The Semitic Perspective

In honor of Chanukah, I thought I would finally post my ideas on the differences between the Yefetic and Semitic perspectives. Yefes, and his son Yavan are the progenitors of western thought. Yavan, the Ionians, are the first Greeks to establish academies of art and philosophy, paving the way for the more famous Athenians. We, on the other hand, are descendents of Sheim, and our forefathers spent years studying his thoughts. Last year, I explored one consequence of Yavan’s gift of aesthetic (“yaft E-lokim leYefes — G-d’s beauty is for Yefes”) vs. Sheim’s focus on core value (“…veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — and He will ‘dwell’ in the homes of Sheim.”) Teaser: “I think this is a very telling statement about Western Culture. Politeness is about perfecting the surface. It doesn’t demand a change of the self, but putting up the appropriate front for others. … Judaism looks to create ba’alei chessed, people who relate to this world primarily in terms of its opportunities to give and share with others. Not to simply be polite and act inoffensively, which doesn’t quite work…”

Another difference can be seen by contrasting the style of Aristotle with that of Rav Yehudah haNasi. Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective.(I’ll try to use “perspective” only to refer to these basic ways of thinking that underlie many worldviews and schools of thought. Pretty much any western thinker works within Yefetic perspective. The issue is one more fundamental even than the differences between Socrates and Derrida. Socrates forces his opponent to make a distinction and show him how neither side really works — thereby forcing him to Socrates’ conclusion. Derrida also presumes that objective truth must be reducible into simple yes/no questions — and since the world doesn’t fit that, he focuses on the role of texts and social construct in how we see the world.)

As opposed to the way Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.

Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.

This is not only true statically, but also over the course of time. We get used to identifying “the cause” of something. Why did he hurt his foot? Because a can fell on it. Why did the can fall? Because someone else accidentally kicked it. And so on… However, it’s equally true that he hurt his foot because even though he usually wears iron toed hiking boot, he chose not to wear them that that day.

I would instead suggest that every event is like “the perfect storm”, every one has combinations of factors that come to a head at the same point. If we accept this proposal, then belief in modern science or even Newton’s deterministic physics does not rule out the existence of other perfectly valid causes. Saying that something happened because of a segulah, or nature, or mazal, or free will does not rule out that it’s happening because of the others — and Divine Providence.

Also, it means that identifying one cause of some tragedy does not mean that one is denying other causes. And not every cause need to be a source of blame, saying that the party is one of those “at fault” for what happened. Our being gathered in Eastern Europe in such density had much to do with the magnitude of the holocaust. But we weren’t at fault for being there.

(Even look at the difference between Western and Eastern idolatry: Semitic idolatry is not about polytheistic people-gods, reducing godhood to an easily understandable super-powerful “person” like Zeus. It’s about notions that seem to us far blurrier. Buddha nature in which everything is godly, but just isn’t aware of it. Hinduism’s single Divine that has 3.3 million expressions called “gods”. One fact, many perspectives. Is it avodah zarah or isn’t it? The cases in the gemara become difficult to apply. Christianity started on this road when it adopted trinitarianism, but at some point the church got too Westernized to be able to attempt to still retain it. Until you get to Tertullian, who insists that he believed it because it’s absurd [which in Latin primarily means self-contradictory].)

There is also a likelihood this issue played a role in the Maimonidian Controversy. For all his ties to mesorah, the Rambam’s project was from what we identified as a Yefetic perspective. Unlike the mishnah, his Mishneh Torah categories, divides and subdivides in Aristotilian style, with some connections overlaid, and far more often simply left implied.

While there is a historic debate whether there are 13 principles or three, I really don’t know what difference this makes except in semantics. Furthermore, according to the qabbalists there is no such thing a foundation principle in the Torah because every aspect of the Torah is a foundation principle without distinction one part from another…

Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 2:356; tr. R’ Daniel Eidensohn

The Rambam tried to establish basics, from which everything flows. The Chasam Sofer presents the opposing qabbalistic camp, in which any Torah idea can be seen as an equally place to start exploring a complex network of truths. The issue was never articulated, but perhaps because “perspective” is something so primary that it’s difficult to establish a common dialogue across its borders.

Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.” A true skeptic can’t be sure of much. Even “1 + 1 = 2″ might be a delusion caused by insanity or a malevelent deity. The only thing one can be sure of is that there is an “I” doing the thinking, being sure. He then tried to prove the existence of other things, including G-d, with just this one given.

But even the Cogito is subject to this distinction. Are we individuals who interact, or only defined as individuals by the set of interactions we have with others? Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-“, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

Even the “I” is not reductionist, but defined by its connections.

From this relation-based orientation comes a second distinction, a basically different approach to logic.The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas. For example, the question of whether a ball is red gets fuzzy around the edges of the notion of red. Add just an invisible tincture of blue, and it’s still red. Keep on adding blue, and at some point it’s clearly purple. But at some point in the middle, it’s “sort of red”. Classical logic has no way to describe that “sort of”.Since Aristotle’s day, western logic has had two basic rules:
The Law of Contradiction: Something can never be both true and false. From this law, we have the reductio ad absurdum; we can assume something is true if denying it leads to a contradiction.
The Law of Excluded Middle: Something is either true or false, not neither.
These seem so self-evident to us, one wonders how other positions could exist. However, had we grown up in the Far East, we wouldn’t be so Yefetic.

In a perspective that focuses on connections, there is no isolated fact. Therefore, many things Yefes would consider a single yes/no question are complex, shaded, and nuanced to Sheim. R’ Meir Levin uses this idea as a basis for understanding derashos. He suggests that the role of qal vachomer, gezeirah shavah, heqesh, kelal uperat, are to establish for us relationships. This is why they play a role that sevarah, which is more compatible with western logic, does not.

This subtlety beyond all-or-nothing of the Semitic perspective is also the reason for a number of other things:

1- There are many opinions which understand “eilu va’eilu, “These and those are the Words of the Living G-d, but the law is like Beis Hillel” to mean that both sides of a halachic debate are literally and fully true. See earlier essays about eilu va’eilu.

2- When someone wants to formally make a tenai, a conditional (e.g. This divorce is valid if… Or: I promise this calf as a qorban if…), ideally he must make it in both the positive and the negative. “… if I do not return, and it is not valid if I do.” Because we allow for antinomy and for middle values between yes and no, saying the condition in the positive form need not imply its truth in the negative.

This has consequence in the Yiddish practice of avoiding ayin hara by phrasing compliments in the negative. However, “He’s not stupid” doesn’t actually mean “He’s smart.” He could be average, a middle ground. If they actually were considered identical, would the circumlocution avoid ayin hara?

3- The logic of deciding uncertainty in halachic situations.

I think that to understand halakhah’s notion of logical connectives, equivalents to the boolean notions of “this AND this are true”, “this OR this is true”, “this is NOT true”, etc… one should explore the concept of sefeiq sefeiqa, how to resolve cases with multiple doubts, when there are two unknowns in the circumstance we need to rule upon. We seem to have 5 logical states:
mutar: permitted, including mi’uta demi’uta, a “minority of a minority, ie negligable chance of prohibition
mi’ut: minority, of significant size
safeiq: doubt
rov: majority, and
assur: prohibited, including ruba deruba, an overwhelming majority).

There are debated questions. “Mi’ut bemaqom safeiq”, does a minority chance on one doubt and more even second doubt combine to make a majority. “Sefeiq sefeiqa de’eina mis-hapeches”, a second doubt that only exists if you consider the other one first. E.g. a doubt whether wheat sprouted after Pesach in light of one about whether it was planted before Pesach. If the answer to the second question is “no”, then obviously so is the first. These are debates about the nature of our connectives. Does “mi’ut OR safeiq” equal rov or safeiq?

Not that these states exist in all situations. In cases of qavu’ah, where doubt arose after a ruling was once made, any doubt is like “half vs half”. It seems to be boolean, ie the classical true / false, and therefore if we can’t establish one or the other we can’t procede.

For more on this point, see this draft appendix as well as this devar Torah for parashas Shofetim. In these essays, particularly the second (and much shorter) one, I tie the use of multivalent logic on the idea that halakhah addresses the world as experienced rather than the world as it may exist objectively. Therefore, a ruling could be on an experienced reality of “unknown”. However, once the matter is qavu’ah, reality was once determined, and therefore the question has a boolean resolution.

However, in response to Rabbi Levin’s writings on Semitic vs Yefetic worldviews, I came up with this second theory, that we do not strive individuate facts, and therefore the whole concept of subject-predicate doesn’t map very well. But they are far from mutually exclusive. The Semitic worldview better describes the human condition. This is why Kant assumed that anything real must be free of paradox, and that since he could construct paradoxes about time and space, they must be perceptions imposed by the human mind onto reality, rather than actually “out there”. Or why everyone is used to a single event creating conflicting emotions. And used to seeing something that is “sort of red”, or a person who is “kind of tall”.

(Loosely related is the question whether logic is inherent in Truth, and therefore of G-d’s essence, or a created notion that Hashem can therefore violate at will. See the entry “Hashem and Logic“.)

Just now, in our lifetimes, this gap may be closing. Quantum Mechanics seems to require a logic in which something can be both up and down in a kind of combination called a “superposition of states”. And uncertainty is being modeled in numerous ways, from Fuzzy Logic to Bayesian probability, all of which involve states between “yes” and “no”. In Martin Gardner’s book on multivalent logics (logical systems that have values other than true or false), he shows that a system based on “true / false / neither” and one based on “true / false / both” produce identical definitions for AND and OR. In other words, the law of contradiction isn’t a given in any multivalent logic.Also, there is a growing science of emergent properties, involving notions like Chaos Theory. Models for networking have been built that work whether one is discussing the interactions of particles down on the quantum level, chemicals in a living cell, the neurons in the brain, people in an organization, or links between web sites. We are first now learning how to model connections rather than just the items being connected.But until these ideas leave academia and become the bedrock of how we view the world, we’re still tied to the Yefetic perspective.

Anavah (Redux)

In responding to my first attempt to define “anavah” (on “Der Alter“) RYGB wrote, “According to RSRH, anavah is derived from anah, to respond. Perhaps an anav is one who feels an acharayus to answer for everything he does.”In preparing a devar Torah for my son’s bar mitzvah, I thought of a different spin on the idea.When we’re conversing with someone, what are we doing while they are talking? Do we spend the whole time searching for launching points for what we want to say? Or, do we actually listen to appreciate to what they are trying to relate? The former stance is that of ga’avah, of the hubris of believing that what we have to say and contribute is primary; certainly my insight is brighter, my chiddush (novellum) more inspiring, and my perspective more valuable. When when the anav speaks, he responds.

Dr. Alan Morinis, when defining anavah, points to the gemara (Berachos 6b) which states, “Anyone who sets a particular place for himself to daven, the G-d of Avraham stands in his aid, and when he dies, people say of him, ‘this was an anav, this was a chasid, this is a student of Avraham our father'”.

Perhaps the idea is that the ba’al ga’avah believes that the best world is one with the most him in it. Whereas anav knows he fits in a larger scheme of things. Therefore, rather than trying to impose his view, he perfects the world by seeing how he is supposed to fit, what his place is.

But the name of the city was “Luz” originally

And he [Ya'aqov] called the name of that place Beis-el, but the name of the city was Luz originally.

- Bereishis 28:19

Luz, the original name for Beis-el, is apparently the name of a kind of tree, usually translated “chestnut”. It’s one of the kinds of wood from which Ya’aqov avinu made sticks for the sheep and goats to look at while drinking.

Bereishis Rabba (69:8) discusses the amazing properties of living in the city of Luz:

  • They always told the truth.
  • No one in the city died. When people got old and tired, they needed to move out for nature to take its course.
  • The city was never conquered by Sancheirev, and wasn’t destroyed by Nevuchadnetzar at the end of the first commonwealth. Even though both invaded Luz.
  • Luz is where they made the tekheiles dye.

Luz is also the name of a special bone in the body, where the skull and spine meet. Two medrashim associate the luz bone with Hadrian y”sh. Bereishis Rabba has him trying to grind a luz and failing. There’s a strong parallel to the city of Luz resisting conquest at the end of the first beis hamiqdash, since the Hadrianic persecutions are at the end of the second commonwealth. Second, Qoheles Rabba has Hadrian asking R’ Yehoshua’ ben Chananyah about techiyas hameisim, and RYbC explains that Hashem starts by softening the luz with dew.

(This connection to dew is why the praise of “morid hatal — He Who lowers dew” is in the berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei that ends “Who revives the dead”. It also explains why there is a version in which one says in the summer “morid hatul”, with a qamatz, making it the end of the sentence with “mechayei hameisim”, while in the summer they would say “umorid hageshem” is with two segol’s, connected to “mekhalkeil chaim” — rain being necessary for this life — “bechesed”…)

Luz seems particularly connected with Yaiaqov, the one who renames it. First, his service of G-d centers around emes, truth, the middah exemplified by the citizens of Luz. He uses the luz sticks. And according to the Ben Ish Chai, there is a connection to his father-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s names, as well as his own names/titles.

And the mequbbalim write: There is a bone in a person’s body which receives no benefit from food, except from the se’udah revi’is on Motza’ei Shabbos. And this bone does not disintegrate in the grave. It is called variously “niscoi”, “luz”, and “besu’el”. These three names have the acronym of “lavan”, which are also the final letters of Yisrael, Yaakov and Yeshurun, and from this bone the body will be rebuilt at techiyas hameisim, and this is specifically applied to Israel only, as the pasuk says: “Ve’atem hadeveqim Bashem E-lokeikhem, chayim kulekhem hayom — and you who cleave to Hashem your G-d, you are all alive today”.

- Ben Ish Chai, yr. 2, Bereishis 27

So, given that Luz was renamed Beis-el, why does the gemara and medrash sometime refer to the city as “Luz”? (Particularly when referring to the city in the times of Sancheirev and Nevuchadnetzar, after many years of it being the Kingdom of Israel’s Beis-el.) And what exactly is the common theme here between the tree, the city, the bone and all the people?

The mishnah says “derekh eretz qodmah laTorah — proper behavior in society is a prerequisite to Torah.” Our aggaditos and midrashim seem to converge on underscoring that point. Luz is the city of truth, it has the permanence of truth both territorially and in the lifespans of its inhabitants. And it’s truth, the personality trait about which Yaiaqov centers his service of Hashem, which determines techiyas hameisim. All of these medrashim refer to Luz, to the trait. When referring to applying the pursuit of truth to Torah study or worshipping Hashem, then we progress from Luz to Beis-el.

The stick shows the influence of environment. As does the longevity only imparted when one is actually in the city. Luz, the trait, is not a personal endeavor. (Which raises questions of emes vs. shalom, coordinating truth and peace.)

The bone luz is situated just where the mind connects to the body. It is therefore, in a very real sense, “beis keil”, G-d’s “home” in this world. Ya’aqov builds a circle of stones in which to sleep at this spot, which — as R’ Hirsch notes ad loc — is the first home of Israel. He gets a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, an externalized luz bone between mind and body.

Once one has the foundation of “Luz”, one has the proper personality and attitude to provide some solidity in time and in social context. Then one is capable of building that derekh eretz into Torah, making their soul a house of G-d.

What is a Berakhah?

Today’s topic: How to make your morning coffee the religious high point of your day.After Shema, which is Torahitic, what is the next most important tefillah? Bentching is also deOraisa, but the text was written by man. But neither Shema nor bentching are said nearly as often as we say the formula for a berakhah in general. Chazal expected us to strive for a minimum of one hundred berakhos each day! What a powerful statement that the sentiment expressed is central to Judaism, that we must reinforce it 100 times daily.Shehakol in particular is worth looking at, since first, it is among the more frequently made berakhos, and second, because it is so difficult after running through its syllables so many times since we were so young to say Shehakol slowly and with thought. If we start slowly, say by choosing the first Shehakol of the day, we can add so much to our avodas Hashem (service of G-d) by taking the process of tefillah and continue it from shul into the rest of our lives. Take a few extra seconds over that first cup of coffee to say the words meaningfully before picking it up and putting it to your lips.


The power to make berakhos is given to us in parashas Chayei Sarah. First, Hashem bequeaths it to Avraham. “Ba bayamim, veH beirakh es Avraham bakol — [Avraham] gets on in days, and Hashem blesses Avraham with everything” (Bereishis 24:1; compare “bakol” and our “shehakol“) Then, it is passed on. “Vayitein Avraham es kol asher lo leYitzchaq — And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzchaq.” (25:5; again, with the word “kol“). Rashi comments that Avraham passed the berakhah on to Yitzchaq, and what is the berakhah? He writes it is the ability to bless others.


The basic problem when trying to explain the concept of making a berakhah is that the root /brk/ deals with increase, which makes the idea of making a berakhah with G-d as the subject difficult. How can we say “Barukh Atah Hashem“? How can the Absolute, Who is also above time and change increase? This problem has two parts: Understanding the word “barukh” in the beginning of the text, and understanding the concept of berakhah when used to refer to this kind of prayer as a whole. In this section, I look at the word in theory. Next we will look at the meaning in the context of “barukh Atah“. And then finally, we will look at the concept of berakhah as a whole.

First, a linguistic attempt at the word: In Matisyahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, based on Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s etymological comments, R’ Clark has this entry for BRK:


  1. power growth; spur prosperity explanation/commentary:
  2. blessing (Gn 2:3 “vayvareikh E-lokim es yom hashevi’i” also Gn 9:27, 14:19)
  3. bowing (Gn 41:43 “vayiqre’u lefanav avareikh”)
  4. kneeling (Gn 24:11 “vayevareikh hagemalim michutz la’ir”)
  5. unhindered prosperity (Dt 11:26 “berakhah uqelalah” also Gn 8:21)
  6. knee joint that propels (Dt 28:35 “al habereikhim v’al hashoqim”)
  7. pool; reservoir (Ec 2:6/Soncino Press)

cognate meaning: separate and develop
[phonetic cognates (B40): PRQ divide; PRK separate; BRQ flash light]

Rav Hirsch’s approach is based on the idea that phonetically related roots have related meanings. /brk/ is most like other words relating to separation and development.

Brown Driver Briggs, a dictionary often used by bible scholars, gives the translations of “kneel” and “pool/pond”. But it also has “bless” and the cognates it lists from related languages are given with that translation. It gives the Aramaic “birkah” as a cognate (and the Aramaic “bereikh” [praise]). There are also Arabic and Amharic cognates that I can’t read, but “Steg” writes in a comment to this post are “baraka” (which is the simple conjugation, as opposed to Hebrew’s pi’el, “levareikh”) and “bäräkä” respectively. Last, the BDB has a long list of quotes from chumash where this is clearly the meaning intended. Combining the two, it would seem that the primary meaning is blessing. The best I could guess is that from there we get to praying postures — kneeling and bowing, and from the concept of kneeling, we get to “knee”. A bereikhah, a pool of water, is a more physical source of prosperity, particularly in the Middle East.

A Survey of Translations

When looking at sources from within our tradition that explain the word “barukh“, I found no less than six different translations, which I grouped into three basic approaches.

1- A Statement of Fact

1a- A statement of fact. “You are maximally increased”. I understand this to be the opinion of Radaq (Seifer haShorashim — bareich), R’ Yonah ibn Janach (Seifer haShorashim — bareikh), Or Zaru’ (Hilkhos Qeri’as Shema), and Chizquni (Bereishis 24:27).

1b- There are two versions of the text of the Avudraham. In one, he translates”barukh” as “You are the Source of increase.” The role of making a blessing is to acknowledge and thereby thank and appreciate (the Hebrew word is “hakaras hatov“, recognizing the good of…) Him.

2- A Request

2a- Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad haKemach pp 77-78, Mossad haRav Kook edition) understands barukh as a request, give us increase; Atah Hashem — for You are the Source of increase.

2b-The Rashba (Shu”t 1423, end) and the other version of the Avudraham hold that “barukh” is a request for an increase of the revelation of Hashem’s Presence. So we are asking for an increase, but of G-dliness in the world, not G-d Himself.

In both versions of #2, the idea that barukh is a request, the concept of berakhah therefore includes an implied praise, by taking His Omnipotence and Beneficence as givens. Rabbeinu Bachya adds that the verse “Barukh Atah Hashem lamdeini chuqekha” is itself an expression of praise, but the word barukh itself is not. Since You are the One Who taught me Your chuqim, I turn to You to grant me the increase in Divine Influence (shefa) to understand them.

3- A Declaration of Intent

3a- “May Your presence in this world be increased” — through my efforts (R’ SR Hirsch). A declaration of commitment. Since HQBH restrains Himself (so-to-speak) to allow for free will, by choosing to act according to His Will, we can increase His influence.

I would surmise that this understanding is implied by R’ YB Soloveitchik in his monograph “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”. The Rav uses the rabbinic dictum “just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so too for the bad” to give the appropriate response to tragedy. (This quote is why one says “Barukh Dayan emes” (blessed be the True Judge) upon hearing that someone died.) He says the Jewish question of tragedy is not “Why?” but “What should I do?” The Rav therefore implicitly identifies “blessing for the bad” with my doing Hashem’s Will.

3b- Nefesh haChaim (sec II) gives a synthesis of the last two of the above approaches. “May Your presence in this world be increased through my very realization that You are the Source of increase.”


A berakhah has 4 components:

Barukh Atah – We discussed the word “barukh” in the previous section. But note that this is written in the 2nd person, “Atah — You”.

Hashem Elokeinu — There is a contrast between these two names of Hashem and their implication. This topic alone would require multiple essays, so I will simply sketch a couple ways of viewing this contrast:

1- The tetragrammaton is a contraction of “Yihyeh, Hoveh, veHayah — Will Be, Is and Was”, referring to Hashem being timeless and beyond the created. An el, when used in the secular sense, is a legislative ruler, so that Elokeinu, is a declaration that He is our Lawgiver — the Author of both moral law and physical law. Havayah denotes connotes a vision of Deity that is very Other, the philosopher’s G-d; Elokus is One who relates to man.

2- The very remoteness of the name Havayah also implies Divine Mercy. This is not intuitive, however, the need to create law comes from a person’s limited ability to deal with many individual cases. A teacher with few students is effective, one with more students, less so. To manage a country, we need laws and policies, since we do not have infinite time and attention to cover every decision on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, it is only because Hashem is Infinite that Divine Mercy is possible. Therefore, this expression can be seen as a declaration of the unity of G-d, despite the different appearances of Mercy and Strict Justice.

Melekh ha’olam – Halachicly, a berakhah must contain sheim umalkhus, the name of G-d, and a declaration that He is King. The previous component and this statisfy that requirement. By calling Him “Hashem E-lokeinu Melekh ha’olam“, we proclaim our allegiance to the central concepts of Shema: the Hashem’s unity despite our various perceptions of Him, and our accepting Him as King.

Closing — this varies from berakhah to berakhah. In contrast to the “Atah” with which we begin a berakhah, we conclude in the 3rd person: “asher qidishanu bemitzvosav — who sanctified us with His mitzvos“, “shehakol nihyeh bidvaro — that everything exists through His word”, etc…. Why is this? Wouldn’t we think that we end the process of berakhah closer to Hashem than we began? So then why are we speaking as though He is more distant? As we shall see, this shift is a significant part of some approaches to making a berakhah.


Now we’re finally ready to make a berakhah and enjoy the cup of coffee…

But first, put the cup down. Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss, in his book Passionate Judaism, recommends accepting upon oneself to keep the food at least one tefach (handbreadth) away from your mouth when making a berakhah. If it is said in the same smooth motion as bringing the food up to your lips, the berakhah is turned into a mindless slur of syllables: “Barukh Atadnoilokeinu Melekholam shehakolnihyedivo.

Why are there so many approaches to the meaning of a berakhah? I would suggest that it’s not merely a dispute, but an intentional richness of meaning by the coiners of the formula. A berakhah can mean different things at different times during the day and during parts of our lives. I will therefore provide three different threadings of an approach to the word barukh extended to flow through the berakhah as a whole.

Using the “statement of fact” or “request” approaches to the word “barukh”, the purpose of a berakhah is one of praise. Think about the coffee. The amazing properties of water, of plants, sunlight, the ecosystem, all of the elements in place from which human beings were able to build a global economy and get that coffee from Columbia to your cup, in short — ponder all the Divine Wisdom underlying the things from which this cup of coffee was made. Including the amazing fact that human beings live and think! From that mindset, one is ready to say, “You are truly and maximally Great…” or “Please grant me some of Your greatness, Hashem the Creator of Nature, Who runs the universe, look at the glory of everything He has made! Thank you!”

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, unsurprisingly, develops Rav Hirsch’s approach. Jon Baker summarized his thoughts in and essay in Mesukim miDevash. To Rabbi Schwab, a berakhah vacillates between my committing myself to serve Him, and Hashem’s absolute remoteness and inapproachability. To take his ideas as a kavnah, it would be something like “I declare my desire to use the fluid, joy and energy that I get from this cup of coffee to increase Your impact in this world. Despite the presumptuousness of trying to partner with He Who is Above Time, because it is through that Infinity that He is My G-d personally. He created the laws of nature and the laws by which I should choose to live. Therefore, He And yet He is King over everything, not simply a personal friend, and all of existence crowns Him. And everything — including myself and this cup of coffee — exist through His word, so I wish to utilize it for that which He created it.”

I gave a follow-up to Jon Baker’s article based on Rav Chaim Vilozhiner’s understanding, applying it to understanding the berakhah of Shehakol in particular. Rather than declaring the tension between Transcendence and Immanence, Rav Chaim sees it as a progression. We start by contemplating the lofty planes of heavenly existence and follow the Shefa, the flow of Divine Emanation down to the item before us or the action we are about to take. Our awareness of the Shefa is what opens the “channels” by which it flows. Man, combination of body and soul, is the conduit — because He has free will and can dedicate his physical action to His Goals. Thus, Rav Chaim Vilozhiner takes the notion that eating without a berakhah is tantamount to theft to mean theft from the world, theft from the Shefa that we could have made manifest and did not.

We open, “Hashem, You are the Source, from You everything flows.” One step down toward the mundane world, “Hashem, You are the Cause of existence.” Not Source, Cause. And further steps, “Our Lawmaker, King of Everything.” Now the progression is less descent from Hashem as approaching the world. We take the same concepts in the reverse: paralleling “Melekh ha’olam — King of Everything”, is “shehakol — that everything” — the King’s subjects and domain. “Nihyeh — exists (in the passive conjugation)”, because Hashem is Y-HV-H the Cause of Existence. “Bidvaro — through His Word”, it flows from the Barukh, His “Thought” uttered.

So much to think about. The process of berakhah truly imbues the entire day with an attitude of avodas Hashem.

The Point of Decision

A rather well-known section of Michtav meiEliyahu (vol 1 pg 113) is the Qunterus haBechirah. In it, Rav Dessler compares the decision-making process to a battle. All the fighting occurs at the front lines; beyond them, everything belongs to one camp. With each victory, the line advances. So too with free will. At the point of decision, the nequdas habechirah, decisions require conscious thought and are the true expression of free will. Beyond the point, decisions are made quickly, often even preconsciously. For example, most people do not actively choose not to shoplift — it’s simply not done. Shoplifting is beyond their nequdas habechirah. And with each decision, the nequdah moves. The first time someone refuses to pay under the table and therefore has to add sales tax to his price, it may be difficult. The second time, easier. Eventually, it’s a given — cheating the government is simply not done.A person is judged by his decisions. Therefore, we do not know where anyone really stands. We do not know what is a battlefront in his intellectual life. For you, some act may be trivial. For him, the same act may be a serious victory, one that moved his bechirah point in a positive direction.I would like to take the liberty of recasting this idea in the terms we have been discussing in the past few entries. Rav Dessler wrote about the internal battle between good and evil, but the same is true of a slightly different axis, the battle between one’s mammalian instincts and the drive for follow a higher calling.I wrote about the need to identify with the latter, and to see his baser desires as external. So that when faced with a choice, it becomes “I want to do the right thing, but he…” The position of Adam hearing the snake. Adam only had an internal desire to do the will of G-d, so that his choice was determining the falsehood of the snake’s argument. Then we explained taharah as that separation between one’s will and his physical desires, and qedushah as the unity between that will and his higher calling.

A person therefore has a conscious self, a set of base, animalistic urges, and a higher calling. The power of the bechirah is the ability to change that self by associated more tightly or loosely with either set of urges. Someone who repeatedly caves to those more crass desires will develop habits (hergel) that prejudice their conscious, human selves. That is the adulteration we identified with tum’ah. It is also the motion of the nequdas habechirah in a destructive direction.

On a more positive note, challenges faced and passed become easier with each repetition. One can thereby dedicate oneself to G-dliness through that same mechanism of repetition and habit. The nequdah moves so that more and more of the self is on the side of the battlefront of the forces committed to Him, our very definition of qedushah.


Returning back to the theme raised in the week of parashas Bereishis, In the first part, I drew a progression from the medrash of the earth refusing to make the trees taste like the earth, to that of the moon arguing that the world could not have two rulers and getting reduced, to the eating of the eitz hada’as. The physical world was created as a tool for our reaching for our higher calling. In the first step, we’re introduced to the need for the world to have its own identity if it’s to maintain existence as a tool; thus, as R’ Kook put it, the means lack the sweetness of the spiritual ends. Once it has its own identity, there is now competition between the sun, which is blatantly manifest in the world, and the moon, Israel, and the entire notion of man’s higher calling. That competition creates the opportunity for evil. In the second part, I described how man permanently infused his actions with a mixture of motives, some good, some evil, when he ate from the eitz hada’as, a tree which did taste like its fruit, at twilight, the one time in which day and night, the rule of the sun and the rule of the moon, overlap. Finally, my prescription for getting away from this mixture, derived from a thought by Rabbi Bechhofer, is to leave the stance of Pinnochio, where he wanted to do wrong and his good inclination is an external voice, the cricket, to that of pre-sin Adam, who had a yetzer hatov, but the desire to do evil was the external snake.We see therefore the essential value of havdalah, separation.My father once told me that when he was young he was taught that making a decision involves two components: a push, and a pull. A push from the status quo, and a pull to the new state. The context was the decision to make aliyah. A certain threshold had to be met before someone would choose to make aliyah. The greater the push, the less happy one is with his current country, the less pull he must have to Israel. For the typical American Jew to make aliyah, where there is little to push him from his middle-class lifestyle, requires developing a great love for Israel, a great pull toward it.Separation too involves both the pull and the push. You can separate from something that interferes, or to that thing to which you are striving.

Interestingly, the same division is found in the concepts of tum’ah and qedushah. When the Torah speaks of taharah, the lack of tum’ah, the proposition is “mi-“, from, e.g. “vetiharo min hatzora’as”. What is taharah? While many object to translating it as “spiritual purity”, the word is used to describe the pure gold of the menorah”, “zahav tahor”. Taharah is freeing the soul from a kind of adulteration, just as it’s gold that is free of impurities. As R’ SR Hirsch puts it, objects and events which cause the misconception that man is a physical being cause tum’ah. The tahor soul is one that is free from the habits and effects of living within an animal body. The ideal of taharah is Adam, for whom the drive to do evil was an external snake whose arguments he could assess objectively.

On the other hand, qedushah is about pull. The tzitz on the kohein gadol’s forehead read “qadesh Lashem”. Qedushah is being set aside for a given purpose. The wedding formula, “Hereby you are mequdeshes li…, committed to me…” uses the term without speaking of G-d or sanctity. But in usual usage, if the “le-” is not provided, it means creation’s Ultimate Purpose, “for My Honor, lekhvodi, I have created it”.

Whereas taharah is separation from the wood, qedushah is separating oneself for the fruit. Both forms of havdalah.

The two are not strictly opposites. It is possible for someone to be driven by opposing forces — both very engaged in his physicality and yet also very committed to serving G-d. It is the nature of the irbuvya, the complex mixture that makes up the human psyche that we aren’t always consistent. And so we find that tum’ah and qedushah can be ascribed to a single object. The me’aras hamachpeilah, where six of our seven forefathers are buried, is undeniably qodesh. However, there is a question, based on the architecture of how the mosque is built atop the original cave, whether a kohein may go there — because the burial place itself is tamei.

But still, taharah and qedushah are therefore related. The elimination of tum’ah is a mandatory precondition for working in qedushah. While they can in practice co-exist, they ought not. The tamei person may not eat sacred food. (That marital intimacy is also barred by tum’ah is a very powerful statement about its role in Judaism; it is treated as a sacred act.) First deal with that which is threatening to convince you that you’re just a higher form of mammal, then use your human gifts for what they were intended.


Shir haMa’alos: Mima’amaqim qarasikha Hashem
A song of ascents: From the depths, I call You, Hashem

- Tehillim 120:1
I’ve written a number of essays about tragedy from the perspective of philosophy and theory. But there are times when it simply isn’t the right approach.What do you say to someone who is in the middle of facing profound tragedy? A friend of mine recently lost his teenage daughter. You pay a shiv’ah call. What’s the right thing to say? Is there a right thing to say?Rav Nachum ish Gamzu would face every challenge and disappointment with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the good.” Similarly Rabbi Aqiva, who studied under Rav Nachman ish Gamzu, said, “Everything the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything has a role in Hashem’s grand scheme. If it occurred, it has a good and positive outcome.

Very nice in theory. But how can a holocaust survivor, someone who lost his entire family, who saw children sent to the crematoria, possibly be asked to embrace this idea? How can parents bereft of their beloved daughter be told “everything has a plan, it’s really for the best” and not feel that the explanation is both emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest (as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it)? Particularly since rare is the glimpse that we finite humans get into the infinite and Absolute Divine Wisdom.

We find the same phenomenon in the book of Iyov. The book opens telling the reader the reason for Iyov’s future woes. The Satan, the challenging angel, believes that Iyov has mastered the art of serving G-d from plenty, and needs to learn how to serve Him even in the face of poverty and adversity. Yet Iyov goes through one disaster after another, seeks their meaning, and never finds one. The book closes with Hashem telling him that the search is futile, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know the understanding!” (Iyov 38:3) Knowing the reason exists is a far cry from either being able to understand it or embrace it.

The word “aveilus” is translated “mourning”. Etymologically, though, it’s a form of the word “aval — but”. Aveilus is a time when none of the answers make sense; the aveil says, “I know that Hashem has his reasons, but …” When my wife and I lost our infant daughter, a recurring question in my mind was, “Yes, but why me?” Aveilus is a state where the gap between our knowledge and our hearts is acute and the chasm of pain impassable.

So what does someone do when they find themselves “walking in the valley of Deathshadow”? If it’s not the right time for explanations, what does one say?

The standard formula is “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The message is that first, G-d is everywhere — He is with you in your pain. And second, you are not a single person suffering alone.

Shir hama’alos — What is the song of ascents, the means of lifting up from the pit of despair?

“From the depths I call you, Hashem.” “Qarov Hashem lekhol qor’av, lekhol asher yiqra’uhu be’emes — Hashem is close to all who call Him, to anyone who truthfully calls Him.” (Ashrei; Tehillim 145:18) Calling out to Hashem from the depths of one soul and the depths of despair brings Him close.

At the very moment that one is grappling with “Why me, G-d?” one is calling out to Hashem with unadulterated honesty and the core of one’s being. The sufferer is seeking a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. A tragic period in our lives is a unique opportunity not to explain Hashem, but to come close to Him. Not seek explanations, but to be warmed by his embrace.

Adam and Pinocchio

(First, please see part I about the eitz hada’as, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The following is extrapolated from a thought in an essay by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer.)

Until Adam ate the fruit, he consisted of free will and internalized yeitzer hatov (inclination to do good). He had no yeitzer hara; the inclination to do evil was external to him. This idea is found in Bereishis Rabba, and discussed at length in Nefesh haChaim (1:6, note).

According to Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (sec. 1 ch. 2), man always has choices to make — otherwise what is free will about? However, while for us the main challenge is good vs. evil, the challenge that faced Adam was not good vs evil, but truth vs falsehood.

Rabbi Dessler (Michtav meiEliyahu vol. 2 pg. 138) suggests that this is not a debate, but two aspects of the same truth. Since the desire to do evil was external, taking the form of the snake, it would have to present its argument to Adam. Adam’s only desire was to do good, so the snake’s argument would have to be a lie, presenting what it was promoting as though it were the greater good. Adam faced two conflicting stories about which path is better, and had to choose which was the truth.

In contrast to Adam, in the story of Pinocchio the main character is told that his lies are part of him, “as plain as the nose on his face”. But rather than a yeitzer hatov, the call to do good is externalized as a cricket. He is told to identify with the voice in his head suggesting wrong choices, but good choices are things someone else foisted on him. (Freud would be happy with this model: the id provides innate desires, but the superego provides rules imposed by parents and society. He didn’t believe in souls, and therefore had no reason to posit a higher calling as primary as man’s animal ones.) Pinocchio was set up to fail.

Our Sages say that a person is born with a yeitzer hara, but gains a yeitzer hatov only at his bar mitzvah. Perhaps they mean the following: Until adolescent rebellion, children choose good — but they do it because their parents, teacher, principal, etc… expects it of him. Jiminy Crickets telling them “you gotta”. Until the child is capable of rebellion, he doesn’t truly operate from the perspective of an internalized yeitzer hatov.

The key to making proper decisions is to identify oneself with one’s higher calling, to the extent that other desires are objectified, not part of the real me. To leave the Pinocchio stance and assume that of Adam. Not, “I want to play but he is pushing me to sit in school”, but “I want to help others, but he is suggesting I slow down and relax.”

The Origins of Imperfection

The first we hear of Hashem allowing things to go in something other than the ideal way is in the creation of plants.

There is a medrash (Breishis Rabba 5:9) that comments on a change in language in the middle describing of the creation of trees. Hashem orders the earth on the third day to bring forth “eitz peri oseh peri“, fruit trees that make fruit, yet the land actually produces only “eitz oseh peri“. Between the commandment and the fulfillment, something is lost. The medrash explains that originally the wood would have tasted like the fruit, so that it would truly be a “fruit tree”. Instead of the norm being that the wood of the tree would taste like the fruit, this is now the exception. With a couple of exceptions, one of them — note this for later — the esrog, the trees, or the angels entrusted to guard them, were afraid for their survival. If the wood tasted like the fruit, animals would eat the plant rather than the fruit, and they would die out. And so, the earth “disobeyed”.What does this medrash mean? Does the earth have free will, that it can choose to disobey G-d? Rav A.Y. Kook explains:

At the inception of creation it was intended that the tree have the same taste as the fruit. All the supportive actions that sustain any general worthwhile spiritual goal should by right be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and delight as the goal itself is experienced when we envision it. But earthly existence, the instability of life, the weariness of the spirit when confined in a corporate frame brought it about that only the fruition of the final step, which embodies the primary ideal, is experienced in its pleasure and splendor. The trees that bear the fruit, with all their necessity for the growth of the fruit have, however, become coarse matter and have lost their taste. This is the failing of the “earth” because of which it was cursed when Adam was also cursed for his sin.

Orot haTeshuva 6:7
Translation by B. Z. Bokser, The Lights of Penitence in “Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” published by Paulist Press in the “Classics of Western Spirituality” series.

According to Rav Kook, the medrash gives the reason why the holiness of our goal is not felt in our day-to-day life. Our physical framework is limited and needs support. It requires our attention. The trees didn’t embody the ideal because they were afraid for their survival. In truth, the mundane only exists to be the means to an end, but because of the needs of survival, it takes on its own reality.

The second step occurs on day four, with Hashem’s creation of the moon. See Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Pinechas for more detail, but here’s the relevent portion of the idea.

In Parshas Bereishis (1:16) the Torah reads: “And G-d made the two large luminaries — the large luminary to rule the day and the small luminary to rule the night — and the stars.”

The gemara (Chulin 60b) points out an inconsistency in the pasuq. R. Shimon ben Pazi asks why the Torah first describes the sun and moon as “the two large luminaries”, but then it calls the sun “the large luminary” and the moon is called the small one. The gemara answers with a story. Originally the sun and moon were the same size. But the moon complained to Hashem, “Can there exist two kings sharing the same crown?” How can both the sun and the moon share the glory? G-d replies, “Go and make yourself smaller.” This pains the moon, and Hashem subsequently offers three consolations. When that fails, Hashem says that we are to bring a qorban to atone for His sin. (Again, see the devar Torah in MmD.)

The Maharsha explains that the story is about the Jewish people and our goals vs the world at large and theirs. The Jews are compared to the moon (see, for example Qidush Levanah). Edom, the dominant power, is the sun. Why do we live in a world that seems to be dominated by Edom’s principal, that might makes right? Why isn’t holiness the dominant idea, and right make might?

This then is the second step. One day 3, the notion of needing to be concerned about the “real world” entered creation, which made it take on a life of its own, hiding its true nature of being merely the means toward holiness. Now, this second thing became a competing power. The moon sees a power struggle between itself, the pursuit of holiness, and the might of the sun.

The gemara (Succah 35a) explains, “‘P’ri eitz hadar’ — that its fruit tastes like the tree.” A defining feature of the esrog is that it did not participate in the rebellion of day three. Based on this, Medrash Rabba (15:6) identifies the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the eitz hada’as, with the esrog. (Although Berachos 40a records a dispute as to whether the “fruit” was wheat, a grape, or a fig, there the dispute is more pragmatic. Wheat is the archetypal food, and requires much human intervention to eat, unlike other fruit. Grapes are associated with wine, and therefore with change of mental state. And since Adam and Chavah subsequently made clothing out of fig leaves, it would seem logical to assume they were next to a fig tree when they ate from the eitz hada’as.)

They ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night overlap. The sun and moon, might and holiness, vie for rule.

The eating of the fruit, therefore, has much to do with the blending of real and ideal, and internalizing it. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”

His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?

The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.

Irbuvia. A constant mixture of emotions. No good deed lacks some selfish side-motivation, no matter how small. Which is why many shuls require appeals to publicly announce donations in order to raise enough money to operate. The question is how to clear out that confusion. To choose the holy and the ideal rather than be moved by a mixture of good and evil.

To be continued, be”H…

I would like to leave you with the next paragraph from Orot haTeshuvah:

But every defect is destined to be mended. Thus we are assured that the day will come when creation will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit. The “earth” will repent of its sin, and the way of the practical life will no longer obstruct the delight of the ideal, which is sustained by appropriate intermediate steps on its way toward realization, and will stimulate its emergence from potentiality to actuality.

The power of speech

I had an epiphany during leining this past Shabbos (parashas Bereishis). Such things are notoriously difficult to convey, but I’ll try anyway.Usually, shmuessin on the subject of shemiras halashon revolve around showing how much power is in speech, how speach is a real “thing”, and has a challos (impact) the world.I realized something, though: It’s the exact reverse! It’s not merely that speech is a real thing, the point is that every real thing is in truth “just” speech! All of creation is “And E-lokim was saying….” Our words have power because words are the more primary ontology, they are more real than, and the source of, objects.