ERRORS IN RECITING THE TORAH BLESSINGS
A bar mitzvah boy made an error in the reciting of the Torah blessing. At the end of his Torah reading, instead of giving the second blessing (“Praised . . . Who has given us the law of truth”) he erred and repeated the opening blessing. As guidance in future bar mitzvahs, should we have corrected him and told him to give the right blessing? or should the error simply have been overlooked? Is there any discussion in the law on this matter? (From Vigdor Kavaler, Pittsburgh, Pa.)
IT MAY SEEM strange that such seemingly trivial mat-ters as inadvertent slips in the recitation of prayers should command such considerable space in the legal literature as they do. The reason is the desire for correctness in worship, especially with regard to benedictions which use the Name of God and which, therefore, should not be uttered needlessly.
So there is a great deal of discussion in the law on how to deal with errors on the part of the reader or the cantor. Usually the errors concern the omitting of the special prayers for special days. The question then is whether or not the reader must go back and repeat the passage and this time include the necessary part which he had omitted. There is also a specific law as to errors by the reader in reciting the Torah portion. Maimonides (Hilchot Tefdah 12:6) says that if the reader makes a single grammatical mistake, he must recommence. However, Isserles (Orach Chayim 142) says that this applies only if the mistake had distorted the meaning of the passage. As to errors in the two blessings, the one before and the one after the Torah reading, there is also some discussion in the commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 139.
However, before we can decide whether an error in the blessings is important enough to compel the person called to the Torah to begin again and say the correct blessing in place of the one he had mistakenly uttered, it must first be determined how important a matter it is that these blessings be recited each in its proper place.
First of all, the authorities admit that the reciting by each reader of the blessing before and after is not the original procedure. The Mishnah in Megilah IV, 1, states clearly that the law is that the first man called up (e.g., of the seven called up on Sabbaths) recites the opening blessing (“Who has chosen us,” etc.) and that the last man of those called up recites the closing blessing after his reading is finished (“Who has given us,” etc., Mishnah Megilah, 3, 1). Thus, according to the Mishnaic custom, neither the first reader nor the last reader recites both blessings, and the middle readers do not recite any blessings at all!
But then the Talmud (Megilah 21b) says that this original procedure was changed to our modern custom so that each one called up recites both blessings. The Talmud says this change was made for the benefit of those “who walk in and out”; that is to say, the person who walks out of the synagogue during the Torah reading (this bad habit is very ancient) might think that there was no closing blessing at all since he would not hear it; and so, too, the one who came in late, during the Torah reading, would not have heard the opening blessing. Therefore they changed the original rule to the effect that each one called up should say both blessings.
Since, then, the reciting of both blessings by each person is only a rabbinical, cautionary decision, the importance of each one reciting these two blessings is not too crucial. This fact explains why certain special questions arise with regard to the blessings. For example: Early in the Sabbath and daily morning prayer (in the Birchot Haschachar) various blessings are to be recited with regard to the study of Torah. Now suppose a person is a little behind the congregation in his worship and has just recited these Torah study blessings in his morning prayer. He is called up to the Torah while he is still in the midst of his morning prayer. The question then is, should he repeat, at the pulpit, the blessings which he had just recited privately in the morning prayer? Is not this to be avoided, since it would be “an unneeded blessing” (berachah, she’enah tserichah) ? This is discussed and answered in various ways. One answer is that he should not recite the first blessing at the Torah (“Who has chosen us”) because he has just recited the identical blessing in his morning prayer (cf. Tur, Orach Chayim 139). Thus it is clear that the status of the two blessings recited by the one who is called to the Torah is not too firmly established in the law.
In the light of all the above, it can be understood why the law is somewhat liberal about mistakes made in the blessings. A possible mistake in the blessings is entioned by Ephraim Margolis in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, The Hand of Ephraim, and by Mendel Auerbach in his commentary, Glory of the Elders to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 139. They both discuss the following error: The man called up to the Torah begins erroneously by reciting the closing blessing, “Who has given us,” etc. If this happens, he should be interrupted and made to begin again and recite the right blessing. If however he has completed the closing blessing here at the beginning, then no harm is done because at the close of the reading, he can then recite the opening blessing which he had omitted, because as both scholars say, there is no ordained order as to the two respective blessings. However, in his Shaar Ephraim (4:7), Margolis says that he should repeat the correct blessing after he had finished the incorrect one.
In the case we are discussing, the bar mitzvah boy having recited the opening blessing at the beginning and the end, had omitted the closing blessing entirely. The question, therefore, is what was to be done. In situations analogous to this, the law is very careful about embarrassing a person in public. According to Maimonides (as we have noted) the reader who makes a single error must be corrected and directed to start over again. The Tur mentions this strict requirement of Maimonides, but precedes it with a statement from the Manhig (Abraham Ibn Yarchi of Lunel) which the Tur prefers, namely, that we should not shame the reader in public by correcting him, for after all, the congregation fulfills its duty of hearing the Torah even if the reading was not completely correct.
The same consideration should guide us with bar mitzvah boys. Since originally most of the readers (except the first and last) did not recite the blessings at all, and since according to some opinions the opening blessing may be omitted entirely if the man called up had just recited it in his morning prayers, and since, furthermore, in our Reform practice we do not guide ourselves by the strict legal regulations regarding the blessings, we may well follow the kindly advice of the Manhig and refrain from shaming a sensitive, excited boy in public.
Of course the boys should be carefully trained, but even the best training cannot guard against occasional confusion, since the blessings are so much alike. If the boy is selfpossessed, and correcting him at the beginning of the blessing would not disturb him, then the correction might be whispered, but otherwise we may well ignore the error.
If such an error occurs often, then a printed text of the blessings may be made available on the pulpit. I know of no requirement that these blessings must be recited by heart. After all, one of them (“Who has chosen us”) is recited in every morning service from the printed text of the siddur.