Question: Should the congregation say “Amen” after the berachah of “habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah” (right before Shema)? I have seen different shuls do different things.
Answer: Many Geonim and Rishonim maintain that “habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah” is not a birkat ha’mitzvah, but rather a birkat ha’shevach (a blessing of praise). These authorities include Rav Yosef Gaon, Rav Tzemach Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon, Rabbi Yitzchak Gi’at, the Ra’ah, the Me’iri, the Rashba, the Rosh, and the author of Sefer HaMe’orot.
Nonetheless, it is connected to Shema and even possesses the ability to relieve one b’di’avad of the need to say birkat haTorah. The Rashbash writes:
“These blessings [yotzer hame’orot and habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah] were not enacted for the purpose of Shema, but once a person has recited them, he is relieved of his obligation to recite ‘asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu likro et Shema.’” The Rashbash reasons that if the berachah relieves one of the obligation to recite birkat haTorah, it surely relieves one of the obligation to recite a birkat ha’mitzvah on Shema.
That “habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah” relieves one of the duty of saying birkat haTorah is stated clearly in Tractate Berachot (11b): “R. Yehudah said in the name of Samuel: If one arose early to study Torah before saying Shema, he must recite [la’asok b’divrei Torah and notein Ha’Torah]. If he first recited Shema, he need not say another blessing…since he already said Ahavah Rabbah.”
“Habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah” discharges one’s obligation to say birkat haTorah because it contains many references to Torah study (e.g., “v’dabek libbenu b’Toratecha”). But if this berachah discharge a person of his Torah blessing requirement – even though the words “v’dabek libbenu b’Toratecha” etc. are far removed from him actually studying Torah – then surely this berachah discharges his obligation to say a berachah before Shema as it contains an acceptance of the yoke of heaven (“v’yacheid levaveinu l’ahava u’liyira et Sh’mecha”). Thus, our Sages did not establish a separate blessing specifically for Shema.
The Ramban’s teacher, Rabbi Yehudah b. Rabbi Yakar, writes that Ahavah Rabbah serves as a birkat haTorah before Shema and should be said. If a person does not know how, he should listen to someone else say it and then say Shema, or even one Torah verse if he can’t. Yet, Rabbi Yehudah b. Rabbi Yakar also believes a person should say “Kel melech ne’eman,” which means he obviously doesn’t think these three words constitute a hefsek.
The Rashba writes that if the two blessings before Shema were blessings for Shema, one of them would have concluded with the words “asher kideshanu…likro et Shema – who commanded us…to recite Shema.” Thus, he writes, these blessings were actually not established as blessings for Shema. But once they were in the liturgy, they were connected to Shema with the concurrence of the aforementioned Geonim.
The Rashba did not accept the opinion of his teacher, the Ramban, regarding “Kel melech ne’eman.” He actually takes no position, simply noting the two customs – of France/Germany and of Spain.
He writes (Responsa Rashba vol 7:407): “There are those who are accustomed to say ‘Kel melech ne’eman’ between birkat Keri’at Shema and Shema, and they explain that ‘Kel melech ne’eman’ completes the count of 248 words, corresponding to the limbs in a person’s body. It is not a hefsek because those blessings [yotzer hame’orot and habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah] are independent of Shema. Indeed, in the Beis HaMikdash they would say Ahava Rabbah on its own, which proves that these are not blessings for Keriat Shema.
“Now, some do not say these words because in their view the blessings are for Shema and the acronym of ‘Kel melech ne’eman’ form the word ‘Amen,’ and one who responds ‘Amen’ between a blessing and a mitzvah is creating a hefsek. Therefore, in [Spain], it was not the custom to say it.”
(To be continued)