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Whenever a Jew performs an activity that is mandated by the Torah, s/he recites the blessing that acknowledges God, "אשר קדשנו במצוותיו" (who sanctified us with his commandments), and who commanded us to... [insert name of activity here].

This is all well and good when the activity can either be found explicitly in the Torah (eg: blowing a shofar) or can be inferred from the Torah (eg: waving the four species), but what about those things for which there is nothing in the Torah at all?

By way of an example, washing one's hands before eating bread, or lighting candles on erev Shabbat. Both of these are rabbinic enactments; they have no basis whatsoever within the actual written Torah. I know that it is necessary to make the above blessing when performing them ("Blessed are you, O God, etc, who commanded us concerning the washing of the hands, etc") - my question is why? It was not God, strictly speaking, who "commanded" us in this regard, but the rabbonim.

Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, we do not make this blessing when writing a prozbul, yet that is no less rabbinic in nature.

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partially a dupe? judaism.stackexchange.com/q/15509/759 – Double AA Nov 9 '13 at 23:37
@SAH Could you elaborate on why the current answers "aren't doing it for [you]"? That might help direct future answers. – Daniel May 30 at 0:17
@Daniel Good suggestion. I left a comment by the first answer explaining why I find it unsatisfactory. As for the second, it just seems like so much of a stretch. How can you use logic like that to justify something that could, at worst, be a violation of the Ten Utterances, not to mention "don't add to Torah"? I desperately seek a better answer. – SAH May 30 at 1:59
@SAH IMHO you're right in thinking that there's a lot more to discuss here (perhaps I'll get a chance to write a more satisfying answer later) – Matt Jun 2 at 3:30
Re: my previous comment mentioning the Ten Utterances: apparently the prohibition of reciting an unnecessary blessing is considered only a rabbinical enactment. Sources: Rosh Kiddushin 1:49 and Rosh Hashana 955 – SAH Jun 26 at 7:52
up vote 11 down vote accepted

1) See Shabbat 23a, which discusses Menorah on Chanukah:

מברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנוכה והיכן צונו רב אויא אמר מלא תסור רב נחמיה אמר שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך

Soncino translation:

What benediction is uttered? — This: Who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Hanukkah. And where did He command us?— R. Awia said: [It follows] from, thou shalt not turn aside [from the sentence Which they shall shew thee]. R. Nehemiah quoted: Ask thy father, and he will shew thee; Thine elders, and they will tell thee.

2) I don't think the prozbul is technically a mitzvah- it's a תקנה- a rabbinic decree designed to improve the general welfare of society. (Also note that according to the Rambam (שמיטה ויובל ט:טו), the prozbul is only effective when the Sabbatical year is only observed on the rabbinic level. When the Sabbatical year returns to a biblical obligation, the prozbul enactment will be void.)

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Is R. Awia therefore arguing that Chanukah is d'oraita? – SAH May 27 at 17:01
@SAH what is bothering you with this answer that prompts the bounty. it is after all, an explicit gemara that addresses the question. are you perhaps bothered by the question that it implies that all rabbinic enactments are really biblical? – mevaqesh May 29 at 18:25
@mevaqesh This answer marginally explains why one might make a bracha on the Chanukah candles. However, it does so badly--essentially by arguing that Chanukah is actually a Biblical mitzvah--and it doesn't explain why one would make a bracha before any other rabbinical mitzvah. – SAH May 30 at 1:57

The Maharal, in באר הגולה באר ראשון, explains the idea of Rabbinical mitzvos. He is addressing why these mitzvos do not "split" the Torah from its singular unity, and at the end he adds that it is also the reason we make the blessing:

  1. The Rabbinical mitzvos are all designed to straighten a person out to do all the actions he should be doing and avoid all the actions he shouldn't be doing. In this way, the Rabbinical mitzvos are in line with the Torah, and not an unrelated addition.

  2. Hashem set up the world such that there are things which are directly from Hashem, and there are things which come about through "nature." Nonetheless, those which are physical and come about through "natural" causes are no less arranged by Hashem. So too, the Rabbinical mitzvos are not "Divine intellect" and are not "directly" from Hashem, but the system which produced them was arranged by Hashem (through the commandments of לא תסור and שאל אביך ויגדך), and therefore can be accurately described as coming from Hashem.

This applies to the mitzvos of the Rabbis, which were decreed in order to perfect a person (Maharal's words - ועל ידי שניהם התורה היא שלימות האדם). Something which is for utilitarian purposes, such as the writing of a prozbol, would not be included.

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Disclaimer: I was mechadeish this p'shat based on the sources mentioned below. If you can find this p'shat somewhere, that would be amazing, but I have not seen this explanation anywhere. If you don't like it, feel free to disagree.

The Ramban (to Devarim 4:2) says, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the issue of Bal Tosif is that you can't add a Mitzvah and claim that it was commanded by Hashem. Making up a Mitzvah and saying that it's your own thing is not problematic in the least, assuming that it doesn't contradict something in the Torah. (Side point: After all, isn't that what a minhag is?)

Bal Tasur, on the other hand, authorizes the Rabbanan to make up their own things that they can then impose on all of us. Obviously, though, this has to fulfill Bal Tosif: they can't claim that Hashem gave new Mitzvos after the 613 were completed, nor can they make new Mitzvos that contradict the Torah.

Now, there's one other thing I'd like to point out before I put forth my chiddush. Just about everywhere in the Torah where it says "Tzav" Onklos translates it as "appoint," not "command." Appointed to what? According to a shiur I heard from Rabbi Yochanan Zweig on Parshas Tetzaveh (note the same root) it's a reference to the pesukim of "v'hayu li mamleches kohanim v'goi kadosh" and "u'vecha bachar Hashem lihiyos lo l'am segulah mikol ha'amim." Thus, a more literal translation of the Brachah would be "Who sanctified us through His appointings and appointed us through our doing the Mitzvah of ____."

Thus, when we're making the Brachah on a D'Rabbanan, we're not saying at all that Hashem commanded us to do the d'Rabbanan. We're saying that Hashem is appointing us as His treasured nation, and in return, we fulfill His mitzvos. Thanks to Bal Tasur, that includes mitzvos such as Menorah. Thus, to use that Mitzvah as an example, the Brachah would be "Who appointed us through the Mitzvah of Menorah." We don't say anything about Hashem commanding us to light the Menorah for eight days every winter. However, the Gemara that says it's because of Bal Tasur (quoted by @Ephraim) is still correct; since it's a Mitzvah D'Rabbanan, as authorized by Bal Tasur, we get s'char for fulfilling it, and we can use it to draw closer to Hashem as a member of His am segulah.

We could apply the same logic to Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. Although it's only a minhag, we (at least Ashkenazim) say the Brachah. Nevertheless, we're still drawing closer to Hashem by praising Him, and thus we can make the Brachah.

This all fits in very nicely with the Maharal @Y ez brought up, that the Mitzvos d'Rabbanan are to help a person do what he should be doing anyway. Thus, we make the Brachos because, again, the Mitzvos help us draw closer to Hashem.

As for Pruzbol, that's literally just a loophole to avoid having to let go of debts after Shemittah. Since it's not a mitzvah whatsoever, we wouldn't make a Brachah about being appointed through doing it.

Now, I'm sure you're wondering: what about Purim? The Gemara (Megillah 14a, Yerushalmi Megillah 6a) made a whole big deal over the fact that Purim isn't in the Torah. The difference, though, is that the Gemara is discussing a violation of Bal Tosif. Once we've confirmed that Purim (and according to the Ritva, as quoted in that last link, Chanukah, too) is a perfectly valid Mitzvah, we can then make a Brachah on it regarding drawing close to Hashem. Chazal seemingly wanted, for whatever reason, to make Chanukah and Purim on par with chagim d'Oraisa, and thus they needed a proof from the Torah that these chagim were able to be such.

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