Class Notes - Class #13

Mitzvah #430 is based on Deut. 8:10, “you should eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land that He gave you.”  Our author writes an expansive essay, exploring what is means to “bless God,” and discussing various blessings that appear in our liturgy, including blessings on mitzvot, blessings on pleasures and blessings in other prayer contexts.  The author knows he has gone well beyond his program in this mitzvah/essay.  He says he has done so because “love distorts” the plan.  The author’s joy and enthusiasm for his project is contagious. At this point in his work, the author is mostly writing clearly and systematically, but there are several aspects of this essay that are difficult to follow because the writing is not entirely precise.

The characteristics of a blessing are a statement we make that mentions the name of God and mentions God as king.  Blessings may be said in any language.  If someone errs and does not say the words of a blessing accurately b’diavad the blessing is satisfactory as long as the main idea is accurate and the final phrase formulated as a blessing is accurate. 

We are all familiar with blessings and liturgical passages in which we bless God.  In the shoresh section of this mitzvah/essay our author tries to explain what that means.   When one person blesses another person, the speaker is wishing good things.  When we talk about God blessing people we mean that God is providing good things to people.  God is perfect, possessing “all glory and majesty, all goodness, all wisdom, all ability and all blessing.”  So we could not possibly be wishing additional good things for God by blessing God.

The author returns to his theme that God wants his creatures to be good and therefore be worthy of God’s blessings. The author continues to find new applications of that notion, and gives it more depth and complexity. One cannot be called perfectly good without bestowing good on others.  If God is good and also perfect, then God bestows good on others.  People are more deserving of blessing if they are grateful to God for everything God provides for them.  Each time we bless God, we give ourselves a reminder that God provides our needs.  Through that gratitude we are better and more deserving of God’s bounty.  Many of the mitzvot we have seen since we began the mitzvot in Deuteronomy have been reminders to us of our relationship with and gratitude to God.

That notion about gratitude is fundamental to the structure of the amidah at the center of Jewish prayer service.  (More on that in the next mitzvah we will read.)  First we praise God, recognizing that God provides the structure of the universe and all of our human needs.  Only after doing that do we ask God for what we hope He will provide.  And after that we thank God again for the natural world and all in it that provides for us.  Without surrounding our requests with expressions of gratitude, we are like ungrateful servants, even like thieves.

The author plays out these notions by examining the precise words we use.  The term “baruch” is an adjective, a description of God, who is the source of all blessing. When we say God is blessed, we describe God as the source of the goodness we receive.  The term “yitbarach,” a reflexive meaning “may He be blessed,” is also difficult.  Our author explains that it is a request that God influence people, His creatures, to acknowledge Him.  Thus, by using the word yitbarach we are praying that all people will express gratitude to God That helps explain the puzzling rabbinic statement that God yearns for the prayer of the righteous.  The author is explicitly speaking of all people, not only Jews. Blessing cannot do God any good, but God delights in the virtuous cycle of people expressing gratitude and therefore being worthy of greater blessing.

Our author says this notion also helps explain the various forms of blessings that appear in the liturgy.  (I am not sure this explanation covers every possible case.)  Consider a blessing in which we ask God for something or mention a miracle done for the Jews.  When we ask for something or recognize a miracle there is an especially strong reason to express gratitude. Those blessings begin with an explicit blessing, the word “baruch,” and end with a phrase that begins with the word baruch.  When we recognize something God did for us or when we ask God for something it is especially appropriate for us to articulate God’s authority.

But if there are a series of such blessings, the first one will begin and end with the word baruch but the subsequent blessings will only end with baruch.  Before we ask God for something or acknowledge a miracle should begin with a general statement of gratitude.  As long as we stay focused that initial acknowledgement continues to apply. The blessings in the amidah follow this pattern.

Sometimes we have a series of blessings where each one begins with the word baruch.  For example, think of the blessings of havdalah.  Some of those blessings are also called for at other times.  For example, havdalah includes the blessing on drinking wine and the blessing on smelling sweet spices.  It would be hard for people to remember two different versions of those blessings, one for the blessing standing alone and one for the blessing as part of a series, so the formulation beginning with the word baruch is used even when the blessing appears in a series.

Now consider blessings the do not include a request of God or a mention of a miracle.  Blessings on pleasurable activities like eating or blessings on doing mitzvot are typically short and not part of a series, so they start with baruch but do not end with baruch.  There are also blessings that praise something special in God’s creation, for example thunder or seeing fruit trees in blossom.  These come in various forms, some that start with baruch and some that only end with baruch. Since we are not asking for anything when we say these blessings we need only mention God’s magnanimity once. Our author does not explain that variation or give an example of a blessing that only has baruch at the end.

The author thinks that he is in a little over his head in this shoresh discussion.  He says his own seichel, logic, is insufficient for this topic, but that other teachers could delve the “yesodot,” foundations.  I am not sure how much to read into this passage, but it could be read to mean that the topic at hand could be understood more deeply through more sophisticated philosophy.

There are two kinds of blessings that are required d’oraita.  Those two categories are expanded by the rabbis, who also add categories of their own. 

First there are blessings on doing mitzvot.  There is one d’oraita example, a blessing on learning Torah. The author connects this blessing with the notion that our seichel, intelligence, can appreciate Torah study even before we have begun that study for the day.  This may be echoing the notion that our personal seichel is a way we can elevate ourselves into a kind of union with the divine intellect running the cosmos. It is not clear what the source of this mitzvah is.  The author says Ramban considers this a separate mitzvah.  The rabbis expanded this notion to formulate blessings to be said immediately before doing many other mitzvot.  Our author does not go into very much detail about this type of blessings.

Second, there are blessings on food.  Reading the source verse at face value, it would seem to require us to bless God after we eat enough to satisfy us.  We can appreciate God’s bounty when we experience our hunger being satiated so we can express our heartfelt gratitude.  Two obvious questions come to mind:  what food, and how much?  The rabbis were operating in their own cultural context when they thought about blessings over food, and much of the halachah about what constitutes a meal seem to be based elegant meals in the Roman world.

The rabbis understood that d’oraita this mitzvah applies to bread made from any of the five grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye, spelt.)  Bread is the basis of a meal, a satisfying, nourishing food.  After we eat enough bread to feel satisfied we recite the Grace After Meals, “birchat hamazon.” The verse would seem to imply that the requirement to bless is triggered when each person eats enough to feel satisfied:  when I eat and feel satisfied I should bless God.  A “righteous” person would eat only enough to stay alive and healthy and would bless thereafter. 

But d’rabanan the rabbis set an objective measure for the amount one has to eat to incur the obligation to bless afterwards. Although the author explains this, he does so somewhat obliquely by quoting the Talmud, Brachot 20b.  The Talmud leaves two open possibilities: one is required to bless after eating an olive’s amount of bread, or after eating an egg’s amount of bread.  We have seen that the standard halachic actualization of the concept of eating is k’zayit, an olive’s bulk, so it would seem the first opinion reflects the notion that we should bless God whenever we eat bread.  The second opinion, requiring one to bless after eating an egg’s bulk of bread, seems to reflect the source verse’s additional requirement that the person eating be “satisfied.”

Deut. 8:8, in the same Biblical passage, lists the seven species of produce which Israel provides in abundance (wheat, barley, grapes/wine, figs, pomegranates, olives/olive oil and dates.) The blessing after these seven foods is called “me’ein shalosh,” “one blessing subsuming three” because the main ideas of the first three blessings of birchat hamazon are included in one blessing.  The author’s discussion of the requirement to bless after eating these foods is confusing. 

At the beginning of the mitzvah/essay the author says this mitzvah applies to the other produce on this list, so we would be required to bless God after having eaten them. Later, in the dinei hamitzvah section, the author goes into more detail about two conflicting opinions.    The author lays out the argument step by step.  He relies on our having learned to make close distinctions. 

Some rabbis would only require a blessing after eating those among the seven foods that provide sustenance, wheat and barley eaten in a form other than bread, but not the other five foods.  The author cites Rambam for the position that someone who eats barley or wheat in a form other than bread is Biblically required to say a blessing afterwards, but someone who eats the other five of the seven foods is not Biblically required to say a blessing afterwards.  This is implied by the source verse, which requires us to bless when we have eaten serious, nourishing food and are satisfied.  (The author has two apparently contradictory lists of which of the seven foods are “sustaining” foods.  Early in this passage the author says dates, wine and figs are sustaining foods. But later in this passage, and also when he is describing Rambam’s approach, he says that pomegranates, grapes, figs and olives are not sustaining foods.  That second list would seem to fit the logic better.)

 Some rabbis hold that we are required d’oraita to say a blessing after eating an egg’s bulk of any of these seven foods.  The author does not say who those authorities are, although the translator gives a list in footnote 3. 

 The author cites a Talmudic passage, B’rachot 35a, which obliquely supports the opinion that we are required to bless after eating any of the seven foods.  The Talmud says that just as those seven foods are something people enjoy and require a blessing,   so every food that someone enjoys requires a blessing.  That passage does not distinguish between the sustaining foods among the seven and the other foods among the seven. The author says this is a weak argument.  He doesn’t explain why, but it is not so hard to figure out.  The Talmud is not focused directly on the question we are concerned with of whether there is a difference about our obligation to bless between some of these seven foods and others.  Also the Talmud analogizes blessing after eating the seven foods to saying a blessing on anything pleasurable, and our author says blessings after eating ordinary foods that are not among the seven are only required d’rabanan.

Having laid out both positions the author follows up the implications.  The author says that we follow “the rabbis of our own generation about the mitzvot of the Torah.”  This echoes a general rule that the final decision about halachah rests with recent rather than older authorities.  The translator suggests in footnote 32 that the author means the opinion of Ramban, who takes the position that one is Biblically required to bless after eating any of the seven foods.  The author plays out the implications of that opinion in a case where whether the requirement is d’oraita or d’rabanan has practical implications.

The author assumes we know that when someone is in doubt about whether that person has fulfilled a Biblical obligation the person should act strictly to make sure the Biblical obligation is satisfied, but when someone is in doubt about whether the person has fulfilled a rabbinic obligation the person should act leniently.  Now take the case of someone who ate at least an egg’s volume of dates and doesn’t remember whether or not he or she blessed afterwards.  If the blessing is required Biblically the person should say the blessing even if that means the person may be saying an extra blessing.  If the blessing is only a rabbinic requirement, though, the person should not say a blessing.  According to the author’s contemporary authorities who hold that there is a Biblical obligation to bless after eating the seven foods, someone who ate at least an egg’s volume of dates and doesn’t remember whether he or she blessed afterwards should recite the blessing.  The author says this is parallel to someone who ate bread and doesn’t remember whether he or she blessed afterwards.  Since blessing after eating bread is clearly a Biblical requirement, the person blesses again.

 Compare that to a situation where someone ate some dates, at least a k’zayit but not as much as the bulk of an egg.  We said earlier that to trigger the obligation to bless after eating these seven foods one has to eat at least the volume of an egg.  The requirement to bless after eating less than an egg’s volume of these seven foods is clearly rabbinic.  Therefore if someone ate dates, at least a k’zayit but less than an egg’s volume, and then cannot remember whether or not the person blessed afterwards, the person would not bless again because the person is in doubt about whether a rabbinic obligation was fulfilled.

The author includes apparently contradictory statements about how much bread one has to eat to trigger a Biblical obligation to bless afterwards.  Early in the essay he says that the Biblical obligation is only when one has eaten enough bread to be satisfied and the obligation to bless after eating a k’zayit or, alternatively, an egg’s bulk, is rabbinic.  In the paragraph that begins “u’l’fi hanireh li,” “yet is seems to me,” the last paragraph of page 320/321 of the Feldheim translation, he says that one who has not eaten enough to be satisfied does not have a Biblical obligation to bless afterwards.  The author says that is according to “early authorities.”  But in the paragraph just before that the author says that someone who eats an egg’s bulk of bread and isn’t sure whether the person blessed afterwards must bless again.  That implies that the author thinks that person has a Biblical obligation to say birchat hamazon.  I don’t see an easy way to reconcile that last notion with the rest of what the author says.

But the author returns to the opinion that takes the source verse at face value that the only Biblical obligation is on someone who ate enough of wheat or barley product to be satisfied.  In that case someone who ate but does not remember whether the person blessed afterward or not should only bless again if the person ate enough to feel satisfied. The author uses this notion to try to explain common practice in his community.  Everyone, even the most ignorant person, blesses after eating bread.  But few people bless after eating the seven foods.  It would seem those folks are misbehaving.  But the author suggests those people are relying on the opinion that only those who eat enough to be satisfied have a Biblical requirement to bless. 

Our author summarizes other d’rabanan required blessings.  The rabbis required us to bless God when we experience manifestations of God’s power, for example on seeing lightening, hearing thunder, or seeing the sea if we do not see it often.  They required a blessing before smelling any pleasant aroma although not a blessing after smelling a pleasant aroma. 

The rabbis required us to bless God before eating anything that nourishes the body or even tastes good.  Everything in the world, including food, belongs to God, and we ought to recognize God’s ownership before we eat.  Eating without first saying a blessing is akin to a guest taking a host’s food without permission.  They added mentions of special holidays and Shabbat into the Grace After Meals on those days.  But the author explains a dispute about whether the Grace After Meals should be repeated if someone forgot to include the special blessing mentioning the special day.  There are two holidays on which we are already required to eat a meal:  on the first night of Passover we are required to eat a meal along with the maztah, maror and Passover sacrifice, and on the first night of Succot we are required to eat in the succah so by implication we are required to eat a meal.  According to some authorities the person who ate but forgot to mention the special day at those meals should repeat the Grace After Meals, but if someone forgot on other special days one need not repeat the Grace After Meals.  Other authorities require repetition of the Grace After Meals on all special days when mention of the special day is required.

The texts of these blessings were formulated by Ezra and his beit din and that we should not make changes to those texts.  Apparently all these rabbinic requirements were in place by Ezra’s time.  Moses is credited with formulating the main theme of the first blessing of the Grace After Meals and Joshua is credited with formulating the main theme of the second blessing.  The final two blessings were formulated in Yavneh, during the Roman period.  The author does not say exactly how other requirements for blessings were fulfilled before Ezra’s time. 

Someone eating a variety of food but no bread had to decide what to eat first and which of the foods require separate blessings.  If someone has a variety of foods for which the blessing would be the same, the person should choose the one he or she likes best and says a blessing and eat that one.  No blessing would be required for the other foods that need the same blessing.  If there are a variety of foods that require the same blessing and the person has no strong preference, start with a food that is one of the seven foods mentioned in the source verses as a special product of Israel.  If someone has a variety of foods that would require different blessings, the person should choose the one he or she likes best and say a blessing over that.  If the person has no strong preference, the person should start with the food subject to the most restrictive blessing, for example taking cake which requires “borei minei mezonot” before vegetables that require “borei p’ri ha’adamah.”

Before eating bread we are required to wash our hands.  The author does not discuss the origin of this requirement.  The water needs to be reasonably clean, clean enough so a dog would drink it, and water that was not previously used for another purpose.  We need at least 1.5 eggs volume of water for washing both hands.  We wash our fingers at least to the joint closest to the end of the fingers.  (Our common practice is to wash the hands up to the wrists.)  Washing is accompanied by the saying the appropriate blessing.

Following the washing ritual, one says the appropriate blessing and eats bread.  As we said earlier, someone who eats an olive’s bulk of bread will be required to recite birchat hamazon after the meal.  The blessing on bread covers all the nourishing food served as part of the meal as well as condiments for the bread.  The most obvious example of a nourishing food is something cooked with one of the five grains, a porridge or pasta for example.  Something served during the meal for pleasure rather than for nourishment, for example olives as an appetizer or fruit for dessert, needs a separate blessing before it even if it is part of the meal, but is covered by the birchat hamazon after the meal.  The rabbis formulated these rules based on the kinds of meals they were familiar with.  Our meals are sometimes structured differently and interesting questions arise about how to apply these rules to different types of meals that do not fit the model the rabbis were working with.

But the blessing before eating bread does not cover wine one might drink during the meal; the wine requires its own blessing.  If two or more people are eating together and a second wine is served they should say a special blessing on the second wine, “hatov v’hamaitiv,” blessing God who is good and does good.  Birchat hamazon covers any wine someone drank during the meal.

In ancient times people were more likely to eat with their hands than we are now.  Before birchat hamazon, someone whose hands are dirty should wash them. 

The rabbis also instituted special passages to be added to birchat hamazon on special days.  The author details what we should do if we forgot to include those passages.

This mitzvah applies to men everywhere and at all times.  A man who fails to say a blessing after a meal or who fails to say a blessing before learning Torah foregoes the opportunity to do a positive mitzvah.  The author says the rabbis disagree about whether women have the same Biblical obligation to bless after meals, and the author does not take sides.  The text of the second blessing of birchat hamazon thanks God for His “covenant that He has sealed in our flesh (circumcision) and Torah He has taught us.”  Neither the mitzvah of circumcision nor the mitzvah to study Torah applies to women, so the Talmud discusses whether the obligation to say birchat hamazon applies to women. 


This mitzvah/essay is long and detailed.  The author says he wrote an extended essay because of the delight he takes in this topic, “from my joy in blessing.”  Plainly the author is enjoying himself.  He ends the essay with several thoughts emphasizing how the importance of blessings.  We should be careful not to say unnecessary blessings lest we invoke God’s name in vain.  Even Samson, with all his faults, avoided mentioning God’s name unnecessarily.  When he told Delilah that the secret of his strength way and he mentioned God’s name while doing so, Delilah knew he was finally telling the truth.  Someone who is careful to say appropriate blessings will be blessed with a dignified life.


The source verse for mitzvah #433, Deut. 10:20, requires us “oto ta’avod” to serve God.  This mitzvah encompasses all other mitzvot since we serve God every time we do a mitzvah.  But this mitzvah also includes a specific requirement that we pray.  Deut. 11:13 requires that we serve God with all our hearts.  Our author cites the famous Sifri which associates service of the heart with prayer.  The remainder of this mitzvah/essay is about prayer.

The author provides two directions in the shoresh for this mitzvah both of which are rooted in the ongoing theme that God wants what is best for all creatures and that God crafts mitzvot to make that more likely.  When people behave well, God is pleased to reward them with good.  As to prayer, one manifestation of God’s wanting to bestow goodness is by creating a path for people to ask for what they want and need.  Then God will send reward possibly by providing what we ask for.  The author says God is especially headful of communal prayers.  Prayer is also another way to help us keep out priorities straight by creating another opportunity for us to recall all the reasons we should be grateful to God and all the ways we are dependent on God.  We reinforce for ourselves the notion that God is the creator and master of all.

The source verses for the mitzvah of prayer are very vague, and that leads to rabbinic disagreement about the nature of the Biblical obligation.  Rambam holds we are required to pray each day.  Each person would pray in his or her own way sometime each day, beginning with praise of God, then making requests, and finally offering praise and thanks.  Since there is no set time for that prayer, the mitzvah to pray obligates women as well as men.

Ramban holds we are required to pray when we are in trouble; when we need help we should seek that help from God.  That does not designate any particular time for regular prayer.  Our author does not speculate on what Ramban means when he says we should pray when we are in trouble.  Maybe that is only very rarely, or maybe that is very nearly always.  Both Rambam and Ramban agree that the text and times of prayer are rabbinic rather than Biblical.

The rabbis instituted three daily prayers which our author says correspond to the sacrificial cycle.  The morning and afternoon prayers, shaharit and minchah, correspond to the two daily communal olot.  The evening prayer, ma’ariv, has a more complex relationship with sacrifices.  It corresponds to burning the afternoon olah which usually took place after dark.  But the afternoon olah could be burned during daylight if there was enough time; burning the afternoon olah at night was a voluntary act.  Similarly, says our author, praying ma’ariv at night is voluntary.  If someone has time and is able to concentrate, the person should pray ma’ariv.  If someone does not have time or is not able to concentrate, the person should not pray ma’ariv.  But the idea of praying ma’ariv caught on among the Jews and Jews treated it as an obligation.  Thus Jews became obligated to pray ma’ariv.  We have noted before that the Jews can choose to accept practices and those practices can become binding, and this is another example.  The rabbis also instituted the mussaf prayer to correspond with mussaf sacrifices on the special days when mussaf sacrifices are required.  And the rabbis instituted ne’ilah, one extra prayer service at the end of the day of Yom Kippur.  Since Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and forgiveness, extra prayer seems like a good idea.

The rabbis also instituted specific times for each of these prayer services.  The morning amidah should be said between sunrise and the end of the fourth hour.  Under extenuating circumstances someone may pray as early as the time when the first light becomes visible.  Someone who missed that time period should say the morning amidah in the fifth or sixth hour, late but better than nothing.  The afternoon amidah should be said after 6 ½ hours but before evening.  The author does not define “evening.”  The evening amidah can be said from then until dawn, but people should pray as early as possible and avoid getting involved in other activities that might lead to forgetting to pray.  Someone who misses a prayer entirely should double up on the next scheduled prayer.

The text of the prayer has had a checkered history.  The daily prayer Ezra and his beit din formulated is the amidah, consisting of 18 blessing and therefore also called “shmonah esrei.”  The first three blessings are praise of God, followed by 12 blessings of request and three blessings of thanks and acknowledgement.  The text was lost, which would seem to imply that people weren’t using it, and later recovered.  A nineteenth blessing was added during the Roman period in response to Jewish sects which were considered heretical.

On Shabbat and festivals the middle section was modified down to one blessing focused on the theme of the special day. Our author says that was done to maintain the festive atmosphere of the joyous day by keeping things brief. Rosh haShannah mussaf is unique in having three middle blessings with special themes appropriate to Rosh haShannah.

In his discussion of that special Rosh haShannah mussaf the author alludes briefly to the repetition of the amidah by the prayer leader, hazan.  The author says that on Rosh haShannah at mussaf the hazan’s repetition can fulfill the obligation of ordinary people who are familiar with the prayer service as well as people who are not familiar with the prayer service.  Presumably the person for whom the hazan is acting has to pay attention and answer amen to the blessing.  Apparently also at other times the hazan can fulfill the obligation only of others who are not familiar with the prayer service. 

The author says the rabbis considered concentration an essential element of prayer.  If we are operating on automatic pilot we are not praying. We should turn our minds away from ordinary matters and focus seriously on the notion that we are standing before God.  That is especially true for the first blessing of the amidah; if someone said that blessing without concentrating the person should start over.  Therefore the rabbis instituted a shortened version of amidah for people to say when they are in peril and cannot concentrate on prayer.  See B’rachot 29b for an appropriate text.

Someone who is praying and concentrating should not be distracted by surrounding conditions.  Even if the person praying is greeted by the king the person praying should not interrupt.  Even if the person praying sees a snake approaching the person praying should not interrupt, but only if the snake is not a dangerous variety.  Notice that this is a stricter standard that the standard for interrupting when saying sh’ma.

There are other requirements for appropriate prayer that our author says are m’akev.  The person preparing to pray must have clean hands, must be clothed, must not be distracted by the need to use the bathroom and must be in a place free from filth or foul odor.  Other conditions are appropriate for prayer but are not m’akev.  Someone praying should stand, take an appropriately humble position, face toward the Temple Mount, dress in a dignified way, straighten up his or her clothing, moderate his or her voice and bow at the appropriate points in the amidah.

This mitzvah applies to men and women everywhere and at all times.  According to Rambam, that means each Jew needs to pray once a day.  According to Ramban that mean each Jew needs to pray in times of trouble.  That echoes the d’oraita requirements according to each opinion.  The author does not discuss how the rabbinic requirements apply to women.  The author ends by saying that someone who chooses not to pray removes him or herself from God’s watchful care.