Rabbi Haninah, the son of Papa, says (in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot, page 35b): “Anyone who enjoys anything from this world without a blessing, it is as if they have stolen from God and the community of Israel.”
What a statement — to be guilty for just eating the delicious piece of fruit I bought at the farmer’s market, or perhaps picked from my very own garden, or delivered to me by my neighbor. And guilty of stealing not only from God, but also the community of Israel.
And if one is guilty for stealing if you don’t say a blessing, what is involved in saying a blessing that is so transformative as to make that same act (that same eating of the piece of fruit) no longer theft? What is a blessing all about?
I often use the metaphor of quotation and plagiarism for explaining the mechanics of blessings. Similar to how citations work when we intellectually benefit from the wisdom of someone else and are allowed to do so by citing the source, when we acknowledge the source (through the act of blessing), we then have permission to use and enjoy this item.
Alternatively, through the act of blessing, we may be transforming ourselves, seeing the world through sacred lenses, somehow transporting ourselves to the divine realm, and are thereby fit to enjoy God’s bounty.
The rabbis suggest one should say 100 blessings a day. If one sleeps between seven and eight hours a day, an equal distribution of reciting blessings has one saying a blessing approximately once every 10 minutes of one’s waking time. (The rabbis assumed one would be saying a greater number of blessings during the three daily services, so the expressing of blessings is not necessarily evenly distributed every ten minutes throughout the day.) What an incredible way to interact with the world — to pause frequently to be mindful of one’s surroundings, to acknowledge one’s blessings, to show gratitude and express a sacred connection with the Divine and the world around you. How differently would you perceive the world, how much more grateful and mindful, patient and appreciative would you be if you interacted with the world with regular pauses, mindfulness and appreciation? I know, from the couple experiments I have done with trying to fit in my hundred daily blessings, that this practice helps radically shift my perspective and energy. I see the world and those around me as a constant source of awe and potential.
For me, the hardest part to understand about Rabbi Hanina’s statement is how we can steal from other human beings when we don’t offer a blessing. One possibility, as suggested by the commentator Rashi, is in how we behave as role models: When we don’t bless, others will think it is acceptable to not bless. I want to suggest another possibility, based on another passage in this same tractate of the Talmud, offered in the name of Ben Zoma (Berachot 58a). Ben Zoma is recounted as including in part of his blessings, after thanking the Creator, a list and acknowledgment of all the different people involved in the supply chain of producing a piece of food or creating a piece of clothing, and how fortunate he was to have others who help with the various stages of production. Ben Zoma would contrast himself to the biblical Adam and say: “How many labors did primordial Adam have to work at before he found bread to eat? He plowed, planted, harvested and stacked the sheaves. He threshed, winnowed, sorted, ground and sifted, kneaded, baked, and after all this he ate. And I wake up and find all these done before me.”
Perhaps blessings, in addition to reminding us of the Divine, can also play a key role in helping us be mindful of the large number of people involved in helping us source our food, manufacture our electronics, produce our clothing, transport all our goodies, and source the fuel for transportation — people both locally and internationally. And perhaps from this place of awareness of all those who have helped us along the way, we will be motivated to help create and uphold conditions for fair treatment and compensation for everyone along the supply chain, acknowledging the large number of people, all created in God’s image, from whom we benefit every day.
May our lives be filled with many blessings and the blessing of awareness and gratitude for our blessings.