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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
up vote 8 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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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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