In this week’s Torah reading, Vayechi, Jacob blesses his sons in a very famous, poetic and beautiful section of the Torah. This got me thinking about what we mean by a “blessing”. A friend of mine was in an Virginian airport, I think, and he was about to have his coffee and, as he normally does, recited a blessing over the coffee. A woman sitting nearby said, “Excuse me sir, but do you always speak to your food before you eat it?” And he replied that he was not speaking to the food, but was speaking to G-d about the food.
What is a blessing and what is its purpose? The standard format of the blessing, baruch atah Hashem – blessed are you G-d, Elokainu, our G-d, melech haolam, King of the Universe, and one of the most common is shehacol nehaya bedvaro, everthing was created by your word. If someone sneezes we say “bless you” and what we mean is that G-d should bless them. But what do we mean “we bless G-d”?
One of the great medieval sages of Spain, the Rashba, says that the word baruch comes from a Biblical word breicha, which means pool. In modern Hebrew a swimming pool is a breichat schia. The Rashba says that a blessing is acknowledging that G-d is the pool from which everything flows. He is the source of everything. So the word baruch, you are blessed, really would be translated or should be translated almost like a phrase. “baruch atah Hashem, You G-d with Whom I have a personal relationship, hence I can say You; Elokeinu, our G-d with whom we have a national relationship as the Jewish people, melech haolam, King of the Universe with Whom we have a universal relationship because we are creatures of G-d; Baruch, You are the source of absolutely everything and the Pool from which all reality flows.”
The Talmud mentions some reasons for saying a blessing before eating. One idea is that was are asking permission. Since G-d created the world ex nihilo, from nothing, He owns it with what is the ultimate right of ownership, creation. So, therefore, as the Talmud puts it, we are asking permission from G-d to partake of His world. The verse says “the earth and everything in it belongs to G-d” and there is another verse in Psalms that says “that the earth was given to humanity.” As the Talmud succinctly states, “one verse is before the blessing, the other verse, after the blessing.
Secondly, and very simply, a blessing is a way of expressing appreciation and gratitude. We are grateful to G-d for His sustenance, for the life that he has given us, for everything. Indeed the Talmud mandates different blessings for different foods and drinks so that we can express appreciation for the variety of good that G-d does for us. G-d has given us an incredible variety of tastes and textures and aromas, so if we are enjoying them, it is be appropriate to acknowledge and appreciate the gift.
Thirdly, Rabbi Yehudah Halevy, in his book, The Kuzari, says that the more you appreciate what you have, the happier you are. The happier you are, the more moral will be your behavior. Happy people are more inclined to share, to be nice, and are less inclined to negative emotions. One who appreciates what he has, and thanks G-d for it is a going to be a happier, more content individual. According to Halevy, the effect of a blessing is not only between man and G-d but also affects one’s relationship with other people. In addition a blessing is an exercise in mindfulness and consciousness, directing us to think about what we are doing before we do it. This is especially important with activities that are, like eating, almost instinctive. The Torah wants us to think about matters that are necessary and instinctive and to engage in them as conscious, free will agents. A person should think, contemplate, and be conscious of everything he does. So count your blessings and say them too.