A hallmark of the Jewish experience is the myriad of brachos (blessings) intertwined into the fabric of daily living. From the moment we wake up (Al N’tilas Yadayim) until the moment we fall asleep (HaMapil), we recite brachah after brachah on every imaginable aspect of our lives: before and after eating, throughout davening, even after going to the bathroom. Every milestone of life is accompanied by a unique brachah as well: from the birth of a child, followed by bris milah and pidyon ha’ben, and subsequently to mark marriage and even death. Life’s milestones are marked and elevated through brachos.
Although we likely take it for granted that brachos are a pillar of our daily lives, they have not always existed as they do now. Until the Second Temple era, there was no standard set of brachos or prayer. The only brachos that are d’Oraisa (commanded in the Torah) are Birkas HaMazon (the blessings after bread) and [possibly] Birchos HaTorah (the blessing on Torah). (There is a debate amongst the commentators whether Birchos HaTorah is a Torah commandment or of Rabbinic origin. The Rambam omits it when counting the mitzvos, but others, such as the Ramban, posit that Birchos HaTorah are, in fact, a Torah commandment. This topic – as well as the Rambam’s opinion on this subject – requires a more in-depth discussion, one that is beyond the scope of this article.) All other brachos and their official texts were instituted by the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah (the Men of the Great Assembly) in the Second Temple Era.
This begs the obvious question: What has changed? What prompted the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah to introduce such a major change in Jewish daily life? Before we can understand the shift that necessitated this monumental change, we must first explore the nature of brachos in general. The common translation of a brachah’s opening – “Baruch atah Hashem” – is “Blessed are You, Hashem.” What does this mean? Can Hashem, the infinite and perfect G-d, benefit from our blessings? More generally, what is the nature and purpose of a brachah?
Blessings and Curses
When Bil’am is hired by Balak to curse the Jewish People, he attempts to do so, but unwittingly proclaims elaborate blessings instead. On the surface level, it is clear that brachos reflect a positive force, while curses signify the opposite. However, there are layers of depth beneath the surface. Let us delve more deeply into the true nature of brachos and klalos in order to understand their profound spiritual nature.
Brachah: From Oneness to Twoness
The prerequisite for any discussion of brachos is understanding how Hashem relates to the physical world. Hashem is infinite – beyond physicality, unconfined by time or space. He is not within this world, nor is He a being; the world, and being itself, are within Him. Hashem is absolute oneness without any components, finitude, or multiplicity. The physical world, in contrast, is finite, existing in a realm of time, space, and multiplicity.
How, then, does Hashem connect to this physical world? How can that which is transcendent and infinite connect to, and manifest within, our finite, particular world? The answer is through brachah, the flow of abundance and multiplicity (tosefes v’ribui) that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. Brachah represents the transition from infinite oneness to particular twoness – the process by which Hashem’s divine energy (shefa) flows into this world. (As we will soon elaborate, our brachos are directly related to this process. It is important, though, to recognize the distinction between the concept of brachah and the particular brachos that we say. The previous paragraph defined the concept of the brachah as the flow of abundance and multiplicity – tosefes v’ribui – that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. Below, we will discuss the nature of the brachos that we human beings recite.)
Alef vs. Beis
The Maharal describes the letter beis as the letter of twoness – multiplicity and physicality – the characteristics of our physical world. Alef, on the other hand, is the letter of oneness – transcendence and spirituality – reflecting Hashem and the spiritual dimension. Alef is the very first letter in the alef-beis and has the numerical value of one. It is a silent letter, reflecting its spiritual, transcendent nature. It also reflects spiritual elevation, as expressed in many words that have the word alef (spelled alef, lamed, pei) as their root. “L’alef” means to teach, elevate, or lift to a higher spiritual dimension; “aluf” refers to the highest-ranking military position; and “elef” is the highest number in the Hebrew decimal system.
The very physical makeup of the letter alef reflects its elevated spiritual level. The Ramchal points out that the letter alef is comprised of three smaller letters: two yuds and a vav. The total numerical value of these three letters is 26, the same as yud-kei-vav-kei, the name of Hashem – again, that which is transcendent and complete oneness. (This is the Sheim Havayah – the name that describes Hashem as the transcendent source of our physical reality – in comparison to Elokim, the name of Hashem that describes how He relates to, and is manifest within, our physical world.)
Brachah: the Word of Twoness
The oneness of alef can be held in direct contrast to the twoness of beis. There is an enigmatic midrash that states that the letter beis was chosen from all 22 letters of the alef-beis to begin the Torah (B’reishis). The midrash (Yalkut Shim’oni, B’reishis 1:1) clarifies Hashem’s decision by explaining that the letter beis stands for the word brachah. Many commentators, especially the Ibn Ezra, struggle to understand this explanation. After all, the letter beis is the first letter of many negative words, as well. Why is its connection to brachah the only one considered?
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 34) explains this midrash in a profound and beautiful fashion. Beis doesn’t “stand” for the word brachah; it is the letter of brachah. Beis is the letter of twoness and multiplicity; brachah is the word of twoness and multiplicity. Beis, reish, and chaf, the shoresh of the word brachah, are each letters of multiplicity: Beis has the numerical value of two, chaf is 20, and reish is 200. These are all the letters of twoness, and brachah is the paradigmatic concept of twoness, as well. Brachah is the mechanism of expressing Hashem’s oneness into the world, expanding into twoness through tosefes v’ribui.
This is why the Torah begins with the letter beis. Torah is a physical array of finite words, all of which are a loyal reflection and emanation of Hashem’s wisdom and absolute oneness. Furthermore, the Torah begins by describing Hashem’s creation of the physical world, a process most appropriately embodied by the letter beis – the letter of twoness that stems from oneness.
The letter beis reflects the process of Hashem’s oneness becoming expressed into our physical world. This is in contrast to the Aseres HaDibros, which begin with an alef. While the episode of creation epitomizes the finite expression of multiplicity that stems from oneness, Matan Torah was the exact opposite; the giving of the Torah was the elevation and ascension from twoness to oneness, an unparalleled experience of truth, oneness, and the transcendent spiritual dimension of reality. It was an experience of Hashem Himself, and therefore begins with the letter of oneness and transcendence – alef.
The Ramchal (Daas T’vunos 46) explains at length that Hashem created this world for the sole purpose of giving us brachah. The Ramchal translates brachah as goodness, shefa (spiritual energy), and light. In other words, brachah is Hashem’s expression into, and revelation in, this world. Receiving brachah means receiving Hashem’s goodness and expression in this world.
At this point, we need to make an important distinction. There is a fundamental difference between twoness that is connected to oneness and spirituality, which we will refer to as brachah, and twoness that is purely physical and disconnected from spirituality. Detached and disconnected twoness is lifeless, purposeless, and dead. Twoness that is connected to oneness is a physicality infused with vibrancy, always expanding beyond its apparent limits and borders. Such physicality is constantly expanding, as it is connected to a higher source. This is a physicality rooted in brachah, fully connected to its spiritual root.
When we recite brachos and say “Baruch atah Hashem,” we are not blessing Hashem. Hashem, infinite and perfect, does not need our blessings. Rather, there are two simultaneous intentions that we must have when making a brachah. The first, as Rabbeinu Bachya explains, is to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all blessing, abundance, and goodness in the world (Rabbeinu Bachya, Kad HaKemach, Brachah). This is a meditation of hakaras ha’tov (recognition of the good) and a practice of sourcing all multiplicity and brachah back to its source. In essence, when we make a brachah, we are recognizing Hashem as the source of all brachah.
Our second intention, as the Rashba (Shu”t HaRashba 5:51), Vilna Gaon, and Nefesh HaChayim (Nefesh HaChayim 2:2, 2:10) explain, is asking Hashem to continue to abundantly manifest into this world and into my personal life.
The first step is recognition and connecting back to Hashem – our Source. The second step is an exercise of will; we attempt to bring Hashem into this world and ask that He manifest abundantly – both into the world in general, and into our individual lives. In our next article, we will delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and try to understand the concept of brachos and klalos on an even deeper level.
Our Mission of Brachah
Our mission is to use the physical world as a medium through which we connect to Hashem. We don’t only ask for brachah; we create it by actively seeing Hashem’s presence flow into every aspect of our lives. May we be inspired to live lives full of brachah, sourcing every dimension of our lives back to Hashem, and living a life of oneness within this world of twoness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.