The practice of saying blessings is very ancient in Judaism. In this Talmudic text, the sage Rabbi Levi gives a beautiful explanation and meaning for the practice:
Rabbi Levi raised a contradiction between two texts in the Psalms: On the one hand, it is written: “The earth and all it contains belongs to the Eternal” (Psalm 24:1), and on the other hand it is written: “The heavens belong to the Eternal’s, and the earth God has given over to humanity” (Psalm 115:16).
How can it be that the earth both “belongs to the Eternal” and is “given over to humanity?”
There is no contradiction between these, taught Rabbi Levi. In the first case it is before a blessing has been recited, while in the second case it is after.Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 35a-b
Blessings…they’re not just for Shabbat and holiday meals! It is traditional in Judaism to say a blessing over all foods and drinks (and there are a number of blessings for different food items), and over various other experiences. There is a blessing for smelling something fragrant, for witnessing a wonder of nature, for beholding a frightening storm, for seeing a rainbow, for receiving bad news, for seeing an old friend, and many more!
These are called Birkot HaNehenin – blessings of benefit/enjoyment. The word is a bit of a misnomer, since we don’t necessarily “enjoy” all of these experiences. A better term might have been “blessings for partaking of the world.” (This is as opposed to blessings over mitzvot such as lighting Shabbat candles or the Kiddush over Shabbat, which are in a different category.) These Birkot HaNehenin are, in a sense, an act of mindfulness. They give us an opportunity to stop and appreciate our experiences. To acknowledge that there is holiness in experiencing the world: nourishing the body, being in nature, seeing a friend or loved one.
In this Talmudic passage, Rabbi Levi drives home this idea by teaching that reciting blessings is essentially an act of asking permission. The earth around us does not belong to us, he teaches, because it “belongs to the Eternal.” But when we recite blessings – when we take time to acknowledge and be thankful for the things we eat, drink, and experience, then God “gives” these things to us.
The message here is that we are meant to understand everything around us as a gift and a blessing, and that we should appreciate them accordingly. There is incredible power in cultivating a sense of gratitude, since it leads us to greater generosity and greater satisfaction.
Here are some practices to try, based on this passage from the Talmud:
- Say blessings over foods you eat. You might try the traditional blessings over food and drink, or you could try a wordless moment of mindfulness and gratitude.
- Find an experience, landscape, relationship, or moment to be thankful for. Compose your own blessing to express how you feel in that moment.
May it be a Shabbat of peace and gratitude!