Transfiguration: From Blessing to Verse

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Devarim

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: What should you do if you accidentally start reciting an unmandated blessing?

The Lord our God (Hashem Elokeinu) spoke to us in Chorev, saying, You have dwelt long enough in this mountain. (Deuteronomy 1:6)

The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 206:6), based on the Rosh (Berachos 6:20) in the name of Rabbeinu Yonah, rules that if one mistakenly begins reciting a blessing “Baruch Ata Hashem” (“Blessed are You God”) and realizes he did not need to make such a blessing should conclude with the words “lamdeini chukecha” (“teach me Your laws”). By doing so one takes what would have otherwise constituted a blessing in vain and transfigures it into an innocuous recitation of a verse from Psalms (119:12): “Baruch Ata Hashem, lamdeini chukecha” – “Blessed are You, God – train me in Your laws.” (See also the Tzlach on Berachos 39a regarding using I Chronicles 16:36.)

R. Mordechai Carlebach further suggests that even if one already uttered the next word, ie. Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu, one could simply transition to reading the verse from our Torah portion (Deut. 1:6): “The Lord our God (Hashem Elokeinu) spoke to us in Chorev etc.” and simply disregard the first two words in the blessing “Baruch Atah” – that way God’s Name was not invoked in vain. R. Carlebach reports that both R. Yisroel Yaakov Fisher and R. Chaim Kanievsky concurred with his suggestion. 

However, if this is truly a viable contingency plan, how is it that virtually none of the earlier Torah authorities thought to make this very recommendation?

We can answer this by first asking a very basic, fundamental question: Why is it that whenever I recite Baruch Ata Hashem, lamdeini chukecha I am not in violation of making a blessing in vain? The answer, of course, is because such a recitation is classified as a reading of Scripture (cheftza shel krias mikra) whereas when I read these words with the intention of blessing God they are naturally classified as a blessing (cheftza shel beracha). While one can mid-way redirect the intentionality of the words “Baruch Atah Hashem” from a blessing to a verse, once one utters the word “Elokeinu”, they have invoked Shem U’Malchus, God’s Name and Kingship, which solidifies its status as a blessing, thereby creating a halachic event horizon – a point of no return. This concern was perhaps the rationale behind the silence we see in the literature on rectifying a blessing once the word “Elokeinu” is invoked.

(Interestingly, the Magen Avraham 135:8 rules that if a yisrael is called up to the first aliyah to the Torah and a kohen walks in just as he says  “Baruch Atah Hashem,” the yisrael should not conclude with “lamdeini chukecha” in order to grant the first aliyah to the kohen, but rather complete the blessing and accept the aliyah.) 

Rabbeinu Yonah (Berachos 39a) and the Beis Yosef (O.C. 206) write that if one only said “Baruch Atah Hashem” they conclude with lamdeini chukecha,” whereas if they already said “Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, then it is already too late, and one must say “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso L’Olam V’Ed on account of uttering a blessing in vain. What is odd here is that they do not provide guidance on what should be done in an intermediate case in which one only went as far as “Elokeinu” or “Melech” without reaching “HaOlam.” Would this case also constitute a blessing in vain or is there some way to salvage it? 

R. Mordechai Carlebach suggests that the word “HaOlam” is actually the point of no return, since toch k’dei dibor (the few seconds allotted to correct an error) would have elapsed at that point. However, if the individual reciting the blessing only reached  “Elokeinu” or “Melech” he would still have just enough time to reconfigure his blessing into a verse. 

R. Carlebach bases this assertion on the radical suggestion of the Tzemach Dovid (on Rabbi Akiva Eiger, no. 25) who says that anytime one is in doubt about whether to make a blessing they should simply insert the words “lamdeini chukecha” into the formula. For example, if one is not certain whether to make a shehakol they would say “Baruch Ata Hashem lamdeini chukecha Elokeinu Melech HaOlam shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro.” Either way (mima nafshach) one is safe: If the individual actually needed to make the blessing then the words lamdeini chukecha are disregarded as an error that was subsequently corrected by reciting the correct formula of the shehakol blesing. Whereas, if a blessing was not required then the indivudal would have simply recited the verse from Psalms and disregards the words “Elokeinu Melech HaOlam shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro” as extraneous matter following the completion of the verse. No harm, no foul committed here. 

While the above suggestion is very clever, we should note that in normative Jewish law, when one is in doubt whether to recite a blessing and has no other recourse we would apply the fundamental principle of safek berachos l’hakel – when in doubt, do not recite a blessing. If we are expected to be so concerned with invoking God’s Name even in the context of blessing Him, certainly we must take extra care to preserve God’s honor in all contexts we encounter. 

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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