Sunday, November 19, 2006

Blessings on Types of Torah

The Gemara (Berakhos 11b) discusses exactly what consists the Torah on which one must recite blessings before studying. Rav Huna states that Scripture, the Written Torah, requires blessings but nothing else. R. Elazar adds Midrash, R. Yochanan adds Mishnah (meaning compilations of law) and Rava adds Talmud (meaning explanations of the compilations of law). The halakhah follows Rava. [On the order of this talmudic list, see Ma'adanei Yom Tov, ad loc. resh; Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 47:1.]

The Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah (ad loc.) explain that the blessing on the Torah refers to the Written Law (Tanakh), and those who add other works do so because those works contain verses from Tanakh in varying degrees. Rashi (sv. af), however, explains that, according to Rava (the dominant view), one must recite a blessing on Talmud because it is the main part of Torah, since practical ruling comes from it. According to Rabbenu Yonah, the blessing refers to Scriptural verses. According to Rashi, it refers to Torah in general and halakhah in particular. [Cf. Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, 47:2 and Levush 47 who follow Rashi's view. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan 47:8 understands Rabbenu Yonah as only requiring the blessing on halakhah. I understand Rabbenu Yonah as explained above, and I believe I was taught it that way but will refrain from mentioning names because I am not sure (what ever happened to the commentary on Berakhos based on Rav Soloveitchik's famous lectures that was supposedly in the works a decade ago?). According to the Arukh Ha-Shulchan, what was the logic behind the view that only Tanakh requires a blessing?]

With this debate in hand, we can ask whether the blessing on the Torah must be recited before learning various genres (first thing in the morning, because one's first blessing generally applies for the entire day).

Click here to read moreLet me add two important prefaces:

1. I am not qualified to rule on these matters. This is just thinking out loud for the sake of learning. Ask a qualified rabbi before acting on any of this.

2. I am distinguishing here between "it" and "about it". My unproven assertion is that discussions of Torah concepts are Torah but discussions about the methodology of such discussions are not Torah. They might be interesting and might be necessary prerequisites for the proper study of Torah, but that only makes them "handmaidens" of Torah and not Torah itself.

I. Kabbalah

Does studying kabbalah, for someone who is permitted to do so, require a blessing on the Torah? If one is studying Zohar, then it contains many verses and is a part of Torah. So according to both Rabbenu Yonah and Rashi one must recite a blessing before studying Zohar. But other works of kabbalah that do not quote verses directly would seem to be a matter of debate. According to Rabbenu Yonah it would not require a blessing while according to Rashi it would. Thus, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (ibid.) leaves this matter unresolved due to the debate. The Kaf Ha-Chaim (47:3), however, rules that one must recite a blessing.

II. Jewish Thought

The classic works of Jewish Thought, such as Moreh Nevukhim and Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, contain many biblical verses and are also a part of Torah. Therefore, they would definitely require a blessing. However, secondary works that discuss the contents of the classic works might not have any verses at all. Thus, many academic works on Moreh Nevukhim and other such works that discuss issues themselves would require a blessing according to Rashi (since they are Torah) but not according to Rabbenu Yonah (because they do not contain verses). Works that discuss methodological issues are neither Torah nor contain verses, unless they have concrete examples of the methodologies they discuss, in which case they would contain Torah.

III. Talmud Commentaries

According to Rabbenu Yonah, Talmud requires a blessing because it sometimes contains verses. Commentaries to the Talmud contain even fewer verses, but they still contain some. Is it enough to warrant a blessing? Considering how few verses the Mishnah contains, I would suspect that it does (although the Gemara was not specifically referring to the Mishnah we have before us, I suspect that it is sufficiently similar to make such a comparison since our Mishnah is a highly edited compilation of prior versions). According to Rashi, there is nothing to discuss because these commentaries are Torah and the source of practical halakhah.

IV. Law Codes

Contemporary law codes, such as the Shulchan Arukh, Chayei Adam and Mishnah Berurah, are different from what the Gemara called Mishnah. These codes contain almost no verses at all! According to Rabbenu Yonah, someone who studies Shulchan Arukh need not recite a blessing on the Torah. According to Rashi, one must.

V. Jewish History

Classical history works contain many citations from the Talmud and the Bible. Thus, even though the books are "about it" and not "it", they still contain plenty of "it" and would require a blessing according to both opinions. However, more modern history texts do no contain such citations and would not require a blessing according to both opinions.

VI. Academic Talmud Study

There are three types of academic study of the Talmud. One deals with lower criticism -- the variant texts of the Talmud. This is essentially the same as studying Talmud in that it contains verses, is Torah and has practical halakhic ramifications (see this post). Another type is to extract the intellectual history of the various people, times and places in the Talmud. It could be that this is similar to history and has the same status -- i.e. if there are concrete examples then it is Torah and is essentially the same as Talmud commentary. The third type is form criticism, i.e. finding the historical layers within the text (see here for more information). Since this always deals with specific passages of the text, I don't see how it is different from standard Talmud commentary.

VII. Grammar

I think that grammar (of Biblical Hebrew) is "about it" and not "it" in regard to the study of Torah, even though there is a separate mitzvah to learn Hebrew (cf. the Rambam's commentary to Avos 2:1; R. Yosef Engel, Gilyonei Ha-Shas, ad loc.). However, the classical works of grammar are replete with biblical verses. Thus, according to Rabbenu Yonah, they would require a blessing. I would argue that a book that contains incidental verses would not require a blessing according to Rashi, although I acknowledge that an argument can be made that it would. Therefore, I would suggest that while Rabbenu Yonah would require a blessing on grammar books that contain verses, Rashi would not.

Modern texts on grammar that do not contain biblical verses would not require a blessing on the Torah.

Final Point

The Rema (Orach Chaim 47:4) permits one to issue a simple halakhic ruling (without explanation) before recite the blessings on the Torah. The implication that one may not explain the ruling implies either that I misunderstood Rabbenu Yonah or that the normative halakhah follows Rashi.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More