Judaism is a very blessing-conscious religion. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [35a] rules that it is forbidden to derive any benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing and that a person who does derive even the most minute benefit without first reciting a blessing is considered to have misused (ma’al) sanctified goods. The source for reciting a blessing over food and drink is found in Parashat Ekev [Devarim 8:10]: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to G-d for the good land which He has given you”.
Those with keen eyesight might have noticed that the above commandment pertains to the blessing made after the meal (Birkat Ha’Mazon) and not to the blessing made before the meal. This is somewhat counterintuitive. Does it not make more sense to recite a blessing before you bite into the burger? The Talmud, aware of this conundrum, uses an a fortiori (kal va’chomer) inference to logically prove the requirement to recite a blessing before the meal: “If when he is satiated, after eating, he is obligated to recite a blessing over food, when he is hungry, before eating, then all the more so that he is obligated to recite a blessing over food.”
A similar logical exercise turns up regarding blessings made on the Torah. Here, too, blessings are recited both before and after studying Torah. Before studying Torah, the following blessing is recited: “Blessed are You… Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to be engrossed in the words of Torah… Blessed are You… Who chose us from among all the peoples and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, Giver of the Torah!” After studying, a person recites a shorter blessing: “Blessed are You… Who gave us the Torah of truth and planted within us eternal life. Blessed are You, Giver of the Torah!” The Talmud in Tractate Berachot mentioned above teaches that the requirement to recite a blessing before studying Torah is learnt from the verse [Devarim 32:3] “For the name of G-d I proclaim; Give glory to our G-d!” The Talmud then implements a somewhat circuitous logical progression to infer the requirement to recite a blessing after studying.
When comparing the blessings recited over food and over the Torah, we find a striking contradiction: Why does the Torah explicitly mandate only the blessing after meals while explicitly mandating only the blessing before the study of Torah? This question is sufficiently obvious to have been raised by a multitude of commentators. We will consider two of the proposed solutions before proposing one of our own. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, known as the Vilna Gaon, who lived in Lithuania in the eighteenth century, differentiates between physical pleasure, as encountered in eating a sandwich, and spiritual pleasure, as encountered in the study of Torah. A person’s desire for physical pleasure is greater before he receives the pleasure than after he receives it. One can only eat so many burgers. A person’s desire for spiritual pleasure is greater after receiving the pleasure because this pleasure is a proportional to the amount of labour expended: the more one studies Torah, the greater the desire to continue. Assuming a person should recite a blessing at the moment of greatest desire, the Talmud argues that if one must recite a blessing after eating a sandwich when he is no longer hungry, then he obviously must recite a blessing before eating one. And if he must recite a blessing before learning Torah, then he certainly must recite a blessing afterwards.
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the previous century, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, takes a different approach. Rabbi Sorotzkin asserts that a person should recite a blessing not at the moment of greatest desire, but at the moment of greatest pleasure. Regarding the study of Torah, a person receives the most pleasure when he begins learning, when he exits the rat race and sits down in front of an open Talmud. Therefore, the Torah mandates that he recite a blessing before the study of Torah. When a person eats, he receives the most pleasure afater he concludes his meal, when he loosens his belt, pushes back his chair, and sighs in culinary fulfilment, and so the Torah mandates that he recite a blessing only after he finishes eating. It could be stated that the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Sorotzkin are looking at the same problem but from two different perspectives: The Vilna Gaon is interested in desire while Rabbi Sorotzkin is concerned with pleasure. The Vilna Gaon places the emphasis on the cause while Rabbi Sorotzkin places the emphasis on the effect. Either way, the conclusion is the same: blessings must be recited both before and after eating and studying Torah.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, widens the aperture. The Ramban’s comment concerns the second part of the verse mandating the recitation of a blessing over food, “give thanks to G-d for the good land which He has given you”. Why are we giving thanks to G-d for the land and not for the food? The Ramban answers that the verse should understood as follows: “[G-d] commands that you are to bless Him at all times for the food you eat to satisfaction as well as for the land that He gave you in order that you might possess it forever as an inheritance and be satisfied with its goodness.” When we eat an apple, we bless G-d for two reasons: He gave us both the apple as well as the land upon which the apple tree grew.
The explanation of the Ramban is given a top spin by Rabbi Yossef Chaim, better known as the “Ben Ish Chai”, who lived in Baghdad in the nineteenth century. Writing in “Aderet Eliyahu”, the Ben Ish Chai asks why we are required to recite a blessing after eating. If one must recite a blessing on the food so as to “extract” its holiness by acknowledging G-d’s mastery, what does a blessing after eating add to the mix? The intrinsic holiness of the food has already been extracted! He answers that the blessing recited before eating recognizes G-d for giving us the food while the one recited after eating recognizes G-d for giving us the land. The Ben Ish Chai is teaching us something critical. We recite a blessing not because we are “blessing” G-d per se – after all, how can a human bless an Infinite G-d? What does He need that we can give Him? Rather, a blessing is an explicit verbal recognition of G-d’s mastery over nature, as evidence by this food that I am about to eat, or have just eaten. According to the Ben Ish Chai, recognition of G-d’s mastery must go beyond a simple cause and effect relation of “I am hungry and G-d gives me food to satiate me”. The Ben Ish Chai demands that after we have eaten, after our physical thirst has been quenched, that we look below the surface to actively seek out additional examples of G-d’s mastery: Not only did G-d create the apple I just ate but He created the earth upon which it grew. He also created the sun that warmed the earth, the clouds that caused nourishing rain to fall, the nitrogen that fertilized the tree, and so on. The more we bless G-d, the more we see G-dliness.
Now we can revisit the blessings recited on the Torah. Why must we recite a blessing both before and after studying Torah? Considering the blessing made after the Torah, “Who gave us the Torah of truth and planted within us eternal life”, it is clear that we are recognizing that the Torah is the source of life and that a person who separates himself from the Torah separates himself from life itself. What does the blessing before studying – “Who chose us from among all the peoples and gave us His Torah” – add? Sadly, over the past few generations, Torah has undergone a slow process of trivialization. Torah has become synonymous with “Tikkun Olam”, humanism, accepting the “other”, and progressive liberal democracy. The blessing before studying Torah forces us to recognize that the Torah is otherworldly. It is the projection of the Divine Plan onto our corporeal world. The Jewish People have been singled out to carry this message, often to suffer for it the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Before a person wades into the waters of the Torah, he must recognize what he is about to encounter. Then, and only then, can he be the beneficiary of eternal life.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, Iris bat Chana, and Yosef Binyamin ben Rochel Leah.
 See our shiur for Naso 5781 for an interpretation of the Maharal.
 Note that Rav Sorotzkin’s solution does not entirely mesh with the Talmud’s a fortiori logic.
 Strangely, the Vilna Gaon also wrote a commentary on the Torah with the identical name. “Eliyahu” was the name of the father of the Ben Ish Chai.