Blessings and Jewish Ethics

Why don't we say a blessing before we do a good deed?

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Excerpted from “Blessings and Ethics: The Spiritual Life of Justice” in Conservative Judaism 49:4 (Summer 1997), 50-58 © The Rabbinical Assembly. Used by permission. This abridgement is adapted from one provided by SocialAction.com.

Judaism’s insistence on righteousness is what has drawn many of us to its vision of God, but in practice we appear to turn away from God when we attend to the human needs facing us. 

Before just about every recognizably “religious” act, we say a blessing. But before we give money to the poor, or visit the sick, or help a couple celebrate their marriage: silence. Why? Some have suggested adding blessings to bring to the fore what has become the forgotten background to these moments.

What Are Blessings?

Berakhot are our primary vehicle for ritualizing and concretizing our encounter with God. And so we say “Barukh atah, Blessed are You...who creates the fruit of the tree” before eating the apple. But having said that, what have we said? Or rather, what have we done?

blessingBlessings are moments of praise, aren’t they? While this represents perhaps the most common understanding, the idea that we might be commanded to praise God raises questions itself. Why should God need our praise? On the other hand, could any praise we give God be enough? A classic rabbinic view is that the praise functions as a kind of “payment” for the pleasure we get out of the world. But just what kind of payment is a berakhah?

Let us ask the question from the other direction. What kind of theft is it to do no more than other creatures do? We do not take the apple or the wheat out of God’s world, but we put it to use so that it sustains life, supporting that very world. And what sort of theft is it to enjoy the beauty of the rose, the smell of the wild rosemary? The answer is that it is indeed a theft, but not of property.

"Rav Helbo said that Rav Huna said: Anyone who knows that his fellow is accustomed to greet him, “Shalom,” should anticipate and greet him “Shalom” first, as it says, “Seek peace [shalom] and pursue it.” (Ps. 35:15). And if he does not even respond to a greeting, he is called a robber, as it says, “That which was robbed from the poor is in your houses.” (Isaiah 3:14) [Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6b]"

What has been stolen? That which even a pauper has to lose: his dignity. In offering a greeting, one proclaims the other

to be worthy of notice, worthy of some of his space. In refusing to return the greeting the other rejects the commonality of the first, even his humanity. Occupying the space of the greeter he yields no space of his own, and so deprives his fellow of what is by all rights his.

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Rabbi Joshua Gutoff

Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.