By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
In just a few weeks we will celebrate Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year. (Yes, I know that this is not exactly what you might expect to hear from a Jewish clergyperson, but I have to speak my truth!) On this day, we give thanks for our privilege of living in this wonderful country and take the opportunity to express our gratitude for family, friends, food, shelter, and health. Sadly, there are too many people who lack these blessings in their own lives.
In Judaism, blessings are meant to be woven into the fabric of our daily existence. In the Talmud (Menachot 43b), we are instructed to say 100 blessings each day. They fall into three major categories. First are those blessings said over something pleasurable such as eating, drinking, smelling flowers or herbs, seeing a rainbow, or wearing new clothes. By reciting these blessings, we are acknowledging that God has created these miracles for us to enjoy and offering our thanks: “Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, Sovereign of the universe, Who …”
Some of these blessings are more well-known than others. For example, the blessing over wine or grape juice — “…Borei p’ri hagafen” (…Who creates the fruit of the vine) — is recited during Shabbat, holidays, and many life-cycle events including weddings and Brit Milah (circumcision). The Ha-Motzi blessing (“… Who brings forth bread from the earth…”) is said prior to any meal that includes bread (including challah for Shabbat and certain holidays). A meal that does not include bread must still begin with a blessing, the specifics of which depend on what is being consumed (e.g. fruits, vegetables, grain products, etc.)
The second category includes blessings recited prior to performing a mitzvah (commandment), such as lighting Shabbat or holiday candles, ritually washing our hands prior to eating, studying Torah, sitting in a Sukkah, eating matzah during a Passover Seder, hearing the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and affixing a mezuzah on the doorposts of our homes.
Mitzvah blessings invoke a sense of sanctification or holiness. Almost all begin in this format: “Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, Sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with God’s commandments and commanded us to…” As the wording indicates, we are undertaking an obligation to perform a specific mitzvah.
The third category includes those blessings which are recited on special occasions such as hearing good news, returning from a long journey, or recovering from an illness. Perhaps the most well-known of these blessings is the Shehecheyanu: “Blessed are you, Eternal Spirit, Sovereign of the universe, Who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to arrive at this moment.” This blessing is recited when we do something for the very first time or have not done in at least one year. Examples include lighting Chanukah candles (first night only), shaking a lulav and etrog on the first day of Sukkot, or entering one’s new home for the first time. It may also be recited when arriving in Israel, our Holy Land. Inherent in this blessing is the acknowledgement that God has brought us to this profound moment in our lives.
Making the recitation of blessings a part of our daily lives prompts us to express gratitude for the wonders and miracles in our midst that we may otherwise take for granted. May we all experience thanksgiving and blessings every day of our lives.