Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
The Blessing over the Hanukah Lights
Prof. Joseph Tavori
Department of Talmud
Several formulations have come down to us regarding the benediction for kindling Hanukah lights: 1) "Blessed art thou ... who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle Hanukah lights"[lehadlik ner shel] (the most widespread formulation); 2) ".. on kindling Hanukah lights" [al hadlakat ner] 3) "concerning the commandment of Hanukah lights"; [al mitzvat ner] 4) "concerning the commandment of kindling Hanukah lights" [al mitzvat hadlakat]. The last formulation apparently stems from an erroneous combination of the second and third versions, and will not be discussed here.
The first three formulations can be divided into two categories, according to the standard division of blessings for performing commandments. We have two principle styles for such blessings: one acknowledges G-d who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us "to perform such-and-such a commandment"; the other acknowledges G-d who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us "concerning a such-and-such commandment." Examples of the first type of blessing are "to dwell in the Sukah," [leshev] "to kindle the Sabbath lights," [lehadlik] etc. Examples of the second type are "on washing hands," [al netilat] "on eating matzoh," etc. One could say that in the first style the person making the blessing acknowledges his personal obligation to perform the commandment, whereas the second style is a general acknowledgment of the commandment. The frequently-used blessing for kindling Hanukah lights, "to kindle [lehadlik] the Hanukah lights," belongs to the first type; whereas the second and third formulations -- "on kindling Hanukah lights" and "concerning the commandment of the Hanukah lights" -- belong to the second type.
According to tradition, the formulation of our prayers and blessings was set by the members of the Great Assembly. We do not know whether initially they only established the general rule that one must recite a blessing on performing a commandment, but did not set the exact wording of the benediction, or whether those who established this obligation determined the exact wording of each and every benediction. One tends towards the former view, considering that there are several commandments for which we find two formulations, according to each of the two styles.
The best example is the blessing over Torah study. Ashkenazi custom is to say "to engage in words of Torah," [la'asok bedivre Torah] whereas Sefardi practice is to recite a blessing "on words of Torah" [al divre Torah]. Commentators have noted subtle differences between these two versions, but it appears that the early formulators of the benedictions did not set hard and fast rules, hence it was possible for two different formulations to emerge concerning this commandment. Likewise, we can point to other blessings that have dual forms because no exact wording was set initially for every blessing.
In the course of time, however, what is known in linguistics as dissimilation or differentiation set in, i.e., one formulation became associated with a certain circumstance and the other formulation with a different setting. Thus, for example, there are two benedictions for tefillin: "to lay tefillin," [lehaniah] and "concerning the commandment of tefillin" [al mitzvat]. According to the Halakhah, the first is used for the tefillin put on the hand and the second for the tefillin placed on the head (in the event that a separate benediction must be recited for the tefillin on the head). Similarly, there are two versions for the commandment of tzitzit: "concerning the commandment of tzitzit," which is recited when putting on the fringed undergarment (tallit katan), and "to wrap in tzitzit," recited when putting on a tallit.
Against the notion that one is free to recite a blessing using whatever formulation one wishes, it should be noted that disputes over the correct formulation for benedictions date back to the time of the Amoraim. Rabbi Papa and Rabbi Papi disagreed, citing Rava, concerning the correct formulation for the blessing over burning hametz. Should one say "concerning burning hametz" [al bi'ur] or "to burn hametz" [leva'er] (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesahim 7b)? The talmudic discussion implies that "to perform such-and-such commandment" is the preferred style, but that in certain circumstances this formulation cannot be used: 1) when the blessing is recited after performing the commandment; 2) when a person performs the commandment on behalf of another person.
A logical explanation can be given for each of these cases. A person can thank the Lord for sanctifying us by His commandments and commanding us to perform a mitzvah only if he is truly commanded, which excludes the case where a person acts on behalf of another, and only if performance of the commandment is imminent, for then the person is commanded in that regard; but if the commandment has already been performed, one can thank the Lord for sanctifying us with that mitzvah, but one cannot say that he is commanded to perform the mitzvah, since at that moment the person is no longer commanded. Although logical and linguistic reservations can be raised against this analysis, nevertheless this is the reasoning that underlies the talmudic discussion.
Next we address the question of maintaining a fixed formulation for blessings. Should the form of a blessing be set according to the predominant situation and be maintained also in the exceptional case? Or should one closely abide by the principles governing every case, choosing the appropriate style for the particular situation? The answer is clear for other contexts in which blessings are recited: uniformity should be maintained.
For example, the rabbis ruled that in a series of blessings, such as the eighteen benedictions in the Amidah prayer, only the first should begin with barukh (Blessed...) (T. Berakhot, 1:5-9, pp. 2-5). The second, e.g. "ata gibor" in the Amidah prayer, which is considered to "follow closely after the previous benediction," does not begin with "Blessed..." The definition of a "benediction which follows closely after the previous benediction," however, does not depend on the momentary placement of the benediction, but on its general placement in most cases. For example, the last benediction in grace after meals, "ha-tov ve-ha-metiv," begins with "Blessed...," even though it follows closely after the previous one, "boneh Yerushalayim", since it was originally instituted as a benediction which stood on its own and began with "Blessed..."; the fact that today it is recited as the continuation of grace after meals is not sufficient to alter the original formulation set for this benediction.
Returning to our main subject, the question of uniformity in the formulation of blessings recited over the performance of commandments, the rishonim had different opinions on the matter. They disagreed in their understanding of the talmudic discussion regarding the blessing for circumcision (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 7b). It is clear from the discussion that when circumcision is performed by someone other than the child's father, such as a professional mohel, the mohel should recite the blessing "regarding circumcision," [al hamilah] not "to circumcise one's son," since not he but the father was commanded to circumcise this male child.
The Talmud, however, does not make it clear whether a person circumcising his own son should say "regarding circumcision" or should say "who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to circumcise one's son." Maimonides ruled: "When circumcising one's own son, say 'to circumcise one's son,' ... when circumcising someone else's son, say 'concerning circumcision,' and the like" (Hilkhot Berakhot 11.12-13). The Shulhan Arukh also cites Maimonides' opinion (Yoreh Deah 265.2) Ashkenazi rabbis, however, ruled that one should always say "concerning circumcision," even when circumcising one's own son (Rema, ibid.).
As for the blessing over the Hanukah , posekim included the possibility of someone delegated by the head of the household to kindle the lights. In such a case it is inappropriate to say "who commanded us to kindle the Hanukah lights." Some rabbis ruled that since in such a case one would have to say "on kindling the Hanukah lights," this should be the set formulation for the blessing, even if the head of the household lights himself; since one does not alter the formulation of a blessing on account of the circumstances of the moment. Others ruled that one should always say "to kindle...," because even when someone else other than the head of the household kindles the lights, this is not considered acting as someone's delegate, because the oil and wicks must belong to the head of the household. But according to Maimonides' understanding cited above and mentioned in Shulhan Arukh, in the case of a person performing this act for a friend in a friend's house, there is good reason for saying "on kindling the Hanukah lights" [ al hadlakat] as opposed to saying "to kindle the Hanukah lights" [lehadlik]. Sefardi posekim, however, tended to reject Maimonides' view also concerning circumcision. Therefore R. Ovadiah Yosef ruled that even someone kindling the Hanukah lights for another person should say "to kindle the Hanukah lights," but one who says "on kindling the Hanukah lights" has on whom to rely.
 On the conclusion of the blessing, cf. Ephraim Fischel Sturch, "Sabbath lights and Hannukah lights," Hama'ayan 25/2 (5745), p. 10-12; M. Rafeld, ibid., 25/3 (Nissan 5741), pp. 59-62.
 Also see my remarks in Sifrei Moadei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud2, Jerusalem 1997, p. 384, n. 54.
 Cf. Shimon Sharvit, "Birkhot ha-Mitzvot -- Nusha'oteihen ve-Tefutzat Tavniyoteihen," Bar-Ilan, 26-27 (1995), pp. 377-388 (Y. D. Gilat Jubilee Volume). Sharvit distinguishes two possibilities withint the first type: 1) where the blessing names the action, as in "on ritual immersion," and 2) where the blessing uses the word "commandment," as in "concerning the commandment of ritual immersion" (ibid., pp. 378-379; examples are mine). Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was opposed to the second formulation because ritual immersion is not itself a commandment, but a vehicle to a commandment (Tohorat ha-Bayit, II, Jerusalem 1990, p. 519-520). Rafael Levi noted that in naming the commandment some used the biblical terminology, as in "concerning counting the Omer," based on the biblical phrase, "you shall count," whereas others used the terminology of the Sages, as in "on waving the Lulav (al netilat Lulav)," although the biblical phrase referring to this is "you shall take." (Rafael Levi, "Al akhilat Matza ve-al Netilat Yadayim," ???, 33 (1988), pp. 473-474.)
 Cf. Azariah Berzon, "Be-Inyan ha-Nusah shel Birkat ha-Mitzvot -- Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik," Sha'alei Da'at (Sha'alavim Yeshivah), 7 (1990), pp. 46-57.
 For washing hands we know of three versions: "al netilat yadayim," "al rehitzat yadayim," and "al shetifat yadayim," using different synonyms for "washing." During the Passover Seder, each time the hands are washed a different version is used. (Cf. Y. Tavori, Pesah Dorot: Perakim be-Toledot Leil ha-Seder, Tel Aviv: Kibbutz Meuhad, 1996, p. 216.) Despite the variety in the choice of verbs, all use the same form of benediction.
 The author ruled (Orah Hayyim 8:5) that one can also recite the blessing "to wrap oneself in tzitzit" on the undergarment. Cf. R. Jacob Sofer's discussion of the question in Kaf ha-Hayyim, ibid., 20. R. Sofer mentions that "to wear tzitzit" and "to dress in tzitzit" are also permissible formulations.
 Apparently the reason for this is to avoid saying "blessed" twice in a row. Rashi holds that two benedictions should be considered to folow closely even if the first is a short blessing that does not conclude with "Blessed." Tosafot, however, hold that the second benediction need not open with "Blessed" only if the preceding one was lengthy and concluded with "Blessed" (cf. Encyclopedia Talmudit, 4, Jerusalem 1957, pp. 295-296). Nor is it simply a matter of avoiding the consecutive use of "Blessed..."; in Pesukei de-Zimra one begins psalms with "Hallelujah" even thought the preceding psalm concluded with "Hallelujah." Moreover, in Pesukei de-Zimra one the verse, "We shall bless the Lord from now and forever, Hallelujah" (Ps. 115:18) is inserted before psalm 145, which begins with "Hallelujah," so as not to break the pattern of concluding and beginning with "Hallelujah."
 According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the blessings of kiddush and havdalah begin with "Blessed," even though they closely follow the blessing over the wine, since when they were first instituted they were not necessarily made over a cup of wine (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 1.3.3d). This, however, is not a good illustration of the view in Tosafot, that the law governing a closely consecutive blessing only applies to cases where the first blessing is lengthy and concludes with "blessed..."
 Piskei Berakhot by R. Joseph ibn Plat, cited in Sefer ha-Pardess le-Rashi, Ehrenreich edition, Budapest 1924, p. 207. R. Joseph ibn Plat maintained that wherever one finds the formulation "to kindle...," it is a "scribal error." The laws on Hanukah in Sefer ha-Pardess (p. 247), however, present the formulation that we have here (perhaps taken from Halakhot Gedolot).