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