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Notes from Limmud 2011

Is That בְּרָכָה Really Necessary? Uses and Abuses of the Divine Name

Ian Gamse

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

בְּרָכוֹת are statements which have a particular form. They begin ברוך אתה ה׳ אלהינו מלך העולם, followed by something pertaining to whatever the בְּרָכָה is for.

R. Avraham Danziger, the author of the חיי אדם (the Life of Man, which rumour has he titled it thus to prevent anyone making a summary called קיצור חיי אדם) in the footnotes (נִשְׁמַת אָדָם) discusses the idea of an unnecessary בְּרָכָה at length, asking, inter alia, why it is that someone can praise G-d as much as they like, even saying things like "You are G-d who creates the fruit of the tree", without any problem, but as soon as they start with the word ברוך they're in trouble.

The Talmud asks how we know we are supposed to say בְּרָכוֹת, and concludes we can't know this from any Biblical text, but it's a סְבָרָה: it's a logical thing to do. Rashi explains: it sorts of makes sense: since someone is going to derive benefit from the world, it's polite to say thank you.

But of course, the Talmud doesn't stop there, but continues on:

Berachot 35a בְּרָכוֹת לה א
Our rabbis taught: it is forbidden for a person to benefit from this world without a בְּרָכָה, and whoever does benefit from this world without a בְּרָכָה commits sacrilege. [end of ברייתא] תנו רבנן אסור לו לאדם שיהנה לאדם שיהנה מן העולם הזה בלא בְּרָכָה מן העולם הזה בלא בְּרָכָה וכל הנהנה מן העולם הזה בלא בְּרָכָה מעל׃

מְעִילָה denotes something dedicated to the Temple. In this context it means misusing holy things.

What is the remedy? He should go to a Sage. What good will that do? He has already committed the offence. So Rava said: He should go to a Sage first, so that he can teach him בְּרָכוֹת so that he is in no danger of committing sacrilege.

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: Whoever benefits from this world without a בְּרָכָה is as though he benefits from holy things belonging to heaven, as it says (Psalm 24) "The earth and all that fills it belong to G-d".

מאי תקנתיה ילך אצל חכם׃ ילך אצל חכם מאי עביד ליה הא עביד ליה איסורא אלא אמר רבא ילך אצל חכם מעיקרא וילמדנו בְּרָכוֹת כדי שלא יבא לידי מעילה׃

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל כל הנהנה מן העולם הזה בלא בְּרָכָה כאילו נהנה מקדשי שמים וכתיב לה׳ הארץ ומלואה׃

How, then, does this differ? He's saying that even though that the Temple has been destroyed (Rav Yehuda lived three hundred years afterwards), the concept still applies. But we need to change the terminology so people connect to it viscerally: If we say something is like eating pork, people will understand it, but if we say it's like eating terumah, people won't. Though there's also a lessening of the severity: it's changed from a metaphor to a simile.

R. Levi contrasted two verses. It is written (Psalm 24) "The earth and all that fills it belong to G-d", and it is written (Psalm 115) "The heavens, the heavens are God's, but the Earth G-d has given to humankind." There is no contradiction—the first refers to the state of things before making a בְּרָכָה, the second after the בְּרָכָה.

R. Ḥanina b. Papa said: Whoever benefits from this world without a בְּרָכָה is as though he robs the Holy One and the assembly of Israel as it it says (Proverbs 28), "He who robs his father and mother and says 'there is no transgression' is companion to the corrupting man." His father is no other than G-d, as it says (Deut. 32) "Is He not your father, Who made you?" and his mother is no other than the assembly of Israel as it says (Proverbs 1) "Listen, my son, to the advice of your father and do not abandon the teaching of your mother."

רבי לוי רמי כתיב לה׳ הארץ ומלואה וכתיב (תהלים קטו) השמים שמים לה׳ והארץ נתן לבני אדם לא קשיא כאן קודם בְּרָכָה כאן לאחר בְּרָכָה׃

אמר רבי חנינא בר פפא כל הנהנה מן העולם הזה בלא בְּרָכָה כאילו גוזל להקדוש ברוך הוא וכנסת ישראל שנאמר (משלי כח) גוזל אביו ואמו ואומר אין פשע חבר הוא לאיש משחית ואין אביו אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר (דברים לב) הלא הוא אביך קנך ואין אמו אלא כנסת ישראל שנאמר (משלי א) שמע בני מוסר אביך ואל תטוש תורת אמך׃

The word for "rob" here is גֶזֶל, as opposed to גְנֵבָה. The first applies (as far as property theft is concerned) to someone who takes something in broad daylight, the second someone who robs by sleight of hand or in secret. What this argument is saying is that the whatever it is you're using without a בְּרָכָה doesn't belong to you yet. So what's a בְּרָכָה (for something involving taking benefit from the world)? It's asking permission.

What is meant by "is companion to the corrupting man"? R. Ḥanina b. Papa said: he is companion to Jeroboam b. Nevaṭ who corrupted Israel to their Father in heaven. מאי חבר הוא לאיש משחית אמר רבי חנינא בר פפא חבר הוא לירבעם בן נבט שהשחית את ישראל לאביהם שבשמים׃
Berachot 33a בְּרָכוֹת לג א
And Rav—or maybe R. Shimon b. Laqish—said (and other say that R. Yoḥanan and R. Shimon b. Laqish both said this): Whoever says an unnecessary בְּרָכָה transgresses the prohibition (Ex. 20) "You shall not take the name of the Lord your G-d in vain." ואמר רב ואיתימא ריש לקיש ואמרי לה רבי יוחנן וריש לקיש דאמרי תרוייהו כל המברך בְּרָכָה שאינה צריכה עובר משום (שמות כ) לא תשא׃

Maimonides, Hilkhot Berachot 1:15:

Whoever says an unnecessary בְּרָכָה takes the name of Heaven in vain; and is like someone who swears in vain, and it is forbidden to respond "amen". כל המברך ברכה שאינה צריכה, הרי זה נושא שם שמיים לשוא; והרי הוא כשבע לשוא, ואסור לענות׃
He amplifies this in Hilkhot Shevuot:

One who hears his fellow say G-d's name in vain, or swearing falsely, or saying an unnecessary בְּרָכָה (who transgresses the prohibition of taking G-d's name in vain, as we explained in Hilkhot Berachot) is obliged to put him under a niddui ban1—and if he did not, then he himself should be under the ban... ...but only if he acted deliberately ...and not only is a vain oath forbidden, but any worthless use of any of the divine Names...

Therefore if he accidentally mentioned one of the divine Names, he should hurry to praise Him, so that the utterance of the Name should not be worthless. How? If he said G-d's name, he should say "Blessed be He for ever", or "Great is He and greatly praised" and such like.2

1. One of the levels of excommunication within Judaism. One subjected to this should carry himself like a mourner, sitting on the ground and not being greeted by people. The Rambam is in favour of putting people under such bans.

2. This is why we say הקדוש ברוך הוא: after we name G-d as the Holy One, we follow with "Blessed be He". It's also why we say ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו after putting on the head tefillin, because of the מחלוקת as to whether you say a second blessing for the head tefillin or not. It's also why if you've started ברוך אתה ה׳ accidentally, you say לַמְדֵנִי חֻקֶיךָ (Psalm 119:12).

So now we've reached the question in נִשְׁמַת אָדָם. If the remedy to saying the name of G-d by mistake is to praise Him, why can one not use the form of a בְּרָכָה in so doing?

We need to know more about שְׁבוּעוֹת, oaths—formulae including G-d's name which are generally used to make claims about facts or events. Outside the courtroom, one can get into trouble in two ways: שְׁבוּעַת שֶׁקֶר, a false oath, which makes a proposition that might be true but turns out not to be; and שְׁבוּעַת שָׁוְא, a vain oath, which makes a proposition that is either impossible or obvious. We note that both carry the punishment of מלקות, despite the general rule that מלקות do not apply to a prohibition which involves no action—and we ask, of course, why this should be.

(Other categories of שְׁבוּעַת שָׁוְא: trying to negate a מִצְוָה, or trying to make somebody do something it is impossible for them to do.)

Hilkhot Shevuot 2:2–4:
Whether one swears himself or is sworn by another using the special Name or one of the referents—like "He who is Gracious" or "He who is Merciful"—that constitutes a complete oath.

What are נְדָרִים, vows, and how are they distinguished from oaths? They involve vowing to do, or not do, something. There is a מִצְוָה in the Torah to do what you have said you will do, so you have to fulfil it. If you make a vow not to eat this apple, the apple becomes forbidden to you. You can't prohibit somebody else's apple to them, but you can prohibit your apple to somebody else.

It's tempting to say the change you make to the world by saying a בְּרָכָה parallels what the change that happens when you make a vow. But Maimonides says it's more like what happens when you make a vain oath by saying G-d's name.

There is a principle that whatever the Rabbis instituted, did so based on something in the extant Torah. They looked for a model as to what is going on here, and found it in the world of vows and oaths. When they say someone who doesn't make a בְּרָכָה is like one who steals; it's not really like they're stealing. But on the level of Torah law, we have created a prohibition and created ownership rights in everything, so that if a person eats something without rabbinic permission, as it were, they are stealing both from G-d and from the Jewish people as a whole (the Assembly of Israel) who have created this system in which we recognise its Creator in this way.

And the form in which deal with this is using the mechanism of vows and oaths, which uses language which according to one opinion was invented by the rabbis for this purpose. And so too with בְּרָכוֹת.

Consider also how the world was created with speech: "G-d said: let there be light." The power of speech is, the rabbis recognised, what makes us different from the animals. And for them it is part of our imitatio Dei: the power of changing the order of things in the world by speech. The power of changing things is not to be taken lightly; not using the formula to change the world but waving it around in the air is an abuse of it. And hence it is considered as a vain oath; it's parallel wastage of the name of G-d when making an oath as something which is demonstrably true or demonstrably false or impossible.

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