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Reflections on Blessings

November 2010

The Jewish Liturgy is filled with formal prayer services, performed three times a day, every day, with even more added on Shabbat and festivals! But there are also mini prayers—blessings, actually—which we sprinkle steadily throughout our days, adding significance and spirituality to the events which color our lives.

You can find them every way you turn! We recite blessings when we wash our hands, before and after we eat or drink, when we smell something nice, see something special, hear certain sounds. When we are about to perform a commandment, put on clothing, build a house, or have a baby.

Maybe because blessings are shorter than ordinary prayers… maybe because you can say them on the go,wherever you are… I find blessings especially meaningful—a special spurt of spirituality that keeps me reminded of G-d’s presence in our lives and of our deep desire to keep that relationship steady and constant.

These blessings are varied and many. Some I find myself saying half a dozen times a day, like the blessing over foods which include wheat, barley, rye oats or spelt. , “Blessed are You,our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates species of nourishment.” Doesn’t matter if I’m gobbling a bowl of breakfast cereal, sneaking a slice of Shabbat’s leftover cake, finishing up my kid’s bowl of macaroni and cheese, or licking out the bowl from my mixer. I first say that blessing. Some blessings, though, are said rarely and some people may never even get a chance to utter them, like the blessing said when your son reaches Bar Mitzva at the age of 13. My husband will get to say it three times in his life, once when Avraham hit that age and again when Netanel and Elitzur become Bar Mitzva. The blessing is “Blessed is the One Who has freed me from the punishment due this boy.” Of course the blessing doesn’t mean ‘Good riddance’ and we are not trying to rid ourselves of responsibility for this child. We are, instead, admitting that this boy is now a man and will be burdened with the responsibility of his own actions. A moving, heart-racing blessing to mark a moving rite of passage.

Some blessings have more meaning at different points in your life. My daughter Atara started finding a certain blessing very meaningful not long ago. One August night, a year and a half ago, she had been driving herself and her friends home from the neighborhood synagogue where they had been praying the midnight service Rosh Hashana Eve. The car swerved, uprooting a tree on the road divider, totaling the car. Everyone walked out with only minor bruises and aches and pains. Every time Atara drives past that spot, still picturing the now faded black skid marks, she proclaims this beautiful blessing,“Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who performed a miracle for me at this very place.” Our family prepared her a memento of that miracle, framing our old car key with the inscription of this blessing.

There is another blessing that is said to mark the first time we experience something new. “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” Something new includes a huge range of experiences. Sometimes it seems a bit of an overproduction when all you’re doing is tasting a mango for the first time that season. But how beautiful! All you’re doing is tasting a mango for the first time that season and you’re making a production over it! We are inviting G-d into the simplest ceremonies of our lives. I love when we sit around the Shabbat table and bring out dessert, and everyone starts discussing which fruit on the fruit platter—a tangerine, a strawberry, a slice of kiwi—they haven’t eaten yet that season, therefore deserving this blessing. This blessing is also recited on donning a new, significant article of clothing. Under the bridal canopy, it is traditional for the groom to wrap himself in a new prayer shawl and recite this blessing, incorporating in “Who has sustained us and brought us to this season” to include the ‘acquisition’ of his new wife. This blessing is also said by women at candle lighting before every Jewish holiday, marking the cycle of seasons and festivals which we feel blessed and privileged to once again celebrate.

Even changes in weather are reasons for blessings! Upon seeing lightning we utter “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, Who makes the work of Creation.” Upon hearing thunder we say “Blessed are You, our G-d,King of the universe, for His strength and His power fill the universe.” How glorious, that in the middle of a thunderstorm, as you’re running through the downpour with a newspaper over your head to get to your car without getting drenched; as you’re comforting your kids who find the booming noises and light flashes petrifying; as you scramble for flashlights and candles because the storm left your house with no power, you stop, turn to G-d and say, ‘Wow—this is really something! I hear you. I see you.’ And then, the next morning, the sky clears, and a perfect rainbow appears and you look up at the heavens and call out yet another blessing: “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant, and fulfills His word.” The sun is shining, the puddles are drying on the pavement and we take the time out to say thank you to G-d for remembering the sign that He gave us after the flood in the time of Noah, when He promised He would never again destroy the world. And by taking that moment we are remembering that He has the power to destroy us if He so chooses.

One blessing, called the Blessing of Deliverance is a very unusual one because it reacts to an experience of an event which did not happen! “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who bestows good things on the unworthy, and has bestowed on me every goodness.” We are acknowledging that something could have happened, we realize we live in G-d’s world, and that so many things are not under our control, and we are blessing G-d for sustaining us and delivering us, though we know we are unworthy. During the time of the Holy Temple, one who would escape from four types of danger would offer a sacrificial offering of thanksgiving to G-d. Upon safely crossing the ocean or the desert, recovering from a serious illness or upon being released from prison. Nowadays, the Sages instituted this special blessing of thanksgiving in its place. It is a blessing traditionally said publicly, in front of a quorum, and when a man or a woman stands up in synagogue to recite this blessing, we offer the traditional response as we worry what brought about the blessing. If a woman just had a baby, we are reassured and thrilled that everything is okay. Sometimes it is said after a simple business trip abroad and the businessman has returned. There were times, though, when someone would recite this blessing in synagogue and explain a near disaster that almost befell him… the close call which led up to this blessing: A drive-by shooting,a rock-throwing on our Samaria roads, a car that flipped over a few times before rolling into a ditch. The blessing is there to say that we have lived to tell the tale and we are grateful for we know we are not worthy.

Even building a house comes with its assortment of blessings. The house is built, landscaping done, but before moving in, a Jewish person must make sure that his home is safe. We are forbidden to put ourselves or people who will visit us, in danger, and building a home comes with responsibility. A gate must be built around one’s flat roof and railings must be erected around porches and staircases, as it states in Deuteronomy, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it” (22:8). While building these structures of safety one recites, “Blessed are You, our G-d,King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to construct a parapet.” Strange? No, beautiful! Does G-d need to get involved in construction? No, but He does need us to realize that there is holiness in safety, in caring for ourselves and our fellow man. And here’s another blessing when moving into a new home: When you move into a new home,the first thing you need to do is affix a mezuzah on every door frame and say,“Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to affix a mezuzah.” Labeled cartons are dragged into the right rooms, bubble wrap is ripped off of the dining room furniture so you can set things up, beds are made, pantries are filled. And then, the young couple, the whole family, even neighbors and friends, gather around the main entrance, and the man of the house takes hammer and nails and hangs up the mezuzah. We move in and bring G-d along with us into our home!

My daughters used to love saying the blessing that is said upon seeing fruit trees bloom for the first time in spring. It’s extra special because it can only be said once a year. Their high school principal made an occasion out of it. His house was a few short blocks from school and all the teenage girls would walk through the streets and crowd into his modest backyard, sit on the grass, enjoy light refreshments and say the blessing together on his flowering citrus trees. “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, for nothing is lacking in His universe, and He created in it good creatures and good trees, to cause mankind pleasure with them.” Isn’t that lovely? A blessing to make us wake up and take notice of the budding and blossoming and growing that takes place all around us.

There is even a special blessing to be said in respect for seeing an outstanding Torah scholar. “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, who has apportioned of his knowledge to those who fear Him.” There is such a message in this simple sentence—revere your learned brothers, show the proper respect for those who study His word. Happily, there is even a blessing for seeing an outstanding secular scholar: “Blessed are You, our G-d,King of the universe, Who has given of His knowledge to human beings.” The Jewish people have always been a People of the Book and our thirst and admiration for knowledge is supreme.

There are appropriate blessings for every occasion and for every stage of our cycle of life. Interestingly, there is even a blessing to mark the end of a life. Upon hearing about a death, one immediately says the blessing “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, the true Judge.” A young mother loses her long struggle with cancer; a newborn baby doesn’t have the strength to fight a crippling defect and takes her last breath; a teenager is killed in a drive-by-shooting by terrorists; a bus bomb blows up all its innocent occupants. And we are meant to say “Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, the true Judge.” Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? But maybe this is just what we have to say. We won’t find answers, the logic is beyond our limited scope, so maybe the best comfort is to say—‘G-d, You know best, You see the whole picture and we trust Your judgment, though we tremble before You.’

Truth is, all these blessings make that same point: We stand before you… in awe, in appreciation, with true humility and intense admiration and we say, “Bless You, our G-d” for You are King.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities