Moses begins the song of Ha'azinu with the words: "When I call out the name of G‑d, ascribe greatness to our G‑d." The Talmud says that this verse teaches us that one must recite a blessing before studying Torah. Thus the meaning of the verse is: Before one studies Torah – thus "calling out the name of G‑d," since the entire Torah is considered to be names of G‑d – one should "ascribe greatness to G‑d" by reciting the blessings which acknowledge the greatness of the Torah.
In fact, there are three separate blessings on Torah study which are recited during the morning prayers (they can be found in your prayerbook). In addition to these blessings, there are two blessings to be said when one is called up to the Torah to receive an aliyah. The first blessing is said before the aliyah (it is the same as the third of the morning blessings) and the second blessing is said afterwards.
This article focuses on the three blessings on Torah study that we recite in the morning.
Torah or Rabbinic Origin?
The Ramban (Nachmanides) includes this mitzvah in his listing of the 613 mitzvot. The Rambam (Maimonides), however, does not count it as a one of the 613 mitzvot. In his opinion, the blessings on the Torah are of Rabbinic origin.
A practical difference between these opinions is whether or not one must repeat the blessings if one is unsure whether he has already said them. According to the Ramban, one would have to repeat them, as this is the rule whenever one is in doubt as to whether he has already fulfilled a Torah obligation; whereas according to the Rambam, one would not repeat them, as this is the rule regarding blessings of Rabbinic origin.
How and When to Say the Blessings
- The blessings should be said upon awakening in the morning, after washing the hands and before studying any Torah.
- It is customary to stand when saying these blessings, but it's not mandatory.
- According to some opinion, one should strive to say the blessings on the Torah before performing a mitzvah, such as before shaking the lulav or donning tefillin.
The Meaning of the Blessings
- In the second blessing we pray that our descendents should "know Your name." This is because the purpose of Torah study is to know G‑d.
- When saying the words asher bochar banu mekol ho'amim ("who has chosen us from amongst the nations") in the third blessing, one should reflect on the fact that G‑d chose us at Mt. Sinai from amongst all the pagan nations and gave us his Holy Torah.
- The third blessing is said in the present tense – notain hatorah ("who gives us the Torah") – to indicate that G‑d gives us the Torah every day and enables us to find new understanding in it.
- Although one may not study Torah out loud before saying these blessings, one may think thoughts of Torah. Similarly, one may issue a halachic ruling without explaining his reasoning, as this involves thoughts and not speech. One who wishes to listen to a live Torah lesson must say these blessings first.
- According to some, one should not pray before reciting these blessings, as the prayers contain many verses from the Torah. Some say that one may recite the Torah verses that are part of the prayers before saying these blessings. It is proper to be strict and say the blessings before praying. If, however, one hears kedushah before reciting these blessings, he may respond.
- If saying the blessings on the Torah would delay a person's reciting the Shema past the deadline (click here for more information about the deadline for reciting the Shema), then he should postpone reciting the blessings until after the recitation of the Shema. In this case, one’s intention should be to fulfill only the mitzvah of reciting the Shema and not the mitzvah of Torah study.
- One should study Torah immediately after reciting these blessings. It is customary to recite the blessing of the Kohanim and the Mishnaic passage Eilu Devarim, as printed in the prayerbook.
- The blessing before the Shema in the morning prayers (Ahavat Olam or Ahavah Rabbah) is also considered to be a blessing on the Torah because it contains a prayer that we should be successful in our Torah study. Therefore, if one forgot to say the blessings on the Torah and remembered only after reciting the blessing before the Shema, he should no longer recite these blessings. Rather, he should study some Torah immediately after praying. Even if one does not study Torah right away, he has fulfilled his obligation as the reading of the Shema can be considered Torah learning.
- These blessings are only to be said once a day, even if one took a nap during the day.
- If one goes to sleep at night and then wakes up in the middle of the night and wishes to study Torah, he must say the blessings of the Torah before doing so.
If, however, one only intended to have a short rest and not his main sleep, he may study now without reciting the blessings on the Torah, and should recite them upon awakening from his main sleep.
- If one stays up the entire night (such as on Shavuot) there is debate whether one should say these blessings in the morning. The accepted opinion is that one should say them after daybreak. One who wishes to be strict should hear the blessings from someone else.
- Women must also say these blessings every day, as they are obliged to study the aspects of Torah that relate to the mitzvot they must keep, as well as to recite prayers which include many paragraphs of the Torah.
Consequence of Not Reciting These Blessings
The Talmud states that the reason the Land of Israel was rendered utterly desolate at the time of the destruction of the First Temple was because the Jews did not recite the blessings on the Torah. In the words of Jeremiah the Prophet: "Why is the land ruined [and] withered like a wilderness, without anyone passing through? …because they have forsaken My Law." Commentaries explain that the Torah was not important to them, so they were not particular to recite the blessing before learning. They did not study Torah for its own sake, for altruistic reasons, but rather for reasons of self-aggrandizement.
The Bach (Rabbi Yoel Sirkish of Krakow, 1561-1640) explains why the punishment was so harsh: These blessings express our wish to connect our souls and the entire world with the essential holiness of the Torah. When one studies the Torah for reasons of personal gain, one does not accomplish the drawing down of the Sechinah (Divine presence) into the world. The physical destruction was thus simply a reflection of the spiritual desolation.
In addition, Ravina says that the reason Torah scholars have children who are not Torah scholars is that the parents are not careful regarding these blessings. These blessings include a prayer that our offspring study the Torah and know G‑d's name. If one does not pray for these outcomes, they do not come to pass.
From these severe punishments, we understand that saying these blessings with proper concentration at the right time is a segulah (spiritually propitious act) to have children who are Torah scholars and to bring the Shechinah back to this world, with the coming of Moshiach.