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.