Rav Kook Torah

Ki Tavo: Remembering to Bless God

Twice every seven years, the Jewish farmer declares that he has correctly tithed his crops:

“I have removed all the sacred portions from my house. ... I have not violated Your commandments, and I have forgotten nothing.” (Deut. 26:13)

What was it that the farmer did not forget to do as he distributed his tithes?

The Sages explained, “I did not forget to bless You and mention Your name over it” (Ma’aser Sheni 5:11). The farmer took care to recite a brachah (blessing) before tithing. He expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to share his produce with the kohanim and Levites, representing the nation in the holy Temple, as well as the poor — the strangers, orphans and widows.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to set aside tithes".

What constitutes a blessing?

The Talmudic rabbis instituted an intricate framework of blessings, to be recited in a wide variety of situations in life, — before partaking of a fruit, smelling a spice, seeing a rainbow, performing a mitzvah, and so on. What is the purpose of all of these blessings?

The Talmud (Berachot 40b) records a disagreement that sheds light on the inner meaning and purpose of blessings. The Talmudic scholar Rav stated that a brachah must contain the name of God. Otherwise, it does not count as a brachah. Rabbi Yochanan disagreed with Rav: not only must God’s name be mentioned, but also His malchut (kingship). We must acknowledge God as Ruler of the universe. A blessing without God’s name and His sovereignty does not constitute a blessing.

Why mention Malchut?

Maimonides explained that blessings serve to instill in us the recognition of the eternal truths of the world, “so that we will remember the Creator at all times” (Laws of Blessings, 1:3,4).

By mentioning God’s name in the brachah, we recognize the ultimate truth of God’s existence. Rav felt that this knowledge is the true purpose of blessings, and automatically it will make an impact on our actions. Once we recognize God as the Creator and Source for this fruit, fragrance, or mitzvah, we will aspire to act in a way that is good and proper in God’s eyes.

Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, feared a situation in which one acknowledges God’s name, yet does not act upon that knowledge. He stipulated that all blessings must include the phrase ‘Ruler of the universe.’ By recognizing God’s malchut and Divine rule in the world, we accept that our actions be moral and upright, or suffer the consequences. One who adopts corrupt ways is subject to justice meted out by the authority of the King.

In general, this dispute may be said to revolve around the following question: is abstract intellectual enlightenment sufficient to lead people to true ethical living? Or is it necessary to have specific recognition directly related to moral behavior — acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and judgment in the world?

Who was right?

The Mishna about the farmer who recited the brachah before tithing appears to support Rav’s opinion. This source only mentions the need to mention God’s name, and not the requirement to mention God’s rule over the universe.

Yet, we may make a distinction between different types of blessings. With regard to a blessing said before performing a mitzvah, such as tithing, perhaps it is not necessary to mention God’s malchut, since the very performance of the mitzvah indicates that we recognize the significance of our actions and the importance of acting in accordance to God’s will. However, Blessings for Enjoyment, recited before eating or smelling a fragrance, should require both God’s name and His trait of malchut. In fact, the Halachah was decided that all types of blessings require that we mention God as Ruler of the universe — like the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 184-5)

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