BIRCHOT HATORAH - PART I
The gemara in Nedarim 81a asks an interesting question. It asks why it is not common to find talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) whose children are also talmidei chachamim. Certainly, it would seem logical that a child growing up in a house where Torah is made a priority and is the focal point of every detail of life would assimilate that attitude for himself and follow in his father's footstep! And yet, it seems that such was not often the case in the time of the gemara (and is often not the case today), and thus the gemara wonders why this is so.
The gemara offers several different answers, representing different approaches to the problem. However, our focus for this week will be on the final answer of the gemara. Ravina answers this dilemma by saying that the sin of the talmidei chachamim was that they failed to make a blessing before learning Torah, and for that reason they did not merit to see their sons follow in their ways.
This is all good and well, but what does one have to do with another? Forgetting to make a blessing does not seem to be the most grievous error that a person could commit! If one eats without making a blessing, he may have "stolen" from Hashem, but it may be a minor infraction in the overall scheme of things. Even further, the blessings made before learning Torah most likely fall into the category of "birchot ha-mitzva," blessings made before performing a positive commandment. If this is the case, then why would failing to bless be such a big deal - the commandment is nevertheless successfully performed!
Rashi makes a brief comment in this context which may help to illuminate the issue. He says pithily that the failure to make a blessing came when the people "woke up early to learn Torah." At first glance, Rashi does not seem to be adding much, and he may even be adding to the question. If they were waking up early to learn, then what is the big deal about their failure to bless?
What is even more interesting about this entire issue is that this gemara is included in the Tur (O.C. 47). Before beginning the laws of Birchot HaTorah, the Tur first cites this statement of Ravina, and uses it to note that one should be extra careful in remembering to recite the Birchot HaTorah every morning. This is notable since Tur generally gets right down to business, writing law after law, including some discussions and variances of opinions. Including selections from the more aggadic sections of the gemara is not generally his style.
The answer to this entire issue may be that which was suggested by Mahari Abuhav. He noted that the real problem with the failure to bless was not the failure itself, but rather the attitude that it belied. When one makes a blessing of any type, he acknowledges Hashem's role in the world. When one makes a blessing on a mitzva, he acknowledges that mere performance of the mitzva is not sufficient, but rather one must always be aware why he is performing the mitzva. Certainly anyone who has performed a mitzva every day, day in and day out, for tens of years (such as tzitzit) can relate to the side of human nature that eventually begins acting by rote, not consciously thinking about why he is doing what he is doing. The blessings serve as some sort of an introductory wake-up to us to stop and reflect about what we are about to do.
This is taken to a higher level when the mitzva involved is the learning of Torah. As we will discuss further, the blessing made on Torah is not necessarily made on the simple act of opening a book and learning a piece of gemara or a pasuk in Chumash. Rather, the blessings are made on one's constant involvement in Torah and one's possessing of Torah as a part of oneself (cheftza shel Torah). Unlike an act such as lighting candles on Chanukah, where the blessing is made, the act is performed, and in a minute it is all complete, the role of Torah in one's life is not one that can be limited to time. Even when one is not formally learning, the effects of his or her learning should be evident in every action that is performed throughout the course of the day. For Torah to be limited to an intellectual exercise that is confined to a set time in the day destroys its entire essence, as essence revealed in its very name - Torah, from the term "hora'ah" - instruction. The verb for learning does not form the root of Torah, but rather the verb for instruction and guidance, since Torah's purpose is to extend beyond the book into the life of the one learning it.
This, says Mahari Abuhav, was the sin of the talmidei chachamim. They view Torah as only an intellectual exercise. By thus denying the true essence of Torah, their learning itself was severely flawed. As such, their merits were not what they appeared to be, and their children did not grow to be like them. I would even take this idea a bit further. This is not an abstract matter, that in some higher realm their Torah learning was not counted as being the best that it could be, and thus they lacked sufficient merit in the divine accounting book to see their children grow to be great scholars as well. Rather, the fact that these people failed to appreciate what Torah truly is meant that they did not wear their Torah on their sleeves. As such, for as much learning that they may have done, it did not carry over into their everyday lives. Thus, their sons, contrary to what we stated at the beginning of this Chabura, may not have grown up in the type of households that we would have imagined. While I would not claim that these talmidei chachamim lived two separate lives - one in the Beit Midrash and one at home, it would seem that the fervor for learning Torah did not translate into the same fervor for living Torah.
It is for this reason that the Tur includes this gemara as his introduction to these laws. A person who is going to make blessings on the Torah every morning has to be fully conscious of what it is he is doing. He is not merely making a blessing on a single act, but rather is consecrating his entire day, and by extension his entire life, to the service of Hashem as laid out in the Torah, both oral and written. If that point is not understood, then the rest of the laws become meaningless. Thus, it is fully appropriate for these lines to be included in what is otherwise a halachic work.
With this background, we will proceed next week to discuss various aspects of Birchot HaTorah. How many blessings are there really? If there are more than one, then why are so many needed? Does one have to learn at all after making these blessings if the blessings are not focused on any one act? If the blessing is not made on any one act, then why is a blessing needed? While we have answered this question from a philosophical perspective this week, it remains to be seen if there is any more technical reason why this is so. We will attempt to answer this questions, and deal with a few other ones, next week.
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