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Drash What is a Bracha

What is a Bracha?

Drash, by Barbara White, 2000

The word “Baruch is traditionally translated “blessed.” Our Siddur uses “praised.”  That may be because in the Siddur, “baruch” appears in passages that praise or thank God.

Yet we have other Hebrew words for praise: the verbs “l’hallel” and “l’shabe-ach.” Why do we need the word “baruch”?

Hebrew is built on 3-letter roots. Thus, “baruch” and “bracha” are different forms of the same root. “Baruch” is an adjective describing the state of being “baruch” (whatever that may turn out to be), and “bracha” is a noun meaning something that bestows the quality of being “baruch.”

When we pray, our brachot—that’s the plural of bracha—are directed toward God. But we also bestow brachot on people. On Friday nights, for example, parents “baruch” their children.

How can we “baruch” both God and other people? Does “baruch” mean the same thing in both cases?

“Baruch” has the same root as “berech,” knee; thus, “baruch” refers to kneeling to God to acknowledge God’s ultimate power. A line in one of the Psalms makes this explicit (Psalm 95:6). Also remember that in some of the brachot of the Amidah, we do an attenuated bow on the word “baruch.” “Baruch” also has the same root as “breicha,” a pool of water. This was a place where animals got on their knees to drink and washer-women got on their knees to do their work.

Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna takes a somewhat different approach. He says that “bracha” originally meant “gift.” And passages in Genesis, Joshua (15:19), Judges (1:15), and Samuel bear this out.

Is a bracha really a gift? Think of Isaac’s bracha of his son. In that bracha, Isaac bestows the gifts of prosperity, leadership, and mastery over his brothers. Furthermore, when Isaac discovers that this bracha did not go to Esau, the son for whom it was intended, he says:

“I gave him my “bracha.” Now “baruch” he must remain.” (Gen. 27:33)

Apparently, when you uttered a bracha, you couldn’t take it back later.

 Perhaps this means that a bracha was indeed viewed as a gift. Just as I would give you a gift by handing it to you, so I would give you a bracha by speaking it. Thus, once Isaac had uttered the bracha, it was no longer in his possession, and Jacob must remain “baruch.”

Interestingly, Baruch Levine, a Bible scholar, believes that our ancient sacrifices were really gifts to God. If that is so, and if a bracha is also a gift, then it makes perfect sense that the Amidah prayer, which replaced the sacrifices, consists of a series of brachot.

Because the word “baruch” is the transfer of a gift, it is very different from the words for praise: “hallel” and “shabe-ach.” This difference is a good reason not to translate “baruch” as “praised.” I think that blessed is the closest English word that we have to “baruch.”

But if “baruch” means blessed and if a bracha is a gift, that still leaves us with a problem: how can a bracha refer to both a gift to God and a gift to another person?

 God is the source of all blessings. How then can we bless God?

Bible scholar Marc Brettler believes that people understand God by analogy with human life. Since family members can bless one another and subjects can bless a king, we can bless God, even though it might be inappropriate or unnecessary to do so.

 Rabbi Marcia Prager goes further with the idea of a bracha as a gift. She says that blessing implies transferring something from a source to a recipient. She says, “If I bless you, I seek to move something of myself toward you.” Yet she too wonders how this can apply to God. She answers in the following way: “When we offer ‘blessing’ to the Source of Blessing, we offer our gratitude not only for a particular gift but for the opportunity to experience our connection with the whole of life. Our brakha opens us to the shefa [the abundance] of divine goodness moving through us, filling us and flowing back to God. We partake of the world and are invited to experience God within everything.”

Faith Rogow expressed this very idea in a poem: “As we bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed.”

Given at Tifereth Israel February 5, 2000