Baruch Sh'ptarani: An Ending and a New Beginning
By: Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
At the heart of every bar mitzvah is the celebration of the milestone of a young man entering a life of Torah and mitzvot. The young man leads the congregation in prayer and is called up to the Torah to demonstrate to the community that he is now of age and can be counted for a minyan like any other adult Jew. In addition to the many mitzvot that the bar mitzvah boy performs on this auspicious day, there is one little known mitzvah which is reserved for his father to perform. This entire mitzvah consists of the father reciting a five word bracha known as “Baruch Sheptarani”. The nature of this bracha, its meaning and significance is the topic of our discussion today.
The exact text of the bracha is: Baruch sheptarani mei'onsho shel zeh which basically means: “Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment due to this one.” The source of this bracha is the medrash on the verse in parshat Toldot which reads, “And the boys grew up. . .” referring to Yaakov and Eisav. Once these two sons of Yitzchak had reached the age of thirteen, it was abundantly clear that their respective paths in life would be very different. Yaakov was powerfully drawn to the study hall and to a life of spiritual endeavor and achievement while Eisav was powerfully drawn to the field and sword, to a life of hunting, fighting and physical gratification.
The medrash comments that, up to this point, up to the time they turned thirteen, the boys’ proclivities were not yet fixed. Their days were spent in much the same way and they were pretty much indistinguishable. They both went to school and they both returned from school. Now, however, that they had turned thirteen, their personalities had diverged and had become, more or less, fixed so that while one got up in the morning and ran to the beit medrash to learn, the other one got up and ran to the local temple to bow down to idols.
The medrash continues by quoting Rabbi Elazer to say that a father has the mitzvah to be mechanaich his son, to teach him the ways of Torah and mitzvot from birth until the age of thirteen. He then goes on to establish our current day practice by saying that when the boy turns thirteen the father makes the declaration, “Baruch sheptarani mei'onsho shel zeh” and then from that time on is, at least technically, considered free from the responsibility of further educating his son.
The commentaries explain that until the age of thirteen, parents can have an effective influence over their son and can, therefore, readily teach him Torah and mitzvot. However, from then on, the situation changes as the young man becomes more independent and perhaps somewhat less receptive to the teaching of his parents. Although the parents certainly have the mitzvah of tochachah, literally translated as “rebuke”, this is taken to mean that they should be guiding and coaching their son in the background rather than directly teaching of the path of Torah and mitzvot.
The question arises as to what exactly this bracha means to say. The wording, as we mentioned before, translates as, “Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment due to this one.” The halachic authorities explain that until this point the son’s sins were, by and large, the father’s responsibility, as most of them stem from a lack of education in Torah and mitzvot. Now that the Torah makes this young man responsible for his own actions, the father is, therefore, relieved from the punishment that’s associated with the son’s mistakes.
The very fact that this bracha is only mentioned in the Medrash, and not the Gemara brings up a very interesting halachic dispute that has practical implications. The Rema in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch mentions that one should say this bracha without using God’s name or referring to His sovereignty as we usually do in our brachot. Rather, he says, we should just say “Baruch” before proceeding with the specifics of the bracha. His reasoning is that saying God’s name improperly is a very serious aveira or sin. Because this bracha was only mentioned in the Medrash, which usually does not render halachic decisions, we cannot be sure that the halacha follows this medrash. Therefore, adding God’s name could possibly violate the prohibition of using God’s name in vain. Others, the Vilna Gaon included, disagree and cite other “full” brachot that we recite that are not found in the Gemara. Indeed, that puts Baruch sheptarani in a better position in that it is at least mentioned by the rabbis of the Medrash.
In light of the above, we can truly say that this humble little bracha, in a very real sense, marks the end of one chapter in the book of the relationship between a father and his son and the beginning of another. The chapter of Chinuch, the time when the father is actively and directly teaching his impressionable young son the ways of Torah and mitzvot has come to an end. The chapter of Tochachah, the time when the father guides and coaches his older, more independent son in a somewhat less direct way is now beginning. This is a lesson that all fathers would do well to take to heart because, the truth is, we only get to “read” these “chapters” once and, once read, they are gone forever.