Judi's Journal 04-01-2011

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The diversity of Hebrew blessings

By Judi Siegal

In a comedic spot in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, a Jewish townsperson asks the learned rabbi if there is a blessing for the Czar. The sage thinks a minute and replies: “May God keep the Czar (who was known for his anti-Semitic policies) far away from us!” Even in this humorous moment a truth about Judaism comes through: that there is a blessing for just about everything.

          While most people are familiar with the blessings for wine and bread and festival and Sabbath candles, I would like to focus on some of the other benedictions that are not as well known.

          The rabbis many centuries ago set down the formula for blessings. Traditionally they start off with: Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler (some say king or sovereign) of the universe…and then continue with whatever the blessing is concerned with. If it were for wine, the blessing would conclude with “who creates the fruit of the vine.”

          There are many blessings that have to do with nature. It is no wonder that this is true since religions tend to make their adherents more aware of the beauty and awesome nature of the natural world. For instance, Jews have many blessings for natural things. When seeing lightning, the blessing concludes with “who makes the Work of Creation. This is also said for an earthquake or any tumultuous occurrence. I do believe that if one were caught in an earthquake, that blessing might be put aside for a “help me out of here, fast.” For thunder, one says, “Whose strength and power fills the universe.”

          Seeing the ocean has a blessing too. It ends with “who makes the Great Sea.” Beautiful people, trees, or fields have a blessing, which ends with “Who has such in the universe.” Conversely when one sees strange individuals or animals one says, “Who makes creatures diverse.”

          There is even one for a rainbow. At the end of the Noah story, after the flood, God makes a covenant or agreement never to destroy the earth by flood again. The sign of this agreement was the rainbow. In remembrance of this. Jews say, “Who remembers the Covenant, Who is trustworthy of the Covenant, and fulfills the Promise” (to humanity)/ This blessing, to me, is a beautiful way to express joy when seeing such a lovely natural phenomenon.

          Judaism also acknowledges people who govern or should be afforded special respect. Torah scholars, secular scholars and heads of state come into this category. A Torah scholar is blessed with “Who has apportioned knowledge to those who have reverence for God; a secular one is blessed with "who has given knowledge to human beings” while a ruler such as a president or king would receive,“who has given His/Her Glory to human beings.”

          We also have blessings that I categorize under the heading of “events in your life.” For instance, any auspicious occasion, birth, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, betrothal, holiday celebration, one says the shehechianu, the blessing thanking God for life and the opportunity to engage in life’s activities. This particular blessing has special significance to me as I recited it when my son was born. (At my daughter’s birth I was unable due to sedation at the time.) It has been recited many times in the life of my congregation, Beth Israel of Ocala, since we are a new community and have done many things for the first time.

          When the shehechianyu blessing is said, it makes one very aware how important the occasion is. Many times Jews are very emotional when reciting it because Judaism sanctifies many aspects of daily life and therefore we take nothing for granted.

          There are even blessings for hearing good news, “who is good and does well” and bad news (such as a death), “the righteous judge.” This is an interesting one. At a time of great distress, Jews don’t curse God but rather accept God’s judgment even though this may not be what we would have wanted. It is a hard blessing to say at times.

          Traditionally, Jews are supposed to say 100 blessings a day. While this may seem like a large number, it does give you an idea of the emphasis Judaism places on gratefulness and wonder since many of the blessings deal with these ideas especially in the daily and Sabbath prayers.

          I would like to add one little blessing of my own. Blessed are you Adonai, life of all the worlds, who has created the beautiful season of spring in Florida. Amen!