Parashat Yitro: Halakhah

Halakhah הֲלָכָה

Blessings (בְּרָכוֹת) contain God’s name, and our parashah teaches us that saying God’s name is serious business. One of the עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת (Aseret Ha-Dibrot, Ten Commandments) is not to say God’s name without a really good reason. So our Sages taught that we should be very careful with berakhot:
כׇּל הַמְבָרֵךְ בְּרָכָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ צְרִיכָה — עוֹבֵר מִשּׁוּם ״לֹא תִשָּׂא״!
Anyone who makes a berakhah that is not needed violates the verse “You shall not take God’s name in vain” (Shemot 20:7).
Another name for this is a בְּרָכָה לְבַטָּלָה (berakhah le-vatalah, a wasted berakhah). ​​Examples of this include:
  • Repeating a berakhah you've already said for the situation you're in, like making a berakhah for eating grapes and then saying the berakhah again while you're still eating them, or like saying havdalah after Shabbat and then saying it again later that same night.
  • Making the wrong berakhah for your situation, like making a berakhah for bread when you're just drinking water or like making a berakhah over a mitzvah and then not doing it (or doing it incorrectly).
  • Not doing the thing you made the berakhah on right away, like saying a berakhah to shake a lulav on Sukkot and then talking to your siblings or waiting a long time before actually shaking it.
If you make a berakhah le-vatalah by mistake, you can fix it! The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 206:6) discusses a case where you pick up a grape, say the berakhah of בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ (borei peri ha-eitz, God creates fruit of the tree), and then you accidentally drop the grape in the garbage before you get to eat it!
What do you do?
One answer is to say בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד (barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed, the name of God’s kingship is blessed forever), praising God’s special name. That way, you haven’t really taken God’s name in vain, you’ve just praised it. (You might recall this line from Devash for Vayehi!)
But next time, hold that grape a little more carefully!