Chanukah was approaching, and the first-grade teacher wanted to give his class a fun assignment. He asked his students to draw a picture of something they were thankful for, and at the end, they would hang them all together in a collage. Most of the students drew Chanukah-related images, but Jacob drew a different kind of picture. Jacob was a different kind of boy. He came from a disadvantaged family, he struggled in school, and he had trouble making friends. As the other children played, Jacob was likely to stay back and stand by his teacher’s side.
His picture was an outline of a hand – just an empty hand, nothing else.
Jacob’s abstract image captured the imagination of his peers. Whose hand could it be? One child guessed that it was Jacob’s own hand. Another suggested that it was a police officer’s hand, because the police protect and care for people. Others guessed it was the hand of Hashem, because Hashem takes care of us and gives us everything. And on the discussion went.
When the children had gone on to other assignments, the teacher paused at Jacob’s desk, bent down, and asked, “Whose hand was it?”
The little boy looked away and whispered, “It’s yours.”
He recalled the times he had taken his hand and walked with him here or there. How often he had said, “Take my hand, Jacob, we’ll go outside”; or, “Let me show you how to hold your pencil”; or, “Let’s do this together.” Jacob was most thankful for his teacher’s hand.
Brushing aside a tear, he went on with the class, touched by Jacob’s gratitude.
Life Is Filled with Berachos
A hallmark of the Jewish experience is the myriad of berachos intertwined into the fabric of daily living. From the moment we wake up (Al netilas yadayim) until the moment we fall asleep (Hamapil), we recite beracha after beracha 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 beracha as well: from the birth of a child, followed by bris milah and pidyon haben, and subsequently to mark marriage and even death.
Although we likely take it for granted that berachos are a pillar of our daily lives, they have not always existed as they do now. Until the Second Temple era, there was no standard set of berachos or prayer. The only berachos that are D’Oraisa are Birkas Hamazon and Birkas haTorah. There is a debate amongst the commentators whether Birkas haTorah is a Torah commandment or of Rabbinic origin. The Rambam omits it when counting the mitzvos, but others, such as the Ramban, posit that Birkas haTorah are a Torah commandment. All other berachos and their official texts were instituted by the Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly) in the Second Temple era.
This begs the obvious question: What changed? What prompted the Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah to introduce such a major change in Jewish daily life? Before we can understand the shift that necessitated this monumental change, we must first explore the nature of berachos in general. The common translation of a beracha’s opening – “Baruch atah Hashem” – is “Blessed are you Hashem.” What does this mean? Can Hashem, the infinite and perfect G-d, benefit from our blessings? More generally, what is the nature and purpose of a beracha?
Blessings and Curses
When Bilaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jewish People, he attempts to do so, but unwittingly proclaims elaborate blessings instead. On the surface level, it is clear that berachos reflect a positive force, while curses signify the opposite. However, there are layers of depth beneath the surface. Let us delve deeper into the true nature of berachos and klalos in order to understand their profound spiritual nature.
Beracha: From Oneness to Twoness
The prerequisite for any discussion of berachos is the understanding of how Hashem relates to the physical world. Hashem is infinite – beyond physicality, unconfined by time or space. Hashem is absolute oneness without any components, finitude, or multiplicity. The physical world, in contrast, is finite, existing in a realm of time, space, and multiplicity.
How, then, does Hashem connect to this physical world? How can that which is transcendent and infinite connect to, and manifest within, our finite, particular world? The answer is through beracha, the flow of abundance and multiplicity (tosefes v’ribui) that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. Beracha represents the transition from infinite oneness to particular twoness – the process by which Hashem’s divine energy (shefa) flows into this world.
The Essence of a Word
In Hebrew, the word for something is not merely an arbitrary reference or description but a revelation of its very essence. In other languages, words are simply agreed upon conventions that refer to a certain object or concept. These conventions are accepted as a practical means to enable communication. In Hebrew, though, each word is an objective reflection of the entity’s very nature and essence. This is why the Hebrew word for “word” and “thing” are the same – davar. A word is essentially that which it describes.
This phenomenon reflects a deep concept: Speech is the mechanism for taking that which is infinite, beyond words, and giving it concrete form and expression. This same process 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. This is why the Torah describes Hashem’s creative process as a form of speech; Hashem “spoke” existence into being (Bereishis 1:3). Hashem brought the world into existence through the letters of the aleph-beis; thus by analyzing Hebrew words and the letters that comprise them, one can infer 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 aleph-beis and has the numerical value of one. It also reflects spiritual elevation, as expressed in many words that have the word aleph (aleph, lamed, peh) as their root. “Le’aleph” means to teach, 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.
The very physical makeup of the letter aleph reflects its elevated spiritual level. The Ramchal points out that the letter aleph is comprised of three smaller letters: two yuds and a vav. The total numerical value of these three letters is twenty-six, the same as yud-kei-vav-kei, the name of Hashem – again, that which is transcendent and complete oneness. (This is the Shem Havayah, the name that describes Hashem as the transcendent source of our physical reality, in comparison to Elokim, the name of Hashem that describes how He relates to, and is manifest within, our physical world.)
Beracha: The Word of Twoness
The oneness of aleph can be held in direct contrast to the twoness of beis. There is an enigmatic Midrash which states that the letter beis was chosen from all twenty-two letters of the aleph–beis to begin the Torah (Bereishis). The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis 1:1) clarifies Hashem’s decision by explaining that the letter beis stands for the word beracha. Many commentators, especially the Ibn Ezra, struggle to understand this explanation. After all, the letter beis is the first letter of many negative words as well. Why is its connection to beracha the only one considered?
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 34) explains this Midrash in a profound and beautiful fashion. Beis doesn’t “stand” for the word beracha; it is the letter of beracha. Beis is the letter of twoness and multiplicity; beracha is the word of twoness and multiplicity. Beis, reish, and chaf, the shoresh of the word beracha, are each letters of multiplicity: Beis has the numerical value of two, chaf is twenty, and reish is two hundred. Beracha is the mechanism of expressing Hashem’s oneness into the world, expanding into twoness through tosefes v’ribui.
This is why the Torah begins with the letter beis. Torah 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 embodied 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 contrast to the Aseres Hadibros, which begin with an aleph. While the episode of creation epitomizes the finite expression of multiplicity that stems from oneness, Matan Torah was the exact opposite; the giving of the Torah was the elevation and ascension from twoness to oneness, an unparalleled experience of truth, oneness, and the transcendent spiritual dimension of reality. It was an experience of Hashem Himself, and therefore begins with the letter of oneness and transcendence – aleph.
The Ramchal (Daas Tevunos 46) explains at length that Hashem created this world for the sole purpose of giving us beracha. The Ramchal translates beracha as goodness, shefa (spiritual energy), and light. In other words, beracha is Hashem’s expression into, and revelation in, this world. Receiving beracha means receiving Hashem’s goodness and expression in this world.
At this point, we need to make an important distinction. There is a fundamental difference between twoness that is connected to oneness and spirituality, which we will refer to as beracha, 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 infused with vibrancy, always expanding beyond its apparent limits and borders. Such physicality is constantly expanding, as it is connected to a higher source. This is a physicality rooted in beracha, fully connected to its spiritual root.
When we recite berachos 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 beracha. The first, as Rabbeinu Bachya explains, is to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all blessing, abundance, and goodness in the world (Rabbeinu Bachya, Kad Hakemach, Beracha). This is a meditation of hakaras ha’tov (recognition of the good) and a practice of sourcing all multiplicity and beracha back to its source. In essence, when we make a beracha, we are recognizing Hashem as the source of all beracha. Our second intention, as the Rashba (Shu”t HaRashba 5:51), Vilna Gaon, and Nefesh HaChaim (Nefesh HaChaim 2:2, 2:10) explain, is asking Hashem to continue to abundantly manifest into this world and into my personal life.
The first step is recognition and connecting back to Hashem – our Source. The second step is an exercise of will; we attempt to bring Hashem into this world and ask that He manifest abundantly – both into the world in general, and into our individual lives. In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to understand the concept of berachos and klalos on an even deeper level.
Our Mission of Beracha
Our mission is to use the physical world as a medium through which we connect to Hashem. We don’t only ask for beracha; we create it by actively seeing Hashem’s presence flow into every aspect of our lives. May we be inspired to live lives full of beracha, sourcing every dimension of our lives back to Hashem, and living a life of oneness within this world of twoness.