One of the core fundamentals of Judaism is the recitation of berakhot, “blessings”. On the simplest level, a blessing serves as a little bit of gratitude to God for what He bestows upon us. A Jew must be grateful at all times. In fact, it is the very root of the word Yehudi, which comes from lehodot, “to thank”, and from Leah thanking God for blessing her with a fourth child, Yehuda. As is well-known, a Jew is encouraged to make 100 blessings over the course of a single day. This ensures that a Jew remains grateful and positive always, and such a positive attitude is a valuable key to a successful and happy life.
Yet, ironically, the first people who make blessings in the Torah are not Jews at all! The first person to make a blessing with the formula of barukh followed by God’s Name is actually Noah (Genesis 9:26). This was when he blessed his son Shem. In turn, the next mention of barukh in the Torah is when Shem blessed Abraham (Genesis 14:19). However, both of these cases involve a person giving a blessing to another person, which is a little different than reciting a berakhah simply to thank God. And so, we find that the first person to truly recite a berakhah was Eliezer, in this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah. This is when Eliezer thanked God for helping him succeed in his mission to find a suitable spouse for Isaac (Genesis 24:27).
Our Sages would later institute an actual berakhah with a specific text to recite upon achieving some great success, or hearing wonderful news (Berakhot 54a). The formula for this berakhah begins like every other (Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh haOlam…) and concludes with the words hatov v’hametiv, thanking God “Who is good and bestows goodness”. There is also an opposite blessing to recite upon hearing devastating news: Barukh… dayan ha’emet, affirming that God is the sole True Judge in this world and surely knows what’s best.
In the same pages of the Talmud, we are presented with many other interesting blessings that people today are generally unfamiliar with. While most are careful with blessings before and after eating food, as well as after going to the bathroom, hagomel after perilous situations, and reciting sh’echeyanu on happy occasions, new fruits, and significant new items, there are actually many more wonderful blessings that a Jew can recite throughout the day. With these in mind, it becomes much easier to hit those important 100 blessings a day.
Wonders of Nature
The second Mishnah in the ninth chapter of Berakhot tells us that one should recite a blessing upon seeing zikin, zeva’ot, and lightning, hearing thunder, or experiencing strong winds. The Talmud explains that zeva’ot means earthquakes, while zikin are comets and shooting stars. The blessing for these phenomena is: Barukh… sh’kocho u’gvurato mal’e olam (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁכֹּחוֹ וּגְבוּרָתוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם), describing God’s great power and might filling the world.
Next, the Sages teach the blessing for seeing breathtaking “mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts”, or more broadly, any awesome “wildernesses”: Barukh… oseh ma’aseh beresheet (בָּרוּךְ עוֹשֵׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית) recalling God’s wisdom and majesty in Creation. This blessing can be said upon seeing a perfect, crystal-clear sky, though some of our Sages maintained that since the Temple was destroyed, such a sight is no longer truly possible. On the same page (Berakhot 59a), we are taught to recite a blessing on a rainbow. One teaching is that the blessing is zokher habrit (זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית), that God remembers His covenant with Noah, promising never to wipe out mankind again. An alternate teaching is that the text of the blessing is ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro (נֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָּים בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ), that God maintains “His covenant faithfully and upholds His Word”. Which one should be recited? Rav Pappa concludes that one should combine both into one blessing: barukh… zokher habrit v’ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro (בָּרוּךְ … זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית, וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָּים בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ).
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yehuda teaches a specific blessing for seeing the Mediterranean Sea, which was so important in the history and economy of ancient (and modern) Israel: Barukh… sh’asah et hayam hagadol (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂה אֶת הַיָּם הַגָּדוֹל), blessing God for “creating the Great Sea”. It should be noted that such blessings are said only if there has been a minimum of 30 days since last seeing these natural wonders. Since rain is also particularly important in Israel, when there is a nice and hearty downpour in the Holy Land the berakhah of hatov v’hametiv mentioned above is recited, too.
It is vital to mention here that while the simple reason for reciting blessings is to thank God, we should not forget the deeper Kabbalistic reason for doing so. Recall that the purpose of a berakhah is actually to rectify the very cosmos. As taught by the Arizal, based on earlier mystical sources, the physical world is full of holy sparks, nitzotzot, that are trapped within material kelipot, “husks”. When reciting a berakhah before eating an apple, for instance, whatever holy sparks may be lurking inside are “unlocked” and restored to their place in the Heavens, thus serving to rectify Creation and bring the world one step closer to the Final Redemption.
This is the true secret purpose of every Jew, and the mystical reason for why Jews have been exiled to the four corners of the world. It is an opportunity to rectify all of nature. And for this reason, we have blessings not just for food, but for all material things, including mountains and rivers and deserts and so on. There are holy sparks hiding everywhere, and it is our task to liberate them. Thus, making a berakhah on a mountain is far more profound than a simple word of gratitude, it has a real, practical, spiritual, cosmic benefit.
Blessings on Unique Places
If you are traveling in Israel and, say, are visiting some ancient archaeological sites where idolatry was once practiced, there is a blessing to thank God for “uprooting idolatry from our land”, barukh… sh’akar avodah zarah [or avodat kokhavim] me’artzenu (בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁעָקַר עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה מֵאַרְצֵנוּ). If this place is outside of Israel, then one would say barukh… sh’akar avodah zarah [or avodat kokhavim] mimakom haze (שֶׁעָקַר עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה ממָּקוֹם הַזֶּה), for uprooting idolatry “from this place”.
If it is a place where a miracle happened for the Jewish people, or even for one’s own ancestors, one would say barukh… sh’asah nisim la’avoteinu bamakom haze (בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה). If it is a place where one experienced a personal miracle, then one would say barukh… sh’asah li nes bamakom haze (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂה לִי נֵס בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה).
When visiting a Jewish cemetery or a place where there are Jewish graves, one would recite that God “formed you in justice, nourished you in justice, sustained you in justice, and ‘gathered you in’ in justice, and is destined to raise you in justice, and knows your exact numbers, and is destined to resurrect you and re-establish you, blessed… is the One who revives the dead.”
בָּרוּךְ … אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין, וְזָן אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין, וְכִלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין, וְאָסַף אֶתְכֶם בַּדִּין, וְעָתִיד לַהֲקִימְכֶם בַּדִּין וְיוֹדֵעַ מִסְפַּר כּוּלְּכֶם, וְהוּא עָתִיד לְהַחְיוֹתְכֶם וּלְקַיֵּים אֶתְכֶם. בָּרוּךְ … מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים
Blessings on Unique People
On page 58a of Berakhot, we learn of a blessing to recite upon seeing a large gathering of Jews. A “large gathering” is defined as at least 600,000 Jews, which seemingly makes it unlikely that a person will ever be able to recite this blessing. However, since our Sages would not teach something impractical, some say that 600,000 is not meant to be taken as an exact figure, and is just meant to symbolize a very large and impressive number of Jews. The blessing for this is Barukh… chakham harazim (בָּרוּךְ חֲכַם הָרָזִים), that only God knows all secrets. This is referring to the secrets behind why each person is unique and distinct, and God alone knows why He made everyone so uniquely different. This is especially the case in relation to animals, since animals of the same species all look the same to us, whereas God makes every human with vastly different features, and gave us the ability to discern between people with all of their various traits.
Next, one who sees an exceptionally wise and learned Jew recites Barukh… sh’chalak me’chokhmato lire’av (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁחָלַק מֵחׇכְמָתוֹ לִירֵאָיו), that God apportioned some of His wisdom to those who fear Him. Meanwhile, if one sees an exceptionally wise and learned gentile the blessing is Barukh… sh’natan me’chokhmato l’basar vadam (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן מֵחׇכְמָתוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם), that the transcendental God gave over some of His wisdom to a human of “flesh and blood”. There are a couple of very similar blessings to recite upon meeting a king of Israel and a king of other nations. They are like the previous two blessings, except instead of the word me’chokhmato one would say mikvodo, “from His glory”. (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁחָלַק מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לִירֵאָיו and בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם)
On the following page of Talmud, we are reminded that one should recite sh’echayanu upon seeing a good friend or family member for the first time in 30 or more days. This is assuming one has not heard from that person at all. If it has been more than an entire year since having any connection to that person, one can even recite the blessing Barukh… mechayeh metim (בָּרוּךְ מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים), that God “resurrects the dead”! This is because a good friend or close family member is someone you would presumably be in touch with regularly, and if it has been more than a year without contact then there is a chance that person may have died (especially in olden days when there was no technology to connect people). Thus, from a subjective perspective, it is as if that beloved person has been revived.
We then get to the most interesting of the blessings. Our Sages say that one can recite a berakhah upon seeing a “spotted person, a black person, a red person, and a white person…” A spotted persons means either one with freckles, or as Rashi explains, a person with large “lentil-sized” beauty marks. The black person refers not just to a regular black person but someone who is uniquely and exceptionally black, just as the blessing on a “white person” obviously doesn’t mean any regular white person, but rather an albino who is exceptionally and entirely white. The red person is similarly someone who is very ginger, and not just a red-head (Rashi says one who is rouge). Others, like the Ra’ah (Rabbi Aharon haLevi of Gerona 1235-1290), say that this only applies to seeing a Jew who is spotted, black, red, or albino, since it is rare to see Jews with such features. Whatever the case, the blessing text is Barukh… meshaneh habriot (בָּרוּךְ מְשַׁנֶּה הַבְּרִיּוֹת), that God creates living beings with tremendous diversity. The same would be said upon seeing one who is very tall or very little, perhaps referring to a person with gigantism or dwarfism.
When a person has features that are not so positive, the Sages instituted saying the same blessing of barukh dayan ha’emet mentioned above. This would be recited upon seeing one who is “an amputee, blind, flat-headed, handicapped, afflicted with boils” or other serious skin ailments. Although it is hard to understand why God would cause someone to be afflicted with such challenges, we affirm that He is the True Judge who has His ways.
The Sages then speak of an intriguing blessing that initially seems out of place: In addition to the above, one should say the meshaneh habriot blessing upon seeing an elephant, a monkey, and a kifof. The latter might mean a “little monkey”, perhaps to distinguish from the “great apes”. Some say kifof is an owl. (Rashi translates kifof as a “vulture”, which is a great mystery that needs its own discussion, to be covered in the future, God willing). There is a special blessing on elephants, monkeys, and owls since they are exceedingly wise for animals and have human-like intellect. They live long, have memories and emotions, can be creative, and even mourn their dead!
Regarding elephants and monkeys, there is an even deeper reason for having a special blessing on them: There is an ancient tradition (first appearing in Sefer haYashar) that the builders of the Tower of Babel came in three distinct groups, and were punished in three distinct ways. Those that wished to “take over” God’s Name and subdue Him through language (as explored recently here) were dispersed around the globe and had their languages jumbled. Those that sought to conquer the Heavens were slain. And those that did it for idolatrous reasons were turned into apes and elephants! On a mystical level, this is why some apes and elephants have such human-like intelligence. (And, a person who makes a berakhah on these animals may actually be helping to rectify the sin of the Tower generation!)
It should be noted that for the above blessings (and the following one), they are only said either the very first time a person sees that unique creation, or after an intermission of at least 30 days.
The final berakhah is the most fascinating: upon seeing any beautiful creatures or people, and even beautiful trees, one should say barukh… sh’kakhah lo b’olamo (בָּרוּךְ שֶׁכָּכָה לוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ). This is difficult to translate. It means something like “blessed is God for having such things in His world”. However, the word lo is strange here, and a literal translation is more like “blessed is God that such is for Him in His world.” Huh? To be able to understand this word lo, and the whole blessing, we have to go elsewhere in the Talmud.
Our Sages famously teach that in any given generation, the world must always have 36 perfect tzadikim in the world (Sanhedrin 97b). This is based on a verse in Isaiah (30:18) that “praiseworthy are those who wait for Him.” That last term “for Him” is lo (לוֹ), the value of which is 36. Why are there specifically 36 such tzadikim and no more, or no less? To understand that, we need to go to back to Adam and the creation of the world.
As explored in depth before, the first Light of Creation was a unique, holy light (see Chagigah 12a and Beresheet Rabbah 12:6). It shone unimpeded for 36 hours (12 on each of the first three days) before God created physical luminaries on the Fourth Day. On the Sixth Day, God graced Adam with this divine light, and using this light Adam was able to see “from one end of the universe to the other”. Unfortunately, Adam sinned and lost the ability to use that light. At the conclusion of the first Shabbat, God took away the divine light and hid it under His throne. This is why that light is called the Or haGanuz, the “concealed light”. We see that the light was in Adam’s possession for a total of 36 hours, too: the 12 hours of the Sixth Day, plus the 24 hours of Shabbat, before God put it away. For whom did He reserve the light? Our Sages say that God hid away the light “for the tzadikim in the Time to Come…”
Now we can put things together: the number 36 is specifically associated with the Or haGanuz that shone for 36 hours. God then concealed the light only to be used by the most perfect tzadikim. Now we can understand why there are always 36 tzadikim in the world! In fact, the Talmud goes on to clarify the difference between these 36 special tzadikim and other righteous tzadikim (for there are surely more than just 36 in the world at any given time!) The difference is that the 36 are able to see with a “clear lens” (ispaklaria hameirah), ie. they are privy to the special divine Light of Creation—that same light that allowed Adam to see through all of history and across the cosmos.
With all of this in mind, we can go back to the most mysterious of blessings: sh’kakhah lo b’olamo. Now we can properly decipher its meaning: this is how lo, the divine light, is expressed in His world! In other words, something of intense beauty may be shining forth with the primordial Light of Creation. It has a tiny spark of that Or haGanuz, which manifests in this world as overpowering beauty, so much so that it causes a person to instantly want to bless God. It allows a person to see the true harmony of Creation, for from God’s perspective, the entire cosmos is indeed glowing in perfecting beauty and harmony at all times. Amazingly, the Talmud (Ketubot 65a) recounts precisely such a case, where a particularly beautiful woman appeared in the court before the Sages and they were able to perceive her intense spiritual glow! (This does not mean something not perceived as beautiful is devoid of divine light!)
The question is: are we regular folk capable of such sensitivity? Can we perceive true beauty? Or is it only genuine tzadikim who are able to see beyond the physical and recognize the intense spiritual light glowing from within? This mystical question spills over into a real-world halakhic debate:
The Mishnah Berurah says that, particularly among Ashkenazim, the blessing of sh’kakhah lo is no longer recited today. If one does wish to recite it, they should do so without mentioning God’s names, ie. just saying barukh sh’kakhah lo b’olamo, skipping the standard Eloheinu melekh ha’olam part. The worry is that saying a blessing on a beautiful person might be problematic, both because one might not recognize what is true beauty, and because the reciter might even be led to impure thoughts. Since our generation is on such a low level, people might not have the right intentions, and instead of blessing God for His craftsmanship, might only be delighting in their own fantasies, chas v’shalom. In other words, the average person is unlikely to see the true spiritual light hiding behind the physical beauty. Thus, Ashkenazi poskim tend to rule against reciting the blessing in full.
Nonetheless, the Sephardic authorities (including Rav Ovadia Yosef) maintain that one should still recite the full text of the blessing, with God’s names. While it is true that most people today might not be sensitive enough to pick up on the holy light within, it is certainly still possible in some fleeting moments to appreciate another’s intense beauty with no ulterior motive. (It is also possible to recognize the incredible beauty of other living things, aside from humans.) And, perhaps there are still those who really can gaze beyond the surface and recognize the holy inner glow. May we all merit to reach this level!