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Anatomy of a Blessing

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld

Blessings over food and other experiences are tools for transcendental amazement.

Brachot – blessings that we say over food and other experiences – are tools for transcendence. They are not transcendence itself. Like all meditations, they do not work by magic. A person who utters them casually will gain little. But when said with understanding and concentration, they become a daily source of transcendental amazement.

The bracha thereby resolves our dilemma of how to sustain the transcendental experience; how to walk through life in total amazement. We may not achieve that level of concentration all day long, but we can certainly reach it whenever we eat.

In the parlance of Rabbi Chaim Velozhin (19th century), just as food helps the soul connect to the body (because without food, eventually the soul will separate from the body), brachot connect the soul to the Infinite. The kabbalists explain that the mouth is where the soul fuses with the body. This explains why food goes in there (as food maintains the fusion) and why brachot are spoken there (as they maintain the soul's connection to the Infinite.

Brachot connect the soul to the Infinite

Ideally, we should all compose our own brachot as needed, and such was the practice in early Jewish history. However, the social-political decline that led to the Babylonian conquest paralleled a spiritual decline. This spiritual decay was characterized by, among other things, a loss of sensitivity to the language. The Great Assembly therefore codified the brachot in order to perpetuate them. Today it is considered improper to compose one’s own bracha, both because of our general insensitivity to the nuances of language and because we need common texts to help preserve Jewish unity.

Although one might think that a standardized text limits creativity; in fact it can be a vehicle for greater creativity. Consider each bracha as a classical sonata. Each of us is a musician, and the creative possibilities are as numerous as the number of musicians. Like music, brachot should be vocalized, not confined to the imagination. Music is the purest expression of emotions and great music can profoundly affect the emotions. Similarly, speech is the concretization of thought; hence one can control thoughts via speech. A bracha is a prophetic sound-byte that (for most people) must be vocalized to be effective as a meditation.

From Obvious To Sublime

Most brachot follow the same general pattern. First, they begin with words that convey the idea of opening a transcendental connection: "Baruch ata…," which literally means "Blessed are You…"

"Baruch" is related to the word breicha, which means a spring of water, indicating the source of this moment's life experience. "Ata" means "You" – a very personal, endearing appellation for the Infinite! So the brachot begin, in translation, "You are the source…"

We use the second person because we humans tend to be drawn to those who are familiar to us. Someone to whom I refer as "you" is immediately closer to me than someone to whom I refer as "he." Therefore, although we're talking about the Infinite and not having a conversation, the mystics gave us brachot in the language that people speak to one another. The meditation is thereby real and personal.

Next, most brachot continue with four names, each of which is an attempt to grasp the Infinite within the limits of the human mind. The four words move the speaker from the most obvious to the most sublime:

Adonoy – the Being Who was, is, and will ever be
Eloheinu – our Power, the underlying Force in nature
Melech – the King and Director who orchestrates all events
Ha-olam – the finite world that "conceals" the Infinite

All together, the typical bracha begins:

You are the source – that which was, is and will ever be – our power, director of the concealment...

The remainder of the bracha specifies the experience at hand. If the experience is eating a piece of fruit, then the bracha ends with "...creating fruit." Indeed, the four appellations listed above describe a force that surely does create fruit and everything else in life.

Altogether, the bracha is a meditative phrase that aids us in focusing on that piece of fruit and appreciating every aspect of it – including the fact that it exists at all and that I am able to enjoy it!

It is crucial to avoid the misconception that the fruit is infinite, or worse, that the fruit is the Infinite. More accurately – to the extent that our language will allow – the fruit is of the Infinite. The Infinite is there, but then again, it's everywhere. We can choose to eat the fruit in a way that will help us expand our awareness of the Infinite’s infiniteness. The bracha is thereby a very useful tool to steer our normal perception toward a transcendental one.

Meditative Phrases

Since each bracha addresses a single, isolated experience, in order to infuse one’s entire life with amazement, one should try to use brachot in conjunction with the full range of life experiences.

This is in fact exactly what the Great Assembly codified. They wrote brachot for many kinds of experiences conducive to capturing a wow! in order to use those moments to transcend the finite. Their goal was to give the individual a tool to make daily mundane events into a mystical experiences.

The Great Assembly included Israel’s wisest sages, among them three biblical prophets: Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. With profound insight into both human nature and the Hebrew language, they created meditative phrases to be used when awaking and when retiring, when eating and when relieving, when putting on shoes and when greeting a long lost friend, when witnessing natural phenomena, when giving birth and when encountering death.

A special bracha is for a parent holding a newborn baby.

For instance, there are different brachot for various food types. There is a special bracha for seeing lightning and another for hearing thunder. There is a bracha for seeing a rainbow. There is a special bracha for a parent holding a newborn baby for the first time. There is a special bracha for seeing an unusually beautiful person or animal. There is another bracha for seeing an unusually ugly, deformed animal or person (who comes from the same source, after all).

There is a bracha for unusually good news, and a different bracha for unusually bad news. There is a special bracha for seeing a world-class scholar. There is even a special bracha for going to the bathroom. [Most prayer books contain the text of these blessings - click to buy an ArtScroll siddur]

Spiritual Unity

Brachot are so beneficial to expanding one’s consciousness that the Talmud recommends saying 100 per day. Divide a typical 16-hour day by 100 and the result is, on average, one bracha every 10 minutes. Although practically-speaking it is easier to cluster them together at certain times throughout the day, the overall effect of striving for 100 is to pepper the day with the kind of meditative moments of appreciation that brachot so successfully create.

The Great Assembly had a secondary goal as well. The Babylonian conquest 70 years earlier had scattered Jews to several parts of the world where they adopted new mother tongues. This demographic dispersion has persisted for 2,400 years. To this day, only a minority of Jews live in Israel and speak Hebrew (which linguistically has evolved from biblical Hebrew sufficiently to call it a different tongue). As a counter-force, the canonization of a common liturgy had the effect of maintaining Jewish spiritual unity despite the geographic and cultural dispersion.

The primary building block of that common spirituality is the bracha. The material world presents us with two choices: to enjoy it as a gourmet (spiritually) or as a glutton (materially). To enjoy it only in itself, or to use the aesthetic experience to leap toward transcendental awareness. The bracha is a user-friendly method for elevating the aesthetic experience into the wow! that every moment of life can and should be.

From "The Art of Amazement: Discover Judaism’s Forgotten Spirituality," by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld (3rd Edition, January 2010).

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