Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fingernails and Havdalah

There is an interesting debate about the blessing said over the flame during the Saturday evening Havdalah. There is an established minhag to look at your fingernails to get benefit from the Havdalah candle. The question is: do you look at your fingernails before or after the blessing? The debate centers around exactly what type of blessing "Borei M'orei haAish" is, with some saying that it is a Birkas haShevach (a blessing of praise), while others say that it is a Birkas haNehenin (a blessing of benefit).

A Birkas haShevach is something like the blessings said over hearing thunder, seeing an exceptionally beautiful person, etc. In these cases we are praising Hashem for the creations around us. These blessings are said after the event being blessed as, obviously, it is impossible to make a blessing on thunder beforehand - as you don't know exactly when the thunder will boom. The Mishna Berurah (296:31), among others (namely, the Steipler; see Orchos Rabbeinu 3:235), holds that the blessing over the Aish is a Birkas haShevach (similar to thunder) and therefore, the blessing is said after looking at your fingernails.

On the other hand, a Birkas haNehenin is said over things that you will be benefiting from (ie food, spices, etc.). Obviously, we make blessings on the specific foods before we consume them. Other commentators, namely, Rav Moshe and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (see also Siddur haTanya, Siddur haGra, Siddur Ya'avetz) opine that the blessing on the flame is a Birkas haNehenin, and the blessing is therefore said BEFORE looking at the fingernails.

Intuitively, at least to me, it makes more sense to say that it is a Birkas haNehenin, as in the other aforementioned examples (food and spices) you know beforehand that you are about to have these things, and can therefore make a blessing beforehand. However, in the case of a Birkas haShevach, you don't know beforehand that the event (thunder, etc.) is coming, and it is therefore impossible to say the blessing beforehand. In our case of the flame, we know beforehand that we are about to see the flame, and therefore, makes more sense that we would say the blessing beforehand. This, in fact, seems to be the prevailing minhag, presumably because Rav Moshe said so.

My minhag is evolved into doing it both before and after the blessing. However, while driving to work this morning, I realized that this doesn't make much sense as it does not satisfy both opinions. I was comforted, however, when I read this morning that this is the minhag of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.


Blogger Danny the Manny said...

It's the overwhelming custom of Nazirs in contemporary times to look away from the candle at this moment. We fear they will come to be embarassed about the length of their fingernails at such times. This is of course the origin of the custom to snub women entirely in ultra-Orthodox circles.

12:04 PM, July 13, 2006

Anonymous Greg said...

We need to back up here a bit. The Talmud states that one not make the blessing over the fire until one has benefitied from the light.

Looking at the fingernails is done to establish that the flame is of suffiecient luminence to perform some form of distinctive action, i.e. to derive benefit from; this is phrased either in terms of distinguishing between two coins, or between nail and flesh. As such, the blessing is not on the act of looking at your fingernails, it is on the fire itself; looking at your fingernails is merely a quick pretest to determine that the fire is adequate.

It is interesting that the Shulchan Aruch divides up these two statements; OH 298:3 says there is a custom to look at ones fingernails. Then in 298:4, we are told that we must benefit from the light, and in order to do so we need to make sure it is bright enough. I would suggest that R. Lichenstein and others like yourself are doing both before and after in order to fulfill both. Looking at the fingernails can be done anytime, even after the blessing, while one must benefit in some way before hand in order to make the blessing initially. Maybe that's where the argument over the type of blessing comes from.

There's a lot more here that I can't write down right now, but it seems to me that doing both is definetly worth considering, if you're into that kind of thing.

1:22 PM, July 13, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

Apologies if I made it sound like the blessing is being made on the seeing the fingernails - obviously, the blessing is said on the light.

Rav Moshe discusses the aforementioned gemara as a proof for his psak.

According to the opinion that says it's a Birkas haNehenin, one would be required to first make the blessing, and only then benefit. My thinking was that by benefiting from the light initially, and only subsequently making the blessing and looking again, those who hold it's a Nehenin thing would take issue with that, being that the hanaah was before the blessing. But - maybe this is all wrong, considering that R' Lichtenstein does it.

1:33 PM, July 13, 2006

Anonymous Greg said...

Most of the time, even if you dont make a blessing beforehand, you can still make one while you are involved, so it shouldn't be a problem the way you are thinking.

2:08 PM, July 13, 2006

Anonymous Yitzchak said...

Alanlaz - Are you sure that the GRA held that it was a Birkas haNehenin? I know a family that follows the minhagei Hagra, and they look at their fingernails before they make the bracha.

4:06 PM, July 13, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

Yitzchak - unless is mistaken, yes I am sure that in the Siddur haGRA it does say that.

4:38 PM, July 13, 2006

Blogger Natan said...

Interesting post, on a slightly related note: if I recall correctly the Beis HaLevi holds that since one cannot fulfill Havdala through a window one cannot be yotsei while wearing eye glasses. It's clearly a minority opinion - at least with contemporary practice in mind - but I do know a few people to hold this way.

9:33 PM, July 17, 2006

Anonymous bramo! said...

hey alan,

where did you read that this is what RAL does? if you can post the maare makom/link that would be great

10:06 AM, July 20, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

10:23 AM, July 20, 2006


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