A hallmark of the Jewish experience is the myriad of brachos intertwined into the fabric of daily living. From the moment we wake up (Al netilas yadayim) until the moment we fall asleep (Hamapil), we make bracha after bracha, on every imaginable aspect of our lives. Before and after eating, throughout davening, even after going to the bathroom. Every milestone of life is accompanied by a unique bracha as well: from the birth of a child, potentially followed by bris milah and pidyon haben, and subsequently to mark marriage and even death. Life’s milestones are marked and uplifted through brachos.
However, although we may consider brachos to be a pillar in our lives, they have not always existed as they do now. Until the Anshei Kineses Ha’Gedolah- the Men of the Great Assembly- institutionalized the specific texts and recital of brachos, there were no standard set of brachos or prayer. The only brachos that are “Di’oraisah”- commanded in the Torah itself- are birchas ha’mazon (blessing after bread) and potentially birchas ha’Torah (blessing on Torah). All other brachos and their official text were instituted by the Sages in the Second Temple Era. This begs the question: What changed? What prompted the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah to enact such a major change in Jewish daily life? Before we can understand the shift that necessitated this institutional change, we must first explore the nature of brachos in general. The common translation of a bracha’s opening, “Baruch atah Hashem,” is “Blessed are you Hashem”. What does this mean? Can Hashem, the infinite and perfect God, benefit from our blessings? More generally, what is the nature and purpose of a bracha?
Blessings and Curses
In order to understand brachos, we must also understand klalos- curses. In this week’s parsha, Parshas Balak, Bilaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jewish People. When attempting to do so, he declares elaborate blessings instead. It is clear that brachos reflect a positive force and curses signify the opposite effect, but we must delve deeper in an attempt to understand their profound spiritual nature.
Bracha: From Oneness to Twoness
The foundation of any discussion of brachos requires an understanding of Hashem, specifically in how He relates to the physical world. Hashem is infinite- beyond physicality, unconfined by time or space. He is not within this world, nor is He a being; the world, and being itself, is within Him. Hashem is absolute oneness, not constructed of any pieces or parts, containing absolutely no finitude or multiplicity. Our finite and physical world, on the other hand, exists in a realm of time and space, of multiplicity, made up of things, containing pieces and parts.
What, then, connects Hashem to this world? How does Hashem, transcendent and infinite, connect to, and manifest within, our finite world? The answer is, through bracha- the flow of abundance and multiplicity that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. Bracha represents the flow of transition between infinite oneness and particulate twoness- where Hashem’s divine energy- shefa- flows into this world. Thus, bracha represents tosefes v’ribuy- the flow of abundance and multiplicity that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. [As we will soon elaborate, our brachos are directly related to this process.]
The Essence of a Word
In order to understand the concept of bracha, we will first look at the Hebrew word itself, “bracha”. In Hebrew, a word is not merely a description, but a revelation of the essential and objective nature of the thing itself. In other languages, words are simply arbitrarily chosen and agreed upon conventions that refer to a certain object or concept. These conventions are accepted as a practical means to enable communication. In Hebrew, however, each word is an objective revelation of that thing’s very essence and nature. This is why the very word for a word in Hebrew is the very same as that for a thing: davar. A word is essentially that which it describes. The reason for this is as follows:
Speech is the process of taking that which is beyond words, that which is beyond finite form, and giving it concrete form and expression. When we communicate with others through words, we encase our abstract and infinite thoughts into finite words in order to give them concrete and finite expression into the world. This is the mechanism that Hashem used to create the world. He took that which is infinite, and condensed it into a finite expression of that spiritual and ethereal essence. That is why the Torah describes Hashem’s creative process as a form of speech; Hashem “spoke” existence into being. Hashem brought the world into existence through the letters of the Aleph Beis; thus by analyzing Hebrew words and the letters themselves that comprise them, one can detect the thing’s very essence and nature.
Aleph vs. Beis
The Maharal describes the letter Beis as the letter of twoness- multiplicity and physicality- the characteristics of our physical world. Aleph, on the other hand, is the letter of oneness- transcendence and spirituality, reflecting Hashem and the spiritual dimension. Aleph is the very first letter in the alphabet and has the numerical value of one. It is a silent letter, reflecting its spiritual and transcendent nature. It also reflects spiritual elevation, as expressed in many words that have the word aleph (Aleph, Lamed, Pei) at its root. “L’aleph” means to reach, elevate, or lift to a higher spiritual dimension. “Aluph” refers to the highest ranking military position and “eleph” is the highest number in the Hebrew decimal system, as the Torah only counts by the thousands.
As a matter of fact, the very physical makeup of the letter Aleph denotes its elevated spiritual level as well. The Ramchal points out that the letter Aleph is comprised of three smaller letters: two yuds and one vuv. The numerical value of these three letters is 26, the same as Yud Keh Vuv Keih, the name of Hashem Himself- again, that which is transcendent and complete oneness. The oneness of Aleph can be held in contrast to the letter Beis.
Bracha: The Word of Twoness
There is an enigmatic Midrash which states that the letter Beis was chosen out of all the 22 letters of the aleph beis to begin the Torah (Bireishis). The midrash explains Hashem’s decision to do so by declaring that the letter Beis stands for the word bracha. Many commentaries, including the Ibn Ezra, struggled to understand this bizarre explanation. After all, the letter beis stands for many bad things as well!
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 34) explains this Midrash in a profound and beautiful fashion. Beis doesn’t “stand” for the word bracha, it is the letter of bracha. Beis represents the letter of twoness and multiplicity; Bracha represents the word of twoness and multiplicity. Every letter in the word baruch- the root (shoresh) of the word bracha- is a letter of multiplicity. Beis has the numerical value of 2, chuf has the value of 20, and reish has the value of 200. Amazingly, these are all the letters of twoness. The reason behind this is beautiful and yet so simple: bracha itself is the very idea of twoness, of taking the oneness of Hashem and expressing it into the world in the form of twoness, of tosefes vi’ribuy.
This is why the Torah begins with the letter beis. The Torah itself is a physical array of finite words, all of which are a loyal reflection and emanation of Hashem’s wisdom and absolute oneness. Furthermore, the Torah begins by describing Hashem’s creation of the physical world, a process most appropriately encapsulated by the letter beis- the letter of twoness that stems from oneness. The letter Beis reflects the process of Hashem’s oneness becoming expressed into our physical world. This is in stark contrast to the Aseres Hadibros, which begin with an aleph. While the episode of creation reflects the finite expression of multiplicity that stems from oneness, Matan Torah was the exact opposite: the elevation and ascension from twoness to oneness, an absolute unparalleled experience of truth, oneness, and the transcendent spiritual dimensions of reality. It was an experience of Hashem Himself, and therefore began with the letter of oneness and transcendence – aleph.
Receiving bracha means receiving Hashem’s goodness and expression into this world. The Ramchal explains in great length (Da’as Tevunos 46) that Hashem created this world for the sole purpose of giving us bracha. He translates bracha as goodness, shefah (spiritual energy), and light. In other words, bracha is Hashem’s expression and revelation into this world
At this point, we need to create an important distinction. There is a fundamental difference between twoness that is connected to oneness and spirituality- which we will refer to as bracha- and twoness that is purely physical and disconnected from spirituality. Detached and disconnected twoness is lifeless, purposeless, and dead. Twoness that is connected to oneness is a physicality that is pumping with vibrancy, always expanding beyond what appear to be its limits and borders. Such physicality is always amplified and constantly expanding, abundant, and connected to a higher source. This is a physicality rooted in bracha, fully connected back to its spiritual root.
When we recite brachos, and say “Baruch atah Hashem,” we are not blessing Hashem. Hashem, infinite and perfect, does not need our blessings. Rather, there are two simultaneous intentions that we must have when making a bracha. The first, as Rabbeinu Bachyah (Kad Ha’Kemach- Bracha) explains, is to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all blessing, abundance, and goodness in the world. This is a meditation of hakaras hatov- recognition of the good- and sourcing all multiplicity and bracha back to its source. In essence, when we make a bracha we are recognizing Hashem as the source of all bracha.
Our second intention, as the Rashba (Shu”t- 5:51), Vilna Gaon, and Nefesh Ha’Chaim (2:2, 10) explain, is asking Hashem to continue to abundantly manifest into this world, and into my personal life. In other words, the first step is recognition and connecting back to Hashem- our source, and the second step is an exercise of will, attempting to bring Hashem into this world and asking Hashem to manifest abundantly, both into the world in general, and into my life specifically.
Bending the Knee
Hakaras ha’tov- recognizing Hashem as the source of all the good in your life- is an essential part of brachos. Only once we can negate our ego, and acknowledge that the goodness and bracha in our life is not coming from our own independent self, but from Hashem, our ultimate source and creator, can we then receive more bracha. As the Nefesh Ha’Chaim explains, by recognizing Hashem as your source, you transform yourself into a vessel capable of receiving more of the very bracha you acknowledged! This is because Hashem can only flow into the space you allow for Him. When you negate your ego, you make space for Hashem to flow into your life. In essence, you are recognizing Hashem as the source of bracha, appreciating Him, connecting yourself to Him, and then continuing to bring Him back down into your life!
This is the deep idea behind the famous story of Elisha and Ovadya’s wife. Elisha instructed her to bring vessels for him to pour oil into. As long as there was a vessel, the oil kept flowing. The moment she ran out of vessels, the oil stopped flowing. This oil was a bracha from Hashem, and it therefore flowed from an infinite source, and would have continued to flow as long as there was a vessel to receive it. The same is true regarding all the bracha and shefa from Hashem- Hashem will only flow into the space that we make for Him in our lives.
Perhaps this is why we bend our knees in the Shemonah Esrai prayer when saying the word baruch in the beginning and end of the first bracha and the end of modim- the bracha of thanksgiving. As humans, we are proud, capable, and intelligent. Chazal refer to the tall and vertical stature of humans as one of the two characteristics that differentiate between the physical appearance of humans and animals. Our spine represents our stature, but also represents our ego. Bowing down means negating our ego, recognizing Hashem as our ultimate source of existence. In Hebrew, the word “berech”- sharing the same root (shoresh) as the word bracha- means a knee. One form of negating our ego is by bending our spine, the other is by bending our knee, thus, lowering our height and stature. The very means by which we receive bracha is by bending our berech (knee), thus negating our ego and creating space for Hashem to flow into our lives.
There is a deeper idea here as well. Bending the knee represents the process of expressing twoness from oneness. When standing erect, the leg is one continuous limb. When bending our knee, we take that oneness and bend it into two. This is the very act of creating twoness from oneness, a process we undertake as we become aware of the bracha that Hashem infuses into our lives.
Stealing from Hashem
This understanding of bracha also sheds light onto a famous Gemara in Brachos. The Gemara (Brachos 35a) states that if one fails to make a bracha before taking pleasure (hana’ah) from this physical world, it is as if he stole from Hashem. The Gemara then questions this by quoting a contradicting source: “The heavens are for Hashem, while the land is for man,” which seems to imply that man is permitted to use the physical world freely. The Gemara solves this contradiction by stating: Man is stealing from Hashem only when he does not make a bracha beforehand; however, once man makes a bracha, it is no longer stealing. The question is then: what fundamentally changes when we make a bracha?
The simple answer is that a bracha is the means through which we “ask permission” from Hashem to use His world; once we do so, we are allowed to partake in it, because it is as if He gave us permission to do so. However, there is a much deeper layer here. The entire world stems from, and therefore belongs to, Hashem. Without a bracha, one fails to source him or herself, and the world as a whole, back to its root, Hashem. In doing so, it is as if one is saying that Hashem is not connected to, or manifest within, this world. Therefore, when one uses the world in this manner, he is disconnecting it from its spiritual source, and stealing it from Hashem. This is because the spiritual concept of stealing is the act of ripping an item away from its rightful owner and place. If one proclaims- through his actions- that the physical world is not fully connected to Hashem, he is essentially stealing from Hashem- removing the world from its rightful owner and place. However, in making a bracha, you source both the physical world and yourself back to Hashem. In doing so, you have connected both yourself and this physical world back to Hashem- our rightful source, so there is no longer any issue of stealing when enjoying the physical world.
Klalos: Curses of Limitation
Klalos (curses) can be understood as the exact opposite of bracha. If bracha is the overflowing and boundless expression of goodness and shefah into this world, klalah represents the limitation and constriction of Hashem’s flow into this world, replacing abundance with boundaries and restriction. A curse is the attempt to limit Hashem’s manifestation and presence in this world.
It is important to note that while the concept of klalah is often perceived as inherently negative, this does not have to be the case. Bracha represents outflow and endless abundance while klalah represents a limitation of that abundance and endlessness into something finite and limited. If used correctly, the middah (characteristic) of klalah can actually be constructive and positive. When the use of limitations are implemented only in order to help make the bracha useful and real, the klalah itself ends up becoming part of the bracha. For instance, too much rain can result in flooding. A limitation on rain, to enable a healthy amount of water, is actually a necessary and productive form of limitation. The problem is when klalah is used for the purpose of destroying bracha, and preventing any bracha from manifesting.
Bracha versus Klalah
The Gemara (Ta’anis 8b) states that “ain ha’bracha mitzuyah elah bi’davar ha’samuy min ha’ayin”- bracha (abundance) can only occur in something that is hidden from the eye. The logic behind this cryptic statement is profound. When something is not yet seen by the physical eye, it can be anything. The potential is limitless, Hashem can make it into anything. Once, however, the human eye looks at it, it becomes finite, limited, set, and fixed into only that. Once you see it, it is no longer subject to bracha and increase.
When you see something, you immediately give it boundaries and limitations. This is why the numerical value of ri’iyah (seeing) is the same as gevurah (limitations and midas ha’din), 216. Something spiritual cannot be seen. A neshama is boundless, containing no boundaries or edges. A body, on the other hand, starts and ends at specific places.
This is one of the reasons why we are not allowed to count members of Klal Yisrael. Counting and pointing to someone reflects the connotation that they are just that, a thing, something that can be pointed at and limited. Each of us are limitless, spiritual beings, infinitely beyond the limitations of our finite dimensions. Only when seen as part of something infinitely greater than an individual piece of flesh is counting permissible.
The Gemara itself (Ta’anis 8b) applies this principle to tefillah. The Gemara says that if you are walking to your grain storage house to count your grain, then you can daven that your grain should be increased. If, however, you have already started to measure it, you can no longer daven. In other words, before you give it concrete form, it could be anything, bracha can still flow in. Once, however, you begin to give it finite measure, it can be nothing more than what it already is. Davening for bracha would be a tefillas shav- a prayer in vain.
Bilaam: From Klalah to Bracha
We can now see Bilaam’s intentions through new eyes. He attempted to curse Klal Yisrael, cutting off their spiritual connection with Hashem. In response, Hashem didn’t only negate Bilaam’s curses, thwarting his plans. Hashem turned those very curses into brachos, strengthening the connection between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, and reinforcing the channel of bracha that flows from Hashem into this world.
The Historical Shift: From Light to Darkness
To address the earlier question that we raised, why were brachos as we know them only instituted around the time of the second Beis Ha’Mikdash? The answer is as follows: There are two stages in history. The first stage lasted from creation until around the time period of Purim and Chanukah. This stage is highlighted by the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah and the presence of nevuah. During this stage, Hashem’s revelation in this world was more obvious and apparent. The physical world could clearly be seen as an expression of a spiritual reality, it was natural for one to source the physical back to the spiritual. As a result, brachos did not need to be instituted; when one ate a meal, he would naturally source the food back to Hashem. The same is true about all other aspects of daily life, spirituality came naturally and spontaneously.
However, with the ending of prophecy came the end of this stage as well. We no longer experience miracles, we no longer see Hashem openly manifest in the physical world. As a result, Chazal instituted standardized tefillah and standardized brachos for everyone to say throughout the day, the yearly cycle, and the various stages of one’s life. The world has bent, the light has faded. We no longer naturally source ourselves back to Hashem, we need help, someone to point us in the right direction. This is the function of our standardized brachos and tefillah, a guiding path back to Hashem. The standardized format is identical for everyone, the internal experience and awareness is unique within each of us.
Our mission is to use the physical world as medium through which we connect back to Hashem. We no longer see reality with a clear lens. But that gives us a unique opportunity- to create light within the darkness. To use our free will, to choose to see Hashem. We don’t only ask for bracha, we create it by choosing to see Hashem’s presence flowing into every aspect of our lives. May we be inspired to live lives full of bracha, sourcing every dimension of our lives back to Hashem, and living a life of oneness within the realm of twoness.