The Anatomy of a Beracha

English“Blessed are You, G”d-Eternal, our G”g-Almighty, Sovereign of the Universe, who …”

The sudden change, within the very same sentence, from addressing G”d in the second person, to the third person, serves to emphasize the remarkable fact that we address G”d directly, in the second person, altogether. An infinite chasm separates Man from G”d, He is unfathomable, even His Name is ineffable. And yet, in the act of prayer, and particularly through the recitation of blessings, we reach over that gap and speak directly to G”d.

The otherworldliness of this experience is emphasized by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, for whom the recitation of the verse ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך (L”rd, open my lips, that my mouth may speak Thy praise – Psalms 51:17) immediately before beginning the recitation of a תפילת עמידה (silent, standing devotion) was instituted because, as we set out to address G”d so directly and so intimately, we become speechless. Only with the added strength G”d grants us can we overcome our speechlessness.

In a previous post, I argued that blessings (ברכות) and Psalms constitute the most essential building blocks of Jewish prayer. To those two I added also the Reading of the Shma’, even though it is not a prayer, because the morning and evening prayer services are structured around it, which betrays its sublime importance. In this post, we will explore the blessings.

In that previous post, I outlined a typology of blessings, upon which we now expand:

  • short one liners, such as שהחיינו, a blessing recited upon joyous occurrences, or the blessings recited prior to the consumption of foodstuff.
  • longer blessings, framed at the beginning and end by the formula ברוך אתה השם.
  • other longer blessings, which end with the formula ברוך אתה השם, but do not begin with it. These are in fact a subtype of the “long” blessings.
  • Intermezzo: Why Is This Important?

    At this point, it is appropriate to ask, “Why should we care?” We are not in the business of writing new blessings, as the enunciation of the Divine Name is mostly proscribed, and the recitation of a newfangled blessing may well run afoul of the prohibition against speaking G”d’s Name in vain.

    Most of us are not liturgy scholars, either, so again, why should we care about such precise typology of blessings?

    The answer is simple. Understanding the basic building blocks of Jewish prayer brings immediate benefit to both beginning and seasoned worshippers. By distilling the standard formulas for all to see, the beginner will readily grasp the recurring patterns that call his or her attention. It will become obvious when particular prayers begin or end, and what kind of standard phrases to expect where.

    The seasoned worshipper will benefit, as well, as the intention of the authors of those blessings becomes apparent, what prayer unit belongs with which other prayer unit. It becomes obvious at which points in the prayer service conversation is proscribed and why, and we gain insight in the larger structure of prayer, how the different small building blocks form a beautiful edifice. Suddenly, one perceives beauty and structure not only in the repetitive phrases, but in similar phrases that mean something else, permitting the worshipper to engage in the rich expression of heartfelt prayer his or her forebears have left him in the spiritual inheritance of the prayerbook.

    Return to our Analysis: The Typology of Blessings Visualized

    The basic building blocks f prayer become apparent as we compare the two kinds of long blessings side by side.

    A B C
    בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ־לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָֽיִם. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ־לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדֽוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ, שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵֽחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶֽיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת. אֱ־לֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי, וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה בְקִרְבִּי, מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, ה’ אֱ־לֹהַי וֵא־לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי, רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים, אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים.

    The green and orange texts both follow the most basic pattern of blessings, in that they both begin with the words “Blessed are You, G”d-Eternal.” However, the green text is somewhat longer, containing the additional phrase “our G”d-Almighty, Sovereign of the Universe.” As can be seen from the examples, the longer, green text invariably appears at the beginning of a paragraph, while the shorter, orange text invariably appears at the end of a paragraph. However, while some blessings have both the green and orange texts, other only have one of them. Why all this variety?

    The recitation of the longer, green text is considered very significant, because we not only address G”d, but also accept His Sovereignty; we submit ourselves to G”d’s will, which is what true service of the Divine is all about. Any series of petitions or praises begins with this acceptance of the yoke of Heaven. If the blessing is a short one liner (type A above), we are done. These are the so called short blessings.

    However, if we express a longer prayer, then, once submission to Divine Sovereignty has been expressed, we may continue engaging in our prayer without needing to repeat that formula. Almost invariably, longer paragraphs end with the short, orange blessing formula. The one example to the contrary, the fourth and last blessing of the Grace after Meals (ברכת המזון) merely proves the rule, as we may see in a future post.

    While we now understand why every blessing does not end in the short, orange text, why do not all blessings begin with the longer, green formula, which explicitly mentions Divine Sovereignty? The general answer is, as hinted above, that there is only a need to pronounce that formula once, at the onset of a group of related blessing. Thus, whenever one blessing follows, by design, after another blessing, that second blessing, called in halakhic terminology סמוכה לחברתה, is of type C, above, which ends in a blessing, but does not begin with one, as it belongs in one unit with another, earlier blessing, which already included the longer, green text.

    However, matters are not so simple. Example C above – א־להי נשמה – happens to be a free standing blessing. While it is customary to recite it together with a number of other blessings, which together constitute the “blessings upon arising,” there is no halakhic prescription requiring that blessing to be said together with, immediately following another blessing. So, there are some exceptions, which I hope to elucidate in future posts.

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    2 Responses to The Anatomy of a Beracha

    1. Micha says:

      There are actually two opinions that tie E-lokai Netzor to an earlier berakhah. One makes it a follow-up to Asher Yatzar. The other pairs it with Hamapil, making one the blessing before sleep, and the other the blessing after sleep. Much the way Yishtabach (after Pesuqei deZimra) and “Emes veYatziv” (after Shema) don’t need to start with barukh.

      The latter reflects the fact that Modeh Ani is a late invention, designed to be a version of E-lokai Netzor that lacks G-d’s name, to be said before washing one’s hands in the morning.

      -micha

      • Arie Folger says:

        Thank you. As you state, there are indeed sources that thus explain why א־להי נשמה (Elokai, Neshama) is a ברכה הסמוכה לחברתה, a blessing that necessarily “follows upon another one.” However, a detailed analysis of that blessing goes beyond a single blog post.

        However, if you juxtapose the blessing upon going to sleep, המפיל (HaMapil), with the blessing upon truly awakening, המעביר שנה (HaMa’avir Sheina), you will see that these two are twins, and hence, I find א־להי נשמה (Elokai, Neshama), on account of the lack of literary continuity with המפיל (HaMapil), to feel somewhat like an intruder. If it was meant to complement המפיל (HaMapil), it could at least have complemented it as well as המעביר שנה (HaMa’avir Sheina) does.

        So, I find another approach more convincing. However, I will elaborate in a future blog post; I am currently working on ברוך שאמר (Barukh SheAmar); I am writing on the topics that come up in revising the RCA Siddur.

        Thanks again for commenting!

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