah, they still dedicated time to learning Hashem's holy words, so why were they punished so badly?
The Ran10 answers powerfully and says that their learning was not done lishma – to connect and build a relationship with Hashem, rather they learnt because they enjoyed the intellectual exercise one experiences when learning. Learning Torah is the foundation of our religion, it is the way we come to understand Hashem's ways and it is the main channel for us to connect and to become closer to Hashem. Therefore, if the berachot are a praise and a thanks to Hashem, then how could one not say these berachot every day before one learns Torah as it’s an intrinsic part of our Torah learning?!
May we all have the merit, this Shavuot, to strengthen our commitment to Torah, continue to build our relationship with Hashem and may our Birkat Hatorah be a praise to Hashem by truly learning Torah lishma.
1. Talmud, Berachot 21a
2. Mitzvah 15
3. Shiurei Harav Aharon Lichtenstein, Masechet Pesachim page 234
4. Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 7:1, 7:10
5. Rambam, Hilchot Berachot 1:4
6. In his hasagot on Sefer Hamitzvot, it’s also implied by the Tur, O.C. 47
7. Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 7:10
8. Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 13:3
9. Talmud, Nedarim 81a
10. Ran, ibid.