Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Rabbi, give me a berachah (blessing)"

Every once in a while, someone asks me to give him a berachah.

Inevitably, my mind jumps to the story told about Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in which a student approached him and asked him for a berachah. As the story goes, he looked at the student quizzically and asked, “What are you – an apple?”

[I wonder if that story must be taken as a sign of the Rav's skepticism regarding giving a berachah; perhaps it was simply a safek berachos situation?]

There is ample precedent for rabbinic berachot, but by nature and by training, I am inclined to be skeptical about my own ability to give a berachah:

- Why should my tefillah on X’s behalf be more effective than anyone else’s tefillah on his behalf? If anything, it should be less effective! If I am more righteous [as some people bizarrely expect] then Gd judges me more closely than Gd judges others, and if I am less righteous [which I know, in my heart of hearts, is the reality] then I have used up all of my merit in various ways over the years.

- Further, does not the pursuit of berachot indicate a level of superstition?

- And still further, does not the pursuit of berachot indicate this person’s unwillingness to take responsibility for himself?

And so on with several more furthers I don’t have time to articulate at the moment.

But I do find that, on those rare occasions when I am asked to give a berachah, it’s a remarkably moving experience, at least on my end. Maybe that’s because people only request such berachot if they are sincere, but I feel a real connection to the mitbarech (the person requesting the berachah). And I feel an expectation, within myself, that I should make myself worthy of delivering a berachah.

Which leads to the next question: What sort of berachah should I offer?

We actually use the term “berachah” pretty loosely and flippantly – as in the conclusion to a chuppah speech, “My berachah to you is that you should…” [I dislike chuppah speeches, but that’s a topic for another time.] How do you compose a rabbinic berachah?

Our ancestors provided a clue, in the way they designed our prayers and blessings:

- HaShem told Moshe (Sh’mot 3:15), “When you mention My Name, say that I am the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak and the Gd of Yaakov.” And so, our Shemoneh Esreih begins with an appeal to the Divine protection of the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak and the Gd of Yaakov. [Sorry – Gd didn’t mention any matriarchs there. But that’s a topic for another time.]

- And each blessing in Shemoneh Esreih is modeled on specific biblical passages which relate to its theme.

- And for Tefilat haDerech, the Wayfarer’s Prayer, the sages instituted that we should close the blessing by reading pesukim about HaShem’s protection of Yaakov during his travels.

- And when a woman is about to be married, her parents offer her the biblical blessing which Rivkah’s family offered her when she was to marry Yitzchak.

So I opt for a similar approach: Based on the person and his circumstance, I choose a specific pasuk biblical passage, and express it as a prayer. That way it’s personal, while remaining loyal to an existing, holy text.

And I try to be solemn about it… but every once in a while I do wonder what would happen if I would say “Borei Pri haEitz” [the blessing recited before eating an apple].


  1. Errr, still being in a "Purim Torah" mode, I'd say that the "boray pri haetz" would be quite appropriate for someone wanting to have a child or just having had one.

  2. Ki ha-adam eitz hasadeh? Er, !

  3. Ha'etz? No, why not ha'adamah? After all, the feminine of Adam is adamah....:P

    Nice blog. When did you change the title?

  4. Also a possibility, Chanie.

    The name change was back here, February '08.

  5. Fantastic. I remember being pregnant and somebody bringing over some wine that had been either blessed or imbibed by a special rav. I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I didn't drink the wine. Hey, I was pregnant.

  6. Ah, shirayim, Therapydoc - that's another story altogether. I had fun researching it for a class last summer; I'll have to post on it sometime.

  7. Just reminds me of the fiddler on the roof.
    "Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the CZAR?
    Sure, there is a blessing for EVERYTHING.
    May G-d Bless and keep the Czar - far away from us!"