In our previous article, we began exploring the concept of brachah (blessing). We explained that brachah represents the transition from infinite oneness to particular twoness – the process by which Hashem’s divine energy (shefa) flows into this world. 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.
Stealing from Hashem
This understanding of brachah also sheds light on a famous Gemara (B’rachos 35a). The Gemara states that if one fails to make a brachah before taking pleasure (hana’ah) from this physical world, it is as if he stole from Hashem. The Gemara then points out a contradictory source: “The heavens are for Hashem, while the land He gave to man” (T’hilim 115:16), which seems to imply that man is permitted to use the physical world freely. The Gemara solves this contradiction by stating: Man is stealing from Hashem only when he does not make a brachah beforehand; however, once he makes a brachah, it is no longer stealing. The question then is: What fundamentally changes when we make a brachah?
The simple answer is that a brachah is the means through which we “ask permission” from Hashem to use His world. Once we do so, we are allowed to partake in it, because it is as if He gave us permission to do so. However, there is a much deeper layer here. The entire world stems from, and therefore belongs to, Hashem. Without a brachah, one fails to source him or herself, and the world as a whole, back to its root, i.e., Hashem. In doing so, it is as if one is saying that Hashem is not connected to – or manifest within – this world. Therefore, when one uses the world in this manner, he is disconnecting it from its spiritual source, “stealing” it from Hashem. The spiritual concept of stealing is the act of taking an item away from its rightful owner and place. If one proclaims through his actions that the physical world is not fully connected to Hashem, he is essentially stealing from Hashem, removing the world from its rightful owner and place. However, in making a brachah, you source both the physical world and yourself back to Hashem. In doing so, you have connected both yourself and this physical world to Hashem – our rightful source – and the issue of stealing is resolved.
Klalos: Curses of Limitation
Klalos (curses) are the exact opposite of brachah. If brachah is the overflowing and boundless expression of goodness and shefa into this world, klalah represents the limitation and constriction of Hashem’s flow into this world, replacing abundance with boundaries and restriction. A curse is the attempt to limit Hashem’s manifestation and presence in this world.
It is important to note that while the concept of klalah is often perceived as inherently negative, this does not have to be the case. Brachah represents outflow and endless abundance, while klalah represents a limitation of that abundance. If used correctly, the midah (characteristic) of klalah can actually be constructive. When the use of limitations is implemented only in order to help make the brachah useful and real, the klalah itself ends up becoming part of the brachah. For instance, too much rain results in flooding. A limitation on rain, resulting in a proper amount of water, is a necessary and productive form of limitation. The problem is when klalah is used for the purpose of destroying brachah and preventing any brachah from manifesting.
Brachah vs. Klalah
The Gemara (Taanis 8b) states: “Ein ha’brachah m’tzuyah ela b’davar ha’samui min ha’ayin — Brachah (abundance) occurs only in that which is hidden from the eye.” The logic behind this cryptic statement is profound. When something is not yet seen by the physical eye, it can be anything. The potential is limitless; Hashem can make it into anything. However, once the human eye sees it, it becomes fixed as that alone. It is now finite and limited, no longer subject to brachah and potential increase.
When you see something, you immediately give it boundaries and limitations. This is why the gematria of “r’iyah” (seeing) is the same as “g’vurah” (limitation and midas ha’din). Something spiritual cannot be seen. A neshamah is boundless, containing no boundaries or edges. A body, on the other hand, starts and ends at specific places.
The Gemara (Taanis 8b) illustrates the application of this principle in regard to t’filah. The Gemara says that if you are walking to your grain storage house to count your grain, and you have not yet seen it, you can daven that your grain should be increased. If, however, you have already seen it, you can no longer daven for the increase. Before you give it concrete form, it could be anything; it remains in the world of potential and is still subject to the boundless flow of brachah. Once, however, you give it finite measure, it can be nothing more than what it already is. Davening for additional brachah would be a t’filas shav (prayer in vain).
Bilaam: From Klalah to Brachah
We can now understand Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Jewish People in an entirely new light. Bilaam attempted to curse klal Yisrael, to cut off their spiritual connection with Hashem. In response, Hashem did more than just negate Bilaam’s curses; He turned these very curses into brachos, strengthening the connection between Hashem and klal Yisrael, and reinforcing the channel of brachah that flows from Hashem into this world.
The Historical Shift: From Light to Darkness
Returning to our original question, why were brachos [as we know them] only instituted at the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash? The answer is as follows: There are two stages of history.
The first stage lasted from creation until the time period of Purim and Chanukah. This stage was highlighted by the miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah and the presence of n’vuah. During this stage, Hashem’s revelation in this world was apparent and clear. The physical world was naturally seen as an expression of a spiritual reality, and it was easy for one to source the physical back to the spiritual. As a result, institutionalized brachos were unnecessary; when one ate a meal, he naturally sourced the food back to Hashem, as it was abundantly clear that the food came from a transcendent, spiritual source – Hashem. The same was true for the rest of daily life; spirituality came naturally and spontaneously.
However, with the end of prophecy came the end of this stage, as well. We no longer experience miracles; we no longer experience Hashem as openly manifest in the physical world. As a result, Chazal instituted standardized t’filah and brachos for everyone to say throughout the day, the yearly cycle, and the various stages of life. The world has bent; the light has faded. We no longer naturally source ourselves back to Hashem; we need help pointing us in the right direction so that we can achieve this mission. This is the function of the standardized brachos and t’filah; they serve as a guiding path back to Hashem. (It is important to note that while the standardized format is identical for everyone, the internal experience and awareness is unique within each of us.)
Our mission is to use the physical world as a medium through which we connect to Hashem. We no longer see reality with a clear lens. But that gives us a unique opportunity: to create light within the darkness and to use our free will to choose to see 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.