Blessings

  • Rav Ezra Bick

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In memory of Rebbetzin Miriam Wise, Miriam bat Yitzhak veRivkah z”l,
whose yahrtzeit is on 9 Tevet.
By Rav Yitzchak and Stefanie Etshalom
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In the last lecture, after learning about all the prohibited foods, we finally got ready to sit down and eat.  We are ready to share our food with others in a community of generosity, thereby sanctifying the process of eating.  All that need be done is to open wide and pop in that tasty morsel.  But OOPS! - Halakha jumps up and arrests my hand in mid-air.  Did you make a berakha (blessing)?  There I am, a cookie two inches from my waiting mouth, and a giant stop sign is being waved in front of my face.  Every bit of food requires a berakha before it can be eaten.  Today, we are going to examine the berakha, what it is, and what it means. 

A berakha is a particular form of utterance addressed to God.  In fact, a cursory examination of Jewish prayer reveals that it is the basic form of address to God, nearly everything important that need be said being put into the form of a berakha.  For instance, the central component of formal prayer, the "Shemona Esrei," consists entirely of berakhot (pl. of berakha).  Today, we are going to examine one class of berakhot, those connected to eating; our discussion, however, will necessarily explore the nature of berakha in general, and thus serve as an introduction to our subsequent discussion of prayer. 

There are two types of berakhot that are uttered when eating, one before eating and one after.  Let us examine them one at a time. 

Before eating anything, Halakha requires a berakha.  Last week, I cited the gemara (Berakhot 35a), which asks:

R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: If one who benefits from this world without a berakha, it is as though he has benefited from sacred objects, as is written, "The earth and all its contents are God's." R. Levi posed the question: It is written, "The earth and all its contents are God's," and it is also written, "The heavens are the heavens of God but the earth He has given to man?"  There is no contradiction - One verse refers to before a berakha; one after a berakha. 

This is called "berakha rishona" (first berakha) or "birkat ha-nehenin" (a berakha on enjoyment).  In order to fully understand how reciting a berakha "gives the world to me," we first must understand what a berakha is. 

All berakhot follow a fixed form.  They begin "Barukh ata HaShem..." - "Blessed are You, HaShem," and then continue with the particular content we wish to convey.  For instance, the general berakha before eating is:

Barukh ata HaShem, Elokeinu melekh ha-olam, she-hakol nihiya bidvaro. 

Blessed are You, HaShem, our God King of the world, that everything exists by His word. 

The most important thing we need to understand is what it means to "bless" God.  Are we wishing Him well?  Sounds pretty silly!  The traditional explanation of "Blessed are You, God" is that it means "You are the source of all berakha, of all good."  This makes a lot of sense as an explanation of the berakha before eating - it is a RECOGNITION of the fact that all blessedness, all goodness, is rooted in God and not in "my power and the strength of my arm." This understanding is undoubtedly correct, but I think the meaning of berakha is deeper. 

The Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, pointed out that the first berakha in the Torah was given by God to the newly-created creatures, and later to the human ("male and female He created them"): "And God blessed them, and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply ("pru u-revu"), and fill the earth and conquer it" (Genesis 1,22 and 1,28).  Shortly afterwards, we find God giving a berakha to the day of Shabbat!  "And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it..." (Genesis 2,3).  The Rav writes:

All these verses demonstrate that the identification of "berakha" with "praise" is untenable.  God is not praising His creation, or the seventh day.  When Moshe, at the end of his life, blesses Israel (Deut. 33), he is not praising them.  The secret of berakha is rather connected to a deeper idea, that of "male and female."

"God made the man in His image, in the image of God He made him, male and female He made them.  And God blessed them and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply (pru u-revu) and fill the earth." (Genesis 1, 27-28).  The Creator implanted in man a nature of fruitfulness and multiplication, of continuous creation of descendants, a power which will be expressed biologically through the unity of male and female. 

God has given the organic-biological world in general, and to man specifically, the gift of the power of birth and reproduction.  The berakha of "pru u-revu" is directed towards that power. 

The enormous sexual urge of the creatures is but an echo of the primal berakha-command of the Creator at the dawn of existence - "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and the birds shall multiply on the earth."  In short, berakha points to the natural urge in creation to fruitfulness and birth. 

But more: Judaism teaches that the blessing of pru u-revu is not limited to the natural world alone.  Even in the spiritual-metaphysical world this berakha echoes.  Even the world of spirit and soul is imbued with the message of "male and female He created them," dependent on giving and receiving, active and passive, on the interaction of two different powers.  The Sages write: "When God created man, he created him with two faces ('Male and female He created them');" in other words, every individual is composed of two faces, male and female, every human is both giver and receiver.  He has the power to create and to be created, to be changed.  A teacher who sits and instructs his students with words of wisdom - he is the creator, male; and they, the attentive pupils, whose thoughts and feelings are being fertilized by the master's words, are the female, the earth fertilized by the rain.  Suddenly the pupil rises and asks the teacher a question, a question which arouses the teacher to new thought, new directions.  The pupil has implanted a seed in his teacher, and their roles have been switched.... 

What then is the meaning of berakha?  When we apply the word berakha to God, we mean it in the same sense as when God blessed Adam and Eve.  A berakha means "more good, more giving, renewal and creativity;" in other words, pru u-revu.  We too, when we partake of the world, are told to turn to God and give Him the addition of creativity and renewal.  What does this mean?

We believe that the creation of the world was not a one-time occurrence, closed and finished.  It is a continual process of renewal and vitalization, as we say in the morning prayers: "Who renews every day the act the creation."  Were God to retreat and abandon His world for even one second, it would all return to chaos and nothingness.  In this sense, God is male, giving, shaping, all-powerful.  We only receive, passively.  But were that the only relationship between us and God, there would have been no point in the giving of the Torah, and the making of a covenant between Israel and God.  A covenant is a mutual responsibility between two sides.  Each side must give and receive, as male and female. 

There is a sense where even the Creator of all has a need of us, so to speak.  God has female names as well ("shekhina," "malkhut," "kalla").  God has given of His kingship to man, when He blessed them, that man should be the source of creativity in creation. 

The Presence of God is hidden in the world, shrouded in a cloud, unable to be revealed.  God is passive.  Man has to release God from His restraints, from His hiding, from the shadows.  When it comes to revealing God, we are the male and God the female.  We, at least in relation to God's presence in the world, are the catalyst for the revealed life of God.  This is the secret of free will - without the creative act of man, there is no holiness, no presence of God, in the world. 

Man can, if he wishes, find (and reveal) God in every phenomenon, time and place - in the sunrise of morning and the sunset at dusk, in the sea and the plants, in the stars and the sands, in the outside world and recesses of his soul. 

So when man eats, when he says "Barukh ata...," God is present in every morsel, in every drop of water, in every movement of his hand.  When he says "Blessed are YOU" he finds that YOU in front of him, thereby fulfilling the berakha of pru u-revu, closing the gap between God and the world and revealing Him within it, and so the good and blessing of the world is multiplied. (Translated and summarized from "Yemei Zikkaron," Jerusalem 1986, pp. 29-36)

There is a basic idea of Judaism being expressed here.  Man is the partner of God in the world, not merely in building the world, scientifically and technologically, but in "building" the presence of God within the world, spiritually and metaphysically.  The natural world, without God, is lifeless, merely a collection of facts.  The principle of growth, of creativity, which the Rav called pru u-revu, is the berakha of God to the world, based on the presence of God in the world.  But that presence is dependent on man.  In the words of the Sages, "The righteous are the base of the [divine] Presence."  When man blesses God, he is "granting" growth and multiplication to God - not to God Himself, but to His presence in the world, to the sanctity of the world, and consequently to the "life" and vitality of human existence. 

There are many berakhot in the Halakha.  Most of them are berakhot of RESPONSE - one recites them AFTER experiencing something which elicits the recognition of - and, according to the idea of the Rav, the reconnection to - God's life in the world.  The berakhot that we are examining however, the berakhot BEFORE eating, are berakhot of anticipation.  There is another berakha, said after eating, in response to the feeling of satiety, of satisfaction, which one has as a result of eating.  But in regard to food, the Sages enacted a berakha before one eats, not in response to an inner experience of satisfaction, or wonder, or gratitude.  The reason, I think, is that on the biological-physiological level, food is life.  BEFORE one eats, it is necessary to realize that life is divine, not only created by God, like every thing else, but divine in nature.  The ability to grow, to create, to renew one's world, is the expression of the berakha of pru u-revu given at the dawn of creation.  One eats in order to further life, to create more.  That requires a berakha - it is forbidden to eat, to even taste, a bit of food, without first trying to increase the berakha of God.  

We now understand the meaning of the statement that eating without a berakha is like benefiting from a sacred object.  It is not merely an expression of the ownership of the world by God.  By eating without reconnecting the life of the world to the presence of God, one is limiting the life of God to His own world, to the heavens, so to speak.  That life is sacred and "out of bounds," it is the "private" sphere of God.  If one then partakes of the (biological) source of life, one is trespassing the bounds of the holy, treading where mortal man has no right, no possibility, of being.  By reciting the berakha, accepting our responsibility to be the base of the Presence, increasing the presence of God and His holiness within the world, we justify the intermingling of the sacred and the profane.  Our food is an expression of God's blessing, but it is our food, because we have brought the life of God into this world.  It is not that we have transferred "holy" bread from God's realm and removed its holiness; we have changed the nature of the holy, from a concept of removed and separated transcendence to one of immanence, not merely present in the world, but dependent on us for its presence.  Now food can be eaten, as "the heavens are the heavens of God, but the earth He has given to man." Other berakhot are opportunities to support the Presence; these berakhot are vital, to ensure that we are eating the bread of life, of spiritual value and growth. 

This is exemplified by a difference between the berakha before eating and that which comes after eating.  Like many other halakhot, the berakha after eating has a minimum amount of food which obligates.  The idea behind this minimum (the equivalent of an "egg," about a slice of bread) is that of satiety, which should be understood not in its maximal sense ("I do not wish to eat more") but in a minimal sense ("it gives a feeling of satisfaction, my hunger is assuaged").  One makes the berakha because one has a particular feeling, an inner experience, of life, of transcendence.  But prior berakhot, before eating, have no minimum amount of food.  It is forbidden to eat anything without a berakha.  Here the berakha is not based on the existence of a feeling.  The imminent meeting with food, with the promise of life, requires the prior sanctification of the act by rooting it in the value of human existence, in the berakha of God to the world. 

Some halakhot:

1.  The simple idea of berakha becomes very complicated practically, because halakha mandates different berakhot for different foods.  The principle here is not that each food demands a specific berakha; she-hakol nihiya bidvaro, that everything exists by His word, is in fact appropriate, and, in a pinch, if one does not know which more specific berakha to make, can be used.  Halakha desires however, that "more important" foods receive more specific berakhot.  Importance here is not an obvious scale.  I shall list the berakhot in the ascending order of specificity, and leave it to you to try and understand the principle of "importance" at work here (though I shall be happy to hear from anyone who would like to make a suggestion "out loud.")

a.  She-hakol nehiya bidvaro - applies to everything. 

b.  Barukh ata HaShem Elokeinu melekh ha-olam borei pri ha-adama (who creates the fruit of the ground) - applies to anything that grows. 

c1.  Baruch ata HaShem... borei pri ha-etz (who creates the

fruit of the tree) - applies to anything that grows on a

tree (fruit, as opposed to vegetables). 

d1.  Barukh ata HaShem... borei pri ha-gefen (who creates the

fruit of the vine) - before wine. 

c2.  Barukh ata HaShem... borei minei mezonot (who creates kinds of foods) - applies to cakes, or other foods made from grain flour. 

d2.  Barukh ata HaShem... hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz (who has

brought bread out of the ground) - before bread. 

2.  Many foods are composed of multiple types.  The rule generally is that the "main" food takes precedence and its berakha is sufficient.  This is often very complicated however.  Bread is always considered to be the main food - in fact, where there is bread, its berakha suffices for the entire meal. 

3.  One must make the berakha oneself.  Someone who is not eating cannot recite the berakha for one who is.  However, if two people are eating together, one may recite the berakha, with the other listening to every word (see last week's shiur).  

4.  After eating, there is a requirement to recite a berakha.  This berakha includes an expression of thanks and appreciation.  Here too, there are different berakhot for different types of foods.  For a meal (bread), there is a four-part berakha, called birkat ha-mazon, which includes thanks not only for the actual food, but also for all the elements of the covenant between God and Israel - Torah, the land, circumcision, as well as a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem (in other words, a prayer for the restoration of the presence of God geographically, in the temple).  Other, less formal forms of eating, have shorter berakhot after them.  (Many observant Jews, not dependent on their memory, carry a pocket book of berakhot with them). 

5.  When hearing someone else recite a berakha, even if you were not obligated yourself to recite it, one answers "amen." The word "amen" comes from the same root as the word "emet," meaning truth.  The Black English translation of amen as "right!" is very close to the truth.  It carries the connotation both of "it is" and "let it be."

I would like to add one point, implicit in my opening paragraph today, and a continuation of the first shiur on kashrut.  Berakhot before eating, aside from the particular meaning we have spoken of today, have the practical effect of transforming the most mundane act into a deliberate, human, spiritual, meaningful one.  The berakha catches you as your hand reaches towards your mouth and intercepts that motion, requiring you to exercise your head.  It places the tongue of speech before the tongue of taste.  Even the requirement to try and determine the proper berakha transforms the habitual into the deliberate.  As we pointed out earlier, this is a major goal of the halakhot of eating, specifically of eating, because it as at once so basic to human existence and so ordinary, so natural, and not even necessarily human. 

Next week, we shall start to pray.