05. Whether the Recitation of Birkhot Ha-Torah is a Biblical Mitzva and the Status of Birkat Ahavat Olam

“R. Yehuda says in the name of Rav: whence do we derive that a berakha prior to Torah study is of biblical origin? As it is written: ‘When I call the Lord’s name, ascribe greatness to our God’ (Devarim 32:3)” (Berakhot 21a). The meaning of this passage is that the Torah is comprised entirely of God’s names (Zohar 2:87:1; Tikunei Zohar §10), for He is completely concealed from us, and through the Torah God is revealed to the world. Thus, the Torah is God’s “names” – the way He is made manifest in the world. That is the meaning of the verse, “When I call the Lord’s name” – before studying Torah, “Ascribe greatness to our God” – recite a berakha to its Giver.

In practice, the Rishonim are divided concerning the meaning of this derivation. Most Rishonim, among them Ramban and Rashba, understand these words straightforwardly: there is a biblical mitzva to recite Birkhot Ha-Torah. Consequently, when one is uncertain about whether he recited Birkhot Ha-Torah, he must be stringent and recite them, in keeping with the principle that we we are stringent concerning matters of biblical uncertainty. This is the Ashkenazic custom (MB 47:1; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 10:3). However, according to Rambam and SA (209:3), Birkhot Ha-Torah are a rabbinic enactment, and the extrapolation from the verse is a mere asmakhta (reference). Accordingly, in a case of uncertainty, one must be lenient and not recite the berakhot. This is is the custom of the Sephardim (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 47:2).

Nonetheless, all agree that a woman who is not sure whether she recited Birkhot Ha-Torah does not repeat the berakhot. If she wishes to avoid uncertainty, she should recite the berakha of Ahavat Olam (Ahava Rabba in the Ashkenazic version) and make sure to recite Shema afterwards, so as to study a passage of Torah after having recited the berakha on it. 1       

The reason that one who recites Ahavat Olam fulfills her obligation, be-di’avad, of Birkhot Ha-Torah is because Ahavat Olam incorporates within it all the content of Birkhot Ha-Torah (SA 47:7). Although the Torah is not mentioned in its conclusion at all, since it mentions Israel as the chosen people – “Who chooses His people Israel with love” – and the Torah and Israel are intertwined, it is as if the Torah is mentioned. Likewise, we see that the most important of the Birkhot Ha-Torah states “Who chose us from among all His nations and gave us His Torah,” which illustrates that the subjects of Israel and the Torah are interconnected and co-dependent.

  1. According to Birkei Yosef 47:8, even those who maintain that the recitation of Birkhot Ha-Torah is a biblical commandment, women only have a rabbinic obligation, and therefore in any case of uncertainty, they do not recite the berakha. However, according to BHL 47:14, based on the explanation of MA, a woman may recite the berakha on a man’s behalf, despite the fact that his obligation is biblical, which suggests that a woman’s obligation is also biblical. Nevertheless, by reciting Ahavat Olam, all opinions agree that she evades doubt. Earlier (chapter 6 n. 4), we explained that the recitation of Shema is certainly considered a fulfillment of Torah study for women, even if it is not clear whether it is so for men.
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