by Sam Glaser
Observant Jews can fly under the radar most of the time if they so choose. There is no law that states one must dress like a Chassid; one can wear a baseball hat, jeans and sneakers and blend. The only day that’s problematic is Shabbat. For the uninitiated, Sabbath observance seems strange at best, alien at worst. During weekdays, however, other than making sure kosher food is on hand, we can appear just like the Joneses next door. That is, until we start to make blessings.
Well before I started keeping Shabbat I remember working with my first Orthodox recording clients. I was helping a pair of songwriting rabbis from Israel make their musical dreams come true. I noticed that every few minutes they would start muttering to themselves. I finally could hold my curiosity no longer and said, “Excuse me? What did you just say?” One of the rabbis explained he was making an “after-bracha” for the water he had consumed. Evidently after he gulped down water from his cup he had about twenty minutes to thank God for the liquid refreshment. And of course, before he drank he made a blessing as well. Because we were continuously munching, a time honored tradition in recording studios, that made for a lot of brachot.
All I could think was, “mutant alert!” Now that I realized what was going on, I swore I would never indulge in such obsessive-compulsive behavior. In the end, their album came out great and I must admit that I eventually got used to their mumbling moments. Fast forward a few years to a class with Rabbi Abner Weiss who declared that nothing must enter the mouth of a Jew without being preceded by a proper blessing. That taking something from God’s creation for our sustenance without acknowledgement was tantamount to theft. I was incredulous that even a sip of water required a blessing. But the rabbi insisted that these formulas were easily memorized and would make every pang of hunger an opportunity for spiritual connection.
I started with a simple “shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,” the blessing for the generic foodstuff category, and worked my way up from there. I soon learned to distinguish an adama (vegetable) from an eitz (tree fruit – not entirely intuitive, I found out,) and a mezonot from a motzi. Once I got those down, itwasn’t long before I began to tackle the after-blessings. Thanks to my Conservative upbringing I was well acquainted with Birkat Hamazon in all its melodic glory. Somehow I had never been taught that this lengthy prayer/song was necessary only if one had consumed bread. Thankfully the after-blessings for most other foods are far shorter and easily learned and before long, just by making a habit of saying them at the appropriate time, I had them memorized.
Soon I was mumbling with the best of them. Actually, I was saying my blessings aloud so that I could give my friends an opportunity to “second the motion” with an enthusiastic “AMEN.” Also, I realized that I could teach my newborn Max the blessings by example if I enunciated them. Now I was a mutant just like my rabbi clients! Anyone spending any length of time with me would inevitably wonder what strange incantation I kept reciting. I found that blessings were a great conversation starter assuming one wanted to talk about matters of the spirit. In fact, I can think of no better method of “v’dibarta bam” from the Shema, the commandment to actively speak about the mitzvot in one’s day to day. Once you start discussing the system of blessings, the subject usually is uplifted from the secular into matters of mindfulness, connecting with God and elevating mundane acts.
I eventually learned that we have blessings after using the bathroom, upon seeing a wise person or hearing a clap of thunder. Just passing a rose garden allows for the opportunity for a blessing when you bend over to take a whiff. Excited about some new clothes? Make a Shehechiyanu! In fact, our Talmud recommends a daily requirement of uttering at least one hundred blessings everyday. Sound like a lot? Well, just by davening three times a day and blessing your food you are good to go! Bottom line: blessings open the heart, allow you to slow down and regain your humanity and keep you in a perpetual “attitude of gratitude.” Yes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, just don’t forget the proper blessing…and at least ninety-nine others!
Last month I had some wonderful fans spend several days with me on the road. They drove from their hometown to see a show and had me return my rental car so that they could drive me to the next two towns on my itinerary. That way they heard three concerts and it gave us several hours to bond. Having them with me gave me fresh incentive to vary the songs in my set list just so they wouldn’t get bored! Inevitably, blessings were the first topic of conversation. After all, I kept lapsing into brachot and looking at them funny if I didn’t get an amen. As we rolled down the highway I helped them commit to memory the whole system of blessings and we laughed together as they slowly improved.
One caveat of becoming too adept at blessings: it’s easy to mindlessly utter the words at a blinding pace. Yes, it beats the alternative of no blessing at all. But the genius of the system is lost in the shuffle as the sweet name of God is slurred and the sentiment becomes meaningless. In fact, I find it best to take a moment before saying the first “baruch” and focus on the miraculous nature of the food that I hold in my hand. Just to take that shiny red apple, for example, and behold that it is nutritious and juicy, is fragrant and tasty, comes wrapped in it’s own skin so you can throw it in your backpack, and HOLDS WITHIN THE SEEDS TO MAKE MORE APPLES JUST LIKE IT! Then my “borey p’ri ha-eitz” blessing is earth shattering! That simple fruit serves to blow my mind, to remind me just what a gift life is, and how intensely our Creator loves and maintains us.
Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo calls blessings the entry into a state of “radical amazement.” He describes religious life as a rejection of taking anything for granted. There is no place for the “same old same old.” A religious person seizes every opportunity to live with a sense of wonder and refuses to allow his or her senses to be dulled by repetition. Much of the time when I point out a stunning sunset or spectacular moon, my kids shrug, “yeah, whatever dad. Saw it yesterday.” The only thing that prevents Technicolor sunsets from utterly shocking us is their frequency. As one who wants to remain shocked at the vibrancy of life, I have attuned myself to maintain a sense of wonder, to make every moment an “aha” moment.
Walking along the beach in frigid San Francisco last night, a reality-challenged woman stopped my friend and me in our tracks by blurting out, “You two must be actors!” She then engaged us in a rambling conversation that covered multiple subjects and was astonished at the “coincidence” that we had met. My buddy said, “C’mon Sam…stop talking to this loon!” But I was enjoying her spiritual insights and I must admit I washumored by her rants. Before we left her company I gave her a blessing and sang her a song that I customized for her on the spot. She joined in the chorus and promised that we would be lifelong friends. What was an annoyance for my friend was a source of mirth for me. I try to allow myself to be swept along in a continuous series of opportunities, much like Ferris Buehler on a continuous day off. My brother Yom Tov refers to this outlook as, “rather than seeing the world as a jungle, it’s a jungle gym.” Just like I make blessings over my food and extraordinary events, I can offer blessings to others, even strangers on the beach. I feel that blessings can lift us into a parallel universe, one of constant connection and gratitude to our Creator and all living things.
At my Shabbat dinner table I give my children a blessing using the same words with which my father blessed me, based on the words that have been handed down since Aharon, the first Cohen (priest.) I remember a powerful realization just before my first son was born: I was going to have a child to bless! What an awesome responsibility! What did I know about blessings? What a chutzpah for me to bless anyone! This awareness gave me serious incentive to further research my heritage…after all, I had to build myself into a source of blessing if I was going to be blessing others. But the fact is that we don’t need a college degree to bless others…we just need to summon our God-given gifts of compassion and insight.
I often offer our Shabbas guests a bracha and many take me up on it. One of our frequent guests was a ninety-something next-door neighbor who graced our table for over a decade until she left this world. One Shabbat she mentioned that she had never before received a bracha, so I gave her the most heartfelt one I could muster. Our other guests thought I was just joking around but then witnessed her bursting into tears and thanking me profusely. I recognized at that moment that we have tremendous power to bestow blessing on one another. Blessings are real! Just like we uplift the act of eating by blessing God beforehand, so too can we uplift our relationships with our words of support and encouragement. By serving as a source of blessing we best emulate God, creating a karma loop of “blessing vibes” into a world hungry for light and hope, a light that I believe comes right back to support us.
One final thought: I find it much easier to remember to bless my food before I eat than after I’m done. Our rabbis teach that in fact, I’m not alone…this is a common problem. Surprisingly, it’s the after blessing that is more important in Jewish law. Thanking God after we are satiated is a direct commandment from our Torah, whereas the pre-blessing is a rabbinic mitzvah. I think this makes a lot of sense: the time we are most likely to forget our myriad gifts is when we are fat and satisfied. Wealthy people are less likely to run to their place of worship and cry for God’s help in their lives. When we are needy we are more likely to pray with passion. As the saying goes, there is no atheist in a foxhole. The rabbis set specific times for the after-blessing of each food group so that we would retain a state of gratitude even though we were happy and our bellies full. What a life lesson this is! This system of blessings gets us in the habit of remembering God in the bad times AND the good times. We don’t wait for a tragedy, God forbid, to initiate a relationship. When we are satisfied, happy, content with our lot, THAT is best time to share our lives with God.
If you want to increase blessings in your life, make more blessings! Jews are in this world to teach others to thank God, in fact, “to thank” (hoda) is at the root of word Yehudi (Jew!) A good place to start learning the nuances of blessings is this website. Best to spend an hour to commit the list to memory so that you don’t have to fumble for a siddur each time you reach for your water bottle. Thanks to all of you, my dear readers and listeners, for blessing me with your friendship.