Notes from Limmud 2006
The Secret Life of Berachot
[This talk was on Shabbos, so I was unable to take notes, and cannot now remember everything Sarah said that was not on the sheet.]
The meaning of ברכה
What does ברכה [blessing] mean? Here is what the dictionary has to say:
בָּרַךְ, vb., kneel, bless (NH id; Ar. بَرَكَ baraka; Eth. በረከ baraka; Aram. בְּרֵךְ (praise)
4. salute, greet, with an invocation of blessing (stronger than שלום): בך יברך ישראל with thee will Israel bless Gen 48:20. a. in meeting Gen 47:7 2K 4:29, 10:15, 1 Sam. 13:10. b. in departing Gen 24:60, 47:10, 1 Kings 8:66. c. by messengers 1 Sam 25:14 2 Sam 8:10 1 Ch. 18:10. d in gratitude Job 31:20 Prov. 30:11 Neh 11:2. e. morning salutation Prov. 27:14. f. congratulations for prosperity Gen. 12:3, 27:29, Num. 24:9, 1 Kings 1:47, Psalms 49:19, 62:5. g. in homage 2 Sam 14:22, Psalms 72:15. h. in friendliness 2 Sam 21:3.
בֶּרֶךְ, n.f., knee (As. birku, Eth ብርክ, Aram. בֶּרֶךְ, Ar. rukba [I think]) Is. 45:23; dual בִּרְכַּיִם.
בִּרָכָה, n.f., blessing (Eth በረከት, Aram. בִּרְכָּא, Ar. بَرَﻜﺔ baraka, NH as Heb.)
בְּרֵכָה, n.f., pool, pond (Ar. بْرَﻜﺔء baraka, Sab. תכרב, Aram. בְּרֵכְתָּא) 2 Sam 2:13, 4:12, 2 Kings 18:17 (= Is 36:2), 20:20, Neh. 3:16, Is 7:3, 22:9.11, construct בְּרֵכַת 2 Sam 2:13, 1 Kings 22:38, Nrh. 2:24, 3:15, Nahum 2:9, pl. בְּרֵכוׂת Ecc. 2:6, Ct 7:5.
(Transliterating that Ethiopic (inner rysmiel: Perfectly normal obsessive-compulsive behaviour...) was interesting. If your browser can't render it, rather than, as other Semitic languages, representing vowels as diaritics on the consonants, it appears to modify the consonant shapes depending on the vowels, so there's a different form of, for example, bet for ba, be, bo, bu, etc, leading to a profusion of letter forms..)
Berachot 33a ברכות לג א R. Yochanan said, the Men of the Great Assembly (ca. 900-300 BCE*) themselves fixed for Israel blessings, prayers, sanctifications and differentiations. אמר רבי יוחנן אנשי כנסת הגדולה תקנו להם לישראל ברכות ותפלות קדושות והבדלות׃
(* Yeah, right. Where did she get those dates!?)
In actuality, the forms of blessings appear to have been more fluid down to Talmudic times, whereupon (Berachot 40b) they were fixed such that every blessing had to either start or end (or both) with the formula ברוך אתה ה׳ (blessed are you, O LORD), and had to have three components: to contain the Tetragrammaton, to refer to G-d's kingship (מלך העולם), and [I forget the third].
Those of you for whom benching (Grace After Meals) drags on and on, and even the shorter form is too long, may be interested to know that there is someone mentioned in the Talmud, Benjamin the Shepherd, who used to recite a one-line form of benching after eating bread, in Aramaic; and that Rav said it was valid (as the first הכרב (only) of benching). (Others said it was not.) The form Sarah quoted me was בְּרִיךְ רַחְמָנָה מַלְכָּה דְעָלְמָה מָרֵה דְהַאי פְּיתָּא "Blessed be the All-Merciful, king of the Universe, the owner of this bread", but when I tracked it down to Berachot 40b (translation here), it didn't look like the phrase about G-d's dominion (מַלְכָּה דְעָלְמָה) is there. (Does somebody want to translate down to the bottom of the דף for me properly?) The Jewish Encyclopedia alleges this is still taught to children to young to learn the full benching.
Minchot 43b מנחות מג ב R. Meir said, a man is obliged to recite a hundred blessings every day as it is said, "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your G-d ask from you?" רבי מאיר אומר חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום שנאמר ועתה ישראל מה ה׳ אלהיך שואל מעמך׃
The explanation of this derivation is left as an exercise for the reader (well, it's certainly not on the handout!)
Many ברכות feature the formula אשר קדשנו—"who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to...". Here is the textual justification:
Deuteronomy 17:9-17:11 דברים יז ט–יא And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment: And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall shew thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee: According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left. ובאת אל הכהנים הלוים ואל השפט אשר יהיה בימים ההם ודרשת והגידו לך את דבר המשפט׃ ועשית על פי הדבר אשר יגידו לך מן המקום ההוא אשר יבחר ה׳ ושמרת לעשות ככל אשר יורוך׃ על פי התורה אשר יורוך ועל המשפט אשר יאמרו לך תעשה לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל׃
How can humans bless G-d?
There was a discussion at this stage as to what exactly blessing someone means, and when the Bible talks about humans blessing G-d, what did this mean, and did it mean the same as when G-d blessed humans.
Berachot 7a ברכות ז א R. Ishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said, "I went into the Holy of Holies to offer incense, and I saw the Crowned Lord of Hosts seated upon His Throne. He said to me, 'Ishmael, my son, bless me.' I responded, 'Lord of the Universe, may it be Your will that Your mercies subdue Your anger, and that Your mercies be revealed in all Your attributes, and that You conduct Yourself with Your sons in the attribute of mercy; and that You judge them not according to the strict letter of justice.' And G-d bowed His head to me. This should teach us that the blessing of an unimportant person be not light in our eyes." אמר רבי ישמעאל בן אלישע פעם אחת נכנסתי להקטיר קטורת לפני ולפנים וראיתי אכתריאל יה ה׳ צבאות שהוא יושב על כסא רם ונשא ואמר לי ישמעאל בני ברכני אמרתי לו יהי רצון מלפניך שיכבשו רחמיך את כעסך ויגולו רחמיך על מדותיך ותתנהג עם בניך במדת הרחמים ותכנס להם לפנים משורת הדין ונענע לי בראשו׃ וקמשמע לן שלא תהא ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך׃
Shabbat 89a שבת פט א
R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on High, he found G-d making ornaments for the letters*. G-d said to him, "There comes no greeting from you?" Moses replied, "May a serf, then, greet his Master?"
G-d answered, "But you may encourage Me." Moses responded at once, "And now, I pray You, let the power of the Lord be great, as You have said." (Num 14:17)
רבי יהושע בן לוי בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקדוש ברוך הוא שהיה קושר כתרים לאותיות׃ אמר לו משה אין שלום בעירך אמר לפניו כלום יש עבד שנותן שלום לרבו אמר לו היה לך לעזרני׃ מיד אמר לו ועתה יגדל נא כח ה׳ כאשר דברת׃
* There's quite a few Midrashim that open this way.
Sifre Deut., par. 346, Pesikta Buber 102b:
Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai said: "You are My witnesses, says the Lord, and I am G-d." (Isaiah 43:10) When you are My witnesses, I am G-d, and when you are not My witnesses, I am not (your) G-d.
Shabbat 133b, Mechilta Shirah, 3:
Similarly, he continues, "This is my G-d and I will make Him lovely" (Exodus 15:2) When I praise Him, he is lovely, and when I do not praise Him, He is, so to speak, lovely in Himself... Again, when "Unto You do I lift up my eyes, (then), You Who sit in the Heavens" (Psalms 123:1). Otherwise, (it were as if) He should not be sitting in the Heavens.
Curses curse those who utter them.
—Leviticus Rabbah 15, 7
He who utters blessings is blessed; he who utters curses is cursed.
—Ruth Rabbah, 1, 3
He who blesses the Lord is likewise blessed.
—Zohar, i, 250a
It is proper for a man to praise the Lord for every breath he takes.
—Genesis Rabbah 14, 9
Berachot 9:5 ברכות ט ה It is a man's duty to bless G-d for the untoward events of life [by saying, "Blessed be the faithful Judge"], just as he blesses Him for the good. חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה
Why was death the consequence of the census of Israel in the time of David? Because blessing does not attend a thing which is counted and numbered. And where there is no blessing, curses enter in.
—Zohar, ii, 187b
A person who enjoys the pleasures of this world without a blessing is called a thief because the blessing is what causes the continuation of the divine flow into the world.
—Peri Ez Hadar