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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving — Menachot 43b — #13

It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Meir used to say: A person is obligated to say one hundred blessings each day, as it is written, And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God require of your? (Deuteronomy 10:12) R. Chiyya the son of R. Avia endeavored to compensate on sabbaths and on festivals by using spices and eating delicacies.

INTRODUCTION
The prayer services we are familiar with—both the structure and the non-biblical content—are the handiwork of the Rabbis. The statutory prayer services (Shacharit and Minchah) replace sacrifices that were made morning and afternoon in the Temple in Jerusalem. The evening service was, early on, a matter of disagreement, but the opinion that it is compulsory prevailed, and thus there are three Jewish prayer services daily: Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv. There are, as well, many blessings crafted for various occasions, such as those for food, wine, and the performance of mitzvot (e.g., tallit, tefillin, lighting shabbat candles, lulav and etrog).

COMMENTARY
R. Meir tells us that God wants us to recite one hundred blessings each day. How does he arrive at this number? Deuteronomy 10:12 says, What (mah) does Adonai your God ask of you? R. Meir reads “mah” (“what”) as “me’ah” (“one hundred”)—the words sound similar—so that the verse now means “Adonai your God requires one hundred of you.” A very creative reading, but what is R. Meir’s purpose?
   
Let’s first ask how a person can recite 100 blessings each day. If you recite all the traditional prayers for Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv you will say approximately 90 blessings. To these, one can add the blessings recited before and after eating, but it’s still difficult to get to 100. On shabbat and holy days, the liturgy has fewer blessings and therefore supplies fewer opportunities to reach a total of 100. For those who do not recite all the traditional prayers each day, it’s trickier to arrive at 100 blessings.
   
As you can see, in order to recite 100 blessings a day, one would need to say at least several blessings that aren’t part of the liturgical “script.” Tradition supplies blessings to say when one sees a rainbow, or the ocean for the first time, or puts on a new garment for the first time, but not even these are always enough. Perhaps the reason R. Meir set the bar at 100 is that he understood that to recite 100 blessings each day, we have to recite blessings that come straight from our hearts and respond to what is happening in our lives at the moment. R. Chiyya highlights this by noting that special days require us to dig deeper within ourselves.
   
This teaches us two wonderful traits: mindfulness and creativity. Cultivating a religious soul is about developing a sense of awe: When we pay attention and notice the wonders of the world and of our lives, we can find God in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Creativity comes in when we find words to express our wonder and sense of appreciation, or our joy and desire to share it, or our pain and search for strength, or our fear and need for support.
   
Here are a few blessings from our tradition that you might like to use:

  • (For the wonders of nature) Blessed are You, God, whose presence fills creation and who makes beauty such as this in the world.
  • (Upon hearing good news) Blessed are You, God, Who is goodness and Who is the source of good.
  • (Traveler’s prayer) May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us, sustain us, and lead us in peace to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten our world. Bless the work of our hands. May we find grace, love, and compassion in Your sight and in the sight of all people. Praised are you, God, Who hears prayer.
Ultimately, all blessings are about gratitude: either for what we have or what we believe we may yet receive. Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Being thankful is powerful. Our ability to express gratitude is the most direct route to our happiness. The research of Dr. Martin Seligman (father of the school of “Positive Psychology” confirms that happiness is not related to what we have—it’s about our attitude toward what we have. Focusing on our blessings generates positive energy for facing the challenges and really tough stuff. Here are two blessings for tough times that you might wish to use at some point:
  • (When experiencing physical and/or emotional pain) Blessed are you, God, who endowed me we more strength and patience than I often realize I have. Help me find these resources within me now and use them for healing.
  • (When experiencing loss) Blessed are You, Source of life, for all that is and has been good in my life, even if I cannot retain the goodness forever. May I always recall the blessings I have experienced and may I be able to help others do the same when they experience loss.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Can you think of five things to be grateful for in your life today?
  2. A Hasidic story tells of a young man who presented his teacher with the gift of water from a spring. The teacher tasted it, smiled, and thanked the student for the sweet-tasting water. His assistant, however, tasted it and spat it out. “Why did you say it was sweet when it’s bitter?” he asked. “Ah,” said the teacher, “you only tasted the water. I tasted the gift.” Do you taste the water or the gifts in life?
  3. Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz wrote, “The Curse of Blessings” about a man who extends his life by reciting a new blessing every day. Try composing a new blessing every day for a month.

2 comments:

  1. A small correction. The ritual, including the blessing, for lighting a lamp on Shabbat is not rabbinic, but medieval, dating from Rashi's time [11th-12th centuries]. There is no commandment to light a lamp on Friday afternoon in the Torah, and the Talmud never mentions such a mitzvah nor has such a blessing. The Shabbat lights blessing is based on the Hanukah lights blessing [only one word is different], and thus is almost 1000 years later.

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