Hebrew blessings are easy to identify: Most begin with the phrase Ba-rukh ata Adonai, Elo-hei-nu me-lekh ha-olam (Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe), making a point of affirming God’s holiness before getting down to specifics. All in all, there are many hundreds of blessings. There are short ones intended to give quick thanks for things as varied as putting on new clothes, waking up in the morning, or seeing a rainbow, and longer ones for more focused occasions, like the Birkat Ha’amazon (the blessing that is recited after a meal). The Talmudic rabbis said that no one should enjoy anything without reciting a blessing, and some Jews continue to say blessings over nearly everything they do and consume.
Contrary to what is commonly believed about prayer, Jewish blessings are not wishes. Instead, they are about gratitude and acknowledgement. The Hebrew word for blessing means “drawing down;” the idea being that as we bless things like fruits and grains, we draw them down from their natural spiritual state in order to integrate them into our bodies’ basic functions. More practically, though, reciting a blessing tends to work in the reverse, helping us see holiness where we might otherwise not, and lending spiritual heft to everyday routine.
Beginning in the 1970s, Jewish feminists spearheaded efforts to adjust blessings and today, many Jews have adopted the practice of saying blessings with gender-neutral language (so that God is not specifically identified as male). Whether you choose to recite the traditional blessings, recite newer ones, or spontaneously create your own, the idea of saying a blessing is about deepening the experience of simple, everyday actions.
Marge Piercy’s poem “The Art of Blessing the Day” elegantly captures this feeling. It reads, in part: