Some mitzvah brachot are of the form ...vitzivanu "l'X" ("to X", infinitive verb), and others are of the form "al X" ("upon X", gerundive verb). I particularly noticed this during Sukkot with two similar ones in proximity; it's "likro et hahallel" but "al mikra megillah" (which led me in a roundabout way to ask this question). Why the difference?

I first thought that it might be the difference between something we do actively (we all say hallel) and something we experience more passively (most of us don't personally read the megillah; someone does on our behalf), but that doesn't work -- "al netilat (yadayim, lulav)" and "al achilat (matzah, maror)" are counter-examples. The difference also doesn't seem to be d'oraita versus d'rabbanan; both forms show up in both categories.

Is there significance, or in each case did the rabbis just choose between two equally-appropriate formulations and it doesn't mean anything more than that?

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    The Avudraham discusses this at length and seems to bring at least 4 opinions (R"T, Rambam, Raavad, and his own). I haven't learned thoroughly yet, so I may have misunderstood some of it , but you can read it here: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=26840&pgnum=16 – Menachem Oct 16 '11 at 18:00
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    IMHO, this is a perfect question for the site. I just thought I'd throw that out there... – Seth J Aug 28 '12 at 15:24

The Avudraham discusses this at length. He brings several different classification methods offered by different people. It seems that each classification method covers a large percentage of the cases, but there are some exceptions. The Abudraham then discusses some of the exceptions.

  1. First he brings the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam (brought in yydl's answer):

    • If the mitzvah is (completely) done right away, we say "Al". Some examples:

      • על אכילת מ צ ה .
      • על אכילת מ ר ו ר
      • על מקרא מגלה.
    • If the mitzvah requires some waiting before it is done (i.e. the single action does not complete the mitzvah), you say "L'". Some examples:

      • ‫‫לישב בסוכה‬
      • ‫ לשמוע קול שופר‬(There are pauses before it's done)
      • Hallel (You need to wait for people to respond)
    • Furthermore, Rabbeinu Tam offers another reason why Hallel is "L'Kro" and not "Al Mikrat Hallel" (or some variation). Any Mitzvah that is not a constant obligation you do not say "Al". Since we are commanded to say Hallel after surviving any calamity (as opposed to specific times) it is not considered a constant obligation.

      • The Abudraham does not like this answer, saying that this classification doesn't seem to have any logic behind it, and most of the reasons given for the exceptions seem a little weak. He also brings cases that contradict Rebbeinu Tam's classification system.
  2. Then he brings the Rambam (Berachot 11:15), who makes the following distinctions. The Rambam holds that the blessing may change depending on who is saying it:

    • If you (a) do the mitzvah for yourself and (b) it is an obligation, you say "L'", otherwise you say "Al". For example:

      • Circumcision
      • Making a fence around a roof
    • If you do those same Mitzvot as an emissary for someone else, you would say "Al

    • If you are doing a mitzvah for yourself and others:

      • If it is an optional Mitzvah, you say "Al" - e.g. Eiruv
      • If it is an obligatory mitzvah, you say "L'" - e.g. Shofar
    • If it is an optional mitzvah, you say "Al", whether you are doing it yourself or not. For example: Shechita

    • If the blessing precedes the action, you say "L'". The the action precedes the blessing you say "Al". For Example:

      • Since just picking up the Arba Minim fulfills your obligation, you say "Al Netilat Lulav". If you say the blessing before you pick up the Minim, you say "Litol Lulav"
    • (The Ra'avad questions the Rambam's classification. Among the distinctions he offers and ultimately rejects is the distinction between Rabinical and Biblical commandments. The Raavad also brings cases that don't conform to the Rambam's classification system)

  3. Abudraham the brings another opinion he does not name. It appears to be the Riva mentioned in @msh10's answer.

    • If the Mitzvah (a) can be done by proxy (shliach), and (b) will be done in the future (L'Habah) you say "Al"
    • If the Mitzvah (a) can not be done by proxy (shliach), and (b) will be done in the future (L'Habah) you say "L'"
    • If the Mitzvah (a) can be done by proxy (shliach), and (b) was done in the past (L'She'avar) you say "L'"
    • If the Mitzvah (a) can not be done by proxy (shliach), and (b) was done in the past (L'She'avar) you say "Al"

    • The exceptions are then discussed.

So, with regards to the Sukkot we say "Al Netilat Lulav", but say "Leisheiv BaSukkah":

  • According to Rabbienu Tam, the mitzvah of Lulav is over as soon as you pick up the lulav, but the mitzvah of sitting in a Sukkah extends.
  • According to the Rambam, both Sukkah and Lulav are Mitzvot you are personally obligated to do, but as soon as you pick up the Lulav you've fulfilled your obligation, so you say "Al Netilat Lulav", but if you say the blessing before you pick it up you say "LiTol Lulav"
  • According to the third opinion, you say "Leishev BaSukah" since the mitzvah can't be done by proxy and the main mitzvah is eating and drinking in the Sukkah, which is done after the blessing. The blessing on the Lulav on the other hand, is only done after you've already picked it up (thus fulfilling your obligation), and thus you say "Al Netilat Lulav"

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    It's especially noteworthy that ashkenazim say לעסוק בדברי תורה while sefardim say על דברי תורה on the same blessing. I wonder if Torah can be seen both ways from all four opinions – b a Aug 28 '12 at 16:23

Not all that much here not already in other answers, but for (more) completeness I'll quote Rabenu Asher ("Rosh"), in his halachos to P'sachim 7B (in my own loose translation):

Rabenu Tam explained that all mitzvos done immediately, we say "al" on, like "al mikra m'gila", "hat'vila", "n'tilas yadayim", "hafrashas t'ruma", "achilas matza" and "maror". But "l'haniach t'filin", "l'his'atef batzitzis", "leshev basuka" — these involve delay. The wording ["l'-"] implies as much: "to be adorned with t'filin", "to be wrapped in tzitzis", "to dwell in a suka, eating and spending all day". As to "l'hadlik ner Chanuka", it, too, has delay: the mitzva is "from sunset until traffic leaves the street". Likewise "lishmoa kol shofar: there's delay among the blasts, as the main mitzva is blowing with each b'racha [of the amida]. The difference between halel ("l'-") and m'gila ("al") is that the latter is read straight through whereas halel has pauses for responsive reading. Moreover, halel was originally meant to be read for the community's being saved from any trouble, so we use "l'-": any mitzva that's not a steady obligation doesn't get "al". "L'hachniso" [at a b'ris] is because it's not a b'racha on the mitzva at all (it's not even said beforehand), but one of praise for having the mitzva. And hand t'filin get "l'-" while the head get "al" because the rabbis didn't want to have two the same in a row; the head gets "al" as it's the final part of the mitzva.

Riva differed: On any mitzva than can be done via an agent, say "al"; on others, "l'-". That's why the g'mara implied that "lamul" means he himself circumcises. Shofar gets "l'-" because he must hear it himself; halel, unlike m'gila, because even one hearing halel from another must say certain parts. Even though personal t'vila can't be done through agency, that of dishes can, so both got "al"; moreover, because of t'vila of converts, which gets "al" because it's said only after the mitzva is done. Similarly lulav: sometimes the b'racha is made after the mitzva is done, so it gets "al"; and the same for n'tilas yadayim. ("L'-" implies future.) Chanuka lights get "al" even though agency works because people don't use agents for it: everyone likes to light his own (they love the miracle); same for Shabas lights. Omer counting gets "al" because the congregational leader counts aloud for those who can't. As for t'filin, the b'racha is really "...v'mitzvas t'filin" [neither "al" nor "l'-"] (and Rif agrees with that). Likewise, "laasok b'divre sora" is the correct wording of that b'racha, per the Ashk'naz wording.

According to Riva, one would therefore say "leechol matza" and "leechol maror".

Thus, Rabenu Tam holds that it depends on immediacy of the mitzva only, except that an exception is made when two birchos hamitzva are done in a row or when the mitzva is required under unplanned, occasional circumstances (or something like that). Riva holds that it depends on whether the mitzva is (at least under some circumstances) often done by an agent and on whether the b'racha is (at least under some circumstances) said after the mitzva is done: if either is true, say "al".

  • In the translation of the Rosh, [brackets] indicate stuff added by me. (Parentheses) indicate stuff in the original but which I as translator chose to represent as parenthetical. – msh210 Oct 17 '11 at 16:26

There is more than one way to distinguish between the two categories. The way that seems to "fit" for most, if not all, Brachot of Mitzva, is the following:

And I'll summarize the distinction that was said over here:

Al... is said where the entire mitzvah is completed by us in some time thereafter.

Examples of Al: Eating matzo on Pesach, reading the Megillah

Le... is said where our act simply sets the mitzvah in motion.

Examples of Le: Lighting candles on Chanukah, putting up a Mezuzah

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    lehisatef batzitzis...? – yoel Oct 16 '11 at 17:54
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    @yoel, IIRC, the Rosh, or someone he quotes, explains that the mitzva is to be wrapped, i.e. to have wrapped oneself, not to actively wrap oneself. – msh210 Oct 16 '11 at 17:56
  • @msh210 now that I think of it that way, it's not unlike lehaniach tefilin, where we've only done the mitzva if the tefilin are on for a length of time. – yoel Oct 16 '11 at 18:34
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    @yoel Yeah. If anything the question is why we would say al mitzvas tzitzis by a talis katan (which sounds like a whole new question - i.e. why the difference...) – yydl Oct 16 '11 at 18:41
  • @yoel (and now I've quoted the Rosh in my answer, below.) – msh210 Oct 17 '11 at 6:32

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