Eikev: Blessings Over Bread and Torah
Two Blessings from the Torah
While most blessings are of rabbinical origin, there are two blessings that are derived directly from the Torah itself. They are Birkat Hamazon, recited after meals, and the blessing said before learning Torah.
The obligation to bless God after eating bread comes from the verse, "When you eat and are satisfied, you must bless the Lord your God..." [Deut. 8:10].
The Talmud [Berachot 21a] derives the blessing before studying Torah from the verse, "When I call out God's name (or: read God's teaching), ascribe greatness to our God" [Deut. 32:3].
These two blessings differ not only in the source for our feelings of gratitude - one is for physical nourishment, the other for spiritual sustenance - but also in when they are said. Why is Birkat Hamazon recited after the meal, while the blessing for Torah study is recited before studying?
Two Benefits of Food
Food provides two benefits. The first is our enjoyment from the act of eating, especially if the food is tasty. This is a fleeting pleasure, but it nonetheless deserves to be acknowledged. The primary benefit from eating, however, is the sustenance it gives our bodies, enabling us to live. This primary benefit reflects the nutritional value of the food, regardless of its taste.
Our recognition of the principal benefit of eating should take place after the meal, as the body digests the food. Since Birkat Hamazon expresses our gratitude for physical sustenance, it logically belongs is at the end of the meal.
Parenthetically, we also recite blessings before eating. These blessings acknowledge our pleasure in the act of eating itself. We recognize this secondary benefit of eating with rabbinically- ordained blessings.
Two Benefits of Torah Study
Torah study also provides us with two benefits. The first is the knowledge acquired in practical areas of Halacha, enabling us to live our lives according to the Torah's wisdom.
The second benefit from Torah lies in the very act of learning Torah. Torah study in itself is a tremendous gift, even if it does not have any practical applications. When we learn Torah, the soul is elevated as the mind absorbs the sublime word of God.
Which benefit is greater? The Sages taught that the unique sanctity of the Torah itself is greater than all deeds that come from its study: "One who studies Torah for its own sake is raised and uplifted above all actions" [Avot 6:1]. The benefit of practical knowledge is important, but is only a secondary gain.
Therefore, we recite the blessing over Torah before studying. If the blessing was meant to acknowledge the practical benefit of how to perform mitzvot, then it would be said afterwards, since this knowledge is gained as a result of Torah study. But the blessing over Torah refers to the principle gift of Torah study. When we bless God before studying, we acknowledge the spiritual elevation that we enjoy in the very act of contemplating God's Torah.
Now we can understand why the source for this blessing reads, "When I call out God's name." Why does the verse refer to the Torah as "God's name"? This blessing requires that we recognize the sublime inner essence of the Torah - Torah as "God's name." When we are aware of the true nature of Torah, its study can enlighten and uplift us "above all actions."
[adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 103]
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