Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Beauty of Berachos


About a year ago, I met with a very fine and intelligent person who was of traditional upbringing, and had recently joined Orthodoxy via a Hasidic sect. He was unhappy with certain aspects of this sect's worldview, and wanted to explore how Rationalist Judaism measured up against the version of Orthodoxy that he was involved with. In the course of the discussion, one of the topics that came up was berachos on food. I told him that berachos on food serve to enhance and express our appreciation for it.

The person was quite taken aback to hear that. After all, the hassidic view was that making berachos serves to elevate and liberate the sparks of divine energy that are embedded in all matter and enable it to exist. I guess that compared to that, the idea that I was presenting sounded rather trivial, and not very Jewish. It certainly seemed revolutionary.

Now, I agree that I have a greater appreciation of food than most people. My mother brought me up with the stern message that it is a sin to be disrespectful of food. I have an extremely high metabolism, and going without food for a long period is very difficult for me. And I've actually met the starving children in Africa.

Still, I think that the idea of berachos as enhancing and expressing our appreciation for food is a very, very powerful idea. And I don't think that it's a medieval Greco-Muslim-rationalist-influenced spin on Judaism, but rather the straightforward and traditional understanding of berachos. Food keeps us alive, through the incredible intricacies of the body's functioning - the more one learns about the scientific aspects of that, the more there is to be amazed at. In addition, food tastes good and is enjoyable to consume. What's more, you and I eat better than 99.9999% of the humans to have ever existed. Just think about what you would eat if you lived 500 years ago! Isn't it great to be obligated to consciously appreciate all that, rather than to eat like a mindless automaton? I remember once listening to a very frum person speak with disgust about the food that he was eating. But wasn't he about to thank Hashem and praise Him for it? If we are going to take berachos seriously, this forces us to appreciate the benefits of the food that we eat rather than complain about what it isn't.

Berachos are a beautiful and powerful mitzvah. They are about appreciating the good in life. Isn't that enough?

37 comments:

  1. I hope you don't mind my saying, Rabbi, that this account of the rationale of berachos over food sounds rather—well, Reform-ish! (Coming from me, that is not an objection, but I am aware that you may not like the comparison.) Is the difference that a Reform rabbi would say, "We say this beracha because it enhances and expresses our appreciation for food," while you would say, "We say this beracha because God commands us to do so, and God commands us to do [perhaps?] so that we may enhance and express our appreciation of food"? Sorry if I am asking an ignorant question, but I would be interested in hearing your reply.

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  2. >And I don't think that it's a medieval Greco-Muslim-rationalist-influenced spin on Judaism, but rather the straightforward and traditional understanding of berachos.

    Surely the Gemara(Berachot 35)that equates eating w/o a beracha to meila and gezeila has a somewhat different spin on the meaning of berachot?

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  3. Oh, MKR, come on! Why don't you call out all the Rishonim every time that they give a reason for a mitzvah?

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  4. The Gemorah refers to brachos as saying thanks to G-d, and in essense receiving permission from Him to eat something that He provided.

    So on the one hand, saying that brachos are an expression of appreciation isn't that radical.

    On the other hand, the sentence should, to be faithful to the Gemorah, include G-d in the equation of appreciation, not just the food.

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  5. >The Gemorah refers to brachos as saying thanks to G-d, and in essense receiving permission from Him to eat something that He provided.
    So on the one hand, saying that brachos are an expression of appreciation isn't that radical.

    Asking permission and showing appreciation are surely different things? Though I guess the Gemara could be understood to mean ask permission to show appreciation. Either way the Gemara itself says nothing about appreciation and it might be a bit of a stretch to say that it means that

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  6. On the other hand, the sentence should, to be faithful to the Gemorah, include G-d in the equation of appreciation, not just the food.

    Isn't it obvious that it's appreciation to God? I would have thought that "Baruch atah Hashem" is a dead giveaway.

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  7. MKR-

    The gemara specifically says that a bracha before eating is about the benefit that you get from eating the food.

    RNS's post is so incredibly obvious, it's sad that it's needed.

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  8. Together with the enhanced and expressed appreciation we should feel humbled before the Creator, as this is the purpose of all Mitzvot.

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  9. "I don't think that it's a medieval Greco-Muslim-rationalist-influenced spin on Judaism..."

    I think one of us is a bit confused - you or I - and it might very well be me. From the quote above, it seems that you maintain that there is such a thing as "authentic, original Judaism" unhampered by Greco-Muslim influenced spin, and then there is a post-real or post-authentic Judaism that has been changed by this "spin." Now, do you maintain that "rationalist" Judaism is the original, authentic Judaism, or is it, too, a spin that came later, from Greco-Muslim, Renaissance Empiricist, Logical Positivist, or whatever, influence? I mean, is the Judaism that you espouse the original Judaism of Moses, or is it an adaptation based upon non-Jewish influences? If there indeed is an original core, then shouldn't THAT be the form of Judaism that we accept?

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  10. I don't consider myself able to evaluate what the "original" approach was, nor in a position to decide whether we should be trying to go back to it. My point was only that in this case of berachos, I'm pretty sure that this indeed was the original approach!

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  11. Many of the Rabbinic positive commandments are to fulfill our Biblical obligation to believe in and love G-d. For Creation there is the Friday night Kiddush. For the redemption and selection of the Jewish people there is Hallel on the major festivals. For His ongoing involvement in the Jewish people there is Chanukah and Purim. For His ongoing sustaining us with food there are the Berachos.

    For a true believer, the better the food tastes, the more the love of G-d will be generated!!!

    Dallas

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  12. You are right. Your point doesn't have to do with rationalism; it is universally upheld that blessings show gratficiation, appreciation, etc.

    What is rational is your denial of the kabalistic concepts of elevating the food.

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  13. My point wasn't to deny it. It was to ask why anyone would see a need to invoke it.

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  14. Thomas-
    IF I understand Rav Kook's approach correctly, he would say that it is IMPOSSIBLE to reconstruct what "original, authentic" Judaism of Moshe Rabbenu was. We are all products of the ongoing contacts the Jewish world has had with non-Jewish thinking and it has irrevocably changed the way we Torah observant Jews view things. It is supposed to be this way because the world and its Jewish part are continually changing and dynamic. This is related to Rav Kook's view that Darwinian biological evolution is merely a reflection in the physical world, of a parallel dynamism in the spiritual world which effects our view of the Torah.

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  15. I don't understand what you are saying. If it is true, (and essential to the reason behind making a blessing) why shouldn't they mention it?

    BTW, I do agree with you that it is unfortunate that he wasn't told about the "simple" explanation.

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  16. EVEN if it is true (and I am not sure what the basis is for saying that it is true), it is certainly not only not essential to making berachos - it is not even the basic reason why berachos were legislated.

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  17. I am baffled.

    You are seemingly unaware of the sources that promote such ideas, but you confidentaly assert that they are not essential reasons! Maybe those sources explain why they are essential or "very important".

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  18. I know that Chazal and the Rishonim do not make any mention of any such concept. How essential and authentic could it be?

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  19. You know that the Zohar doesn't say it?

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  20. "and I am not sure what the basis is for saying that it is true"

    The basis is the idea that when man eats food, the food becomes part of man, the purpose of Creation. The act of eating thus elevates the food. The "liberation of sparks" formulation does not follow, though.

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  21. Am I the first person to notice what looks like salami and ham in the right side of the photo?

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  22. Maybe the Zohar does say it. But generally, even those who believe that the Zohar is a tannaic work don't see it as presenting "pashut peshat" in Torah. And certainly for those who see it as the work of Moses de Leon.

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  23. During my indoctrination period (frum high school) I was taught that eating without making a berachah was like taking hekdesh from the Bais Hamikdash.

    I never wanted to be stealing from the Beis Hamikdash, and so I started paying more attention to my berachos on food.

    But my favorite berachah was always the berachah acharona of "Borei Nefashos." There was something that appealed to me about the emphasis on G-d sustaining us, even after we have eaten.

    These days what I like about that berachah (aside from the fact that it is short) is the idea that in it we are thanking G-d for creating us with imperfections.

    Being a very imperfect being myself, I identify with that a great deal!

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  24. I may be repeating somewhat was others have to say but why can't both viewpoints be valid we have a concept of different levels of interpretation of the Torah
    Peshat Remez Drush Sod isn't this just different ways of looking at the meaning of Brachot.

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  25. "the hassidic view was that making berachos serves to elevate and liberate the sparks of divine energy that are embedded in all matter and enable it to exist"

    I guess it wasn't Chabad.

    http://www.chabad.org/library/howto/wizard_cdo/aid/278541/jewish/1-Why-a-Blessing.htm

    "Making a blessing before eating is tantamount to "asking permission" from G-d, acknowledging that "the world, and everything in it, is G-d's" (Psalms 24:1) and G-d is the true source of all the gifts of life. It imbues the mundane act of eating with a spiritual awareness--awareness of the true Source of our sustenance, and of the purpose of eating."

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  26. I don't understand. Obviously, the Chasidim (or this particular Hasidic group) believes that the Rashbi authored the Zohar. From their perspective, the escoteric/Kabalistic meaning is very important. Thousands of treatises have been written explaining verses and concepts in a manner that is not limited to the "pashut pshat". Many of these works were intended for the masses and is indeed studied by them. They say a Lshem Yichud daily before they don tefilin, etc. They also say special prayers at all the Sabbath meals, etc. It seems to me that you fail to appreciate their perspective.

    [Again: I think it was an injustice and a travesty that they never told him the "pashut pshat"]

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  27. It seems to me axiomatic that Brachot serve to elevate anamistic behaviours in us to a more considered an holy level. All of our hedonistic behaviours (except breathing) have halachic restriction (rather than prohibitions) and become "more than" a behaviour through religious ritual.

    Mikvah changes sex from a physical act to one that has spiritual importance. Similarly for Kosher food. Yes we could eat any food we want to, religious restrictions on food choices makes us think about the process.

    I think your idea is outstanding, and spot-on.

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  28. Mike - The context was that this person reacted to my explanation of berachos as though it was something radical and unjewish. I understand that Chassidim see their reason as legitimate - but what shocked me was that it would be taught as the basic pshat to the extent that the real basic pshat becomes less authentic.

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  29. An interesting question is whether focusing on the more mystical aspects effectively diverts one's intention from the pshat, from what should be the main focus.

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  30. Here is the Rambam's explanation as to what he thinks hilchos brachos is about (from his introduction to Mishne Torah and his explanation as to what sefarim he included in Sefer Ahavah). I think it is consistent with RSlifkin's approach.

    אכלול בו המצוות שהן תדירות, שנצטווינו בהם כדי לאהוב את המקום ולזוכרו תמיד--כגון קרית שמע, ותפילה, ותפילין, וברכות; ומילה בכללן, לפי שהיא אות בבשרנו להזכיר תמיד בשעה שאין שם לא תפילין ולא ציצית וכיוצא בהן. וקראתי שם ספר זה ספר אהבה.

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  31. Ok, Rabbi Slifkin. Thank you for the clarification.

    BTW, personally, I think that the typical or "average" Hasid realizes the simple pshat of the brochos; I am shocked that this wasn't conveyed to him. Perhaps they thought it was self-understood. IOW, it is likely that there was a miscomunication.

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  32. I think that what you are saying (which is obviously the p'shat in the words of the brachot) is not incompatible with what your neo-Chassidic friend has been taught.

    IIRC, Rav Dessler gives explanations for concepts like "uplifting sparks" which make them basically more emotionally satisfying versions of the "rationalistic" ideas like thanking G-d and appreciating what He has given us. By making the food or whatever a tool for awareness of G-d's kindness, we cause its existence to be meaningful, thereby symbolically "uplifting its sparks".

    To me, if we don't subscribe to such approaches, we basically make all the great tzaddikim and gedolim who wrote in Kabbalistic fashion into mystical weirdos who were out of touch with the basic understanding of Judaism

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  33. >>>> IIRC, Rav Dessler gives explanations for concepts like "uplifting sparks" which make them basically more emotionally satisfying versions of the "rationalistic" ideas like thanking G-d and appreciating what He has given us. By making the food or whatever a tool for awareness of G-d's kindness, we cause its existence to be meaningful, thereby symbolically "uplifting its sparks".

    Ephraim et al.

    The detailed laws of b'rachot don’t quite comply with this notion. Because if this were the intent of making a B’rocho., then why would not simply making one over the entire contents of a cooked pot to be “yotzeh” all potential eaters, work?

    >>>> gedolim who wrote in Kabbalistic fashion into mystical weirdos who were out of touch with the basic understanding of Judaism

    While i would not God forbid use such a harsh word as weirdo, on what basis can we rationally say that kabbala is not the figment of these otherwise holy persons’ imaginations.

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  34. elemir said...

    "The detailed laws of b'rachot don’t quite comply with this notion. Because if this were the intent of making a B’rocho., then why would not simply making one over the entire contents of a cooked pot to be “yotzeh” all potential eaters, work?"

    Doing things simply violates the famous principle of Acharei Hapeulot Nimshachim Halevavot, mentioned by Sefer Hachinuch (#16) to explain the plethora of Mitzvot which commemorate the exodus. Although Chinuch is working within the rational framework. what might be the kabbalistic parallel to the Chinuch would be that to do things in detail does a better, more thorough job with the sparks. Additionally, there might be a dimension of being involved yourself in whatever goal the Mitzvah attains. (Shomeia Keoneh is a personal involvement.)

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  35. “Acharei Hapeulot Nimshachim Halevavot,”

    Pardon my ignorance, but what does this phrase mean??

    Also, excuse my correcting you, but you, as many others often do, misused the word plethora.
    I think you meant to say “many mitzvot”, the word plethora means “far too many” or excessive.

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  36. Elemir, “Acharei Hapeulot Nimshachim Halevavot,” literally means "after the actions are drawn the hearts", i.e. what you do impacts and infuences your thoughts, emotions, your soul, etc. Chinuch # 16 uses this to explain why there are so many mitzvot to commemorate the exodus, too many, it would seem.... Chinuch answers that every time you do a good action it lifts your soul etc. so the Torah gave all these Mitzvot - the more the better. (Feldheim has the Chinuch in English if that helps.) This explanation is a standard answer to why all those Mitzvot, why can't I just be good in the heart? According to Chinuch the heart is controlled by your actions so you also need actions.... This is one of the most famous pieces of the Chinuch, and appears in a different form also in the Mussar classic 'Mesilat Yesharim'.

    Once we're on the subject of personal involvement in a Mitzva, I want to mention a thought about that. (This is connected to Ketubot 17a about how many people should come to a funeral.) If a wedding has a nice turnout, a full house, ample and lively dancing that make the young couple full of joy, and Mr. X didn't attend, is his missing the wedding excusable? It depends how well he knows the couple. People not too close to the couple only would have to come if there aren't enough people to fill the house. But if there are enough then they are exempt. But closer people - relatives for example - have a PErsonal obligation no matter how full the wedding hall was.

    It could follow that each person is obligated to lift the sparks and it's not enough for one person to bless the pot. This assumes that more sparks are available. Anyway I don't know Kabalah and I'm only speculating.

    Now this begs the question why on Shabbat does one person make Kiddush and Hamotzie and Havdallah for the whole household and everyone else just does nothing? The answer is that everyone is Yotze because of their 'act' of listening, and we have a principle of 'Shomeah Keoneh' = listening is halachically considered as if one responded verbally. Thus, it is as if everyone in the household had personally recited the Kiddush etc. and acted consistently with what we mentioned from the Chinuch.

    And I thank you very much for correcting me about 'plethora'. If not for you I would have continued making that mistake indefinitely!...

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  37. thank you for your apprecative remark and the nice vort on the sparks, although, i personally don't put much stock in kabballa.

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