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At the very end of our parashah, the Torah describes the various transgressions for which one is required to bring a Korban Asham, a “guilt offering;” the first one listed is “me’ilah,” the unauthorized use of hekdesh, that is, property belonging to the Mishkan or the Beit HaMikdash (Vayikra 5:14-16). The Gemara in Berachot (35a) brings up this prohibition in connection with a seemingly unrelated halachah, stating, after revealing that it is forbidden to derive any pleasure from this world without first reciting a berachah, that anyone who does so is in violation of the sin of me’ilah. The reference, of course, is to the category of berachot known as Birchot HaNehenin, the blessings recited over food and other items from which one benefits and which one enjoys in this world (see Rambam, Hilchot Berachot 1:2-4). Eating food or deriving any personal benefit from something in this world without first making a berachah is tantamount to deriving personal benefit from something that was designated for hekdesh because, after all, everything in the world is the property of Hashem (see also Yerushalmi Berachot 6:1, 41b).
As to precisely which types of benefit engender the requirement to recite a berachah, Tosafot in Pesachim (53b, s.v. ein) explain that only physical or bodily pleasures qualify, which is why no berachah is recited over the light of a fire (other than on Motzaei Shabbat as part of havdalah) even though one benefits from it. In a slightly different vein, the Ramban (Chidushei HaRamban to Berachot Chapter 8, s.v. nireh li) writes that the benefit has to be from something which enters into the body, which light obviously does not; this is why no berachah, he says, is recited over things like a cool, refreshing shower, a nice hot bath or a pleasant breeze, even though one may certainly enjoys these things. He does note, though, that when one smells something, the fragrance does enter into one’s body and a berachah is indeed thus required. The Rama, in his Darkei Moshe on the Tur (Orach Chaim 216:1), adds that no berachah is recited over hearing something which one enjoys because that too is not a physical or a bodily pleasure; the Magen Avraham (ibid. No. 1) summarizes some of these points. When smelling something pleasant, however, the Gemara later in Berachot (43b) is clear that a berachah is indeed recited; the Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 9:1) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 216:1) rule accordingly, though the exact text of the berachah may differ depending upon the source of the smell. (For an interesting discussion based on the aforementioned connection between the requirement to recite a berachah on worldly pleasures, especially a pleasant smell, and the prohibition of me’ilah, see Tzlach to Berachot there, s.v. minayin, based on a ruling regarding me’ilah in Pesachim 26a.)
It is important to note that this requirement to recite a berachah prior to deriving benefit from anything in this world is in force regardless of the amount of benefit one actually enjoys. The Mishnah in Sukkah (26b) relates that when one of the Tannaim ate a very small amount of food (less than the volume of an egg), he did not recite a berachah after he ate. Rashi (s.v. netalo) and Tosafot (s.v. velo) there point out, though, that it was specifically after eating that he did not make a berachah, but beforehand he did, because the amount of benefit is irrelevant for that requirement. The same point is made in Tosafot to Berachot (39a, s.v. batzar) and by the Rif there (27a in his pagination); the Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 1:2 and 3:12) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 210:1) rule accordingly. It is possible that this too relates to the connection presented above between the requirement to recite a berachah upon enjoying a worldly pleasure and the prohibition of me’ilah. For while it is true that the Mishnah in Me’ilah (18a) teaches that one is in violation of that prohibition in the full sense only if he makes unauthorized use of a specific amount of hekdesh property (shaveh perutah), and the Rambam rules this way as well (Hilchot Me’ilah 1:1), it is clear from the Gemara in Bava Metzia (55a) that it is still forbidden to benefit from even a smaller amount. The Rambam thus writes (Hilchot Me’ilah 7:8) only that no korban must be brought for misappropriating a smaller amount, and that there is no punishment for doing so, but the act is apparently still prohibited. The requirement to recite a berachah is thus in place even when the benefit is very small (see Tzlach to Berachot 35a, s.v. amar Rav Yehudah where this idea is spelled out).
What if one is in the middle of eating (or deriving some other pleasure for which a berachah is similarly mandated) and is suddenly unsure as to whether or not he has already recited the required berachah? Should he say the berachah just in case he has in fact omitted it? The Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 4:2) rules that one who is in doubt about whether or not he recited the berachah of hamotzi should not say the berachah because the mitzvah to say it does not originate in the Torah. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 167:9) rules this way as well; the Mishnah Berurah there (No. 49) explains that whenever there is a doubt concerning a Rabbinic law, we take the lenient position, in this case meaning that no berachah need be recited, and he adds that one is not even allowed to say the berachah in such a case even if he might wish to be stringent and do so. It is interesting to note, though, that Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his Gilayon HaShas to Berachot (12a, to Tosafot s.v. lo), quotes from the Maharsha in Pesachim (Chidushei Halachot to102a, s.v. pireish Rashbam) that perhaps this rule that we are lenient when there is a doubt concerning a Rabbinic law like berachot (safek berachot lekula), while relevant to berachot associated with mitzvot, is in fact inapplicable to berachot over things like food because of this idea relating to me’ilah - that one who eats without a berachah is considered like one who uses something illegally. Each bite he takes without a berachah will thus compound his infraction and he should therefore recite a berachah when in doubt, in order to spare himself the possibility of any additional transgressions. As noted, though, this is not the view accepted by the Poskim; the Shulchan Aruch later (Orach Chaim 209:3) asserts that regarding all berachot (relating to food), one who is in doubt should not say the berachah, other than Birkat HaMazon which is mandated by the Torah (see Mishnah Berurah there No. 9).
It would seem from other halachot that this comparison between failing to recite a berachah and the prohibition of me’ilah is not always to be taken literally The Gemara in Berachot (16a), for example, indicates that workers who are hired to do an honest and complete day’s job may not take time off (at their employer’s expense) even to engage in mitzvot; they may thus say an abridged version of Birkat HaMazon so as to be able to get right back to work, and they are not required to take the time to say a berachah before eating. Rashi there (s.v. ve’ein) explains that the latter dispensation is based on the fact that the requirement to recite a berachah before eating is not from the Torah; the Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 2:2) rules in accordance with this Gemara. Similarly, the Gemara on the next page in Berachot (17b) states that among the laws relating to an onen, that is, one whose immediate relative (father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter or spouse) has died and has not yet been buried, is that he does not recite any berachah before eating (see Tosafot there s.v. ve’eino). The Rambam (Hilchot Avel 4:6) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 341:1) rule accordingly. Now, it obviously cannot be claimed that the hired worker or the onen in these cases would be considered to be in violation of me’ilah because they are deriving pleasure from this world without having made a berachah; the comparison is thus clearly limited. (It is noteworthy, though, that the Kol Bo, No. 114 rules that in fact an onen must make a berachah before eating precisely because of this prohibition to eat without a berachah which indeed applies to him as well; the Shibolei HaLekket, Hilchot Semachot No. 6, explains that the Gemara cited above meant only that he may not recite a berachah on behalf of someone else. See also Yad Ephraim to Orach Chaim 199:5. As stated, however, this is not the prevailing position.)
In order to explain the scope of this relationship between the prohibition of me’ilah and one who benefits from the world without a berachah, the Avnei Neizer (Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chaim 37:8) points out that it is not the case, as some might understand, that there exists a prohibition to enjoy the pleasures of this world without a berachah, comparable to the prohibition of me’ilah, and the recitation of the berachah then serves as a kind of license to enjoy that pleasure. Rather, the Rabbanan imposed an obligation to recite a berachah before benefiting from any pleasure in this world, and once that obligation is in force, it is forbidden, in a manner similar to the prohibition of me’ilah, to partake of any pleasure without first saying a berachah. When, however, there is in fact no obligation to recite a berachah, as in the case of the hired workers or the onen, me’ilah is not an issue at all. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shu”t Minchat Shlomo 1:18) explains it this way as well (see also Eimek Berachah, Birchot HaNehenin No. 1), stating that the primary point of the institution of berachot over worldly pleasures is to get people to thank and praise Hashem for whatever they have, and not to create a prohibition parallel to me’ilah; that comparison is merely to enhance the importance of the requirement to recite these berachot.