Sefasai Tiftach

Bo, 5764

Jonathan Baker


ברוך אתה ה'

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו...


This is more of a personal exploration than most of my other columns.

We say these, perhaps a hundred times a day.  But what do they mean?  What do they imply?  What are we to think when addressing G-d, the King of Kings of Kings, Our Third Parent?  I want to explore this question, but leave it open, for updates as my understanding and learning grow.

We normally group these into three-word sets, when we pray with a tune, e.g. BA”H, EM”H, AK”B, vetzivanu to do this or that.  The first form, which uses only the first three words, suggests this, based on the verse in Tehillim, baruch atah H’ lamdeini chukeicha.  I had been wondering if a better grouping might be by twos: Baruch Atah, H’ Elokeinu, Melech Ha’olam – first the verb, then the object H-E, which is after all the middle phrase of the Shema, then the description of sovereignty, which further modifies Hashem Elokeinu.

The more I learn, though, the more convinced I am that the first six words should be said together as one inseparable group.  Each part interacts with other parts in ways that draw all six words together.

In my first column, I described R’ Shimon Schwab’s idea, based on R’ S.R. Hirsch, that baruch came from “increase”, that the phrase declares our intent and ability to join with God in increasing that in the world which is dedicated to Him, be it things (blessings on food), commanded actions (blessings on mitzvot), or mundane actions (the morning blessings).  That is essentially a “modern Orthodox” perspective, one based in the current non-Kabbalistic Torah culture, as Kabbalah has been removed from the Ashkenazic Torah world since the early 19th century.

It also reflects, I submit, a common perspective of Chazal in the Talmud.  For example, in Megillah 26b, there is an argument about recycling bricks from a synagogue.  It is determined that “old” bricks, from a synagogue that had been used as such, couldn’t be recycled, but bricks from a building that had yet to be used as a synagogue, could be.  Thus, use confers kedushah.  By our use for a holy purpose, we increase that in the world which is dedicated to Him, we increase kedushah.

There is another model for understanding baruch, also based in antiquity, in the Avudraham and in the Zohar (cited in Nefesh haChayim 2:2) – that baruch, by analogy with rachum and chanun, refers to the Source of blessing.  One of His active attributes is blessing, sanctifying that which we dedicate through our bracha.  This fits the Chabad paradigm of ratzo vashov, running and returning, as the Chayot were doing in Yechezkel’s vision.  Rashi (1:14) explains ratzo vashov as like the flames of a furnace, rising up and falling back.

Ratzo vashov represents man’s quest for the divine.  Man reaches up, appeals to God for a holy experience.  God replies by sending down kedushah, sanctifying the object or experience that Man wants to increase.  The kedushah comes from the Source of Holiness, not from our use.

Similarly, R Chaim Volozhin reads BA”Y lamdeini chukeicha as “since You are the Source of blessing, You can teach me Your laws”, based on the Zohar.

How do these paradigms fit the text of a blessing?  Consider: Three words create a relationship between us and God, while three words emphasize our distance from Him.  Baruch atah … elokeinu – creates the I-Thou relationship, the dialogue between intimates.  However, this intertwines with H’ … melech ha`olam.  Hashem, the singular Name of the transcendent God, the Infinite, unapproachable Deity, who rules the world – everything happens through His will.  The central phraseology, from Shema, H’ Elokeinu, reinforces the paradox of the immanent and transcendent God, the intimate yet unapproachable Holy One bb”h.  He is Our God, even as he is the ineffable Hashem.  Meanwhile, the first two words Baruch atah oppose the last two, melech ha`olam. The two sentiments are tied together as one, inseparable.

This fits either model of baruch equally well, if emphasizing one side or the other.  For those in the modern mold, we may lean towards the intimacy of the I-Thou.  For those in the kabbalistic mold, we may lean towards the transcendence of a God Who sends down sanctity. 

Really, the bracha text requires and includes both models.  Paradoxically, we reach out for Him and thus increase the sanctity of His world, while He reaches out to us and increases our sanctity in His world. The six words are a unit.

I would be glad to hear readers’ responses to this meditation.  I hope, with God’s help, to continue exploring this topic, e.g., why some brachot have 3 or 6 words, what is the role of asher kidshanu bemitzvotaiv, etc.  Reader responses will be summarized.  Contact me via e-mail at