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Peninei Halakha > Women's Prayer > Chapter 07: Birkhot Ha-Torah – The Blessings on the Torah

Chapter 07: Birkhot Ha-Torah – The Blessings on the Torah

01. Women’s Connection to Torah

The Torah belongs to all of Israel, men and women alike. When we recite “Who has chosen us from among all the nations” in Birkat Ha-Torah, we mean that God chose all of Israel, men and women, and consequently “gave us His Torah.” There is an accepted tradition: If even one Jewish maidservant would have been absent at the time of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the giving would have been delayed. Likewise, the mitzva of hak’hel (the assembly at the Temple at the end of the Shemita year, at which the king would read part of the Torah to all Israel) applies to men, women, and children (Devarim 31:12).

Nevertheless, women are exempt from the mitzva to study Torah, as it is written: “You shall teach them to your sons, to speak them [– words of Torah]” (Devarim 11:19). The Sages extrapolate: “Your sons and not your daughters” (Kiddushin 29b).

However, when it comes to the general connection to the Torah, we find that women precede men. For example, when the Torah was given Moshe was instructed to address the women first. It is written: “Thus you shall say (tomar) to the house of Yaakov and tell (tageid) the sons of Israel” (Shemot 19:3). The Sages teach, “The house of Yaakov” (“Beit Yaakov”) refers to the women, who he must address in a gentle voice. “The sons of Israel” refers to the men, to whom he must speak more harshly, telling them of punishments and particular details. The word “tageid” alludes to the body’s tough sinews (“gidin”), connoting harshness. Further, the Sages derive from the introductory phrase “Thus you shall say” that God instructed Moshe to be meticulous about this sequence, namely, first the women and then the men (Mekhilta, cited in Rashi).

Moreover, we learn about proper respect for the Torah and respect for Torah scholars from the Shunamite woman, who would visit the prophet on Shabbat and Rosh Ĥodesh (2 Melakhim 4:23; RH 16b). It is no coincidence that respect for the Torah is learned from the example of a woman, because women have more of a connection to the sublime general aspect of the Torah (Siĥot Ha-Ritzya, Shemot pp. 178-181).

That is, there are two ways to connect to the Torah. One is intellectual: the mitzva for men to study Torah. The second is a general attachment, which pertains more to women. In daily life, the mitzva for men to study Torah is clearly more prominent; however, over the long-term, the holistic manner with which women relate to faith and to the Torah has a greater impact. This is the meaning of the Sages’ dictum: “Greater is the promise that God made to women than to men.” The Sages explain that women received an extra guarantee by virtue of the fact that they send their sons to study Torah and encourage their husbands to study in the beit midrash, waiting happily for them to conclude their studies without pressuring them to come home soon (based on Berakhot 17a).

It is the very exemption of women from the scrupulous study of the Torah’s details that allows them to absorb the general, morals-oriented aspects of the Torah, thereby better enabling them to encourage their husbands and sons to study Torah and thus perpetuate the Torah among Israel. There is no doubt that men also have a profound connection to the holistic aspect of the Torah, for all the details and particular nuances stem from the Torah as a whole. By the same token, women, too, must know the parameters of the fundamentals of faith as well as practical halakha, as will be clarified in the next section. However, as a rule, men more easily connect to the Torah’s precise definitions, whereas women connect to the general expression of the Torah in life. Through men and women together, the Torah is expressed in its entirety.

02. The Mitzva of Torah Study for Women

There is a fundamental difference between the mitzva of Torah study for men and for women. The men’s mitzva is to study Torah, whereas the mitzva for women is to know the mitzvot of the Torah so that they can life accordingly. In other words, a woman who knows all of practical halakha, as well as all the fundamentals of faith and ethics on the level and with the profundity necessary to guide her through life, has no further mitzva to continue studying. However, a man who already learned the entire Torah, even if he were to know it by heart, is still required to continue studying and delve deeper into the Torah.

Hence, there are two parts of Torah study. The first is to understand the Torah’s instructions, in halakha and faith, in order to live a full life. Men and women are equally obligated in this aspect. The second part inclines toward in-depth scrutiny, analysis, and abstraction. Men are obligated in this, but not women. Men and women therefore have different curricula. The most important part of the women’s syllabus is to know all the fundamentals of faith, ethics, and halakha, whereas, the men’s syllabus, in addition to the study of halakha, faith, and ethics, should emphasize learning Gemara and its commentaries. Nevertheless, women who wish to delve into the Torah for God’s sake may study Gemara in-depth as well, on condition that they first learn thoroughly the fundamentals of faith, morality, and the laws that they must know. In particular, intellectually sophisticated women must study extensively and internalize the fundamentals of faith and halakha before delving into the Gemara, so that their reverence for God precedes their wisdom.

For women who do not possess an especially strong desire to delve deeply into the Torah, the Sages’s general guideline is: do not engage in theoretical debates about differing opinions; rather, study a clear, practical summary of the halakhot and their reasons, and delve deeply into the principles of faith and ethics.

There were eras in which it was sufficient for women to learn the laws relating to the household and family on a rudimentary level and then hear a bit of moral admonishment. This was enough to instill an identity within them and generate the proper dedication to fulfilling the Torah and leading a Jewish life. However, in recent generations, with the increase in leisure time, the development of general education, and professional specialization in various fields, it is obvious that women must learn much more than they had in the past. Indeed, under the guidance of prominent rabbinic leaders of recent generations, educational and religious institutions for girls and women have been founded. One prominent example is the “Bais Yaakov” movement, established in Poland by Mrs. Sarah Schenirer, with the encouragement and support of eminent Polish rabbis.

These modern changes do not negate the fundamental halakhic difference between men, who are commanded to study Torah as a theoretical and intellectual endeavor, and women, who are not obligated to do so. Rav Kook explains that it is precisely this distinction between men and women that allows for the emergence of a state of harmony between analytic intellectualism and the vibrant and natural emotion that unites and establishes the words of Torah in real life (Ein Ayah, Berakhot 7:46). 1

  1. In Sota 20a, according to Ben Azai, a father must teach his daughter Torah, whereas according to R. Eliezer, he may not do so, for one who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her frivolity (“tiflut”). That is also the opinion of R. Yehoshua. Y. Sota 3:4 explains that according to R. Elazar b. Azaria, women are commanded to hear the Torah but not to study it in depth. Rambam (MT, Laws of Torah Study 1:13) rules in accordance with R. Eliezer that one should not teach his daughter Torah, because most women’s minds are not geared for that, and if they are taught the Oral Torah it is as if they are taught frivolity. All this is said in reference to the Oral Torah, but teaching one’s daughter the Written Torah (Scripture) is not considered teaching her frivolity (Tur and SA, YD 246:6, even though Rambam says that a father should not reach his daughter Scripture either), since hak’hel includes a commandment to make the Written Torah heard to all of Israel, including women. Therefore, it is impossible to say that one who teaches his daughter the Written Torah is considered to have taught her frivolity.

    However, a woman who wants to learn on her own, not because her parents or institutional context obligates her, may do so. It is even a credit to her, as Rambam says (ad loc.): “A woman who learned Torah receives rewards, but not the same as a man’s reward, as she was not commanded, and whoever performs an action that he is not commanded to perform is not rewarded like one who was commanded. Rather it is less.” It seems, therefore, that the entire prohibition is for a father to initiate Torah study with his daughter; but if she herself is interested in doing so for heaven’s sake, there is no prohibition; on the contrary, she is rewarded. Likewise, Rambam explains (MT, Laws of Torah Principles 4:14) every single person has a mitzva to love God and fear Him. The way one achieves total love and fear for God is through Torah study, initially by studying talmudic debates and knowing what is permitted and what prohibited, and later through the study of the esoteric “work of creation” (“ma’aseh bereishit”) and “work of the chariot” (“ma’aseh merkava”). Concerning this, Rambam writes: “These are the greatest good that God bestowed on the civilized world so that it may inherit the World to Come; and it is possible that everyone understands them – adult and minor, man and woman, one whose mind is expansive as well as one with limited knowledge…” (R. Rabinovitch writes this as well in his commentary on MT, Yad Peshuta). It seems, therefore, that the future ideal of a world filled with the knowledge of God where is one where all women study Torah of their own volition and with complete understanding, thereby arriving at the love and fear of God in its totality. As we know, in the past there were women prophets and sages. However, it seems that even in the ideal there is a difference between the character of men’s and women’s learning.

    In summary, a woman whose heart is set on in-depth Torah study may engage in it, and it is to her credit. Still, good and righteous women who have no desire for this type of study should not be taught, and if one does teach them, it is as if he has taught them frivolity. It seems that the reason for this is twofold. One aspect pertains to the feminine nature, which makes it appropriate that she delve into Torah study out of her own desire and freedom. The second reason is that for most women, during the time that the domestic yoke is great and there is very little leisure time, theoretical Torah study cannot be undertaken properly. This makes it like frivolity, and the damage caused by this learning is greater than the benefit gained.

    All of this applies solely to theoretical study. Women are obligated to study Torah in order to perform mitzvot (Rema YD 246:6, based on Agur and Smak). Therefore, SA 47:14 rules that women must recite Birkhot Ha-Torah, since women must learn what is necessary for them to live a life of Torah. Today, it is apparent that women need to learn halakha and its reasons, along with the fundamentals of faith, for without this learning, their religious lives would certainly not be on the appropriate level. Therefore, it is an obligation to teach girls however much is necessary in order for them to uphold the Torah and become settled in their faith.

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

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.

04. The Value of Birkhot Ha-Torah

After the decimation of Eretz Yisrael and the exile of the Jewish people, a major question arose, reflected in the words of the prophet (Yirmiyahu 9:11): “Why has the land been lost?” Everyone certainly understood that we were exiled from our land because of our sins; they were asking which sin was at the root of the spiritual collapse that led to the destruction. The Sages, the prophets, and the ministering angels were asked this question and did not know how to answer, until God Himself explained. “God says: ‘Because they abandoned My Torah which I had given them’” (ibid. 9:12). The Sages of the Gemara interpret this to mean that they did not recite the berakha on the Torah before engaging in its study (Nedarim 81a). That is, although they studied Torah, they did not relate to it as divine instruction. Because of this, they were considered to have forsaken the Torah of God. For anyone who learns Torah as if it is just another discipline of human wisdom is not considered to be one who studies Torah. However, when we recite Birkhot Ha-Torah properly, we indeed approach Torah out of faith and attachment to its Giver.

The Sages further inquire (Nedarim 81a): Why is it that not all the children of Torah scholars continue in their parents’ paths and become Torah scholars themselves? Presumably, the parents made efforts to educate their children to follow in their footsteps and become engrossed in Torah all their lives. If so, why did they not all succeed? Moreover, in those days, it was widely accepted that every son continued in his father’s profession; sons of carpenters became carpenters, sons of farmers became farmers, and so on. Consequently, the Gemara’s question is all the more perplexing – why don’t a relatively large percentage of sons of Torah scholars become Torah scholars themselves? The Gemara offers several reasons, the last of which is that of Ravina: it is because they do not recite Birkhot Ha-Torah before studying. That is, the sons of Torah scholars often study Torah only because they saw their fathers doing so; as sons like to mimic their fathers, they too make efforts to study Torah. However, Torah can only be acquired by studying for God’s sake, out of a personal attachment to its Giver. Therefore, those sons who study out of habit or by mimicking their fathers do not succeed in their studies.

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.

06. Before What Type of Learning Must the Berakhot Be Recited?

One must recite Birkhot Ha-Torah before studying any part of the Torah (SA 47:2). In other words, even one who only intends to learn Midrash or halakha on a particular day must recite Birkhot Ha-Torah at the onset of that day. The reason for this is that the entire Torah – whether the Written Torah or the Oral Torah, halakha and theology – was all given from God to Moshe at Sinai (y. Pe’ah 2:4), and when studying them, one must recite, “Who chose us from among all His nations and gave us His Torah.”

The poskim disagree about whether Birkhot Ha-Torah must also be recited before thinking Torah thoughts. For example, one who arises in the morning with the desire to ponder a few ideas of Torah, according to most poskim does not need to recite the berakhot. Still, there are those who disagree. In order to avoid uncertainty, one who wakes up and wishes to reflect upon words of Torah should first recite Birkhot Ha-Torah and immediately afterwards recite a few verses. However, one who temporarily wakes from her sleep in the middle of the night and wants to contemplate Torah ideas until she falls back to sleep need not recite Birkhot Ha-Torah beforehand. Those who listen to Jewish music when they wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night do not need to recite Birkhot Ha-Torah since they do not have intention to learn (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 10:4 and n. 4).

One may recite Birkhot Ha-Torah and Birkhot Ha-shaĥar while standing, sitting, lying down, or walking. Nevertheless, there are those who insist that Birkhot Ha-Torah be recited while standing or walking, not while sitting or lying down (ibid. ch. 10 n. 5).

07. Birkhot Ha-Torah for the Whole Day

Birkhot Ha-Torah recited by a woman in the morning remains effective all day. Even if she goes to eat and to work afterwards, she does not need to repeat the berakhot upon returning to her studies.

The poskim disagree about whether men must repeat Birkhot Ha-Torah after regular sleep (ibid. 10:6). However, it is a matter of consensus that women only recite Birkhot Ha-Torah once in a 24-hour period and do not repeat them after a regular sleep. Therefore, a woman who wakes up after midnight and intends to go back to sleep a few hours later recites Birkhot Ha-Torah and Birkhot Ha-shaĥar after her main rising (as explained above, 6:6). 1

The poskim disagree about whether a man who was awake all night must recite Birkhot Ha-Torah (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 10:7). However, a woman who was awake for a full 24-hour period does not recite Birkhot Ha-Torah in the morning; instead, she says Birkat Ahavat Olam and afterwards recites the first paragraph of Shema, thereby fulfilling her obligation of Birkhot Ha-Torah (see above, ch. 6 n. 4).

If a woman sleeps a regular sleep during the day prior to the night she stayed awake, she recites Birkhot Ha-Torah the following morning (MB 47:28; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 10 n. 9).

  1. Tzlaĥ, Berakhot 11b offers a novel insight: A woman who interrupted her studies to do other things and then returned to her studies must repeat Birkhot Ha-Torah. Men do not repeat the berakhot because their obligation to study lasts through the day and night, but a woman has no such obligation; rather, every time she studies she must make a new berakha. However, this opinion was not accepted as halakha. Rav Kook (Tov Ro’i on Berakhot, §95) writes that since the basis of women’s obligation of Birkhot Ha-Torah is inferior to that of men, it makes no sense for the less important obligation to exceed the more significant one. In addition, Birkei Yosef (cited in Kaf Ha-ĥayim 47:34) states that in any case of uncertainty women do not recite the berakhot. Although in n. 4 we mentioned that there are poskim who disagree with Birkei Yosef, which maintains that all agree that women’s obligation in Birkhot Ha-Torah is rabbinic, nevertheless, in practice, it seems that they agree they do not recite the berakha in cases of uncertainty (Halikhot Beitah 3:3,5; Halikhot Shlomo 6:4).

    Furthermore, based on what we explained in sections 1 and 3 above, we can explain that the primary reason that women recite Birkhot Ha-Torah is is their connection to the whole of the Torah, its fulfillment, and their requirement to study practical laws, principles of faith, and ethics. Therefore, the berakha does not pertain to any particular study; rather it is a general berakha regarding the essence of the Torah, and it resembles all of Birkhot Ha-shaĥar in that there is no need to say it more than once a day.

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