The Jewish Practice Of Saying Blessings
In English, the word ‘bless’ means to sanctify or consecrate something or someone. In Hebrew however, it does not have this meaning at all, resulting in some confusion for those non-Jews trying to get to grips with Jewish culture.
The meaning actually depends on who is blessing whom. If one human being blesses another, then they are conferring favour or wishing good fortune upon them. If God blesses us, God is also granting us prosperity or good favour. However, if we are blessing God (the most common use of the word in prayer), then we are expressing reverent awe at God’s wondrous deeds, or thanking God, or praising God.
The Two Types of Blessing
There are two basic types of blessing: the first is to express awe and wonder at God; and the second is to express thanks to God.
Awe & Wonder
We can express awe and wonderment in the words of a blessing. When we see a breathtaking example of God’s creation, such as a mighty rainforest or a sky full of stars, one can say something like, “Blessed be YHVH our God, great and awesome, who creates wonders such as these!”
A good example of an ancient blessing of awe is Enoch’s prayer when he expresses wonder at the beauty of God’s creation:
“Blessed be YHVH of the heavenly hosts, who has made great and glorious wonders to show the greatness of God’s work to the angels, spirits and human beings, that they might praise God for God’s work and all God’s creation!” (Enoch 36:4)
Other blessings can be said in thanks for something. An interseting example would be with something we have bought or received from someone. For instance, when you put on a new set of clothing for the fist time, you might say, “Thanks be to YHVH, that I was able to buy (or was given) these new clothes!”
It would not occur to most people to thank God for something which God did not ostensibly have a hand in. However, to the Jewish mind, everything belongs to God – every atom, and every molecule, no matter what form those molecules may be made into. You never know – God may have moved the heart of someone to buy a gift for you; or else enabled you to afford the money to buy something. So by blessing (that is, thanking) God for new clothes or new shoes, or even a new book or a car, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over everything.
An example of a biblical blessing of thanksgiving is one where King David thanks God for letting him live long enough to see his successor Solomon anointed king after him:
“Praised be YHVH, the God of Israel, who has this day provided a successor to my throne, while my own eyes can see it!”
Various Types of Brakhot of Awe or Praise
We can bless God, not only when we see something that God has created, but we can also marvel at something God has done:
“Blessed be YHVH, who has saved us from danger!”
“Blessed be YHVH, who has taught my baby daughter to walk!”
“Praised be YHVH, who has given the gift of signing to the deaf!”
Now, even though we might think (and rightly so) that a baby inherently learns to walk, or that it was a human being who actually invented signing, what the practice of blessing does is trace everything around us right back to God. It reminds us of God’s constant handiwork in everything around us.
Various Types of Brakhot of Thanksgiving
We can bless and thank God for an ability, or for a new thing, or for bringing us to the season of a religious festival, or for being given the opportunity to perform a mitzvah (commandment):
“Thanks be to YHVH our God, who has given me this opportunity to perform an act of charity!”
“Thanks be to YHVH my God, who has brought me alive into a new morning and a new day!”
(upon starting to read a new book): “Thanks be to YHVH, who has given me the ability to read!”
The Wording of Blessings
Despite what the rabbis say, blessings do not have to follow a special format. Because of the nature of blessings, by definition they have to contain the name of God, and an expression of awe, wonderment, praise or thanksgiving; and finally what the blessing is for (either what God has done, or what God is being thanked or praised for).
Other than that, a blessing can be as spontaneous and worded in any way one likes:
Expression of awe or thanks: “Blessed be / Praised be / Thanks be to ….” etc
Name of God: YHVH
God’s connection with blessing: “who has / for You have / that You have”
What God has done: “made me a spiritual being / enabled me to love / given us laughter!”
Blessings should never be restricted in their form. Torah nowhere says that a blessing has to be in a particular formula of words. To define the formula of blessings too precisely stifles spontaneity, and puts ordinary people off from inventing their own. Blessings should be spontaneous and free. If someone asks you, “Is there a blessing for a new job?” you can say to them, “There will be once you’ve said it!”
The Blessing after Meals
In the book of Deuteronomy 8:10, it says, “When you have eaten your fill, then you shall bless YHVH your God for the good land which God has given you.” It is the only blessing actually commanded in Torah. An interesting thing to note here is that, whereas in a Christian context, God is thanked before the meal, the bible instructs us that we are to give thanks after the meal.
The blessing contained in the Liberal Talmidi Shabbat home service is as follows:
“We bless you and thank you, O YHVH our God, that you have given us food to nourish us. Even for that which we have not sown, or grown or harvested ourselves, we give you thanks.”
The practice of saying blessings is unique to Jewish culture. A pious Jew will see God’s power and involvement in everything around them, and be moved to give thanks and praise to God. By blessing God, we become constantly reminded of God’s presence in our lives, and blessings thereby serve to seal God’s Presence into the Jewish psyche.
A list of blessings from the Hebrew Bible
“Blessed be YHVH, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld God’s steadfast faithfulness from my master; for I have been guided on my errand by YHVH, to the house of my master’s kinsfolk!”
(Gen 24:27, said by one of Abraham’s servants when he finds his master’s relatives)
“Blessed be YHVH, who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians!”
(Ex 18:10, said by Jethro to Moses, upon hearing the story of the Exodus)
“Blessed be YHVH, the God of Israel, who has sent you this day to meet me!”
(1Sam 25:32, said by David to Abigail; the meeting persuaded David to hold back from dealing out punishment on Abigail’s husband)
“Blessed be YHVH your God, who has handed over the men who rebelled against my lord the king!”
(2Sam 18:28, said by Ahimaaz son of Zadok to David, upon delivering the news that David’s enemies had been defeated).
“Blessed be YHVH, the God of Israel, who has this day provided a successor to my throne, while my own eyes can see it!”
(1Kings 1:48, said by King David in the presence of his courtiers, on seeing his son Solomon anointed his successor).
“Blessed be YHVH this day, for granting David a wise son to govern this great people!”
(1Kgs 5:7, said by King Hiram of Tyre in Lebanon, upon hearing of Solomon’s order for timber to build the Temple in Jerusalem).
“Blessed be YHVH, God of Israel, who made the heavens and the earth, who gave King David a wise son, endowed with intelligence and understanding, to build a House for YHVH and a royal palace for himself!”
(2Chr 2:12, different version of the preceding passage).
“Blessed be YHVH the God of Israel, who has fulfilled with deeds the promise God made to my father David!”
(1Kgs 8:15, said by King Solomon in front of the whole assembled congregation of Israel, upon the dedication of the Temple).
“Blessed be YHVH, God of Israel, who made a promise to my father David and fulfilled it!”
(2Chr 6:4, different version of the preceding passage).
“Blessed be YHVH, who has granted a haven to God’s people Israel, just as God promised; not a single word has failed of all the gracious promises that God made through God’s servant Moses!”
(1Kgs 8:56, said by Solomon at the end of the same prayer above).
“Blessed be YHVH, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today!”
(Ruth 4:14, said by the women of Bethlehem to Naomi upon the birth of Ruth’s son).
“Blessed be YHVH, for God listens to my plea for mercy!”
(Ps 28:6, said by David upon having a prayer answered)
“Blessed be YHVH, for God has been wondrously faithful to me, a veritable bastion!”
(Ps 31:21, said by David in thanks to God).
Ancient blessings outside the Miqra
“Blessed be the One who has kept this Holy place undefiled!”
(2Maccabees 15:34, said by the victorious soldiers who defeated the cruel pagan Nicanor and liberated the Temple).
“Blessed be YHVH of the heavenly hosts, who has made great and glorious wonders to show the greatness of God’s work to the angels, spirits and human beings, that they might praise God for God’s work and all God’s creation!”
(Enoch 36:4, in wonder at God’s creation)
“I bless the name of YHVH, for God saved me from evil of every kind, and preserved me in times of trouble!”