We move today into chapter six, leaving behind prayer and starting to discuss actual ‘berakhot’, the ‘blessings’ we recite before and after food. (I don’t much like calling them ‘blessings’, I think it misses the point, so I’ll refer to them as berakhot, or to an individual berakha. I’ve always liked the link between berakha and beraikha, a spring, a source of life. The root in Hebrew is the same, suggesting there is a link there.)
The Mishna discusses some of the berakhot we say, and the Gemara proceeds to investigate the source of this idea. From where do we know that we should say berakhot? What is the meaning of a berakha?
The ensuing passage is a masterpiece of Talmudic baroque, with all sorts of twists and turns and logical hairsplittings. Verses are read in all kinds of strange ways and yet we keep track of those readings with incredible precision.
In the end though, the Talmud comes to a very simple conclusion. There is no source, no verse, no authority which tells us to make berakhot. Rather, it is plain common sense:
It is founded upon reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.
This is so much more powerful than if it was given a source, if we were somehow commanded or instructed to say them. This way it is spontaneous, voluntary, it comes about because we see that we need it, because it would be all wrong for us to enjoy the world without appreciating it.
And this is what a berakha is. It’s an act of appreciation. To translate it as a ‘blessing’ is a confusion, its purpose is not to bless God. It exists so that we may give an outlet to our deeply felt need to express praise. Through giving voice to that, we aim to keep the sentiment alive. Even more than that, we hope to broaden its sphere of influence, for it to colour the rest of our personality.
It is a core belief of mine that religion is about the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.
I always find it hard to express just how important gratitude is, how different is the person who exhibits and embodies it from one who exudes either deservingness or permanent dissatisfaction. It is a fundamentally different orientation of the soul, and the effects it has one one’s life are profound and significant.
I was recently very excited to discover that gratitude has become something of a hot topic in experimental psychological research, and that the findings have been overwhelmingly positive. They seem to back up everything religion has taught for thousands of years about the importance of not viewing oneself as the centre of one’s world, as the source of one’s own wellbeing or good fortune. Religion is about allowing space for otherness, about reducing one’s pride and hubris.
In his book “Thanks!”, outlining some of this research, Robert A. Emmons says the following:
Our research has led us to conclude that experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism… when people experience gratitude they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God. Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives. Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have’. ..
Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms. People are moved, opened, and humbled through experiences and expressions of gratitude. Gratitude provides life with meaning by encapsulating life itself as a gift. (page 12)
Amen to all of that.
Gratitude is good, and a berakha is the moment wherein we pause and enact it. And we do it both before we eat, when we are experiencing lack, and after we eat, when we experience satiety. At both of these points there is a need to remember, to reflect on how fortunate we are that our needs are about to be met, and perhaps to reflect on how easily satisfied we are, how are troubles are minor in the greater scheme of things.
We make berakhot part of the rhythm of our life, not because we have childish or naïve beliefs, but because we have a very mature and adult understanding of just how easy it is to lose touch with gratitude. We know that we can get carried away with how much we deserve what we have, with the sense in which we are the authors of our success.
Is there really such a problem with this idea of ‘deserving’, are we not entitled to expect something form the world?
I’m reluctant to say we shouldn’t expect anything, a ‘good enough’ upbringing leads a person to live as if they expect the world to provide a loving and nurturing environment.
But ‘deserve’, maybe that’s going too far, maybe that’s when we expect on the basis of our ego, we expect love not because the world is loving, but because we, as individuals, as egos, are special, are deserving. We are, at that point, a little too in love with ourselves.
The corrective medicine is a chunky dose of gratitude, wherein we appreciate and continue to expect good things, but never because we deserve them, never because we are special and chosen, never because of our natural or hard earned superiority.
Gratitude is the anti-inflammatory of the ego, it helps it find the right size again, it restores it to a healthy level of operation.
“Blessed are You, God”. In this formulation, there is a radical definition of God. God is simply ‘you’, something other than ‘me’.
We often speak of experiencing the Divine presence, of being touched or filled by something elusive and otherly. Maintaining a spirit of gratitude, of grace, is the sine qua non for this experience. Being grateful keeps us open, only in that condition may we be entered by something greater than ourselves.
The Gemara hints at some of this in its alternative phrasing of the logic of berakhot:
Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a berakha, and if one enjoys anything of this world without a berakha, he commits sacrilege.
What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man.
What will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offence! — Said Raba: What it means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he should teach him berakhot and he should not commit sacrilege.
Why does it require a wise man to teach berakhot, nowadays there are simple books designed to teach berakhot to children?
No, berakhot are not for children, they are for adults. They are a brief philosophical interlude in our day, an overture to any enjoyable experience. And it requires a wise man, or woman, to help us really see and appreciate this, to untangle the web of ego-belief that we all too often find ourselves in.
Berakhot are the hallmark of wisdom, not a remnant of the superstitious mind.
In further discussion we encounter the following verse:
Anyone who steals from his father and mother, declaring ‘It is not a sin’, he is the accomplice to a man of destruction. (Proverbs 28:24)
I think this is brilliantly insightful, and aboundingly relevant. Ingratitude begins in the attitude towards one’s parents, towards everything they give a person in life. If a person takes and takes from their parents, without appreciating the generosity and love that lie behind the parental giving, then they are doomed to a life of destruction. They will never embody gratitude, they will never taste the satisfaction and fulfilment it engenders.
A spoiled child is a ruined child. If parents fail to help their children find gratitude, if they placate them too easily and thoughtlessly, they are condemning their child to a life of disappointment and dissatisfaction, to a gnawing emptiness of depressing persistence.
Perhaps we come to appreciate our parents much later in life, perhaps when we become parents ourselves. The important thing is that we should get there, that we do not remain petulant children, forever feeling that we deserve and should have more.
The Gemara then meanders into other topics, which I believe are still connected to the theme of gratitude.
In one debate, we hear opposing voices regarding the optimal balance between Torah study and earning a livelihood. Abaye concludes it with the following:
Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, [who advocates a healthy balance,] and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [who prioritises Torah exclusively]and it has not been successful.
Might it be that not being engaged in work, in the gathering of the harvest, in the production of value, severely restricts a person’s capacity for gratitude, their awareness that nothing comes easily. And if so, might this upset the balance needed for proper Torah study, for finding the spirit that sheds light on the tradition?
(I note that this doesn’t sit well with my explanation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on 28a. We’ll have to keep an eye on him!)
As a final point, we are told that, of late, people have been engaged in the avoidance of their taxes, of their ‘tithe obligations’.
This too is the fallout from a prevailing mood of ingratitude; when Atlas believes exclusively in his own powers, it is no surprise that he shrugs at the fate of others.
If what I have is well and truly mine, then charity makes no sense, it becomes a completely voluntary act; indeed my philanthropy then only enhances my own sense of merit, and I actually deserve what I have all the more.
If I am fortunate and blessed, then it makes sense for me not to hold on to my possessions too tightly, to give naturally wherever and however possible.
Gratitude is both the engine and the achievement of religious life. When we engage with berakhot we try to keep its spirit alive.
May we be blessed to make meaningful berakhot, for it is us, not Him, who are deeply in need of them.