BENEDICTIONS


BENEDICTIONS (Heb. sing. בְּרָכָה, berakhah; pl. בְּרָכוֹת, berakhot), formulas of blessing or thanksgiving, in public and private services. The Hebrew noun berakhah is derived from the verb brk ברך ("to fall on one's knees"). The Talmud ascribes the institution and formulation of the benedictions to "the Men of the Great *Synagogue" (Ber. 33a), to the sages of old (Sif. Deut. 33:2; Mid. Ps. 17:4), or to the "120 elders" at the head of the community in the time of *Ezra (Meg. 17b; TJ, Ber. 2:4, 4d). These references, however, cannot be considered historically authentic, although they are indicative of the fact that benedictions were known to have been instituted in very ancient times. In the Bible, mention is made of a number of individual benedictions (Gen. 24:27; Ex. 18:10; Ruth 4:14; I Sam. 25:32; II Sam. 18:28; I Kings 1:48; 5:21; 8:15, 56; I Chron. 16:36; II Chron. 2:11; 6:4; Ps. 28:6; 31:22). After the victory of the Maccabees over Nicanor, the people exclaimed, "Blessed be He who has kept His holy place undefiled" (II Macc. 15:34). According to the Book of Enoch (36:4), each time Enoch beheld some of the wonders of nature, he "blessed the Lord of Glory, Who had made great and glorious wonders to show the greatness of His work to the angels and to spirits and to men, that they might praise His work and all His creation."

The Origin of the Berakhot

Elbogen and other scholars have shown that the various benedictions probably originated in different congregations and localities. The formulas ultimately adopted by all Jews were selections from, and combinations of, local customs and traditions. The attempts of other scholars to establish a definite date for the formulation of each benediction and to reconstruct an "original" wording appear to lack foundation. There are indications which suggest that different formulas were known and used simultaneously. Similarities to the 18 benedictions which comprise the *Amidah prayer are, for instance, to be found in various sources: the hymn recorded in Ecclesiasticus 51:12, and the prayer found in Ecclesiasticus 36:1ff. The latter contains a series of benedictions petitioning for the ingathering of the exiles and the salvation of Israel. It also expresses the hope that Zion and the Temple may be filled with God's glory. The "eight benedictions," recited by the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 7:1; TJ, Yoma 7:1, 44b), and the order of the morning service of the priests in the Temple (Tam. 5:1), are also examples of this procedure.

THE END OF THE SECOND TEMPLE PERIOD

By the end of the Second Temple period, certain "orders of benedictions" had become the generally accepted custom in most communities. Prominent among these were the seven benedictions which comprise the Amidah for Sabbaths and festivals, the nine for Rosh Ha-Shanah (Tosef., Ber. 3:14), and most likely also the 18 benedictions for the weekday Amidah. The number and contents of the benedictions before and after the *Shema, and the three benedictions of the *Grace after Meals, were also standardized about this time. The "redaction" of the regular, prescribed prayers and benedictions under Rabban *Gamaliel II at Jabneh (Ber. 28b ff.), at the end of the firstcentury C.E., gave official sanction to what had been in essence the prevailing custom for a considerable time, and probably established the order and content of the benedictions. It did not, however, become the single, authoritative version.

THE TALMUDIC PERIOD

At the earliest, prayers were written down by the end of the talmudic period, and many alternative formulations of the same benediction are known from talmudic sources (some are in use in different rites to the present day). The order of prayer was still relatively flexible, for while the general outline and the motifs of the prayers and blessings were well defined, their recital involved an element of improvisation and free composition. The latter was seen as a safeguard against mechanical prayer. Some amoraim were singled out for praise because they recited "a new prayer" or "a new benediction" every day (TJ, Bet. 4:3, 8a). During talmudic times, however, only the requirements for the wording of each benediction were fixed in greater detail, and various subsidiary motifs which had to be included in some of them were enumerated. Consistent attempts at establishing one single authoritative version of all prayers only came later.

The Benediction Formula

Every blessing opens with the words Barukh Attah Adonai ("Blessed art Thou, O Lord"). When the benediction occurs at the beginning of a prayer, the words Eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam ("our God, King of the Universe") are added. There are three types of formulas for benedictions: The first is a short blessing (matbe'a kaẓar, "short formula") which, after the above opening, is followed by a few words of praise specific to the occasion, e.g., the benediction over bread: ha-moẓi leḥem min ha-areẓ ("who brings forth bread from the earth"). The second is a long blessing (matbe'a arokh, "long formula"), in which the opening is followed by a more elaborate text, e.g., in the first section of the Grace after Meals, after which a concluding benediction formula must be recited at the end of the prayer, e.g., Barukh Attah Adonai ha-zan et ha-kol ("Blessed art Thou O Lord, Who feedest all"). The third type of benediction forms part of a series (berakhah ha-semukhah le-ḥavertah, "contiguous blessings"). The opening formula is omitted (except in the first benediction of each series), and only the conclusion is phrased in the benediction style. The second section of the Grace after Meals, for instance, begins with the words Nodeh Lekha ("We thank Thee"), and ends with the benediction Barukh Attah Adonai al ha-areẓ ve-al ha-mazon ("Blessed art Thou O Lord, for the land and the food"; TJ, Bet. 1:8, 3d). The mention of God as "King of the Universe" (known as Malkhut) occurs only in the first two forms, and not in the third. It is totally absent from the Amidah, and probably did not become customary before the second century C.E. (Ber. 40a). The introduction of Malkhut into the opening phrase of the formula may have been motivated by the desire to stress the exclusive kingship of God, as a protest against the Roman cult of emperor worship. Since most of the obligatory prayers, e.g., the Amidah, and the benedictions preceding and following the Shema, consist of a series of blessings, the form occurring most frequently in the synagogue service is the third, in which the benediction formula is used only as a conclusion.

The standard benediction formula occurs only twice in the Bible (Ps. 119:12; I Chron. 29:10); other formulas such as Hodu la-Adonai ("Praise God"), Odekha Adonai ("I will thank Thee, O Lord") are more frequent, as is the phrase Barukh Attah (without Adonai). The benedictions in Ecclesiasticus 51:12, for instance, are introduced by Hodu la-Adonai, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls the benediction formula is used interchangeably with Odekha Adonai, and the like (e.g., Thanksgiving Scroll, cf. 2:20, 31; 4:5, with 11:28, 30; 16:8; and especially 5:20, where the latter formula has been struck by the scribe and replaced by the former). Nor do the Dead Sea Scrolls yet distinguish between the use of the divine names Adonai and El in benedictions. The Talmud also retains some traces of formulas other than the standard ones (Ber. 40b and 54b; Tosef., Ber. 4:4–5). The ultimate choice of the formula containing both the Tetragrammaton and the direct address of God in the second person was deliberate. It reflects the personal and even intimate relationship of the worshiper with God. It also ensures that supplications and petitions (such as the intermediary benediction of the Amidah) invariably conclude with words of praise. After asking for forgiveness, the prayer concludes: "Blessed art Thou … who dost abundantly forgive."

Laws of Benedictions

The Talmud (Ber. 40b) quotes Rav as saying that every benediction must include the name of God, and R. Johanan as saying that each benediction must also contain the attribute of God's kingship. It is also obvious from this talmudic passage that a benediction could be recited in the vernacular and did not have to be an exact translation of the Hebrew formula. A shepherd, Benjamin, is quoted as having said in Aramaic, "Blessed be God, the master of this bread," and Rav agreed that it was sufficient (Ber. 40b). Particular stress is laid upon the closing formula (Ber. 9:5; Ta'an. 2:3; Tosef., Ber. 7:21–22). While the benediction formula is obligatory in every one of the prescribed prayers, its use is precluded in spontaneous free prayers: "He who recites a blessing which is not necessary is considered to transgress the prohibition 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain'" (Ex. 20:7; Ber. 33a). Maimonides (Yad, Berakhot 1:4) divides the benedictions into three types: those which are recited before enjoying a pleasure (e.g., food); those which are recited for the performance of a religious duty (e.g., hearing the shofar); and those which are forms of liturgical thanksgiving and praise (e.g., Grace after Meals).

*Abudarham distinguished four classes or types of benedictions: those recited in the daily prayers; those preceding the performance of a religious duty; blessings offered for enjoyments; and those of thanksgiving or praise (Abudarham ha-Shalem, Berakhot).

Many benedictions, though obligatory and therefore couched in the characteristic berakhah formula, are not recited in congregational worship but by the individual in private prayer. Prominent among them are three groups: benedictions before and after the partaking of food and drink; benedictions to be recited before the performance of most mitzvot; and benedictions of praise for various occasions (the morning benedictions which express man's gratitude for awakening in possession of all his faculties were originally of this type). Since all three types of benedictions are essentially of a private character, no minyan is required for their recital. (The Grace after Meals is, however, preceded by a special introduction when said in company.)

BENEDICTIONS RECITED BEFORE THE PERFORMANCE OF A MITZVAH

All benedictions recited before the observance of a mitzvah begin with the formula "Blessed … who has sanctified us through his commandments and commanded us…," and mention the specific mitzvah about to be performed. The same formula is also used before the performance of commandments of rabbinic origin (e.g., the lighting of candles on the Sabbath or on Ḥanukkah) since such commandments are implied in the biblical injunction to observe the teaching of the sages (Deut. 17:10; Shab. 23a). The actual benediction over the mitzvah is sometimes followed by further benedictions (e.g., on kindling the Ḥanukkah candles, the benediction "who has performed miracles for our fathers in days of old at this season" is recited). When a mitzvah is performed for the first time in the year, the She-Heḥeyanu benediction ("who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season") is also added. No blessings are recited after the observance of mitzvot, unless they involve public reading from the Scriptures (e.g. Torah, Prophets, Hallel). It is, however, recorded that Palestinian scholars recited one on removing the tefillin.

In practice, a benediction is not recited before the performance of every mitzvah. Some commentators have suggested that the determining principle is that no benediction should be recited before mitzvot which do not involve any action (e.g., leaving the corner of the field for the poor; Lev. 19:9), or the observance of which is possible only in undesirable circumstances (e.g., divorce, or the return of stolen goods). In the case of other mitzvot (e.g., the giving of alms), however, the reason for the absence of a benediction is not readily apparent, and there is no general agreement regarding the underlying principles. Custom on the matter seems to have varied as late as geonic times.

BENEDICTION OF PRAISE ON VARIOUS OCCASIONS

Among the many benedictions prescribed for various special occasions, those to be recited on hearing good and bad tidings, on witnessing awesome natural phenomena, on visiting a place where miracles have been performed in the past (in Ereẓ Israel) are prominent. The blessing Ha-tov ve-ha-metiv ("Blessed is He Who is good and does good") is recited by an individual upon hearing good news which will also benefit others, such as when hearing news that one has received an inheritance or when rain begins to fall after a drought. It is also recited when partaking of additional wine which is different in kind from that drunk previously. The Birkat ha-Gomel, a blessing recited upon individual salvation from danger, is included in this category. Known generally as "blessings of praise," the main purpose of these benedictions is "to make us remember our Creator at all times" (Maim. Yad, Berakhot 1:4). While the benedictions over food are evidently intended to sanctify the physical act of taking nourishment, and those recited before mitzvot serve to prevent the performance of the mitzvah in a thoughtless routine manner, the recital of the "benedictions of praise" is practically an end in itself. These benedictions serve to illuminate the educational function of blessings which transform a variety of everyday actions and occurrences into religious experiences designed to increase awareness of God at all times. R. Meir went so far as to declare that it is the duty of every Jew to recite 100 benedictions daily (Men. 43b), a custom which, according to one tradition, was instituted by King David (Num. R. 18:21). The rabbinical discussions of benedictions are contained in the Mishnah tractate *Berakhot, and the gemara in both Talmuds.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Abrahams, Companion; Ch. Albeck (ed.), Shishah Sidrei Mishnah: Berakhot (1952); Elbogen, Gottesdienst; Finkelstein, in: JQR, 16 (1925/26), 1–43, 127–70; 19 (1928–29), 211–62; L. Ginzberg, Perushim ve-Ḥiddushim ba-Yerushalmi, 4 vols. (1941–61); J. Heinemann, Ha-Tefillah bi-Tekufat ha-Tanna'im ve-ha-Amora'im (19662); idem, in: JSS, 5 (1960), 264–80; idem, in: JJS, 13 (1962), 23–29; Idelsohn, Liturgy; Kohler, in: HUCA, 1 (1924), 387–425; Liebreich, ibid., 21 (1948), 176–209; 34 (1963), 125–76; idem, in: PAAJR, 18 (1948/49), 255–67; Liber, in: JQR, 40 (1949/50), 331–57; Mann, in: HUCA, 2 (1925), 269–338; A.I. Schechter, Studies in Jewish Liturgy (1930); Zunz, Vortraege; Petuchowski, in: HUCA, 37 (1966), 175–89.


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