Modeh Ani (redux)

A while back I blogged a recording of a shiur I gave on Modeh Ani. The sound quality on the recording was too poor for the shiur to be made out by most listeners. I recently emailed a group a piece on Modeh Ani that makes, in abbreviated form, many of the points I made in that shiur. So, here it is.`


One opening thought about the prayer as a whole: I see in this prayer two things: The obvious one, that we need to acknowledge the One Who enabled us to wake up this morning. The second, that waking up in the morning is itself a previous gift, worthy of thanking G-d for.

The prayer “Modah Ani” became a custom roughly 400-500 years ago, judging from the time of its first mention in print (Sefer haMinhagim). There is an older prayer, a berakhah, with the same theme. It was composed as one of pair, which is why it did not need to begin with the phrase “Barukh Atah Hashem“. One of the pair is said upon going to bed, the other when waking up. But its use shifted to being part of Shacharis, recombined with a blessing for health and for the commandment and gift of the Torah, and moved away from being said upon waking up.

Besides, it opens with G-d’s name, meaning none of it would be said by an observant Jew until after hand-washing. Modeh Ani does not contain the name of G-d, although a second line which is either its post-washing continuation or a second prayer does. (More about that, later.)

Modeh Ani: The word “modeh“, a term of thanks, comes from the same root as “vidui”, confession, and is used in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew to mean agreement. What do these concepts have in common? In all three cases we are declaring our attachment to the other. In confession, we are addressing how that connection enabled us to harm the other. And in agreement, the two parties share an idea rather than each claiming sole ownership. (This idea is discussed in more detail here, in particular section V.)

Modeh in the sense of thanks, then, is an awareness that I do not stand alone. That my existance is founded not only on my efforts, but on those of others. Including, in this case, the Creator.

Modeh ani lefanekha: I thank before You…

Rather than thanking G-d, we place our thanks before Him. What’s that about?

In rabbinic descriptions of the prophetic vision of Ma’aseh haMerkavah, G-d’s Throne (not that we believe He actually is in human form or has a literal throne, but prophecy involves metaphor), the souls of those not yet born are kept in a chest before His Throne.

Perhaps this is being referred to when we speak of thanking before Him for the return of that soul.

On other mornings, it feels to me simply as an acknowledgement of the distance between my still half-asleep self and the Almighty. I cannot thank Him, I am not mentally prepared yet. So I place my thanks before Him, for G-d to carry the rest of the way.

Melekh Chai veQayam: the King Who is “Alive” and “Eternal”…

Continuing this thought… We call G-d here by a reference, rather than a name as we haven’t yet washed out hands. (As I said at the top.)

We try to avoid saying any one of G-d’s names before this purification. I refer you back to what I said about the implied distance in our placing our thanks before Him. This is a difficult prayer: on the one hand, it is most appropriate to thank G-d for waking up when actually waking up. On the other, it takes time to be fully alert and mentally ready. Jewish tradition has a washing ritual to rid ourselves of any spiritual impurities our wandering hands may have touched over the night. It serves as a time to get our brains out of whatever they were in while we were unconscious, and into a more appropriate mode for prayer. So, to strike this balance, we pray to G-d now, but do so while acknowledging that we aren’t really ready, that there is a distance that we aren’t daring to breach. Instead of the familiarity of a name, we use titles and descriptions of Divine Grandeur.

I place Eternal in quotes because “qayam” means permanent, eternal in the sense of taking up infinite time. G-d, however, is simply outside of the stream of time altogether. It’s not that He spans all of time, but that time simply has no meaning in a discussion of G-d’s existence. (Kind of like asking where “1 + 1 = 2″ is.)

And yet He is “Alive” in the sense of being the Cause of an animated, changing, and ever-improving (progressing) existence.

Shehechazarta bi nishmasi bechemlah: for You have returned my soul within me with compassion…

This phrase is problematic. Who is the “me”? I here am speaking as though I were a body, and thus thanking G-d for the soul He placed within me. However, I am the soul, placed within the body! Shouldn’t we say something more like “for You have returned me to my body with compassion”?

There are two modalities (at least) of Jewish Prayer. One is the formal prayer of prewritten words. In them we say the things we ought to be thinking, to learn from them and internalize the priorities we ought to have. To relate to G-d by becoming the kind of person who is more related to G-d. In the other, the prewritten words are less essential, more of a scaffolding, if there are all. It is the child crying out her needs to the Parent, sharing with G-d our joys and trevails, our happiness and our burdens.

One signal for which of those modes a given prayer is in is whether it is written in the singular or the plural. The attitude we are to internalize places us as members of the community first. Therefore, such prayers are in the plural, “Heal us Hashem our G-d and we shall be healed”. (More on this distinction, here.)

This prayer isn’t like that. “Modeh aniI thank”. In the singular, speaking only of myself. It’s an expression of my relationship to G-d not in the ideal, but as it actually is. Not with the abstract knowledge of being a soul placed within a body, but within our illusion and confusion that we are that body.

Rabba emunasekha — great is Your faithfulness

This closing is based on a pasuq, Eikhah 3:23:

כב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא תָמְנוּ כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו.
כג חֲדָשִׁים לַבְּקָרִים רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

22 The kindnesses of G-d — for they have no end, for His Compassion does not end
23 They are new every morning, rabba emunasekha — great is Your Faithfulness

What is the faithfulness here?

Some commentaries take the verse to refer to our belief in the resurrection. We trust that G-d will someday resurrect the dead, confidence built from how He wakes us every morning.

Others see it referring to the daily miracles, the ones we take for granted and for some silly reason think of as “natural”. And then get upset when the gift isn’t given in full measure, rather than grateful for the times it does. Meaning: Getting sick is not really a reason to petition G-d with “Why me?” That takes health for granted, as something coming to us, a right of which the sick are deprived. Health is a precious gift. The daily sunrise is a previous gift, even if we don’t expect it to end for the foreseeable future.

And thus we thank G-d not just that He allows us to wake up, but that He does so so reliably that it takes this ritual to help us remember He is there doing it!

A third thought is that we’re referring to G-d’s faith in us! G-d returned my soul to me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. He gave me so many opportunities, and I wasted so many of them. And even though I wasn’t as good as I could have been yesterday, G-d gives me another chance today. Truly, “Great is Your Faith”!

Types of Thought: Dictionary

A while back, last time I had a chance to complete a blog entry, I promised a dictionary of terms for thought. When writing it up, I noticed I had MUCH more to say on da’as / dei’ah / yedi’ah than the other topics. In any case, here is the result.

Da’as:

According to the Rambam, yedi’ah is at the center of man’s mission. We exist in order to gain da’as of Hashem. In the Aristotelian understanding of knowledge, to know something is to have its form in one’s mind. Form, in the sense of form and substance — tzurah vechomer. It is man’s ability to have elements of Tzuras E-lokim in one’s soul that gives it the ability to survive eternally. This unity of knower and known is why yedi’ah is also the term used for marital intimacy.

Also, to the Rambam, da’as is tied to one’s personality. The laws of how one is to behave, what we call today “middos“, are to him Hilkhos Dei’os. This too he probably would have framed using Aristotelian terminology. Aristotle saw emotions as primarily a product of thought. Thus, da’as, the knowledge which shapes one’s thoughts are indeed dei’os.

Today we see it more as a cycle, thought shaping our emotions, but our emotions also shaping what we choose to think. To quote someone I enjoy quoting (me), “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying conclusions the heart already reached.” This is why we find that the experience of a Shabbos has done more to preserve Judaism, and to bring people back to observing halakhah, than all of the philosophical arguments ever could. It is the heart of the Kuzari’s objection to reliance on philosophy; what any one philosopher proves, another proves something contradictory, each convinced their proof is solid — and in accordance with their personal predilections.

But this does not distance da’as from dei’os. Quite the reverse. Because they feed each other in a cycle, they are even less separable; it is harder to define where one ends and the other begins.

It would seem from the introduction to Orchos Tzadiqim that in her opinion (most scholars believe that the anonymous author of this originally Yiddish work was a woman), dei’os are the capacities themselves. Ka’as (anger) for example. She switches to the word middah when discussing the frequency or intensity of various dei’os. One person may become angry frequently. Another, perhaps less often, but when he goes into a rage he loses all self control. “Middah” is being used here in it very literal sense, the “dimensions” of the dei’ah.

Da’as reemerges in a central role in Telzhe, where the Mussar Shmuess (impassioned Mussar talk) is reinvented as R’ Eliyahu Meir Bloch’s Shiurei Da’as. Rather than using fervor and passionate experience to influence emotion, in Telzhe they focused on the intellect as their route to perfecting middos. Telzhe aspired to acquire tzurah, not the Tzurah of Hashem (as the Rambam had it), but of His Thought, the Torah. To acquire a tzurah of Torah in one’s mind, da’as Torah as a personal goal of anyone engaged in Torah study. (As opposed to something solely possessed by a distinct class of “the gedolim“.) By delving into the Why of a halachic dilemma, the Telzher reaches depths below the division of halakhah and aggadita. Connecting halakhah to its values so that one becomes unified with those values.

Chokhmah:

Tanya: Initial insight. The moment when you get an idea, but haven’t articulated it to yourself yet to work it through and develop it. The Baal haTanya notes that the word is an anagram for “koach mah — the potential of ‘what is?’” It is from this that he builds his understanding of the Chaba”d progression. (See last month’s contrast of Chaba”d, looking at the emanation of wisdom from G-d to man, and Deva”sh, focusing on man’s use and control of the resulting knowledge.)

Rav S.R. Hirsch: Accumulated knowledge. Arguably the opposite of the Tanya’s understanding.

The Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary (usually called “the BDB”), based in Gesenius’s earlier (German) work, is a primary academic work on Biblical Hebrew. By far, not a “frum” work. There isn’t that much I can understand in their explanations of how they derive a definition, as they tend to involve cognates in other semitic languages, such as Amharic, Syriac, etc… printed in their native alphabets.

Here, the BDB gives “wisdom” or “technical skill”. An example of this usage is the Chumash’s description of the skilled and talented artisans who did the work on the mishkan — those who were “chakhmei leiv“.

Perhaps this is a facet of the general Chaba”d vs. Deva”sh dispute. Art requires two things: (1) Divine inspiration, a gift; (2) practice, practice and more practice. In nusach Sefard, where the focus in on G-d’s gift of intelligence, the chakhmei leiv are associated with initial ineffable insight granted by the Almighty. In nusach Ashkenaz, chakhmah is accumulated laboriously over years of practice, trial and error.

Binah:

Rav Hirsch: The ability to make distinctions into categories (bein) through inductive reasoning, and the ability to inductively reason from a combination of ideas to their conclusions (livnos).

Tevunah:

The BDB entry on binah has a sub-entry on tevunah, for which I was unable to find a precise definition in by a mesoretic source, and yet arises in Tana”kh and tefillah often enough to require our attention. They translate “tevunah” as the object of knowledge — the known, or that which could be known. It would seem to refer to the product of binah.

Seikhel:

According to Rav Hirsch, haskeil is applying understanding. As we suggested in the comparison of Deva”sh vs Chaba”d, haskeil is bringing that da’as and binah to practical use. (For what it’s worth, the BDB has “consider or understand”.)

Higayon:

Rav Hirsch identifies a group of related roots:

  • hayah: to exist
  • chayah: to live, an intense form of existence, just as ches makes a sound that is similar but more intense than that of the hei
  • hineih: a place in which something exists, thus one worth noting
  • hagah: imagination. To picture something in one’s mind, a shadow existence.

It would seem that R’ SR Hirsch’s understanding of higayon is similar to what the Rambam calls koach hadimyon. (See “I Had a Dream“, “Ruach Memalela” and “Yeitzer haRa” for explorations of koach hadimyon.) When we say on Shabbos that we should praise Hashem “alei higayon bechinor — upon the higayon with the harp”, we could well be speaking with the sensory experience and the feelings it induces.

Rashi comments on Rabbi Eliezer’s final advice to his students (Berakhos 28b):

Be mindful of the honor of your peers, and keep your children from higayon, and place them between the knees of Torah scholars, and when you pray know before whom you stand – and on account of this you will merit the life of the world to come.

Rashi explains that higayon here means study of Tanakh “which draws the heart”, and R’ Eliezer fears may be to the exclusion of other Torah studies. This assumes a similar definition

Ramchal, on the other hand, wrote “Seifer haHigayon” on the subject of logic. Assuming a quite different definition than dimyon. The Ramchal may be drawing from the same tradition as Rav Hai Gaon, who understands Rabbi Eliezer as warning his students against sophistry, learning rules of argument to the point where you can argue any position, with no regard to truth.

Eitzah:

Rav SR Hirsch associates the 7 lamps of the menorah with the verse in Yeshayah (11:2) “ונחה עליו רוח ה’ רוח חכמה ובינה רוח עצה וגבורה רוח דעת ויראת ה – and it rested upon him the spirit of G-dliness, the spirit of chokhmah and binah, the spirit of eitzah and gevurah, the spirit of da’as and awe of G-d.” Rav Hirsch illustrates this menorah with da’as (applied knowledge), eitzah and chokhmah (accumulated knowledge) branching to the right, yir’as Hashem, gevurah (strength to stay steadfast) and binah (reasoning) to the left. With ru’ach Hashem as the middle. This introduces eitzah as similar in kind to da’as and chokhmah, and therefore within the bounds of our discussion.

Rav Hirsch connects eitzah with other words meaning to aim. To give an eitzah is to give someone else direction. Whereas da’as is the product of my own thought, eitzah is applied knowledge acquired from without.

(Interestingly, a word in Biblical Hebrew for an advisor is aveh, from which Rav Hirsch says we get av, father. An interesting contrast to binah and ben – son.)

Zikaron:

We touched on zikaron earlier, when discussing the relative strengths of da’as and binah between men and women. Man, zakhar, has the greater propensity for da’as, learned modes of thought, as opposed to the more free-ended reason of binah. The commonality of root implies that zikaron includes the capacity for da’as. The obligation to destroy “zeikher Amaleiq – memorials to Amaleiq” uses zeikher in the same sense as modern usage, memory. I would therefore suggest that zikaron is a general term, including da’as, tevunah, eitzah, and R’ Hirsch’s version of chokhmah — applied knowledge, logical conclusions, taught advice and collected wisdom.

I hope this little mini-dictionary will help someone say their tefillos with greater kavanah, as all these similar terms can be uttered with knowledge of more of their connotations. Please feel free to add your own experiences davening these words to the comments section below.

Benching Gomel

I just wrote the following in an email to some friends. I thought it might interest others.

First, note that it’s called “gomel“, from a key word in the text of the berakhah. But it’s the same /גמל/ as “gemillus chasadim“. It means to support over time, rather than a single moment of loving-kindness. (The same root yields “gamal“, “camel”.) We make the blessing when we can feel G-d’s chesed, but the topic of the blessing is the continued chesed we get over an entire lives.

The gomel blessing is associated with life-saving situations. Which then raises the question of whether crossing the sea or the desert by airplane should really be on the list.

However, those who coined the berakhah were doing so as a stand-in for the qorban Todah, the Thanksgiving offering, which in turn was associated in particular with four kinds of rescue. In other words, anyone may offer such a sacrifice, but anyone who experienced one of these four were obligated to.

Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav (Berakhos 54b): Four must express gratitude: Those who go down to the sea, those who cross the desert, one who was ill and was cured, and one who was imprisoned and was released.

(In Igeros Moshe (Orach Chaim 2:59) R’ Moshe Feinstein rules that the rule about saying gomel whenever crossing the sea is really about whenever one isn’t on land. Historically, this meant being over water, but today would include airplane flight. He therefore requires gomel after transcontinental flights even if no major bodies of water are crossed. Another modern debate is that many who do not rule like Rav Moshe Feinstein still require benching gomel when crossing the Great Salt Lake in Utah, whereas others do not. What is a “sea” for this purpose?)

This list is based on Psalms 107‘s descriptions of the times we called out to Hashem during the Exodus and He saved us. The connection to the Psalm is also cited by Rashi on the verse describing the offering, Lev. 7:12.

The Vilna Gaon spells out how Rav’s list occurred in the Exodus: (1) Going down into the Red Sea, (2) crossing the Sinai desert, (3) being cured from the whipping and other torture of the Egyptians, and (4) leaving servitude.

Connecting the sacrifice and therefore the blessing to the Exodus would make the fact that there are four items on the list more tantalizing. It echoes the four cups of wine at the seder, and the explanations and meanings given for them.

But what all this says to me (now for the personal observation) is that gomel isn’t only about being saved. The Exodus was a visible demonstration of the “Hand” of G-d in history and in human events. The visible demonstration which is placed at the foundation of Judaism. Gomel is particularly mandatory when we have a shadow (I already used “echoes” last paragraph) of that experience in our own lives.

Combining this with my opening thought about “gomel” and the idea that the blessing is really about the constant chesed in our lives that just happens to be more obvious at the moment, and we get:

Bentching gomel” is a recognition that all those little gifts from G-d that are all to easy take for granted are no less thanks-worthy than this major event which I can’t overlook, and teach me the lesson of the Exodus — that Hashem is constantly bestowing His Good to me.

Coronating G-d, part II — Pragmatics

I was recently discussing the ideas in my essay “Coronating G-d“. In it I utilized the Vilna Gaon’s distinction between a melekh (king) and a mosheil. A melekh rules with the support of his people, a mosheil rules by strength. I suggested that the reason why accepting Hashem as Melekh is such a central part of Rosh haShanah is that a Melekh has more room for mercy. By accepting Him as king ourselves, we enter the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah without the need for Hashem to impose His Will despite us.The person I was talking to asked what should have been an obvious question. “Okay, so how do we go about doing that?” And I surprised myself by realizing I didn’t know. How can I have ever said Shema, a tefillah described as qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim (accepting the yoke of [the One in] heaven), and not know what it is I’m supposed to be doing?

So, I put some thought to the subject.

Looking at Shema, we start by joining the community of Jewish (Shema Yisrael), and then proclaiming that despite our disparate perceptions of Him, Hashem is one and unique. This is an awareness of G-d’s uniqueness and power. True of a melekh or a mosheil, although here we’re actively acknowledging it. We accept the fact of Hashem’s rule.

And then, before the list of pragmatic mitzvos for keeping this message an active part of our day, we are told to “Love Hashem with all your heart (kol levavekha), all your soul, and all your resources.” Willingly bowing to that rule. This is the step of which we’re speaking, the shift from realizing Hashem is Mosheil to accepting Him as our Melekh.

Chazal comment (and quoted by Rashi) perhaps on the word “kol”, perhaps on the use of the two-veis word for heart “levavekha” rather than “libekha”, that this is with both of our inclinations — our good inclination and our evil one.

… veyishtachavu lefanekha kol haberu’im,
veyei’asu kulam agudah achas la’asos Retzonekh beleivav shaleim,
kemo sheyadanu, H’ E-lokeinu, shehashalton/shehashilton lefanekha…

… and all those who were created will bow before you, and they will all be made into a single union to do Your Will with a whole heart. For as we know, Hashem our G-d, that the rule/scepter is before You…

- Amidah for Yamim Nora’im

Bowing before Hashem because we acknowledge His rule is obvious. However, note again that this global union of worship is “with the whole heart”, a two-veis heart. Both inclinations. This to is because we know that He rules. But how does that cause us to engage our baser inclinations?

On Shabbos we say, “Yismekhu beMalkhusekha shomerei Shabbos veqor’ei oneg… — They shall rejoice in Your Kingship, those who keep Shabbos and call it pleasure..” It’s not enough to keep Shabbos. To be happily a subject of Hashem as King, we must find it an oneg, a pleasure.

It would seem that qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim involves accepting the idea that following His plan is what is best for you life. Not just fulfilling the mitzvos, but seeking to do so beleivav shaleim and with qeri’as oneg.

How does one do it? I must start with the first mitzvah that I don’t do and think I can. And with the first mitzvah I do begrudgingly and search the sources and the experiences it brings me to find its beauty. Then the second…

That is working toward the day when our teshuvah is rewarded, and “vehayah Hashem leMelekh al kol ha’aretz — Hashem will be Melekh over the whole world.” Bimheirah beyameinu, amein!

Birchos haTorah

This week’s shiur (audio recording) concludes a series on aspects of the soul. With Asher Yatzar we looked at man’s ability to exist in and relate to the physical world. This is followed by E-lokai Neshamah, and our connection to heaven and man’s higher calling. Now we look at the universe we hold within our heads, our ability to change and grow, and become better at existence on all three planes.

Some topics:

  • Who is holier: people or angels? Who is loftier?
  • Being and becoming
  • Hislamdus — self awareness, life as a learning experience
  • The ruach
  • On empty cups: cleaving to G-d and self improvement
  • The importance of saying birkhos haTorah
  • How many berakhos are there (is ha’Arev its own berakhah), and what kinds of learning require the berakhos?
  • Is the berakhos on learning Torah, or on the Torah lifestyle as a whole?
  • Meaning of the words and phrases.
  • The progression from learning, “sweetening”, remembering, carrying to future generations, and getting protection by being the Torah’s guarantor.
  • Torah as a means of growth — a tool for “becoming”.

E-lokai Neshamah

This week’s class was on E-lokai Neshamah. Some of the topics discussed:
  • Different opinions about why the berakhah doesn’t begin with the word “barukh”
  • The berakhah’s possible connection to Hamapil said before going to bed or Asher Yatzar
  • Is the berakhah primarily about waking up, or the resurrection?
  • Who is the “me” saying “the soul which You put within me”? Aren’t I my soul — how can it be placed within “me”?
  • More on the “anatomy” of the soul
  • The connection between the soul and the body
  • Different opinions on the nature and role of the resurrection.

Asher Yatzer

This week’s shiur began with a continuation of last week‘s discussion of qedushah (as in “asher qidishanu vemitzvosav”) and taharah (“al netilas yadayim”).The discussion of qedushah’s “separation for” and taharah’s “separation from” was used to flow into discussing the various vectors of human personality — with a detour into the Beis haMiqdash. (That parallel between man and miqdash actually comes up later in the shiur.) These three vectors can be seen as addressing the next triad of berakhos: Asher Yatzar, E-lokai Neshamah and Birkhos haTorah. (Other reasons for the structure were also given.)The rest of the shiur was a textual study of Asher Yatzar in light of the themes that recur in the various rishonim — often the same theme is associated by different rishonim to different parts of the text. Themes of birth, the wisdom of creation as a whole, Torah and human wisdom, maintenance of health vs being cured, and the wonderous fact that an intangible soul can be associated with a body. The major issues were:
  • Is the berakhah one of praise? If so, why do we sayor one of action?
  • What is the chokhmah being referred to in “who formed man with/of chokhmah”?
  • How do chalulim differ from neqavim, that the berakhah lists both? Does Hashem create holes, or does He allow them to exist by creating around them?
  • Why do we say “before Your throne of honor”, rather than “before You”?
  • Why do we speak of opening and closing holes in particular?
  • What’s the debate over wnether one should say “afilu sha’ah echas” (even one moment/hour)?
  • If the closing of a berakhah must always address one theme, how do “afilu sha’ah achas”, “rofei khol basar” and “umafli la’asos”?

With berakhos for the best of health and an enjoyable Shavu’os!

Al Netilas Yadayim

The audio recording (b”H, much clearer than my first attempt at recording a shiur) attached is from the “Tefillah: Beyond the Words” class, a discussion of the berakhah of “Al Netilas Yadayim“.

  • The class starts with a discussion of berakhos in general:
    • Various opinions of the meaning of the word “barukh”,
    • the structure,
    • three conceptions of how to make a berakahah.
  • Approaches to doing mitzvos:
    • To obtain holiness
    • to fulfill the commandment of G-d
    • Perspectives on the reason for morning hand-washing, and how it relates to holiness.

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.

Origin

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.

Meaning

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:

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.”

Structure

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.

Kavanah

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.