God in Jewish Prayer

The Talmudic rabbis crafted a formula that moves from addressing God to speaking about God. What did they mean to convey through this dual formula?

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God in the Third Person Remains

The opinion of Shmuel also found its way into the b'rakhah formula. (Decisions in Jewish legal tradition often reflect both sides to a debate.) The last part of the obligatory wording of the b'rakhah, following the mention of God as King of the universe, refers to God in the third person, thereby following the Bible's pattern.

To consistently conform to Rav's opinion, we would state the entire b'rakhah in the second person. For example, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, for You bringforth bread from the earth. Instead, the b'rakhah as we know it is grammatically confusing. It switches from addressing God in the second person ("You") to referring to God in the third person ("who brings forth").

In the Presence of Royalty

Scholars have discussed the inconsistent grammar of the b'rakhah for centuries. Simhah ben Samuel, author of the 11th-century French Mahzor Vitry, compares the wording of the b'rakhah to the wording one uses in the presence of royalty. First we speak directly to the King (in the second person, as in "Your Majesty"). Later we use language that shows even more respect, maintaining distance, speaking as through an intermediary (in the third person, as in "His Majesty"). The author of Mahzor Vitry chooses the b’rakhah recited before drinking wine to illustrate:

"We say, 'Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who creates (borei--third person) the fruit of the vine.'…We do not say, 'Blessed are You, Lord, who have created (shebarata--second person) the fruit of the vine.' Thus, after we have addressed God directly ('Blessed are You') we must relate to Him as if through an intermediary ('who creates')."

Both Revealed and Concealed

We find another explanation ofthe grammatical peculiarity of the b'rakhah in the writings of the 14th-century Spanish authority, Abudraham. He taught that the blessing's structure teaches us about the nature of God, who is both revealed to and concealed from mortals. God is revealed in His deeds and God is concealed in the mystery of His divinity, which is difficult or impossible for a mortal to grasp. The b'rakhah formula reflects the nature of human beings as well:

"Mortals are a combination of body and soul. From the perspective of the human soul, it is appropriate for a person to cleave to his Maker, always standing before Him. From the perspective of the human body, however, a mortal cannot stand before God. Therefore the b'rakhah, uttered by mortals, uses language that is both direct [in the second person] and concealed [in the third person]."

Dr. Max Kadushin, a twentieth-century scholar, considered such explanations inadequate. He wrote: "The attempt to make an idea specific when the rabbis [of the Talmud] have not done so often results in the misinterpretation of a rabbinic idea." Dr. Kadushin notes that the rabbis in the Talmud did not explain the change from second person to third person either rationally or philosophically, because they did not have a rational or a philosophical apprehension of God.

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Rabbi Jules Harlow

Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayer books and other liturgical works as Director of Publications for the Rabbinical Assembly. He is the Literary Editor of the Torah commentary Etz Hayim, the author of a number of textbooks for children, and a widely published translator of modern Hebrew literature.