Most People Pray For God’s Blessings, So Why Do Jewish Prayers Bless God? – OpEd


Most people pray for God’s blessings. Jews bless God for giving them opportunities to praise God by doing something God wants done, like appreciating our daily activities.

The interactive Brit/covenant between God and the Jewish People is the foundation of the Jewish religion and energizer of Israel’s survival. Every time Jews repeat a rabbinic blessing we openly acknowledge that spiritual reality.

The standard beginning of almost all Jewish blessings is: ‘Barukh attah Adonai’—’Blessed are You God’ which is difficult to render into English because it seems absurd for tiny humans to “bless” the God who created the whole universe. So this shocking phrase had to be rendered into English as “praised.”

The normal phrase in the Hebrew Bible is ‘Barukh Adonai asher—Bless God who . . .’. Barukh attah Adonai appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible; but this is the phrase that the Rabbis made normative for their liturgy, perhaps because of its more interactive connotations.

This phrase is very difficult to render in idiomatic English—”Be praised”? That misses the crucial attah. “Praised be You”. ‘Blessed be You’ or ‘We bless you’ are better, especially the later phrase because it points to interactive reciprocity.

The term “barukh” was employed in early rabbinic tradition by those who understood “barkhu et Adonai ham’vorakh” (Mishnah Tamid 5:1) to be one aspect of a mutual “gifting” between God and Israel: to God, Israel (the collective) gives words of acknowledgement and gratitude, and God gives Israel all kinds of enrichment and challenge [for example the blessing said when hearing about the death of someone you know].

This “reciprocation,” this mutual gifting, in the context of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God that makes God “barukh,” “gifted,” if you will, by Israel with words of praise, even as God “gifts” Israel with the “fruit of the vine,” and all the other things mentioned at the end of our various prayers.

That’s the individual’s personal part of the covenantal relationship, the interactive Brit/covenant between God and the whole Jewish People including all converts to Judaism..

Only in the Hebrew Scripture are humans not only gifted and blessed by God, but humans are even able to bring benefit to God in some unknowable way with our own words. To bless the Lord is to bring God a verbal offering: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” (Psalm 51:15) in response to “You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips.” (Psalm 21:2)

Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser points to an amazing statement in Talmud Berachot 7a: “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha [a rabbi who was also a High Priest] says: “I once entered the innermost part of the Temple to offer incense and had a vision of The Crowned God, Adonai of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne; who said to me: ‘Ishmael, My son, bless Me [barcheini]!’

I replied: ‘May it be Your will that Your compassion overcome Your anger. May Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes. May You deal with Your children compassionately. May You not judge us solely with strict justice!’ And God nodded to me.”

We learn from this that the blessing of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly. If God says that God wants to be blessed by “us little human beings,” who am I to correct God? To me, this is a great example of rabbinic Judaism’s “audacious humility” (or is it “humble audacity”?) — we Jews claim the right to improve upon God’s creation; and even to improve God’s reputation on this planet by submitting ourselves to God’s will. I agree with him and I’ll stick with “Blessed are You…”

The concept of reciting 100 blessings daily is ascribed to the Talmud Menahot 43b in the name of Rabbi Meir. It is derived from Deuteronomy 10:12-13 which states: “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him; to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good.”

How is it possible to continually “serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”? By saying blessings daily and appreciating daily activities we sanctify God’s creation. One way the Jewish tradition has taught the value of gratitude to Jews is to teach us the importance of saying blessings for the many things we experience, both in our ordinary daily and weekly life, and at occasional extraordinary times.

It is a Mitsvah (Jewish religious duty) to say blessings at every meal over food and drink. Every morning when we awake it is a Mitsvah to say several blessings because various parts of our mind and body still work. During morning and evening prayers 18 blessings are said, and there are blessings for the weekly celebration of the Sabbath.

There are also blessings to say for special occasions; for our sages urged us to thank God for as many blessings as we can, since the more blessings you can say, the more blessed you are. Indeed, Jewish tradition maintains that everyone who is able to say 100 blessings a day is truly blessed.

Among the special occasion blessings there is a blessing for seeing a non-Jewish sage and another one for seeing a Jewish sage. There is a blessing for hearing good news and another one for hearing bad news in accordance with Rabbi Huna’s view that we need both joy and suffering to experience a holy life. 

Here are a few examples of blessings for special occasions:

  • On beholding fragrant trees:
 Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, creator of fragrant trees.
  • On seeing trees in blossom: 
Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, whose world lacks nothing we need, who has fashioned good creatures and lovely trees that enchant the heart.
  • On seeing an unusual looking person:
 Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, who makes every person unique.
  • On the Divine value of pluralism and human variety when seeing a large number of people: Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, the Sage of esoterica, for just as no person’s opinion is like that of another, so their faces are different from one another.
  • On seeing evidence of charitable efforts:
 Praised be Adonai our God, ruler of space and time, who clothes the naked.
  • On seeing people who overcome adversity:
 Praised be Adonai our God, ruler of space and time, who gives strength to the weary.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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