03. The Content of Birkhot Ha-Torah and Their Pertinence to Women

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Birkhot Ha-Torah are comprised of three parts. In the first part, we bless God Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to occupy ourselves with words of Torah. In the second, we request that the Torah, which God taught His nation of Israel, be sweet for us, that we study it with relish, and that we and our descendants have the privilege of knowing the Torah. 1

In the third part, we bless and thank God for choosing us from among all the nations and giving us His Torah. The Sages say (Berakhot 11b) that this is the choices of all berakhot because it mentions Israel’s uniqueness – that God “chose us from among all the nations” and consequently “gave us His Torah.” This is the nature of Israel’s soul: it cleaves and clings to God and His Torah, and so only Jewish people can receive the Torah and with it illuminate the world. Among the nations of the world, there may be righteous and devout gentiles, but this is a personal piety of individual people who lack the ability to repair the entire world. As is apparent from our long history, only the Jewish people can serve God within a national framework and strive to rectify the world in the path of truth and ĥesed.

The second and third parts of Birkhot Ha-Torah certainly pertain to women. In the third part, we praise and thank God Who chose us from among all his nations and gave us His Torah. In this regard, men and women are equal, as noted (section 1). The second part, too, pertains to women, for women also pray that the Torah be pleasant in our mouths and in the mouths of our descendants. However, regarding the first part, a question arises: How can women recite “Asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu” (“Who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us”) on engaging in Torah when they are exempt from the mitzva of Torah study? Some maintain that women may recite a blessing on any mitzva from which they are exempt, because the phrasing of the berakha is not “ve-tzivani” (in singular person) – that they themselves as individuals were commanded – but rather “ve-tzivanu” (in the plural), meaning the entire Jewish people. This includes Birkhot Ha-Torah (Rabbeinu Tam, Ran, Rema). Others say, as a rule, that women may not recite a berakha on mitzvot from which they are exempt (Rambam, Or Zaru’a, SA), but nevertheless they may recite Birkhot Ha-Torah, since, as we have seen, women must learn practical halakhot and the fundamentals of faith; they may therefore recite the words “Asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu.” 2

  1. The Rishonim and Aĥaronim disagree regarding how many Birkhot HaTorah there are. According to Rabbeinu Tam, Rosh, and others, there are two berakhot, as the second part is a continuation of the first. Therefore, one must begin the second part (“Ve-ha’arev”) with a conjunctive vav, and one does not answer “Amen” upon the conclusion of the first part. According to Rambam and others, there are three berakhot. The first section is its own berakha and is followed by “Amen”; the second part begins “Ha’arev” (without a vav). SA 47:6 states that it is preferable to start “Ve-ha’arev” in order to fulfill the obligation according to all opinions. MB 47:12 states that it is the opinion of most Aĥaronim not to answer Amen at the end of the first part. Therefore, it is best to say it quietly in order to avoid uncertainty. Nonetheless, Ben Ish Ĥai and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 47:10 and 47:13 state in the name of Arizal that one should answer “Amen” after it, even though we say “Ve-ha’arev,” for they are two separate berakhot.
  2. SA 47:14 states, “Women recite Birkhot Ha-Torah.” Beit Yosef cites Agur and Responsa Maharil Ha-ĥadashot §45, which state that although women are not obligated and the Sages even say that teaching one’s daughter Torah is like teaching her frivolity (Sota 20a), this refers to the Oral Law, not the Written Law. Furthermore, women recite Korbanot and must recite a berakha before their recitation. Moreover, they must learn the laws that pertain to them, as Smak states. According to this approach, a woman may recite the berakha even on behalf of men.

    The Vilna Gaon explains (Bi’ur Ha-Gra, end of §47) that they recite the blessings on the Torah just like on all other time-bound mitzvot, for according to Rabbeinu Tam, Ran, and Rema (589:6) they may recite a berakha on those mitzvot. Many other Aĥaronim agree. According to Gra’s approach, women may not recite the berakha on behalf of men.

    Still, based on this reason, it is difficult to understand how SA permits women to recite the berakha, for it follows Rambam that women may not recite a berakha on mitzvot that they are not obligated to perform (17:2; 589:6). Indeed Responsa Ĥikrei Lev (OĤ 10) maintains that women may not recite “Asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu la’asok be-divrei Torah”; however, he implies that they may recite the berakha “Asher baĥar banu,” for it is a blessing of praise. Ĥida (Responsa Yosef Ometz §67) explains that it is permissible for women to recite the berakha according to SA since that was the ancient custom. This must be because women must learn the laws that pertain to them in order to know how to fulfill them (as written in Sefer Ĥasidim §313). Although this requirement does not stem from the mitzva of Torah study, nevertheless, since women may actually learn, they may recite the blessing. It is explained in the name of R. Ĥayim Soloveichik of Brisk that Birkat Ha-Torah is not merely a berakha recited upon the performance of the mitzva but reflects a separate law: that one is required to recite a berakha before engaging in Torah study. And since women must engage in Torah study in order to know the laws that pertain to them, they must recite the berakha. A similar approach appears in Oraĥ Mishpat §11. For further study, see Halikhot Beitah 3:1-2 and Yalkut Yosef 47:18 which summarize the issue, as well as Ishei Yisrael 7, nn. 31-32.

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