Blessings and Jewish Ethics

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

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God’s actions in the world are not only actions, they are gestures to us, and when we understand them as such, we are bidden to respond. For those who see that the heavens are really God’s heavens, the gift of the earth must be responded to.

Whatever its literal meaning, the functional meaning of “Barukh atah” is “You are Present” and the blessing—when said mindfully—helps establish a relationship with God in the phenomenon at hand; in the taste of the apple, the smell of the rosemary. Jewish tradition even demands a blessing on hearing bad news, because God is somehow present even in tragedy, and can (and must) be met there.

God, we believe, addresses us not just through the acts of creation, but also through commandments, and, not surprisingly, the blessings for mitzvot are not different in kind from those for physical experiences: they are tools for helping us recognize and respond to the God who is present in the particularity of the moment whether the moment involves a loaf of bread or a ritual object.

We would therefore expect a blessing for each mitzvah, but that is not the case. And as we noted above, it is predominantly in the realm of the ethical—even the prophetic—in which the connection to the realm of the Sacred is left unsaid.

Why Are There No Blessings for Mitzvot between People?

Perhaps the most commonly-given explanation for the lack of blessings for interpersonal mitzvot is that it would be inappropriate to say a blessing when pain or degradation are involved, either when it is the result of the act (e.g., inflicting punishment) or when it is the stimulus for the act (comforting mourners, visiting the sick). While there is a connection between blessings and human dignity, even this explanation is incomplete. Not only are there actions where no pain at all is involved (such as rising before the aged, honoring parents, bringing joy to a bride and groom), but we have already marked the injunction to acknowledge God’s presence—to say a blessing—even and especially in moments of pain. What is clear is that whether or not God is acknowledged as present in the face of suffering, we are certainly called to be present.

"Our Rabbis taught: [Concerning the command [in Deuteronomy 15:8, phrased in what appears to be a repetitive fashion,] to meet the needs of the impoverished] “Sufficient for whatever he needs”—you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich; “in that which he lacks”—even a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him. They said of Hillel the Elder that he bought for a pauper of good family a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him. Once he could not find a slave to run before him, so he ran before him for three miles." [Ketubot 67b]

In a world of the starving, in a world of the homeless, how can this make sense?

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Rabbi Joshua Gutoff

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