by R. Gil Student
Twenty five years ago, when my first child was born, I asked Rav Meyer Scheinberg zt”l the following question: If the baby wakes up crying in the middle of the night, and I wake up and try to calm her by singing a song that consists of Torah content, do I need to recite Birkos Ha-Torah, the blessings on the Torah, before singing? I would be singing Torah material with intent for music, not learning. Of course, I want the holy words to seep into the baby’s subconscious but my intent is not for learning. Can I sing those songs or do I need to first go through the process of washing my hands and reciting the blessings? He answered me simply that I need to recite the blessings. I write the following to discuss some of the sources underlying that ruling, as a small token of appreciation to the great man who tragically passed away from the pandemic.
I. Torah We Don’t Understand
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) says that someone should always learn even if he doesn’t understand. That seems to imply that you fulfill a mitzvah for learning by reciting Torah even if you do not know what it means. On the other hand, the Gemara (Berakhos 6b) says that the primary reward for attending a shi’ur, a Torah lecture, is for your running to it. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that since most people do not understand the lecture, they do not receive reward for the learning but only for the attendance. Magen Avraham (50:2) says that someone who reads a Mishnah without understanding it has not learned it. He seems to follow the Gemara in Berakhos as explained by Rashi. But what about the Gemara in Avodah Zarah that seems to credit learning without understanding?
Chida (Maris Ha-Ayin, Avodah Zarah, ad loc.) reconciles the different sources by distinguishing between someone who is capable of understanding and someone who is not. If you do your best but cannot understand the text in front of you, then your learning Torah without understanding fulfills the mitzvah. On the other hand, if you are capable of more and for whatever reason are not exerting your full ability to understand, then your learning Torah without understanding does not fulfill the mitzvah. The Vilna Gaon (quoted by Etz Yosef, Avodah Zarah, ad loc.) takes a different approach. He says that learning Torah without understanding never fulfills the mitzvah. The Gemara in Avodah Zarah only means that you do not fully understand the text, you have unanswered questions on the subject, you still fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah. We will suggest a third way to understand these seemingly conflicting passages that will help us answer our original questions about learning Torah incidentally.
II. Learning Torah Without Learning
Old prayerbooks, including Seder Rav Amram Ga’on the oldest known siddur, place Birkos Ha-Torah a little after the beginning, right before Parashas Ha-Tamid (as the Rishonim quote it, although the latest editions have it differently). That means you would start davening before saying Birkos Ha-Torah. The question arose what to do in the days approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we wake up early to recite Selichos before Shacharis, including certain Psalms. Rav Tzidkiyah Ha-Rofei (13th cen., Rome; Shibbolei Ha-Leket, ch. 5) quotes Rav Meir (Maharam) of Rothenburg as saying that if you wake up early to learn Torah, you have to first say Birkos Ha-Torah. But if you say Selichos, then according to some opinions you do not have to first say Birkos Ha-Torah. Rav Ya’akov Landau (15th cen., Italy; Sefer Ha-Agur, ch. 92) quotes Rav Ya’akov Moelin (Maharil, 15th cen., Germany) as saying that if you recite a verse as a prayer then you do not need to recite Birkos Ha-Torah first.
Rav Ya’akov Ba’al Ha-Turim (14th cen., Germany-Spain) popularized the practice of reciting Birkos Ha-Torah early, so as to avoid these problems. Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 46:9) agrees with earlier recitation but says that the custom in Poland was to say Selichos before Birkos Ha-Torah. Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 56) likewise defended saying Selichos before Birkos Ha-Torah. According to the Tur, you should always say Birkos Ha-Torah before reciting words of Torah, even if you do not intend to learn. Maharshal and Rema hold that this is a good policy but not absolutely required, as can be seen by the exception for Selichos. Later authorities say that once we are accustomed to reciting Birkos Ha-Torah early, effectively we are following the strict opinion and should never recite verses without the blessings (e.g. Mishnah Berurah 46:27).
Rav Yosef Karo (Mechaber, 16th cen., Israel; ad loc.) says that you should not recite verses before saying Birkos Ha-Torah, although some say that you may but we are strict for the first opinion. In practice, he believes you should say Birkos Ha-Torah first but what does he think is the the actual rule, the ikar ha-din? Rav Yosef Chazan (18-19th cen., Turkey; Chikrei Lev, Orach Chaim, no. 9) reads the Mechaber as ruling leniently, since he says that we are strict, as if it is beyond the law’s requirement. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18-19th cen., Israel; Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 46:14; Yosef Ometz, no. 66) argues that since the Mechaber says the second, lenient opinion as “some say,” that means he really follows the first, strict opinion.
Interestingly, Rav Ovadiah Yosef and his son Rav David Yosef disagree on how to read the Mechaber. Rav Ovadiah (Yabi’a Omer, vol. 9, Orach Chaim 108:29) follows the Chikrei Lev’s lenient understanding while Rav David (his edition of Rambam’s Responsa Pe’er Ha-Dor, no. 104 n. 9) prefers Chida’s reading. Rav David also points out that the Mechaber never saw this strict responsum of the Rambam. If he had, he probably would have ruled strictly. The father and son discuss this and their arguments can be found in Pe’er Ha-Dor and Rav Yitzchak Yosef’s Yalkut Yosef (Pesukei De-Zimra, ch. 47 n. 10).
III. What Is Torah?
Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 50:2) says that if you recite a Mishnah but do not understand it, you have not fulfilled the mitzvah to learn Torah. Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (19th cen., Russia; Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 2:13) says that this refers specifically to the Oral Torah. However, if you recite a biblical verse without understanding it, you have learned it. I was taught in the name of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik that the Bible, Torah She-Bi-Ksav, is inherently Torah; it is a cheftza of Torah. Oral Torah, Torah She-Be-Al Peh, only has sanctity as explanation and interpretation, which require understanding. If you do not understand Torah She-Be-Al Peh that you are reciting, then you are not learning Torah or reciting Torah. In contrast, regardless of your intent or understanding, if you recite biblical verses then you are saying Torah.
With this, we can suggest that we may recite passages from Torah She-Be-Al Peh as prayers before reciting Birkos Ha-Torah but not biblical verses. Similarly, the Gemara that encourages learning without understanding could have been referring to Torah She-Bi-Ksav and the Gemara saying that there is no reward for learning Torah without understanding it refers to Torah She-Be-Al Peh.
Therefore, in theory, I would be able to sing passages from Talmud and Midrash in the middle of the night without prior blessings but not from Bible. Even if I don’t intend the song as Torah, if it contains biblical verses then it is a cheftza of Torah. However, since the practice of the Rema and Mechaber is to be strict, I have to say Birkos Ha-Torah whether the song contains Torah She-Bi-Ksav or Torah She-Be-Al Peh, as Rav Meyer Scheinberg ruled.