What’s in a beracha (blessing)- by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 8, 2012

In this past Shabbat’s parsha Yaakov blesses his children with unusual blessings.  We imagine blessings to be good wishes or promises for the future, here though Yaakov seems to bless his children by describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, in some instances, such as Shimon and Levi, only mentioning their weaknesses.  What kind of blessing is this?


Perhaps Jacob, whose whole life has revolved around the question of blessings from his brother to his fight with the angel, understands that a true blessing is not a prophecy, or good wishes, or a hope for some future bounty, but rather a deeper look at the self and one’s potential.  To help the receiver of the blessing truly create their own blessing.


Human beings have strengths and weaknesses and usually they are two sides of the same characteristic.  As the Talmud says “whoever is greater than his neighbor so too is his yetzer (his [evil] inclination) greater than his neighbor.”  All aspects of our personality are both a strength and a weakness.   A true beracha is not a mystical incantation bestowing good luck; it is a kind of therapeutic interpretation, a highlighting of one’s midot, ones character traits, and shedding light upon how they can be used as a strength instead of a weakness.


This idea can help us understand several Rabbinic ideas regarding berachot.


Why is the beracha of a hedyot, a regular person, not to be taken lightly (Talmud Berachot 7a)?  Because a beracha is not prophecy or powerful incantation, rather it is insight into the receiver, a reflection on who they are.  Perhaps this is also why we do not bless ourselves, since one can not usually see themselves and their own strengths and weakness clearly.


The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly; we must make up for this by blessing them.  The logical undoing of judging someone wrongly (seeing their characteristics as weakness rather than strength, bad rather than good) is to bless them, to judge their personality licaf zecut, meritoriously, and find in them their strengths.


What about blessing God, which we do so often? It is in this vain quite appropriate to bless God.  In blessing Hashem we are finding Hashem where Hashem seemingly is not.  Looking deeper into life and the world and finding the tov, the good, the force of the Divine in the physical.  This finding of God’s goodness, as it were, is to bless God.  Berachot on food, on mitzvoth or natural wonders are all to find God where he is hidden, in this world.


This approach to blessings can help us to understand the following particularly strange piece of Talmud.


It was taught: Rabbi Ishmael bbn Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Jah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! l replied: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.  -Berachot 7a


God is blessed to use God’s midot, God’s characteristics, to benefit people.  This is the essence of a beracha, to help another to see the strengths of their midot and use them for good and not bad, even God in this case.


In our Torah portion, Vayichi, Yaakov, after a lifetime of wrangling for berachot, finds that he is the master of berachot.  He is a good parent in that he stays connected to all of his children no matter what they do and sees their different sides, their strengths and weaknesses, clearly.  He then points them out, like a good therapist, in the hopes that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be “blessed.”

Hearing the Divine –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 14, 2009

This week’s Torah portion Re’eh-“See” begins “See I place before you today blessing and curse, the blessing that you will listen to the Mitzvot….”  The Midrah on these verses quotes the two additional verses to bring to bear on our portion, “The mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light” and “The human soul is the candle of God.”   The human’s candle is the Mitzvah and God’s candle is the human soul.   What is this reciprocity?

The Sefat Emet, Rabi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger writes on this Midrash that in everything physical there is a Divine life force from the Source of Life.  (Indeed as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in the Sha’ar Ha’yichud V’haemunah, without this Divine life force nothing would exist.  The state of non-existence is the status quo, therefor it takes a life force from the Divine to give all things, even inanimate objects, a “soul” which gives them existence.)

Rabbi Yehudah Leib continues to explain that our job is to raise up these Divine sparks of Divine life force that are hidden in all physicality, which we do through Mitzvot.  God’s candle is the human soul means that God’s light is dependent upon us to liberate it from its hiding place within the physical, in this way God and God’s light is “dependant” upon us.

He writes that the blessing and curse the Torah speaks of at the beginning of our parsha is not a reciprocal reward and punishment, rather the inner point of Divine light in all things is itself the blessing that the Torah refers to that we will “hear” and “see” when we “listen to the mitzvoth.”

Similarly regarding Shabbat the Torah writes, and God “blessed” the Shabbat.  This notion of blessing regarding Shabbat is said in the same vain as what we have explained.  The Shabbat is (the most) conducive time in which to become aware of the inner Divine in all things.   On Shabbat just eating, just having pleasure is holy and can reveal the Divine life force in what we enjoy.  Not to separate ourselves from the world but to utilize it so we can hear the divine in all things, this is our mission on earth.  Shabbat Shalom.

Goodbye “Shelo Asani – God didn’t make me a …” Hello “She’asani Yisrael” – “God made me a Yisrael” Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 29, 2009

First a Halachic Discourse -scroll down for a more “warm fuzzy” approach:

In our versions of Talmud Masechet Menachot, 43b, Rabbi Meir says that a person, “Adam”, has to say three blessings every day: She’asani Yisrael, Shelo Asani Isha and Shelo Asani Bur. On the next line Rav Acha Bar Ya’akov replaces “Shelo Asani Bur” (God didn’t make me an ignoramus) with “Shelo Asani Aved” (God didn’t make me a slave).

The G’marra questions why we need to say both Shelo Asani Aved and Shelo Asani Isha, and Rashi, in his second explanation of that answer, says that we need to say both in order to come up with the required daily allowance of 100 b’rachot. The Bach (O.C 46) argues that the main reason for saying all three is to increase the number of b’rachot we say to 100, and that is the main reason for saying three b’rachot in the negative (shelo asani): if you would say the positive “She’asani Yisrael” then you could not say “Shelo asani aved, isha”. The Aruch HaShulchan (46, yud) like the Bach that rules that  if you say She’asani Yisrael, you cannot say the other two negative b’rachot – you would be “stuck” having said just one, positive, B’racha.

The Rosh (Rabeinu Asher) in the back of Masechet B’rachot, upholds the version that we have in Menachot – “She’asani Yisrael”. The Gaon MiVilna affirms it is the correct language to use in his Biur HaGra on the Shulchan Aruch.

Even though the three negative blessings have prevailed in our traditions and siddurim, and She’asani Yisrael has not, the Magen Avraham of three centuries ago and the Mishna B’rura of one century ago mention that in their respective periods there were siddurim – perhaps many of them – that had the b’racha of she’asani Yehudi or Yisrael, but that that is a mistake of the printers.

In fact, many of the classic halachik commentators feel that the negativity of the traditional b’rachot is strange – and they work to come up with answers. Moreover, even according to the Shulchan Aruch, the positive b’racha of She’asani Yisraeli may have its place – with a convert – and even those who reject the positive version of “She’asani Yisrael/Yehudi/Ger” for a convert, do not reject it because it is not a legitimate formulation (matbe’a), but, rather, because it does work for a convert who has made himself a Jew, rather than being made so by God.

Therefore, I suggest that we follow the b’racha according to the G’ra and the Rosh and our Talmud, and say, “She’asani Yisrael” instead of the negative, and that a woman says“She’asani Yisraelit” instead of the negative. Once the first b’racha is said in this way, the way it appears in the G’marra Menachot, then we have no choice, based on the p’sak of the Aruch HaShulchan (from the Bach) , to avoid saying the final two, negative b’rachot of “Shelo Asani Aved” (God did not make me a slave) and “Shelo Asani Isha”(God did not make me a woman), since they become unnecessary after such an all encompassing, powerful, and positive statement of Jewish identity of “She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit”.

Now for some “hashkafa” – philosophical context:

She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit” is a beautiful b’racha, thanking God for making me Jewish – proud to be Jewish, excited to begin the day as a Yisrael.

Rather than beginning the day with negative b’rachot, which accentuate the G’marra of “noach lo la’adam shelo nivra” – it would be truly better for a human being not to have been created at all – maybe it is now time to begin the day with a positive b’racha “k’mo sha’ar b’rachot shemevarchim al hatova” (Magen Avraham, 46, 9) – like all other b’rachot that we say blessing God for good things. How do you want to wake up in the morning: happy to be alive, or frustrated that you are still stuck in this world? Perhaps it depends on the day!

But “She’asani Yisrael” matches very well with the story of the angel’s fighting with Jacob in Genesis 32, 26: “Vayomer, Shalchein ki alah hashacher”, as Rashi interprets: Send me away, Oh Ya’akov, for I have to say the morning blessings of the angels. These angels, presumably, are happy to have been created! Then two verses later, the angel gives Jacob his morning blessing: “Lo Ya’akov ye’ameir shimcha, ki im Yisrael”! Your name will not be the negative Ya’akov any more, but, rather, the positive, glorious Yisrael! Can’t you imagine Jacob there and then saying: Blessed are you God who has made me Israel!

There is no better way to bring Jacob’s early morning transformation to life than by us, too, saying every morning, with pride and optimism, the way our G’marra has it: “She’asani Yisrael” – proud to be a “Yisrael – and through that sweeping away – halachically – centuries of the three negative birchot Hashachar that perhaps were desperately waiting for the day when proud, committed Israelites, would feel blessed enough to push them aside for a brand new morning, just as Jacob’s name was changed so many years ago.

Asher Lopatin