Blessings on Mitzvot

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

1st Day RH Cheshvan: Chatam Sofer on Brachot on Mitzvot

A long time ago, I thought about writing a PhD dissertation about R. Tzvi Hirsch Chayes (I gave it up because I wasn’t interested in learning the necessary languages, and Bruria Hutner David beat me to it as well), so I kind of perk up whenever I come across him. In Shu”t Chatam Sofer 1 (Orach Chayyim) 54, dated the first day of Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, 5693 (1832), Chatam Sofer corresponded with him about berachot before performing a mitzvah.

Berachah On Serving as Judges

Their starting point was a story in Yerushalmi Berachot, at the beginning of the sixth chapter, where R. Chagi and R. Yirmiyah went to sit in the marketplace (making themselves available to hear court cases). R. Chagi made a berachah, and R. Yirmiyah complimented him, since all mitzvot require berachot, an idea he credited to R. Tanchuma and R. Abba bar Kahana in the name of R. Eliezer. This latter had noted that Shemot 24;12 links mitzvot to Torah– when Hashem says to Moshe to come up to Sinai, He says it’s to receive the stone tablets, and the Torah and the mitzvah. Just as Torah requires a berachah beforehand, so do mitzvot.

[Since we assume berachot on mitzvot are of Rabbinic origin, it seems clear this verse is meant as an asmachta rather than an actual derivation.]

What berachah had R. Chagi made? R. Eliyahu of Fulda assumed that it was celebrating the commandment of be-tzedek tishpot amitecha, judge your fellow righteously (or justly), but R. Chayes thought that contradicted a ruling of Rashba, that we do not recite a beracha on judging court cases, lest one or both litigants reject the verdict. (If they do, the judge has not performed his mitzvah, since that requires a verdict and resolution).

Rashba’s view leaves us unsure as to how to understand the Yerushalmi, but is also puzzling because courts often compel cooperation, so why should we worry about the litigants’ reaction?

The Complete Mitzvah of Judging

R. Chayes suggested that Rashba thought that if the court is forced to coerce a verdict, that does not fulfill the mitzvah [a striking point: the mitzvah is for justice to proceed such that people know they have to listen to the courts. If a court must use force, it’s a loss for society].

The Bavli’s view—the more authoritative Talmud—was that Jews only make berachot where they’re reasonably confident they can complete the mitzvah. Once we realize that judging depends on the litigants’ reaction, the judges cannot make a berachah.

Yerushalmi held that we recite berachot upon embarking on any mitzvah, like building a sukkah, regardless of how confident we can of finishing it, which is why R. Chagi made a berachah.

Chatam Sofer compliments R. Chayes’ thought process, then offers an idea of his own. Human beings should never feel certain they’re going to judge correctly or properly (he cites Tehillim 19;13, shegi’ot mi yavin, who can understand errors, meaning we make mistakes even when doing our absolute best). To recite a berachah would imply that we know we’ll fulfill this mitzvah, when we’re required to think we might get it wrong [which is somewhat of an insight into Chatam Sofer himself, his sense of the fallibility of human judgment].

We might think to work around that by securing litigants’ agreement to abide by the decision, right or wrong (like in binding arbitration). We still cannot be positive they’ll keep their word, so we’re left unsure we’ll have fulfilled the mitzvah of seeking emet ve-shalom, truth and peace.

Appointing Qualified Judges

That same line of reasoning explains why we don’t make a berachah when we appoint the judges. Some think it’s because we’re not sure we’ll need them, but the mitzvah isn’t to use them, it’s to appoint them—like checking for chametz before Pesach (the mitzvah is checking, regardless of whether we find).

The more correct reason for the lack of a berachah, according to Chatam Sofer, is that we cannot be sure these judges deserve the job. People see the external, as I Shmuel 15;7 tells us, so that with all good intentions we may elevate to judgeship someone other than the most qualified.

[As I was summarizing this, I first wrote “people who are disqualified,” but that’s not what Chatam Sofer says. He is saying that even if the person isn’t the most qualified, that’s enough of a flaw in our fulfillment of the obligation to appoint judges that we may not make a brachah].

The same is true for writing a sefer Torah. The Gemara knew that we no longer have the exact tradition of how to write some words in the Torah, particularly for chaserot ve-yeterot, which words to write without or without a vav or yud, letters that often do not affect pronunciation. Menachot 30a says a scroll missing even one letter is invalid, so we cannot be sure we’re writing valid scrolls, and therefore cannot recite a berachah [this is an interesting topic of its own; Ramban in his Introduction to the Torah has a theory for why that should be so, and Sha’agat Aryeh argued that this is the reason most Jews no longer fulfill the mitzvah to write a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll].

What Berachah Did R. Chagi Recite?

Chatam Sofer now returns to the original passage, which he read very differently. If R. Chagi’s berachah was about the act of judging, why did the Yerushalmi need to give a source for reciting berachot before fulfilling mitzvot? Isn’t that obvious–could it be that the Yerushalmi didn’t know that tefillin and mezuzah and maror were performed after reciting a berachah?

He suggests instead that they were there that day to perform another role of judges, to look into the needs of the city more broadly. R. Chagi made the berachah before any such needs had arisen, was anticipating that such needs would come, even though it might be some time, and even though the needs might come in spurts.

Rather than see that as a hefsek, an interruption that obligated another berachah, R. Chagi taught us that a berachah in the morning can cover the whole day of mitzvot that occur over a stretch of time, even with interruptions. Another example is Torah study, where our morning berachah covers the whole day. [He admits that the language of the Yerushalmi doesn’t quite say what he’s claiming, but adds that anyone well-versed in Bavli and Yerushalmi will see that it really does mean that. He may be right, but that gives a level of interpretive leeway that I think would backfire on him in other circumstances, in the hands of less adept readers.]

In the event, we don’t follow that, he says, we generally make a berachah on each occurrence of a mitzvah when there are interruptions in between acts [Torah study is an exception rather than an example of the rule].

Mitzvot We Control

R. Chayes raised another question about Rashba’s views. Rashba had pointed to charity as an example of a mitzvah that doesn’t get aberachah, since it involves another person, who might stop the mitzvah from going forward (by refusing the alms). R. Chayes counters that we do recite a berachah on erusin, the first stage of marriage (the ring ceremony), even though the woman might decide to refuse the ring. Chatam Sofer answers that Rashba hadn’t meant to be as general as R. Chayes took him, he had meant that if we’re performing a mitzvah for another’s benefit, we have to worry that that person might decide s/he doesn’t need that benefit.

Marriage, however, is an halachic obligation only for the man, so her possible refusal isn’t of our concern. The groom makes the berachah on the mitzvah he’s about to perform, and if events out of his control prevent him from fulfilling it, that’s ones, involuntary, which doesn’t affect our berachah calculus [there are always possibilities that can stop us from fulfilling a mitzvah after we’ve made a berachah].

The Words We Say

R. Chayes had also raised two questions about the wording of berachot. First, at weddings we say “Who commanded us about prohibited relationships (arayot), and permitted those married to us.” Why mention arayot at a wedding ceremony? Chatam Sofersays it’s because we could theoretically fulfill the mitzvah of procreation without marriage.

Marriage isn’t there to make it possible to have children, since children born out of wedlock also count. Rather, marriage helps establish clear bloodlines, so we know we’re not having relations with prohibited relatives. (Chatam Sofer refers to a fascinating comment of Ramban’s on Vayikra 18 we cannot digress to discuss here; it’s fascinating enough that he says marriage is about making clear who is allowed to whom.) That’s why the berachah continues “and permitted us those to whom we’re married.”

That idea of the berachah as celebrating a mitzvah whose main function is avoiding a prohibition also explains a problematic claim ofTaz’s. Taz had said that the berachah on ritual slaughter of animals is about the fact that it helps us avoid eating ever min hachai, parts of live animals. Our general rule, though, is that we don’t make berachot on negatives, on avoiding prohibitions.

Chatam Sofer can now suggest (although more diffidently) that we’re celebrating the positive obligation of shechitah, which lets us eat the meat. True, it’s really a way to avoid a prohibiton, but once it’s an obligation, we can and should recite a berachah.

From a berachah about serving as judges, Chatam Sofer and Maharatz Chayes have helped us learn about when and how we praise Hashem for giving us various mitzvot.

About Gidon Rothstein

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