by R. Daniel Mann
Question: A friend of mine always eats dessert after Birkat Hamazon in order to avoid questions about whether he should make a beracha on dessert. Is that appropriate?
Answer: The practice of having dessert after Birkat Hamazon has various consequences. It can create a beracha rishona in cases that do not warrant them during the meal. After most desserts, there is a beracha acharona after Birkat Hamazon and not before it (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 177:2).
First we will look at whether this system could be halachically justified. A beracha l’vatala is when a beracha is either recited at a time/circumstance when it was not called for or was done in a critically flawed manner. There is a machloket whether this is a Torah-level (Rambam, Berachot 1:15) or Rabbinic prohibition (Tosafot, Rosh Hashana 33a). A lower level problem is what we call beracha she’eina tzricha (=bshtz) – a beracha that, at the time it was made, was called for, but one should not have put himself in that position.
The main Talmudic source for it is an opinion (Yoma 70a) that explains that in the kri’at haTorah in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur, they did not use a second sefer Torah because the switch of sefarim would have required another Birkat HaTorah, when this was not justified. The Orchot Chayim (Berachot 15) is one of the sources that apply it to berachot on food, in an almost identical case to ours – Birkat Hamazon before finishing eating, in order to make a beracha thereafter.
However, as the term she’eina tzricha (unnecessary) implies and the Orchot Chayim (ibid.) states, the problem is only when the additional beracha is created for no good reason. When, in contrast, there is a need for his actions, the beracha is not considered unnecessary. What qualifies as a reason? There is a machloket if one may make more berachot than should have been necessary in order to help get to the quota of 100 berachot each day (see Rambam, Tefilla 7:14-16 with Lechem Mishneh; Orchot Chayim ibid.).
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 174:4) comments that it is a safek whether one who wants to drink wine at a meal right after drinking Havdala wine needs to make another beracha. He rules that he does not make the beracha, out of doubt, but recommends having in mind when making the beracha during Havdala not to exempt the later wine, thereby justifying the second beracha. The Pri Chadash (Yoreh Deah 19:8) says that while one should not break a string of shechitot, which might stop the efficacy of the beracha toward subsequent shechitot, since there would be a safek if a new beracha is required, one should intend that his initial beracha not extend to shechitot occurring after speaking. In other words, while needlessly setting up the need for a beracha is wrong, the desire to not be in a situation of lack of a beracha due to safek justifies it. In fact, the Ohr L’tzion (II, 12:(10)), in the case of a certain dessert in where it is unclear whether it requires a beracha rishona, recommends eating it only after Birkat Hamazon. So there is room to entertain your friend’s system
However, we do not recommend your friend’s system, at least not broadly. If the halacha is clear, whether to make or not make a beracha, the suggested system, obviating the need to learn the halacha, is unfortunate. It is much better to learn halachot than to avoid the situations to which they apply. One of the major reasons to learn Torah is to get things exactly correct! This is especially so by berachot, where preciseness is valued (see Berachot 38a). That is why poskim discuss all sorts of dessert foods and scenarios and rarely if ever give his solution. For example, regarding a dessert of cake, we do not make a beracha only due to the possibility that cake counts as bread (Bi’ur Halacha to 168:8), and the poskim by and large do not recommend bentching first to remove doubt.
Furthermore, in cases which do not include doubt, an extra beracha is a bshtz. Only in unusual cases (e.g., one with memory problems), to be discussed with a rav, might using this system broadly be justified.