Thoughts on the Blessings for Torah Study
When one is called to the Torah for an aliyah, one recites a blessing prior to the reading of the designated section: “Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim, who has chosen us from among all the nations, v'natan lanu et Torato and given us His Torah, baruch ata adonay, notein haTorah, praised are You, Lord, who gives the Torah.” Notice the use of the present tense, indicating that the Torah continues to be given even in our time. Or, alternatively, Torah is the gift that keeps on giving, there is always more to learn.
After the reader finishes reading the verses from the Torah, we offer a similar blessing, so similar that if you get confused and say the second blessing first, it is okay to simply recite the first blessing second. The middle line is the part that is different, “asher natan lanu Torat emet, who gave us a Torah of truth, v'chayei olam nata b'tocheinu, and planted eternal life within us.” I've often recalled passing a storefront church in South Carolina which had a sign out front notifying passersby, “Eternal life is available, inquire within.” Particularly at this season, it seems appropriate to look within to find the eternal values for our life.
Before reciting the first blessing, we call on the congregation to respond to Barchu,“Praise the Lord who is deserving of praise:” to which they are to respond, “Praise the Lord who is deserving of praise forever and ever.” The Sephardim precede this with an exchange of greetings found in the book of Ruth, where Boaz calls to his workers, “Adonay imachem, May God be with you.” They respond,“Y'varech'cha Adonay. May God bless you.”
Regardless of whether the Torah is going to be read on a given day, each morning in the introduction to the morning blessings, there is a short study session introduced by three blessings, including the first blessing mentioned above. Some time back, in this series, I wrote about the blessings of asher yatzar and elohai neshamah in which we thank God each day for the gift of a functioning body and for animating that body with a soul respectively. While in some prayerbooks these two blessings follow one another immediately, generally you will find them separated by this short study session and its blessings. The theory is that having praised the Creator for our bodies, we need to engage in Torah study to elevate ourselves in order to receive the spiritual gift of our souls.
This study session is preceded with not one, but three blessings (though some combine the first and second into a single blessing). This is the outcome of a discussion in the Talmud (Berachot 11b). There we find that Rabbi Yehudah teaches in the name of Shmuel, that we should say before studying, “Asher kidshanu b'mitzovtav v'tzivanu la-asok be divrei Torah. Who has sanctified us through His mitzvot and commanded us to engage in the study of Torah.” Rabbi Yochanan suggests this second version which some connect to the first blessing, “Ha-arev na Adonay Eloheinu...Make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people Israel, and may we and our descendants and the descendants of Your people Israel, all of us, know Your name and engage in Your Torah. Praised are You, Lord, Who teaches the Torah to His people Israel.” Rav Hamnuna has a third proposal. He suggests the blessing we've already seen, “Asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim, who chose us from among all the nations...' He feels that this last blessing is the best of all for it offers thanksgiving to God and praises both the Torah and Israel. What does the Talmud conclude? Let's say them all and indeed they all appear consecutively in our prayerbook.
One of my colleagues once questioned the order of these blessings. Does it make sense to thank God first for engaging in study and then for teaching us Torah and finally for giving us Torah? That seems to be in reverse order of logic. First the Torah is given, then God teaches us what's in it and finally we can regularly engage in its study. On reflection, however, the present order also has some sense to it. First one needs to encounter and engage in the study of Torah. Having seen what interesting things are within this body of work, we need to find a teacher to help us better understand its content. Ultimately, once we have learned more about theTorah, we can fully appreciate it as a gift from the Almighty.
Having offered these blessings, we do not want them to be in vain, so we go on to read a token selection of passages from both the written and the oral Torah, from the Chumash, from the Mishnah, and from the Talmud. By no means should this be the sum total of our study for the day. This is only a smidgen, a taste, to avoid making a blessing in vain.
While one is free to choose whatever one wishes to study at this point, three texts have been selected and by virtue of that suggestion they have been enshrined in this section of the service, though I've seen at least one prayerbook that suggests an alternative study text for the usual passage from the Torah. These blessings also apply to the extended Torah study that can be found at the end of this introductory portion of the service, the Birchot HaShachar, which appears in traditional prayerbooks focusing on the detailed laws of the daily sacrifices. In many congregations even among the Orthodox, these laws are omitted and people skip to the final passage on Rabbi Yishmael's thirteen principles of interpreting the law. Conservative prayerbooks since 1985 have provided an alternative passage to Rabbi Yishmael, selections on deeds of lovingkindness, picking up on the idea that in the absence of the Temple, sacrifices are replaced by such deeds of kindness. A subsequent edition proposed other readings as well.
Returning to our initial study section, the usual reading is the selection from the book of Numbers giving us the well-known priestly blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you, etc.” There are numerous interpretations of this traditional blessing that Aaron and his sons were instructed to pronounce upon the people of Israel. The Aramaic translation and paraphrase known as Targum Yonatan explains the blessing this way. The first line, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” speaks of success in business and security from the dangers of life, including the demons that may lurk around us. The second line, “May the Lord shine His face upon you and be gracious unto you,” is a prayer for success in the study of Torah and the hope for the revelation of its secrets. The final verse, “May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace, “ is a plea for God's forgiveness in our prayers and for peace in all areas of our lives. Certainly, these are all blessings to be desired, but particularly the second is appropriate for this section on Torah study.
For the selection from the Mishnah we turn to the opening mishnah of the tractate of Peah, which mostly deals with laws of gifts to the poor including the corners of one's fields (Peah). This text lists five mitzvot which have no limit set in the Torah. Of course, the rabbis can be relied on to provide a minimum amount when the Torah does not. The first item is the law of Peah itself, leaving part of the fields for the poor. The rabbis require one to leave at least a sixtieth of the field, though one is free to leave more particularly when your property is extensive. First fruits are to be brought as an offering to the Temple and again the rabbis require a minimum of one sixtieth. Reayon can mean simply making an appearance in the Temple, but since the Torah states that one should not appear empty-handed, it came to mean bringing offerings to the Temple and once again the rabbis set a minimum amount. The fourth item is gemilut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness Here when we speak of acts that one does personally, such as visiting the sick or burying the dead, there truly is no limit. However, with financial assistance, the rabbis limited that to one-fifth of one's discretionary income, lest you yourself end up on the receiving end. Finally, talmud Torah, the study of Torah is limited only by time, for we are told to meditate on the words of Torah day and night.
The third selection we read comes from the Talmud of Shabbat 127a and provides a list of mitzvot that a person benefits from immediately in this world, but the balance of his reward awaits him in the world to come. The list is a composite list of ten items. The first four actually appear as a continuation of the Mishnah in Peah, namely, honoring one's parents, doing deeds of kindness, making peace between one person and his fellow (some siddurim add between a man and his wife as well), and Talmud Torah. The other six are found in a boraita, an outside teaching, cited in the Talmud of Shabbat, and they include showing hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, iyun tefilah, close study of the prayers, and rising early to the study hall. The boraita adds two other items, raising children for the study of Torah and judging others favorably. Those last two for some reason do not appear in our prayerbooks but were replaced by two others, bringing a bride to the marriage canopy and accompanying the dead to their grave. The study of Torah is placed at the end of the list and we're told it is equivalent to them all. It is suggested that only through study of Torah do we learn how best to fulfill all of the other mitzvot in our lives. The daily recital of these lists of mitzvot serve to remind us and encourage us to reach out to others and, as we hope for God's lovingkindness to be shown to us, we are urged to show love and kindness to others with whom we have dealings each day.
Having recited three blessings before our little study session, one wonders if there should not be at least one blessing recited after our study. While we do pronounce a second blessing when we are called to the Torah, there is no blessing for the completion of our daily Torah study for as we saw this is a mitzvah without limit and we are encouraged to continue studying throughout the day at every opportunity. Those who have entered the world of Torah study soon discover that it is virtually without limit. There is always something new to learn and each day brings with it new opportunities to expand our knowledge and, one hopes, to apply it in our actions in this world.