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SIDIC Periodical XXVI - 1993/1
The Meaning of Blessing in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (Pages 02 - 09)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The concept of blessing
Herbert Loewe

 

Extracts from an unpublished manuscript prepared by Herbert Loewe (1882-1940), Reader in Rabbinics in the University of Cambridge, in preparation for the Opening of the People's Place and the Great Tower of Liverpool Cathedral, (1940). SIDIC is grateful to his son, Professor Raphael Loewe of University College London, for permission to publish it here).

INTRODUCTION
One Hebrew root BRK (berakhah) expresses the source of blessing, the blessing itself and the result of blessing. These three constitute a kind of unity, "a triple cord that cannot easily be broken"...
Common to all worship there is an unbroken succession of thought and duty in the blessing of God, blessing from God, and, in response, the exercise of the inherited power to be a blessing, thus completing the circle from God, through man, back to God.

MAN'S BLESSING OF GOD

Corporate:

Man's blessing of God is really a thanksgiving: it is usually termed a doxology. The oldest forms are preserved in the Psalter, but since these vary and since we have evidence that their wording has been changed, it may not be superfluous to cite them. As is well-known, the Psalter is divided into five books. Each concludes with a doxology. In the first four books, the doxology consists of a sentence: in the fifth book, it is represented by the hundred and fiftieth psalm, a truly glorious finale to a hymnal.

Book I ends (Ps. XLI,l3; Heb.14):
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting (lit. from the world to the world), Amen and Amen.

Book II ends (Ps.LXXII, 18-19):
Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, Who alone doeth wondrous deeds: and blessed be His glorious Name for ever, and may His Glory fill the whole earth, Amen and Amen.

Book III ends (Ps.LXXXIX,52,Heb.53):
Blessed be the Lord for everlasting, Amen and Amen.
Book IV ends (Ps. CVI,49):
Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting, and let all the people say Amen: praise ye Jah...

But the doxologies in the Psalter represent a developed form and it is possible to see the germ in earlier parts of the Scriptures. It must be observed that the first meaning of the Hebrew root from which the word Berakhah or blessing is derived ...means "to kneel". Berekh means "a knee" and Berekhah "a pool" where one kneels in order to drink. For when man originally blessed God, he knelt in adoration. When man blessed his fellows he stood up. Hence we read "Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker" (Ps.XCV,6). Here the word "kneel" is but another verbal form of "to bless". In one of the earliest poems of the Bible, the Song of Deborah, the simplest form of doxology occurs. "When the people offer themselves freely, bless ye the Lord" (Judges V,2,9). And in this simple form "Bless ye the Lord", the morning and evening liturgies of the Synagogue and Church open, although in the Jewish Morning Service this is obscured by the preliminary inclusion of matter intended for private devotion...

Now both the Church and the Synagogue laid very great weight on the constant repetition of the Psalter... The fact that in the Synagogue the public Morning Service proper begins after the conclusion of lauds privately recited and that these lauds include the last six psalms of the Psalter, points to a practice of reading through the five books of psalms in the night. It is not to be supposed that the ordinary person observed such a custom, it was probably limited to pious brotherhoods... When this and other private elements crept into the public prayer-book and formed the prelude to the service, doxologies were introduced to precede and follow the Psalms and other lauds: these were increased on Sabbaths and Holy Days.

The introductory doxology Barukh she- 'amar "Blessed be He who spake" consists of two parts: a solemn invocation and a blessing on reading the Psalms. It is composed in ancient style, for it has neither rhyme nor metre and the language is simple. Reminiscences of it occur in the Talmudic and Midrashic literature (Eliyyahu Zuta, 4, ed. M. Friedmann, p. 179, Eng. trans. by W.G. Braude and I.J. Kapstein, p. 421) and it was in common use in the period of the Geonim or Babylonian Rabbis who were the leading Jewish authorities after the close of the Talmud, from the sixth century to the thirteenth. It is thought by some scholars that this doxology was antiphonal and that the refrain ("Blessed be He and blessed be His name"), now found only in the first verse, was originally repeated after each verse as a Congregational response. The first part, according to the Sephardic rite, runs thus:

Blessed be He who but spoke and the world existed.
Blessed be He whose word is performance, Blessed be He whose decree is fulfilment.
Blessed be the Creator of the universe; Blessed be He who has compassion on the world.
Blessed be He who has compassion on His creatures;
Blessed be He who richly rewards them who revere Him.
Blessed be He who causes darkness to pass away and light to appear.
Blessed be God ever living, eternally existent.
Blessed be He before whom there is neither injustice nor forgetfulness, neither respect of persons nor the taking of bribes, who is righteous in all His ways and merciful in all His doings.
Blessed is He who redeems and delivers.
Blessed be He, blessed be His name, and blessed the mention of Him for ever and ever.

The reference to darkness and light shows that this blessing was meant to be recited at dawn, for morning prayer is man's first duty of the day and should be recited as soon as light appears.

Individual

Two characteristics may be noted during the biblical period in connection with man's blessing of God. First, this act was usually corporate. "Blessed be the Lord Who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth" (Ps.CXXIV,6) is a typical example. It illustrates also the second characteristic, for the next verse, "our life is rescued as a bird out of the fowler's snare", shows that the doxology was uttered after a deliverance. Usually it was some special occasion that evoked it. This holds good for individual as well as for corporate blessings... It is not until we step outside the Hebrew Bible that we find the blessing as a normal procedure. This stage marks a far-reaching extension of the function of blessing. Hitherto, man had blessed God after an emergency, as an exceptional act. Now he begins to associate God with the intimacies of his daily life and to offer thanks for every benefit he receives from Him.

This tendency began before the close of the biblical Canon; it existed in the time of Jesus, in fact it had by then reached a ripe development. It was natural that this extension should find expression in private, as opposed to corporate blessing. For this there are obvious reasons. First, such a blessing, as an outpouring of gratitude for personal benefits, must be uttered by the recipient himself. Secondly, it is thus real and sincere. Thirdly, it is not ostentatious....

At the beginning of the seventh chapter of the tractate Sotah in the Mishnah, as well as in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot 32af b and elsewhere, the language in which blessings may be uttered is discussed. Thus, Grace after meals may be recited in any language, but the Aaronide benediction of the people in Hebrew only (38a).

Most of the blessings that have come down are in Hebrew. Certain prayers and Congregational announcements, such as the public invitation to travellers and the poor to join the paschal meal, were in the Aramaic vernacular. But a man must offer thanks in the tongue that he knows best. Thus it is recorded in Berakot 40b that Benjamin the shepherd used to make a sandwich of bread and some relish and, after eating it, exclaim in Aramaic, which was, no doubt, his mother-tongue, "Blessed be the Lord of this bread". His action was taken as a test case. Long afterwards it was cited by Rabbis to prove this great principle. For great as is the value of the sacred tongue, greatas is the force of its link between scattered Israel, great, indeed, as is the necessity that to each Jew, the Bible and other Jewish literature should be accessible at first hand, he must not approach his Father in heaven through an interpreter. The humblest and poorest must have unrestricted right of entry...

There is one cardinal essential in these blessings: "A benediction in which there is no mention of the Divine Name, is no bendiction". (Talmud Berakhoth 12a) Others held that the Divine Kingship must also be mentioned, to proclaim that God, not Caesar, rules the world. The usual formula of benediction began and still begins "Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, [i.e. the Divine Name] our God, King of the Universe [i.e. the Divine Kingship], Who hast...". To remind the individual of these essentials, the following interpretation was given to Dent. XXVI,13. "I have not transgressed Thy Commandments" i.e. by omitting the benediction "neither have I forgotten", i.e. to mention Thy Name and Kingdom therein. It was an old tradition, for Zacharias, acted in conformity with it, when filled with the Holy Spirit, he prayed "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel" (Luke I 67-8), as every Churchgoer knows.

The development of the use of the blessing was indeed great. A man should aim at thanking God one hundred times daily. This means that he should be conscious of his constant indebtedness to God, for every benefit received... [see p. 10 where Carmine Di Sante, explains this ed.].

In the growth of blessing, two stages may be noticed. There was a time when the use was completely free and spontaneous. "Those who write down blessings are as those who burn the Bible" (Talmud Sabbath 1156). This pronouncement was intended to prevent blessings from becoming stereotyped. "The letter killeth"; oral tradition was supreme: "from the mouth of Scribes (Soferim) and, not from books (Sefarim)" [This is quoted as a popular proverb by Judah Halevi (died 1141) in his Kuzari II,72,Eng.trans. by H. Hirschfeld, 2nd ed.1931, p.110]. These are famous adages. Yet there comes a time when oral tradition is insufficient. When there is persecution and risk that one tradition will be lost; when the body of adherents grows so large and is so dispersed that it cannot be assembled to receive the tradition: when false teachers abound, then action is necessary. Gospels must then be edited: blessings have to be written down. ...In due course the "canon" of blessings closed. Improvisation was no longer allowed. Man could thank God for special benefits: it was emphatically right that he should do so. But he should choose a new formula and not imitate the standard pattern. He should not take the Name of God in vain. The list for ordinary purposes was fixed...

There is an old teaching (a Baraitha) in Talmud Berakhot 35a which runs thus:
A man is forbidden to derive enjoyment or use of anything in the world without a benediction, and whoever does so commits sacrilege...

Space will not permit anything like a full enumeration of these blessings, which should better be termed instinctive expressions of gratitude. Two must suffice. First there is one famous blessing of thanksgiving for life. This is recited whenever one has a completely new experience or enjoys something for the first time in its season, or when, at its proper anniversary, one fulfils a command. It is used when, for example, the Ram's horn is sounded on New Year, when the Chanukah lights are lit, when the book of Esther is read on Purim, when festivals are inaugurated, when one eats the new fruit just garnered, when one puts on new garments, and so on. We thank God "who has given us life and sustenance and brought us to this season". As each holiday is ushered in over the wine, as we sit in the Tabernacle or at the paschal meal amid our family, we look round and see, with gratitude, that the circle is unbroken. There is no vacant chair that was filled last year. We recall how last year too we all enjoyed the first ripe plums and pears from our garden. Neither sickness nor death has diminished our number. And so we thank God for life itself, for life andall its manifold enjoyments and opportunities.

The other blessing that may be helpfully adduced here is that for knowledge and discrimination. It is the first of the central portion of the "Eighteen". In this central portion, our petitions begin and the first of all petitions and blessings must be for knowledge and discrimination. It runs thus:
Thou endowest mankind with the gracious gift of knowledge and teachest understanding to mortal man. So be pleased to grant us of Thy knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Blessed art Thou, Lord, who bestowest the gracious gift of knowledge.

It will be seen that the function of the individual blessing is to be an instinctive ejaculation at the acceptance of some benefit in life. It is to prevent everything from being taken as a matter of course; it is to keep the wonders of nature ever fresh to man; it is to remind him of his permanent debt. And in this way one hundred daily blessings are too few.

GOD'S BLESSING OF MAN

Psalm CXXXIV is one of the shortest in the whole Psalter. It is the last of the fifteen "Songs of Degrees", a term which used to be explained as meaning the fifteen steps of the Temple but which is probably an abstract noun and denotes "going up", i.e. pilgrimage. This is a psalm of pilgrimage... With this psalm on their lips, the pilgrims from the Dispersion, who had journeyed from afar, passing through the Vale of Weeping, now entered the Holy City and stood before the Lord in Zion. "Lift up your hands to the sanctuary" (or in holiness, cf. Ps. XXVIII, 2) is the cry. "May the Lord bless thee out of Zion" is the response. Here we have the double sense of blessing. Man blesses God: God blesses man. And the response begins with Yebarekhekha, "May the Lord bless thee out of Zion" is the response. Here we have the double sense of blessing. Man blesses God: God blesses man. And the response begins with Yebarekhekha, "May the Lord bless thee" which is very definitely a citation from the most sacred formula of the divine blessing, that contained in Numbers VI, 22-7.

"Lift up" introduces a new note into the idea of blessing. Blessing in Hebrew is Berakhah and is derived from "to kneel". Man bows to bless: he stands erect to receive the blessing. This new note is one of exaltation. Man's blessing of God implies a reciprocal act from Him. Hence man stands erect and exalted to typify the exaltation of God: in order to drive home the lesson that such action is but an allegory, it is frequently stated that God "is exalted above all blessings" that human lips can frame. So in Nehemiah IX, 5 we read "Then the Levites Joshua, Kadmiel... and Pethahiah said, stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting, and let them bless thy glorious Name which is exalted above all blessing and praise".

In all rites, the ceremony of blessing has been accompanied by some act or gesture indicative of exaltation. The person giving the blessing usually stood up. Jacob, enfeebled with age and sickness, "strengthened himself and sat up on the bed" (Gen. XLVIII, 31 and XLIX, 2) before giving a benediction. He tried to stand but could not. Yet his remaining seated while blessing was so repugnant to general ideas of reverence, that the Greek version read the Hebrew consonants differently and made Jacob "strengthen himself on his staff" (vocalising matteh instead of mittah). This is the version cited in Hebrews XI 21. With this may be contrasted the scene, narrated in I Kings VIII, when Solomon assembled Israel to consecrate the House of God... After the great procession, the sacrifices, the feasting, the singing, Solomon made his speech of consecration (verses 12 ff.). Then he "turned his face about and blessed all the Congregation of Israel, and the Congregation of Israel was standing". The Congregation stood because it was participating in an act of worship, for the next verse shows that the king, in fact, wasblessing not his people, but God; for verse 15 continues immediately "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel...". Subsequently, "Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord, face to face with all the Congregation of Israel and spread out his palms heavenwards" Then he prayed, as his extended palms show. At some point he knelt, for at the end of his lengthy prayer, he "rose from before the altar of the Lord, from bowing on his knees, with his palms spread heavenwards and he rose and blessed all the Congregation" (54-5). Here it does not say that the Congregation stood, as it does in verse 14, for here he definitely does give the blessing to Israel. The deduction is significant.

The raising of palms is a sign of prayer. They are spread out in supplication, as in Isaiah I, 15 "And when ye spread out your palms, I will hide my eyes from you and though ye pray much, I will not hear, for your hands [which ye extend in prayer] are full of blood-guilt". The symbol of extended palms represented the offering of a gift, and the verb "to lift up" could be used as well as "to spread out", as in Ps. CXLI,2 "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice". And the metaphor is turned from one of sacrifice to one of prayer in such phrases as "Let us lift up our hearts on our palms unto God in heaven" (Lam. 111,41).

For the act of blessing, the position of the upraised hands was different. The palms were spread over the head of an individual in a benediction or raised vertically where a multitude was blessed. Jacob crossed his hands and placed his right palm on Ephraim's head and his left on that of Menasseh (Gen. XLVIII,14). But his priests, when blessing the people, held out their raised hands towards them. The five fingers of both hands were raised, the two hands being placed side by side with the thumbs touching; the ten fingerswere paired, so as to form five groups. These resembled the rays of the sun and typified the Divine Presence, for "a Sun and a shield is the Lord of Hosts" (Ps.LXXXIV,11 Heb.12). About this theme there are various parables: the Shekhinah (divine Presence) "peeps" between the priests' fingers:
"My beloved gazes through the windows: he peeps through the lattices" (Cant.II,9). That is God, Who gazes through the shoulders and between the fingers of the priests. "My beloved speaks unto me", God says. "The Lord bless thee and keep thee"...

The Aaronite blessing

The pilgrims' journey to Jerusalem culminated, as we have seen, in the supplication for a benediction. The response was significant, "May the Lord bless thee". The use of the singular makes it clear that there was a direct allusion to the Aaronide blessing of Numbers VI 22-27. For this is the supreme pronouncement of divine blessing to mankind. It occupies a unique place in the rite of benediction. It may be as well to cite the passage in full... The following is a literal version:
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying: speak
unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying,
Thus shall ye bless the children of Israel: say unto them:
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee:
May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon thee and shew thee grace:
May the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and grant thee peace.
And they shall set My Name upon the children of Israel, but it is I that will bless them.

This grand formula has been recognised in Judaism and in Christianity and to some extent in Islam as the culmination of blessing. Over and over again Christian services conclude with these words. In Islam the keynote, peace, comes repeatedly in the Qur'an as a formula of blessing. In Judaism, it marks the end of the Eighteen Benedictions and, in consequence, of the service which used to conclude at this point. In it there is possibly the only trace of a sacrament in Judaism (apart from the Covenant which is an integral element of the rite of circumcision). In the ordinary week-day service, it is read by the Hazzan (Precentor) as a liturgical extract clearly formulated as a prayer ("0 our God... bless us... according as it is written, etc"). It may be read by anyone who acts as Hazzan. But originally, in Temple times, it was pronounced only by the Priests and the technical term for pronouncing it is "lifting up the hands". In the synagogue the sacramental element can be traced in the reminiscence of the Temple when, on certain holy days which vary according to rite the benediction is pronounced ceremonially and is not merely referred to in prayer by the Hazzan. On such occasions, the Priests alone officiate. Priests in Judaism are not ordained Rabbis, they are laymen (or Rabbis) who claim descent from Aaron... The Priests in Hebrew are called Kohanim, singular Kohen: hence the common Jewish name Cohen. But not all priests are called Cohen. They may bear any name. Cohen itself has numerous forms, in different lands, e.g. Kohn, Kagan, Kahn etc....

When the Kohanim are to pronounce the benediction, certain details of Temple procedure are followed. In the Temple, the Priests removed their shoes. So Moses (Ex.III,5) and Joshua (Jos. V,15) took off their shoes when they were on holy ground, as later those entering the Temple area were required to do (Mishnah Berakhoth IX,5, Danby's Engl. trans. p. 10). In the same way Kohanim today remove their ordinary leather boots and put on black woollen slippers, such as are worn in Cathedrals by vergers. They then assemble in an appointed spot and are met by the Levites, i.e. those who claim descent from Levi but who are not Aaronides. In the absence of Levites, first-born Israelites may take their place. But if there are no Kohanim in Synagogue, the rite cannot be celebrated.

The Levites then wash the hands of the Kohanim. In some communities a beautiful silver ewer and basin is provided for the purpose and on grave-stones of Levites this emblem is sometimes seen, just as the symbol of the out-stretched hands is the sign of the Kohen.

Thereupon the Kohanim ascend the raised platform before the Ark. They cover their heads with their fringed shawls (cf. Numbers XV37-41) and in silence face the Ark with their backs to the Congregation. The Sacred Ark, wherein are kept the Scrolls of the Pentateuch, stands at the East end of the Synagogue, occupying the position of an altar in Church. At a given point in the service, the Hazzan calls upon them to officiate. Thereupon they turn round and face the congregation. They raise their hands and pronounce the following preliminary benediction:
"Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who hast sanctified us with Aaron's sanctity and in love hast commanded us to bless Thy people Israel".

The expression "put it in their mouths" is adapted from Deut. XXXI,19, and the Hazzan then dictates, word for word, the blessing from Numbers, which the Kohanim repeat.
The rite is one of the most solemn in the Jewish liturgy. It is, in a way ex opere operato (i.e. valid in virtue of its execution), but it is also ex opere operantis. (valid in respect only of the person performing it). For only the Priests can pronounce the blessing sacramentally but the Priests are merely the agents, not the principals. This is emphasised in Holy Writ but the emphasis is completely lost in the English versions. The Hebrew has a special pronoun: "They shall pronounce My Name" but, it continues, "It is I that will bless". This may be illustrated by the following citations:
"But it is I that will bless them": this word is added so that the Israelite should not think that their blessing depends on the priests, and so that the priests should not say, "It is we that bless Israel. (Sifre, Numbers 43, on VI, 27)

When God ordered Aaron and his sons, 'Thus shall ye bless...' the Israelites said, 'Lord of the world, Thou biddest the priests bless us: it is Thy blessing that we need, to be blessed from Thy mouth'. God said 'Even though I have told the priests to bless you, I stand by you and bless you with them'. Therefore the priests spread out their hands to indicate that God stands behind them". (Midrash Rabbah, Numbers Naso 11,2, Wilna ed. f. 41a, col. 2)...

To gain an idea of the impressiveness of this great pontifical act, we can go back to Temple days and read the description by a contemporary, Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesaiasticus L, 20)...

At one time, the Tetragrammaton or four-letter name of Almighty God was pronounced in the blessing. It will be remembered that the shortened form Jah familiar to Readers in the common Hallelu-jah "Praise ye Jah" appeared in the doxology at the end of the fourth book of the Psalter. Later, its use was deprecated: the personal name was too holy to be divulged:
Once in seven years the Sages entrusted to their disciples the exact pronunciation of the Name of God... They entrusted it to pious and discreet priests who would gulp the Name when singing it. Talmud Qiddushin 71a).

To this day a curious chant is preserved in the Synagogue when the substitute for the Tetragrammaton is pronounced in the priestly benediction. This may be a relic of the practice just mentioned. The passage continues:
Rabbi Tarphon (Trypho) said: Once I followed my mother's brother to the platform whence the priestly blessing was given, and I bent my ear so as to listen to the High Priest, I heard him gulp the pronunciation amid the singing of his brethren...

It is easy to see why this blessing occupied so central a place. Innumerable parables can be cited about it. The reason is that it emphasises Peace... [Readers are referred to SIDIC Vol. XXI, No. 1 1988 pp.15-17 ed.].

The Hebrew word Shalom means something more than "peace" i.e. the absence of hostilities or disturbance. The basic meaning of the root is completeness: a state of integrated well-being, uncompromised by deficiency or by any malignant factors vitiating the harmony of the atmosphere. Peace means happiness for all. That is why the Aaronide blessing is couched in the second person singlular although it is addressed to the multitude. The blessing of peace is given to each individual of which the whole is composed and so, when the parts are at peace, the whole is at peace.

But peace is God-given, not man-made alone. There must be two parties. On the one hand, the Shechinah, God's divine presence, bestows it. "There can be no peace, saith my God, to the wicked for they are as a troubled sea that cannot rest" (Is. LVII, 21 and 20). On the other hand, man must stand up, in exaltation, to receive the priesty blessing from the priests' uplifted hands. But man, though he stand, must not stand still and inactive. Peace is neither automatic nor mechanical. One cannot have a true peace merely by ceasing from war. The achievement of peace involves unceasing activity and abounding love. That is why the Scripture says "Seek peace and pursue it" (Ps. XXXIV,14):
The Torah does not order you to run after the Commandments and pursue them, but only to fulfil them when the appropriate occasion comes, i.e. when A happens, then you must do B. But peace you must seek in your own place and pursue it in another (Midrash Rabbah Leviticus Saw 9,9, ed. Wilna, f.13b, col.i)...

Thus we can trace a continuous cycle of thought: Exaltation - Blessing - Peace - Happiness.

 

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