Daily Blessings - Part 2

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            Last week, we began the topic of daily blessings, but only managed to actually discuss one (actually two, possibly three, depending how one counts - as we shall see, the count has importance) - the blessing over the Torah.  Taking a look at the opening sections of the siddur, the daily prayers, we immediately encounter a long list of twenty blessings (go ahead - count for yourself.  You will probably come up with one more or one less.  The count, as I said, does have some importance).

            Before we discuss some of these blessings individually, let us consider the series as a whole.  Last year, when, in the context of food, we discussed the concept of berakha (blessing) in general, I advanced the idea that a berakha represents the power, the creativity and productivity in the world, the divine creativeness brought down to the natural world.  By "blessing" God, we are declaring that the principle of growth, what my teacher Rav Soloveitchik zt"l called the principle of "male and female He made them," is embodied in the world by the connection between creator and creation.  An ancient halakhic tradition maintains that one should recite 100 blessings each day.  This number, I think, is meant to shock us on first hearing.  One hundred blessing sounds almost like some sort of punishment - like writing "I will not speak out of turn" 100 times on the blackboard.  In fact, the computation is not that complicated, if we remember that nearly all prayers are formulated using the "berakha" form.  This I how it goes:

Upon rising ("birkot ha-shachar")                         20

Tzitzit and tefillin                                                      3

The morning "shema"                                                         3

The "shemona esrei" (daily prayer)                                  19

            three times a day                                          38

"Shema" in the evening                                         4

Before eating a meal                                                           2

            twice a day                                                    2

Grace after meals                                                     4

            twice a day                                                    4

Before going to sleep                                                          1

                                                                                    ---

                                                                                    100

            "Aha!" You will say, "but women are missing the three berakhot on tzitzit and tefillin."  And, for good measure, we may add that Sefardi Jews (and a few Ashkenazim like myself) make only one berakha over tefillin rather than two.  And suppose you do not have bread at a meal, so that only one berakha is recited afterward rather than four.  All right - there is nothing absolutely sacred about this list.  There are other berakhot that one could say.  If, for instance, one does not have bread at a meal, then there will be more berakhot recited before eating, since different foods require different berakhot.  And who eats only twice a day?  Each time you go for a glass of water, that will be two more berakhot, one before and one after.  On any given day, there may be more or less, but I hope you get the basic idea.  One hundred berakhot a day!  In other words, the day is filled with berakhot.  One might almost say that reciting berakhot is the archetypical experience of a Jew.  The only reason why we may not have noticed this before is because it is so easy to recite one.  But that is precisely the point.  Saying a berakha is almost like breathing - you do it all the time.  It is the background of being awake.  Saying a berakha is practically the Jewish equivalent of breathing!

            This makes a lot of sense if we remember that the berakha is the "life" - the creative force - of the world.  By relating nearly every experience of our mundane every-day life to God who is responsible for it, we imbue every moment with the vitality of creativeness, of growth, of Divine spirit in the world.  We literally breathe life into the world by reciting berakhot.

            Now for the early morning series:

            The main group of berakhot is a series of eleven which the Talmud says should be recited in response to various phenomena that normally accompany rising in the morning.

"When he hears the cry of the rooster, he should say: 'Blessed is He who has given the cock intelligence to distinguish between day and night.'

When he opens his eyes, he should say: 'Blessed is He who opens the eyes of the blind.'

When he straightens and sits up, he should say: '... who frees the captives.'

When he gets dressed, he should say: '... who clothes the naked.'

When he gets up, he should say: '... who straightens the bent.'

When he stands on the ground, he should say: '... who stretches out the land over the waters.'

When he takes a step, he should say: '... who guides the steps of man.'

When he puts on his shoes, he should say: '... who has provided all my needs.'

When he ties his belt, he should say: '... who girds Israel with might.'

When he covers his head, he should say: '... who crowns Israel with glory.'

When he washes his face, he should say: 'Blessed is He who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids; and may it be Your will, HaShem my God, that you will make me familiar with Your Torah and cause me to adhere to Your mitzvot, and not lead me, not to sin, nor to transgression, not to temptation, nor to disgrace.  Subdue my impulses to be subject to You, keep me far from an evil person and evil friend, and bring me close to good impulses and a good friend in Your world. Grant me, this day and every day, grace, favor, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me, and bestow upon me goodly favors.  Blessed are You, who bestows goodly favors on His people Israel" (Berakhot 60b).

(There are several minor differences between this version and that found in the siddur, but this will not concern us.)

            Now anyone who prays daily, or has evened opened a siddur, knows that these berakhot are recited every morning, even if one has not heard the cry of the rooster, or has not gotten dressed.  They are listed in the prayer service as DAILY recitations.  Secondly, they are recited in order, one after the other, rather than as the occurrences listed in the Talmud occur.  The language of the Talmud seems to indicate that they should be recited in response to specific events - opening one's eyes, getting dressed, standing up, etc.  This question in fact was the subject of a controversy among the great commentators of the Middle Ages.  Our practice is based on the opinion of those who explain the Talmud as referring to the reasons for the recitation, but not to actual events which must take place specifically in order for the berakha to be recited.

            This question is not merely a technical one.  There are many berakhot which are recited in response to a specific event.  These are called generically "birkot ha-re'iya," blessings over sightings.  An example is the berakha recited after seeing lightning or hearing thunder.  What is common to all these cases is that an UNUSUAL event has taken place, which elicits in us - or should elicit - a special feeling of awe or gratitude.  The events listed in the Talmudic passage are not really events to which I am responding - they are the conditions of waking.  Furthermore, they have been broken down into minute subsegments, which clearly goes against a special feeling of awe or gratitude for each one.  Are we really meant to have a distinct response to getting dressed and another one for covering one's head; one for straightening up, and another for standing up?  This leads most commentators to conclude that these are not really "birkot ha-re'iya" at all - rather the series is designed to force us to pay attention to how many different stages there are to waking up, to coming out of the hibernating cave of sleep and into a new day of activity.  Each one of those steps requires a berakha, in the sense we mentioned above, for each step is an additional rung on the ladder of LIFE, of becoming alive.  Sleep was seen by the Sages as a form of death, not because it is not healthful and refreshing, but because it does not contain animated creativity.  Coming out of sleep is not merely a different stage of bodily health, but it means going from inertia to occupation in the world, to construction and creation.  Hence, the emphasis on clothes as well as physical change - the idea is that when we sleep we do not need clothes, because we are not really alive, we do not react with the world.

            Notice the rather extravagant language used to describe the two stages of clothing - it seems clear that it is not only clothes per se that are being described.  "Who girds Israel with might" and "Who crowns Israel with glory" are not describing my imitation leather belt and the faded kippa on my head, at least not in the literal sense.  Clothes are a metaphor here for our girding and readying ourselves to sally forth on the adventure of life, in glory and might.  Does that sound a bit over-dramatic?  That is exactly the point!  The berakha forces us to realize that waking, coming alive, is the encounter with the field of battle, with a quest, with a mountain to be conquered, to be instilled with the spirit of sanctity, to be transformed, to be BLESSED with life.  The most famous early rising in the Bible is Abraham - "And Abraham rose in the morning and saddled his donkey" - going out (tragically, so it seems, in this case) to take his son Isaac up the mountain for which he has been searching all his life, Mount Moriah.  One rises, one girds one's loins, one saddles the donkey, and one sails forth.  For those of you for whom Biblical metaphors sound more quaint than inspiring, I invite you to switch the donkey for a horse, the girding of the loins with the dressing in armor, and behold - Don Quixote sallies forth to reach the unreachable stars.  Or maybe not so unreachable after all - since we are "girded by God with might and crowned with glory."

            Let us take one step back to an earlier berakha, recited right before the series I listed above.

When one wakes up, he says:

My God, the soul that You have placed in me is pure.  You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me, You preserve it inside me, and You will take it from me and return it to me in the future.  For as long as the soul is in me, I thank You, HaShem my God and the God of my fathers, Master of all the worlds, Lord of all souls.  Blessed are You HaShem, who returns souls to dead bodies.

            This berakha, in its personal language perhaps the most intimate one in the prayerbook, clearly indicates that it is a berakha on breathing itself, on the intimate connection between my life and the presence of God, who "breathed my soul into me."  Most berakhot and prayers are phrased in the plural, for two reasons.  Firstly, it is preferable to include others in one's request, not so much to abolish the egocentric nature of prayer as to widen it to include the entire community.  Secondly, because of the nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, the covenant between them, we prefer to appear before God as a member of the covenantal-community, whose prayers are heard and judged differently than the single individual.  This berakha, however, is an exception.  The breath within me, the simple beating of my soul before I have actually done anything, is purely mine, totally personal, the point of contact of my existence with the breath of God (Genesis 2:7 - the creation of man, the single Adam - "and He breathed in his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul").  One might say that before joining the community and acting, one must be a living individual, and that too - or perhaps especially that - requires the berakha, the gift of creativity, of life.

            Of course, one cannot live the entire day emphasizing the berakha of each step with the intensity of these early-morning berakhot.  The principle is clear, however.  Every single step, every breath, every effort that man makes in which he expresses his life, deserves and requires a berakha, a connection to the source of life and transcending creativity.  The early morning, when we enter the world from a state of inertia and inactivity, is the time when we force ourselves to face that basic necessity, because the opening steps of our day are the most crucial, and the unfolding stages of life the most obvious.  But in principle this feeling, this connection to a transcendent power of creative life, should accompany us all day - as I cited at the outset - 100 berakhot a day!

            There is one additional berakha recited in the morning to which that I would like to draw your attention.  It is not actually the berakha that is here the focus, since the berakha is a birkat ha-mitzva, a berakha said before performing a mitzva.  The mitzva is washing one's hands. After sleeping, one must wash one's hands before uttering the name of God.  (This is one of the reasons that a literal fulfillment of the instructions of the Talmud concerning the morning berakhot is impossible - one must wash the hands before reciting any berakha).  After sleeping at night, upon rising, the halakha dictates that we wash each hand three times (by pouring water from a cup over each hand).  Afterwards, there is a berakha (with the typical form of a birkat ha-mitzva): "Blessed be You, HaShem our God King of the world, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to rinse our hands."

            Washing hands is a ritual of preparation.  The priests before going to the service in the Temple would wash their hands (and feet, in that case).  Today as well, before reciting the priestly blessing in the synagogue, priests wash their hands.  When going up to perform an act of holiness, upon entering a more sanctified area of activity, either geographically like the Temple precincts or experientially because I am about to engage in an activity which demands sanctification, we are commanded to dedicate our hands, the organs of DOING, the symbols of activity.  In fact, the technical term for the washing of hands and feet in the Temple is "KIDDUSH yadayim ve-raglayim" - SANCTIFICATION of the hands and feet.  Every Jew, when waking, when passing from that form of death which we experience in sleep to the world, the mundane world, of every-day activity, is called upon to dedicate his hands to holiness, to prepare them for a day of activity, of creation, of sanctification, of accomplishment.  This passage, from inactivity to creativity, requires purification and dedication.  The shades of death, as it were, must be washed off, because life is not merely the ability to move but also, especially, the ability to transcend, create, and grow.  (A similar law applies to visiting a cemetery - when leaving, one must wash one's hands, not because we are afraid of some mysterious effect of the dead, but because the dead are dead, inactive, and when we leave that place we are returning to the land of the living, to the land of hopeful creation and future conquest, after having visited the land of memory and past).

            One last berakha.  At the end of the day, there is a berakha parallel to the one we recited upon waking.

One who goes to sleep on his bed says "Shema Yisrael"... and says:

Blessed ... who brings down sleep on my eyes and slumber on my eyelids.  May it be Your will, HaShem my God and the God of my fathers, that I lie down in peace and rise up in peace; let not my ideas frighten me, nor evil dreams nor evil thoughts; let my bed be perfect before you; and give light to my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death.  For it is You who give light to the pupil of the eye.  Blessed be You HaShem, who gives light to the entire world in His majesty.