I was walking home from dropping my kids off at preschool the other day, lost in thought, when I bumped into one of my neighbors. I greeted her, but it turned out she was praying as she walked. We’re not allowed to interrupt prayers with speech; I mean, we’re having a conversation with God, it would be rude to interrupt! She was praying the first section of the Shaḥarit (morning) prayer, known as “Birkot HaShaḥar,” “the morning blessings.” So to make it clear why she was “ignoring” me, she lifted up the pamphlet she was reading from and said the end of the blessing out loud, and I answered “Amen.” (I wrote about blessings and answering “Amen” here.) Then she asked me if I was in a hurry, or if I would like to answer “amen” for all the rest of the blessings. I said I would be delighted to, and she began to read.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who opens the eyes of the blind.
I thought of my visually impaired son who would have been completely blind had he not undergone surgery as a tiny baby. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who clothes the naked.
She looked down at the clothes she was wearing and smiled. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who releases the bound.
She gave a shake, enjoying the free movement of her body. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who straightens the bent.
We both stood up a little straighter. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who spreads the earth upon the waters.
I focused on the sensation of my feet on the ground. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has provided my every need.
I thought about the miraculous and healthy functioning of my body. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who firms man’s footsteps.
I felt grateful for my solid shoes. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who girds Israel with strength.
I thought about wrapping the waistline of my skirt around my hips that morning. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who crowns Israel with splendor.
I recalled the sensation of wrapping my scarf around my hair that morning. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who gives strength to the weary.
I remembered how tired I had felt when I first woke up that morning, and how strength and energy had settled into my bones. And especially for me, this is no small matter; I have very low energy and tend to be tired and fatigued, and thanks to God and the medication I take, getting out of bed each morning is no longer a colossal task.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. And may it be Your will, Lord, our God, and the God of our forefathers, that You accustom us to the ways of your Torah and attach us to Your commandments, and do not bring us to the power of error, nor to the power of transgression and sin, nor to the power of challenge, nor to the power of scorn, and may the evil inclination have no control over us. And distance us from an evil person and an evil companion. And attach us to the Good Inclination and to good deeds, and compel our nature to be subservient to You. And grant us today and every day grace, and kindness, and mercy in Your eyes, and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow kindness upon us. Blessed are You, Lord, Who bestows kindness upon His nation, Israel.
Amen, amen, amen.
We say these words every morning. Most of the time I mumble through them, troubled by other thoughts, unable to focus and really experience the profound awareness and gratitude they are meant to bring me. I was so grateful to my neighbor for letting me take part in her prayers that morning. Thanks to her, time slowed down and I was able to really zoom in and focus on each of these simple, everyday miracles that we usually ignore. It flooded me with a sense of blessing and gratitude.
I remember you telling me once that one of the things you liked about Jews and Judaism was the strong emphasis on education and love of learning. Jewish literacy rates were always significantly higher than those of the surrounding populations, and it all comes down to the fact that teaching our children is one of the most important commandments in the Torah. Combine that with the love of delving into the depths of the Torah that characterized our ancestors, and it’s no wonder there’s a completely out-of-the-park disproportionate representation of Jews in the sciences and other fields that require a lot of study.
As with everything, the Sages guide us in how to properly educate our children and raise them to serve God and be good Jews and good people.
You asked me last year about a few things that stood out to you in my kids’ appearance, and I was going to write you an e-mail on “boy mitzvot”, but that will pull me into the topic of gender and Judaism and I just don’t feel like opening that can of worms right about now. 😛
So there were two things you pointed out: the payot, “sidecurls”:
And tzitziyot, the four-cornered garment worn underneath the shirt with fringes on each corner:
When you see a Jewish boy with these things, he is probably over three years old. Why? Because age three is what we call gil chinuch–the “age of education”. It is when we start teaching them about the Torah and the mitzvot. There is a custom to let their hair grow out until the third birthday, so that we can cut it that day to teach them about the mitzvah of payot; the prohibition to shave that area above and behind the ears to create a rounded shape–because this was a symbol of idolatrous practices back in the day. (The payot don’t need to be that long, but like with beards, growing them out is an outward symbol of piety.) We also have them start wearing tzitziyot and kippot* at this age. These are all highly visual and experiential mitzvot that make the children look and feel different, and that’s why they’re the best ones to start with.
The mitzvah of tzitzit is sourced in the third chapter of the Shema prayer: “‘Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them that they make, throughout their generations, fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you a fringe, so that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and so that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray; so that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.” (Numbers 15:38-40) So the very idea of this commandment is that it is a visual reminder of God’s presence… sort of the clothing version of the mezuza. 😉
Kippot are actually not a Biblical commandment and even rabbinically they are only required when studying Torah or praying. The idea is modesty before God when speaking of Him. But today most observant Jewish men wear them all the time, and they have become an expression of Jewish identity, to a point where not wearing one is considered to be making a statement. So practically speaking we think of it as a requirement.
Anyway, back to chinuch. Age three is also when we start teaching them to recite blessings and basic prayers, and to light candles for Shabbat. Observant Judaism is so complex and there are so many details, we don’t try to give it all over at once; we introduce things slowly and organically. You probably don’t remember when we were walking home from the playground on Shabbat and one of my kids picked up a coin that was on the ground; I mentioned that we are not allowed to carry money on Shabbat, and you asked if you should take it from him, and I said no. I don’t want them to experience Shabbat as something restrictive and harsh, so I choose my battles carefully. Children are not obligated in mitzvot until their bar or bat mitzvah–at age 12 for girls and 13 for boys. In Judaism, this is the age where they become morally responsible for themselves. By this age, of course, most of them have been keeping all the mitzvot for years, with the possible exception of fasting on fast days.
I was thinking about this lately as I listened to H and R1 recite the blessing over tzitzit in the morning. There is a concept in Yiddish and Hebrew that is not quite translatable into English, called nachat (or naches in Yiddish); it’s that sense of contented joy and pride you get when your children or other loved ones live up to your hopes for them and “do you proud”. That’s what I feel when I hear the sweet voices of my children reciting that blessing. Slowly, carefully, I am taking this precious gift passed down to me through hundreds of generations starting at Mount Sinai, and passing it on to my own children; becoming a link in the chain that roots us in the past and raises us towards the future.
May you have lots and lots of nachat from raising your own son. 🙂
*Kippot is the plural of kippah, also known in Yiddish as a yarmulke; a special cap that Jewish men wear. Josep knows all about this and owns at least one, which he likes to wear when he is here and confuse all my neighbors. 😛
You may have noticed that in many of my explanations about the way we perform certain commandments, I mention that we say a blessing beforehand, that always starts with the same formula: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who…
Reciting blessings is as regular a part of daily life as prayer. (Well, technically, it is, in itself, a form of prayer.) Most of the blessings I’ve mentioned are the kind we recite before performing a mitzvah. But there are other categories too, and in this e-mail I will address the different kinds of blessings. But first, what do I mean by “blessing”? These “blessings” are short statements that express gratitude for something. So why are they called “blessings” and not, I dunno, “thankings”? And even stranger, why do they all start with the statement, “Blessed are You”? Isn’t it we who are blessed by Him? The Catholic “grace before meals” prayers I have seen usually include some form of “Bless us, O Lord”, not the other way around!
Well, first things first: what does the word “bless” mean anyway? In Hebrew, the root that means “bless” is ב.ר.כ, b.r.kh, and the sages explain that it means “to increase” or to “bring down Divine abundance”. When I “bless” you, I am asking God to increase your health, wealth, happiness or whatever it may be, to shine His light on you… in essence, to give you more of Himself. So what could it possibly mean for me to “bless” God for creating the apple I’m about to eat?
The key to understanding this is to recognize the purpose of these blessings. It is not merely to show gratitude. The purpose of a blessing is awareness.
When I hold an apple in my hand and say, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree“, what I am really saying is a lot more than just “thanks for making this apple”. What I am saying is, “Your presence in this world has been made that much greater, has increased, through this fruit you created that I am about to enjoy”.
I am declaring that whatever it is I am making the blessing for–whether it’s a food I’m enjoying, a roll of thunder I heard, or a mitzvah I am about to perform–is increasing God’s presence in the world, through my recognition of His role in creating or commanding it.
So we’re back to what I have always said is the main theme of Judaism–channeling the Divine into the mundane and revealing the spiritual through the physical. Through this worldly experience, I experience God; and when I declare that recognition, I make His presence in the world that much more known.
Very simply put: in this apple, I see God.
There are three main types of blessings.
Blessings of Enjoyment
These are blessings we make over something we enjoy with our senses. The most common ones are, of course, blessings over food. We recite blessings both before and after eating. There are different blessings for different categories of food–bread (“…who brings forth bread out of the ground“), grain products that are not defined as bread (“…who creates different kinds of sustenance“), wine (“...who creates the fruit of the vine“), fruit (“…who creates the fruit of the tree“), vegetables (“…who creates the fruit of the ground“), and everything else (“…from whose word all came into being“). If that sounds complicated, wait until I tell you that bananas and pineapples are halakhically “vegetables” because they are non-perennial plants… or that food can switch categories according to how it is prepared or eaten (for instance, orange juice). And don’t even get me started on what defines a grain product as bread, or why we say “the fruit of the vine” for wine, but “the fruit of the tree” for grapes! The point is that to make the correct blessing, you have to have a basic awareness of how that food came to be on your plate. And making the blessing gives you an opportunity to reflect on this process. The apple came from a tree, which grew from the ground, thanks to sunlight and water and nutrients from the soil, and it’s God who made all this happen.
“After” blessings are also divided by category: the long birkat hamazon (“blessing for sustenance”/”Grace After Meals”) for after eating bread or a meal with bread (this is the blessing we made after the meal on Shabbat), a shortened version called me’en shalosh for grain products that are not bread, or fruits that fall under the category of the “Seven Species”. These are the seven species referred to in Deuteronomy 8:8; the fruits that the land of Israel is especially celebrated for. Those are: wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives.
The last “after blessing” is boreh nefashot. It’s one of the most disregarded blessings because it is so short, but in my view, it is one of the most beautiful and meaningful. It goes like this: “Blessed are You…who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies; for all that You have created with which to maintain the life of every being. Blessed is He, the life of worlds.”
The profundity of this blessing lies in its first section: “who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies“… why would we be thanking God for creating a deficiency? Because the very reason we are thanking Him for giving us something to eat, is that He created hunger. If we were not hungry, we would not enjoy the fulfillment of that lack. Take this idea beyond physical sustenance, and you will have a lot to think about. 🙂
Enjoyment blessings are also made on smelling something pleasant. These ones are very specific too, ranging from pleasant scents from flowers and trees, to the scent of herbs, to the scent of fruit, to the most specific–balsam oil. This, too, is a moment to pause and reflect on where this pleasant experience comes from, and using it to channel Godliness into the world.
Another blessing in this category is shehechiyanu: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” This is the blessing we make over new experiences (such as wearing new clothing), or occasions that are rare enough that we especially enjoy them when they come around (such as holidays, or eating the first fruit of a season).
Blessings for Commandments
Jews consider the Torah to be the greatest gift of all, and as I’ve mentioned, the act of performing a mitzvah is an act of channeling Divine energy into the mundane. This is a very appropriate time to declare God’s increased presence in the world through this act.
Blessings of Experience
They are called “blessings of sight” or “of hearing”, but I would call them “blessings of awe”. These are the blessings we make when we see or hear something that reminds us of God’s presence in the world. For example, when I hear a roll of thunder, I recite: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, whose strength and might fills the world.” When I see a streak of lightening, or experience an earthquake, or see an especially mighty mountain or river, I recite: “…who performs an act of creation.” When I see the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in 30 days, I say: “...who created the Great Sea.”
There is a special blessing for seeing a rainbow, which refers to the story of Noah: “…who remembers the covenant, and is faithful in His covenant, and keeps His promise.” The promise and covenant being: “And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:14-15)
There is another special blessing that we make on flowering fruit trees, only during the month of Nissan (your birth month!): “…who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created within it good creations and good trees for the sons of Adam to enjoy.”
Another blessing of note is Birkat HaGomel; a blessing we say when we have been saved from a potentially life-threatening situation, such as surviving a dangerous illness or childbirth. We are required to say this blessing in front of at least ten people, because when God performs a miracle, we have an obligation to spread knowledge of it as much as we can. (This concept–pirsumei nisa, “publicizing the miracle” in Aramaic–is familiar from the holiday of Chanukah. We display our chanukiyot in a prominent window facing the street for this reason.) The person who was saved says: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for He has bestowed kindness upon me.” Those in attendance answer, “Amen. May He who has bestowed kindness upon you, always bestow kindness upon you.”
There are blessings for seeing an especially wise person; for seeing a king; for seeing a group of 60,000 Jews gathered in one place (it has to do with the number of Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai); for seeing a place where a miracle happened for the Jewish people (such as the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, or the Jordan river crossing); for seeing a place where a miracle happened to that individual or to his parents; for seeing especially beautiful people or creations, or for seeing especially unusual-looking people or creations… and for hearing good news, (“…hatov h’hameytiv“, “...who is good and does good“), or bad news (“…dayan haemet“, “…the True Judge“).
There is even a blessing for going to the bathroom! “…Who created man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is exposed and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You for even one hour. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh who acts wondrously.” As we are painfully reminded every time we have a stomach virus, properly functioning personal plumbing is definitely something to be grateful for!
…Basically, as the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, there truly is a blessing for everything.
Or should I say… in everything.
Because the whole purpose of making a blessing is to look deep into the world we live in, and find God in it.
When one hears someone else recite a blessing, s/he is required to answer “amen”. Ever wonder what the word “amen” means? The root of the word in Hebrew, א.מ.נ, a.m.n., is the same root as the word, אמונה, emunah, “faith”. Basically, it is a statement that means, “What you say is true”. When you answer “amen”, it is as if you had made the blessing yourself; you are confirming the declaration of the increase of God’s presence, and thus, increasing awareness of God’s presence yourself.
And now, of course, a blessing from me to you: may you always find God, even in the most mundane and unlikely places.
And a joyful Three Kings’ Day! 😉
Blog readers: Which is your favorite blessing? If you could create a new blessing for something that doesn’t have one yet in Jewish tradition, what would it be for and how would you phrase it?