Blessings and Guardrails

Mitzvas maakeh is mentioned in this week’s parsha.

Blessings and Guardrails

Question #1: Who makes the brocha?

“If someone performs a mitzvah as my agent, can I still recite a brocha on the mitzvah?”

Question #2: Am I doing the mitzvah?

“Do I fulfill the mitzvah of building a maakeh if I hire a non-Jew to do it for me?”

Question #3: When do I bless?

“If I am performing a mitzvah that will take a long time to fulfill, when do I recite the brocha?”

Introduction:

Reb Gavriel*, a talmid chacham whom I know, is having his house remodeled, including adapting a roof area for use, which will require the assembly of a maakeh, a fence, wall or railing high enough and strong enough to prevent someone from falling (see Devorim 22:8). He asked me the following: “I will now have the first opportunity of my life to fulfill the mitzvah min hatorah of building a maakeh. My question is: The construction workers are not Jewish. Can I recite a brocha on performing this mitzvah, when gentiles are doing the work? And, if I recite a brocha, when do I recite it, since this construction will take several weeks?”

Let me explain Gavriel’s excellent questions. Prior to performing a mitzvas aseh, a positive mitzvah, we recite a brocha thanking Hashem for the opportunity to fulfill His commandments. These brochos are what we call birchos hamitzvah. They begin with the words Boruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu and conclude with the words appropriate to the specific mitzvah. According to the majority of halachic authorities, one recites a brocha on constructing a maakeh, since by constructing this maakeh one fulfills a positive mitzvah of the Torah (Sedei Chemed, Volume 5, page 250, provides analysis of this point). The rishonim cite several slightly variant texts detailing how one concludes the brocha recited for fulfilling this mitzvah. (See commentaries She’eilas Shalom and Ha’eimek Hasheilah to She’iltos, Eikev #145, who discuss what is the proper text of the brocha.) I believe that the accepted Ashkenazic practice is to complete the brocha with the words: Al mitzvas maakeh.

In Reb Gavriel’s case, there are three questions:

  1. Can I recite a brocha when I am not performing the mitzvah myself?
  2. Do I fulfill a mitzvah when it is performed by hirees who are not Jewish?
  3. At what point in the construction should I recite the brocha?

Who recites the brocha?

Reuven asks Shimon to search his (Reuven’s) house for chometz. Can Reuven recite the brocha of al bedikas chometz on Shimon’s search? (We should note that, in general, someone obligated to perform a mitzvah should do the mitzvah himself, rather than assign it to someone else, a principle called mitzvah bo yoseir mibeshelucho, it is a bigger mitzvah to perform a mitzvah yourself than via proxy [Kiddushin 41a].)

On the one hand, Reuven is fulfilling the mitzvah, not Shimon. On the other hand, Shimon is the one who is actually performing the mitzvah.

The Magen Avraham states that the agent doing the act of the mitzvah can recite the brocha (432:6), but he also implies that should Reuven want to recite the brocha, he may do so, even if he himself did not participate at all in the act of performing the mitzvah (432:5). They should not both recite the brocha – for one of them, this would constitute a brocha levatalah, a brocha recited in vain.

Shelichus

The Torah teaches a principle that a person can perform a mitzvah, create a transaction, or discharge a legal requirement by having an agent act on his behalf, a concept called shelichus. Because of this rule, a husband can appoint someone to write a get on his behalf, or deliver a get to his wife. Similarly, I can appoint someone to separate challah from dough that I have prepared, or appoint someone to be my agent to carry out a transaction, such as having a rav sell my chometz.

Ein shelichus lenachri

Although I can appoint a proxy to separate terumos or challah for me or to carry out a transaction on my behalf, that agent must be Jewish. The Torah did not extend the concept of agency to non-Jews, either to allow a gentile to function as surrogate for someone else or to have a gentile appoint a surrogate on his own behalf. A result of this halachah is that a Jew cannot appoint a gentile to separate challah. Thus, a Jewish-owned bakery that has non-Jewish employees mixing dough must make provisions to have a Jew take challah. If a gentile did the act of separating challah, no mitzvah was performed.

According to this reason, it would seem that if Reb Gavriel has non-Jewish workers building his maakeh, the mitzvah was not fulfilled. He is not doing the construction himself, and the people he hired are ineligible to be his agents. It is true that there is no longer any danger of having an unfenced roof, and, therefore, one is not in violation of allowing a safety hazard to exist, lo sasim damim beveisecha (Devorim 22:8). Yet, it would seem that the positive mitzvah to build a railing was technically not observed, since it was constructed in a way that no one fulfilled the mitzvah.

Enter the Machaneh Efrayim

Yad po’el keyad baal habayis

  1. The Gemara teaches a principle; yad po’el keyad baal habayis, literally, the “hand” of the worker is treated as the hand of the employer (Bava Metzia 10a). If I hire someone to perform general work – regardless of what he is assigned to do — and he finds an unowned object in the course of his work, the employer becomes the owner of the object. How did the employer gain ownership of the item, when it was the employee who found it and picked it up? The Gemara explains that since the employer hired the worker to do whatever needs to be done during the period of his service, the employer owns even the worker’s ability to take possession of items, which is called a yad, a hand, in halachic jargon.

The Machaneh Efrayim extends the principle of yad po’el keyad baal habayis to Reb Gavriel’s situation. When I hire someone to be my general worker, it is considered that I built the railing myself. I have therefore fulfilled the mitzvah and may recite the brocha. This principle does not apply when I hire a worker for a specific job (see Aruch Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 427:3).

There are other ramifications of this principle of the Machaneh Efrayim. Although there is an obligation to separate terumos and maasros from produce growing in a Jew’s field in Eretz Yisroel or in the lands nearby, one is not required to separate them until the harvesting process is complete. At the time of the Mishnah/Gemara, this entailed leveling off the pile of grain or other produce, after all had been harvested. The Machaneh Efrayim contends that, even if this leveling was performed by a gentile employee or hiree, the owner becomes obligated to separate terumos and maasros. Despite the fact that a non-Jew cannot function as a proxy, the processing he performs as an employee obligates the owner to separate maasros.

Construction is different

  1. The Machaneh Efrayim presents a second line of reasoning why someone who hired a gentile to build a railing has fulfilled the mitzvah. The rule that a gentile cannot be my agent is only when something requires agency to be effective, such as the separation of challah, the delivery of a get, or creating a transaction. In each of these cases, a change of status or ownership is effected by someone’s intent. Without intent on the part of the person creating the change or transaction, nothing has happened – the dough  that was separated did not become challah, the woman did not become divorced, the chometz was not sold. In these instances, since the Torah did not create a concept of shelichus for gentiles; if I appointed someone non-Jewish to separate challah or to carry out agency, nothing has transpired.

However, contends the Machaneh Efrayim, when a physical act is being done, such as the construction of a railing, we are not dealing with a legal effect, but an on-the-ground, physical result. This is not a function of the laws of shelichus, but a practical matter. Since the railing now exists, I have fulfilled the mitzvah and can recite the brocha, regardless who actually constructed it.

Railing about the railing

Notwithstanding that the Machaneh Efrayim concludes that Reb Gavriel could recite a brocha when his gentile workers build the maakeh, many later authorities dispute either or both of his reasons (Shaar Hamelech, Terumos 1:11; Shu’t Shivas Tziyon #53; Nesivos Hamishpat, Chapter 188; Minchas Chinuch, Mitzvah #546; Shu’t Sha’ul Umeishiv, Volume 1, part 2 #110; Ulam Hamishpat, Chapter 188; Shu’t Birchas Retzei  #75; Sedei Chemed, Volume 5, pages 249-250). Regarding his first approach, that, because of the concept of yad po’el keyad baal habayis, it is considered that the employer built the railing himself, there are two different reasons to refute his position. Firstly, there is no evidence that the halachic concept yad po’el keyad baal habayis applies to non-Jewish employees. All the places in which the Gemara applies this rule involve Jewish workers, and there are valid reasons why one should not be able to compare the two.

Furthermore, even if yad po’el keyad baal habayis applies to gentile workers, there is a big jump in logic to apply this principle to the construction of a railing. If, in the course of his day’s work, an employee acquires something on behalf of the employer’s business, one could argue that the employer made the transaction, since he owns the employee’s yad.  However, how does the act of the gentile employee, such as constructing a railing, become the act of the Jewish employer, in such a way that he did the act of the mitzvah himself and can therefore recite a brocha? A mitzvah must be performed by someone who can be commanded to fulfill this mitzvah. The action performed by the gentile does not become the act of the employer because of yad po’el keyad baal habayis.

To demonstrate the difficulty with the Machaneh Efrayim’s approach, some authorities contend that, according to the Machaneh Efrayim, if a Jew instructed his gentile employee to plow using a donkey and an ox, the Jew will be liable for malkus, lashes, for violating the Torah violation of having them work together, since his gentile employee’s action is considered as if he did it himself (Shu’t Shivas Tziyon #53). Although it is prohibited to hire a gentile to do this, it is highly surprising to assume that the Jew should be liable for malkus in such a situation.

Is this chometz she’avar alav hapesach?

The Machaneh Efrayim’s principle created a problem for a community in a very different case. The local branch of a Jewish-owned business was managed completely by gentiles. The question was whether the chometz that the non-Jewish employees of the local branch purchased on behalf of the business before Pesach becomes prohibited because of chometz she’avar alav hapesach, chometz that was owned by a Jew in the course of the holiday. The questioner, Rav Yaakov Mendel Friedman, the rav of Nadvorna, wanted to permit the chometz on the basis that, since there is no agency of non-Jews, the chometz is halachically considered to have been owned by gentiles over Pesach. However, he noted that, according to the Machaneh Efrayim, since the gentiles are the employees of the Jewish owners, the chometz is deemed to have been owned by Jews over Pesach, and it is therefore prohibited. He sent the question to Rav Tzvi Hirsch Orenstein, a respected nineteenth century posek in Lithuania and Poland. (During his lifetime, he served successively as rav in Brisk, Reisha and Lvov.) Rav Orenstein ruled that accepted halachah does not follow the opinion of the Machaneh Efrayim (Shu’t Birchas Retzei #75).

Other railings

The second reason presented by the Machaneh Efrayim why someone could recite a brocha upon the assembly of a railing built by a non-Jew was that the owner fulfills the mitzvah of building a maakeh, no matter how the railing actually became constructed. Notwithstanding the Machaneh Efrayim’s contentions, others dispute his conclusion that this is considered that the Jew performed the mitzvah.

It appears that most authorities reject the position of the Machaneh Efrayim and contend that one should not recite a brocha, if a gentile built the railing. Those who reject the Machaneh Efrayim’s approach would require that a Jew participate in the construction of the railing, in order to be able to recite the brocha. However, one major authority rules that Reb Gavriel should recite a brocha on the assembly of the railing, regardless of whether it was assembled by Jews or by gentiles, and even if he did not participate at all (Aruch Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 427:3).

When do I recite a brocha?

At this point, let us examine the third of our opening questions:

“If I am performing a mitzvah that will take a long time to fulfill, when do I recite the brocha?” This exact question can be asked regarding the assembly of a railing, and we noted before that Reb Gavriel, indeed, asked it.

Allow me to provide some background. In general, one recites a brocha immediately prior to beginning the performance of a mitzvah or immediately prior to eating a food. The Gemara (Pesachim 119b) calls this oveir la’asiyasan. According to this, one should assume that one would recite the brocha on the railing immediately before one performs the mitzvah. However, the question, here, is that the mitzvah takes a long time to perform. It can also happen that someone may encounter a difficulty in the middle of the job that makes it impossible for him to complete the mitzvah. Because of these concerns, when should one recite the brocha for performing the mitzvah?

This question is raised by the Chasam Sofer (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim 52), who concludes that one should recite the brocha immediately prior to completing the maakeh. In his opinion, since the railing does not provide adequate protection until it is complete, the act of the mitzvah is the last hammer blow that makes it into an effective railing.

However, a much earlier authority than the Chasam Sofer holds differently. The Baal Ha’itur (Hilchos Tzitzis, Shaar 3, Cheilek 2, page 152) rules that one recites the brocha at the beginning of the assembly of the railing, even though its manufacture takes time. He compares this to the brocha of al bi’ur chometz, which we recite at the beginning of the search, knowing that it may involve interruptions and considerable time until the mitzvah is completed, which is when one has finished burning the chometz.

A third approach

I found yet a third approach to when one should recite the brocha on assembling a railing, because of an interesting reasoning. Some late authorities suggest that if the owner is unable to construct the railing himself, he should wait to recite the brocha until the railing is in place, out of concern that the employee may not complete the job, and the brocha that he recited for the mitzvah would be in vain (see Sedei Chemed).

In conclusion

What should Reb Gavriel do? I found some late authorities who suggest that he should try to assist the workers at a critical time in the manufacture of the railing, in which case, he could recite the brocha, because he took an active part in its assembly (Sedei Chemed, quoting Nediv Leiv). According to the Chasam Sofer, he should help out at the last stage of the construction of the railing, which is when the mitzvah is being properly fulfilled. According to the Baal Ha’itur, he should help out at the beginning of the construction of the railing, so as to recite the brocha before the mitzvah is begun.

Just as we must make sure that we build a guardrail in a way that it will properly prevent physical injury, so must we also examine the laws governing how and when we thank Hashem for the opportunity to observe his mitzvos. And just as we hire a professional to ascertain that our guardrail does its job well, so should we strive to recite our brochos and prayers with careful attention to detail, performing them in the way Hashem wants.

* I was asked this exact question. The name was changed to protect the individual’s privacy.