August 28, 2008
Week 250, Day 4
27 Av 5768

LA’ASOK B’DIVREI TORAH
BLESSINGS BEFORE TORAH-STUDY

Mishkan T'filah, p.
204-205
Rabbi Richard Sarason

For rabbinic tradition, talmud torah—study of Torah—is the religious activity par excellence.  It is through study and interpretation of Torah that we come to know God and what God requires of us.  Indeed, for the Rabbis of the Talmud, talmud torah is the most accessible way to experience God and the tangible traces of God’s mind.  As a Yiddish proverb puts it, toire iz di bester skhoire—“Torah is the best occupation.”  For this reason, the first thing a Jew is supposed to do every morning (after getting up, getting washed, getting dressed, etc.) is to study Torah. And that is why the Morning Blessings in our siddur are immediately followed by blessings that introduce private Torah-study.

The two blessings in our prayer book (MT, pp. 42, 204, 296-297, 430) derive from the Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 11b.  The question raised there is, granted that we are supposed to recite the Sh’ma (for the Rabbis, that means the full three paragraphs: Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, and Num. 15:37-41) every morning as soon as the sun rises—but what if someone rose early to study Torah before reciting the Sh’ma?  That person would have to recite a separate blessing before studying Torah.  The text of that blessing, cited by Rav Judah in the name of Samuel is: “Blessed . . .Who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to occupy ourselves with words of Torah [la’asok b’divrei torah].”  Noteworthy about the formulation of this blessing is that the activity it describes is ongoing: we are to be continually occupied with words of Torah.

The Talmud then informs us that Rabbi Yohanan would expand on this benediction, continuing as follows:

Make pleasant, Adonai our God, the words of Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people the household of Israel, so that we and our children and the children of Your people the household of Israel may all come to know / acknowledge Your name and be occupied with Your Torah.   Blessed are You, Adonai, Who teaches Torah to your people Israel.

Noteworthy here is that words of Torah are meant to be sweet and pleasant in our mouths (hence the eastern European custom of feeding children cookies with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet on them on their first day of school).  Also, as we noted before, it is through Torah-study that one comes to know and acknowledge God. 

The Talmud then notes yet a third option, in the name of Rabbi Hamnuna: “Blessed . . .Who has chosen us from among all peoples and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, Adonai, Giver of Torah.”  This blessing is familiar to us, because it is recited before we read from the Torah-scroll in public—but it originates here, for private recitation.  Its now-customary usage is post-talmudic.

The Talmud generally prefers not to choose among liturgical formulations, but to endorse them all.  That’s what happens here, and that is why all three benedictions appear at this point in the traditional siddur before the study of passages from Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud.  In Gates of Prayer and MT, only the first two blessings appear here before a study text that has been conflated from the Mishnah and the Talmud (more about that in the next commentary).

For more information about Mishkan T'filah, visit urj.org/mishkan.

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