BERAKHOT (Heb. בְּרָכוֹת: "Benedictions, Blessings"), first tractate of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. On its placement at the head of the order Zera'im, which deals with agricultural laws, see *Zera'im.
The tractate deals with aspects of the daily liturgy (as distinct from the prayers of holy days, ritual readings of scripture, etc.). In keeping with the general objectives of the Mishnah, it is concerned primarily with the laws governing formal prayers and blessings, and deals only rarely or peripherally with the content, theology, or rationales for these prayers. These latter dimensions are discussed more extensively in the Tosefta, Talmuds, and cognate passages in midrashic works. Although the Talmud was able to identify some biblical foundation for the liturgical topics dealt with in the tractate, the Mishnah organizes the material according to a topical sequence, with only occasional allusions to scriptural sources. Study of other literature from the Second Commonwealth, especially the liturgical texts from Qumran, allows us to better understand the place of rabbinic prayer in the broader evolution of Jewish worship of the time.
Mishnah Berakhot focuses primarily on three liturgical categories: (1) the Shema; (2) the Tefillah; (3) miscellaneous blessings to be recited on specified occasions, especially on the enjoyment of food and other physical pleasures. A "blessing" is a formal liturgical unit that is usually recognizable by its opening "Blessed are you, Lord our God [Sovereign of the Universe] …."
Early rabbinic and apparently pre-rabbinic tradition interpreted the command (Deut. 6:6, 8) "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart … when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" and the similar expressions in Deuteronomy 11:18–19 as explicit directives to recite the passages in which those expressions occur (Deut. 6:4–9, 11:13–21) daily in the evening and morning. This obligation was understood to be the fulfillment either of a separate precept, of the broader requirement to study Torah, or as a declaration of one's acceptance of the "yoke of the kingship of Heaven" in declaring "the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4) and the "yoke of commandments" in Deuteronomy 11:1, as understood by Rabbi *Joshua ben Korḥa (Ber. 2:2). A third section was added to the Shema, at least in its morning recitation: Numbers 15:37–41, dealing with the commandment of ritual fringes. The Mishnah (1:5) sees this as fulfillment of the obligation to mention the Egyptian Exodus daily, though this seems doubtful. In both its morning and evening versions, the Shema is embedded in a framework of blessings that relate to the natural transition of the times of day, the divine love for Israel that was expressed in the giving of the Torah (of which the Shema is a part), and hopes for redemption.
The first three chapters of the Mishnah deal with the regulations for reciting the Shema. Topics include: the designated times when it may be recited, the appropriate physical postures, the accompanying blessings, laws about interruptions and irregularities in the recitation (e.g., if it was inaudible or in the incorrect sequence), and instances when a person is exempted from the obligation.
Mishnah chapters 4–5 deal with the tefillah, the central rabbinic prayer whose standard version consists of 18 blessings and was to be recited in the evening, morning, and afternoon. The structure and text of the prayer are presupposed, but not set out, in the Mishnah. Although the sages linked the institution of prayer at fixed times to the practices of the biblical patriarchs and the schedule of daily sacrificial offerings, the content and set times of the mandatory tefillah are considered to be of rabbinic origin, albeit influenced heavily by biblical themes. Topics dealt with by the Mishnah include the designated times for the three services, occasions when the full 18 blessings or an abbreviated versions should be recited, occasions when one may forgo the normal physical requirements of standing facing towards the Jerusalem Temple, aggadah-like traditions about the preference for spontaneity and a reverent state of mind, and some prayer customs that are forbidden, evidently because of heterodox associations.
Chapters 6 through 9 of the Mishnah are devoted to the blessings that accompany specified occasions. The Tosefta (4:1) supplies theological and scriptural rationales for this practice: "A person should not taste anything before reciting a blessing, as it says [Ps. 24:1] 'The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.' One who enjoys the benefits of this world without a blessing has committed a trespass," etc. The halakhah in the Mishnah requires that the precisely appropriate blessing be recited for each occasion. Accordingly, different blessings are designated for fruits of the earth, fruits of trees, bread, other baked goods, wine, "the seven species" of Deuteronomy 8:8; and guidelines are provided for choosing the correct blessings when there are numerous foodstuffs.
Chapter 7 discusses the procedures for the concluding blessing after a formal meal or banquet, especially the "invitation to bless" (zimmun).
Chapter 8 consists of a list of disputes between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel related to blessings recited at meals. Some of these disputes, or the reasons underlying the respective positions, remain obscure, and several were transmitted in differing versions in baraitas in the Tosefta and Talmuds.
Chapter 9 contains a miscellaneous collection of blessings for various occasions, including places of religious significance, wonders of nature, life-milestones, and deliverance from danger.
The Mishnah contains traditions covering the full range of the tannaitic generations, including material dating from the Second Temple era (e.g., 1:1 cites the evening purification practices of the priests as a reliable sign of the advent of nightfall).
Both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds contain full tractates for Berakhot. The Babylonian is the longest in the Talmud (by word count), owing to its extensive collection of aggadic material, much of it appearing as loosely connected digressions. Although some of these passages offer valuable insights into the rabbis' attitudes towards prayer (often defined as a plea for divine mercy), the material covers a vast assortment of themes, including biblical expositions, hagiographical narratives, dream interpretation, and a great deal of folklore.
N. Sacks, The Mishnah with Variant Readings: Order Zera'im (1971); A. Houtman, Mishnah and Tosefta: A Synoptic Comparison of the Tractates Berakhot and Shebiit (1996); Tz. Zahavy (trans.), Berakhot (1989); A.Z. Ehrman, The Talmud: With English Translation and Commentary. Berakhot (1965); J. Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns (1977); I. Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (1993).
[Eliezer L. Segel (2nd ed.)]