For many centuries the great commentaries on the Gemara have grappled with a classic conundrum. On one hand, one must make a Bracha on a Mitzva "Over La'asiyatan," immediately prior to performing the Mitzva (Succah 39a). On the other hand, the Gemara (Sukkah 42a) states that one has fulfilled the Mitzvah as soon as he lifts the "Arba Minim" ("M'dagbaih Nafak Bei"), thus seeming to preclude the possibility of reciting the Bracha on the Lulav - "Oveir La'asiyatan." One cannot recite the Bracha before taking the Arba Minim because it is too early to do so. One cannot recite the Bracha after taking the Arba Minim because it is too late. In this essay we will review some of the classic resolutions to this paradox, with a special focus on the approach of Tosafot Succah 39a s.v. Oveir. We will then review how the Shulchan Aruch rules regarding this issue and discuss some ramifications in other areas of Halacha.
Tosafot's Resolutions to the Problem
Tosafot offers no less than four possible solutions to this problem.
1) The first suggestion is that one should take some of the four Minim prior to uttering the Bracha, and the rest of the Minim after reciting the Bracha. Although it is not commonly accepted to follow this suggestion, Rav Soloveitchik (notes of Rav Soloveitchik's Shiurim, Succah 39a) reports that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, followed this view.
2) Tosafot proceeds to suggest what has emerged to be the commonly accepted practice. The suggestion is to turn one of the Arba Minim upside down prior to the recitation of the Bracha and turning it right side up, after the Bracha has been recited. This is an effective approach because one does not fulfill the Mitzvah of the Arba Minim unless all four are held right side up (see Succah 42a and 45b).
3) The third suggestion is that one bear in mind not to fulfill the Mitzvah of Arba Minim until after he has uttered the Bracha. Tosafot explains that this suggestion is not only according to the opinion that believes "Mitzvot Tzrichot Kavanah," that without intention to fulfill the Mitzvah he cannot fulfill his obligation (see Berachot 13a and Rosh HaShana 28b). Tosafot explains that even according to the opinion that believes that "Mitzvot Aynan Tzrichot Kavanah," one can fulfill a Mitzvah even if he does not bear in mind that he is fulfilling the Divine command, one does not fulfill a Mitzvah if he deliberately has in mind not to fulfill the Mitzvah. It should be noted that almost all Rishonim agree with this last assertion of Tosafot. (For a review of the opinions and an analysis of the issue see Rav Abba Bronspigel's "Bikurei Abba" pp. 98-100.)
Rav Soloveitchik (notes of Rav Soloveitchik's shiurim, Succah 39a) points out two possible weaknesses in this appraoch of Tosafot. One problem is that after reciting the Bracha when one will intend to perform the Mitzvah, he will be entirely passive. He will be holding the Arba Minim, but not actively "taking" the Arba Minim. There is considerable doubt as to whether one who is merely holding the Arba Minim but has not taken them has fulfilled the Mitzvah (see the S'dei Chemed which discusses this issue at length).
A second criticism is that although one has delayed the Kiyum HaMitzvah (fulfillment of the Mitzvah) by intending not to fulfill the Mitzvah, he has already performed the Ma'aseh HaMitzvah the act of taking the Mitzvah. Intention not to fulfill the Mitzvah can only serve to postpone the fulfillment of the Mitzvah but cannot cancel the concrete act of taking the Mitzvah. One may argue, accordingly, that the requirement to recite a Bracha Oveir La'asiyatan demands us to not only recite the Bracha prior to the Kiyum HaMitzvah, but also prior to the Ma'aseh HaMitzvah.
Another (paradoxical) weakness with this approach is its sophistication. It is seemly too abstract for many people, especially for those who are not yet learned. Chazal avoid establishing procedures which many people will find cumbersome and confusing (see, for example, Tosafot Avoda Zara 71a-b s.v. Shakilu).
Perhaps these three criticisms motivated the Shulchan Aruch's (O.C. 651:5) omission of this option to solve our problem. See the Taz (651:5) for his explanation of this phenomenon.
4) Tosafot's fourth suggestion involves an alternative explanation of the requirement to recite a Bracha "Oveir La'asiyatan." Tosafot here asserts that one is considered to be reciting a Bracha "Oveir La'asiyatan," even if he has already begun the performance of a Mitzvah, as long as he has not concluded the performance of the Mitzvah. Thus, argues Tosafot, although one has already fulfilled the minimum requirement of taking the Lulav by merely lifting up the Lulav, since he has yet to wave the Lulav ("Na'anuim"), he has not yet fulfilled the Mitzvah in its fullest sense. Thus, one who recites the Bracha after taking the Arba Minim but before performing the "Na'anuim" has indeed recited the Bracha "Oveir La'asiyatan." It is important to note that in this approach Tosafot assumes that the "Na'anuim" are a facet of the Mitzvah of Arba Minim and not a part of Hallel. (See Rabbi Menachem Genack's "Gan Shoshanim" for a discussion of this issue.)
As we previously mentioned and as is well known, our practice is to follow Tosafot's second suggestion to hold the Etrog upside down before the Bracha and right side up after the Bracha.
Applications to Other Areas of Halacha
We do follow Tosafot's fourth approach in possibly two other areas of Halacha, Netilat Yadayim and Tzitzit. Regarding Netilat Yadayim our practice is first to wash, then recite the Bracha, and subsequently to dry our hands. Our Tosafot explains this practice, stating that since the act of drying one's hands after washing is an integral component of the Mitzvah of Netilat Yadayim, one has satisfied the "Oveir La'asiyatan" requirement by reciting the Bracha prior to drying his hands. See Tosafot Pesachim 7b (s.v. Al) for an alternative explanation of this topic and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 159:11 and Mishna Brurah 159:44 for the practical Halachic aspects of this issue.
Tosafot (towards the conclusion of his discussion) assumes that one recites the Bracha on Tzitzit/Talit after he has donned the Tzitzit/Talit. Tosafot explains that this Bracha is considered to be Oveir La'asiyatan since he fulfills the Mitzvah for as long as he wears the Talit. Nevertheless, the issue as to whether to Bracha on Tzitzit is recited before or after wearing them is a matter of great debate. (See Mishna Brura 8:2 and Sha'ar HaTzion 8:5 for a list of the authorities that discuss this point.) The Mishna Brurah notes that the consensus view is that the Bracha be recited prior to wearing of the Tzitzit.
Reciting the Bracha After Completing the Mitzvah
Rishonim debate whether one may yet recite a Bracha after one has completely fulfilled his performance of the Mitzvah. The Rambam (Hilchot Brachot 11:5) insists that he cannot, while the Ohr Zarua (1:25) rules that he may. Rav Soloveitchik (Shiurim L'Zecher Abba Mori z"l II:1-2) explains that the Rambam believes that a Birkat HaMitzvah (Bracha recited on performing a Mitzvah) serves as a Matir - it permits us to engage in a Mitzvah. After the Mitzvah has been completed the Bracha cannot serve as a Matir, and thus may no longer be recited. Although the Sha'agat Aryeh (number 26) argues that the Halacha follows the view of the Ohr Zarua, most Acharonim rule in accordance with the Rambam (see Shach Yoreh Deah 19:3, Aruch HaShulchan Y.D. 19:4, and Mishna Brurah 159:44).