General Topics



Everyone seems to have a story to tell about how blessings from Holy Men miraculously changed the course of people’s lives. They rarely tell of the cases where they did not. But what is a blessing? If it were simply a prayer, it wouldn’t have a different name. And both in English and Hebrew the word is good and bad, a curse as well as a benediction.

Despite, or because of, the advance of science, we have become more insecure. Human beings in all societies expend enormous amounts on blessings, charms, and wonder workers. In Judaism it is common now to go to rabbis for blessings to cure cancer, solve marital problems and guarantee good investments. This is a reflection of our need for miracle cures for everything from wrinkles, fat, old age, even stupidity. I believe in spiritual power beyond rational humanity. But this factory line production of miracles strikes me as medieval. So, how do I reconcile this with our traditional emphasis on brachas, blessings?

The word “bracha” itself comes from roots that can mean KNEE, as in bending in worship; this would apply to blessing God. Or it can be associated with the word SOFT; at a circumcision the child is called a RACH. This second theme implies tenderness, caring. A blessing, therefore, is a way of showing that one cares, about God and one’s family. This is the blessing God gives to the world, and that we give to God and, indeed, to our children.

There are two kinds of blessings. There are the formulaic expressions we humans use to bless God before performing religious actions, and then there are the blessings that we receive. God blesses creation that it should be fruitful and multiply. There was nothing yet to be healed, no promise of wealth and fortune. It simply was the expression of the hope, support or encouragement that someone or thing should go on to fulfill its potential or that events would play out positively.

When Rebecca is blessed by her family before leaving to meet Isaac, it is the hope that she and her descendants would succeed. When Isaac blesses both sons, he is expressing his hope that God will treat them in accordance with their own deeds. When Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menasha, it is for being who they were. From this comes the idea that every parent should bless his or her child every Friday night. This blessing is an expression of love for someone one knows.

What is the nature, then, of a personal blessing from someone who knows no more than a name on a piece of paper? To think that a clairvoyant or rabbi can know everyone and care about him or her, lovely as it may sound, is rather facile. And if the person has such powers then surely he wouldn’t need a piece of paper and if his power works how come it’s so selective? The Talmud says one should not treat lightly even the most modest of blessings, regardless of the source–except we are not talking about humble blessings, but talismans, magic, and miracles–that cost!

If it were simply that a great man expresses to God the hope that someone’s prayers will be answered I could understand that as giving encouragement to the troubled. But there is an assumption of efficacy that strikes me both as superstitious and offensive and when it is coupled with the demand for money it is frankly evil, like the two sons of Eli in the Bible.

A quite different idea is that a good or saintly person can somehow call down Divine energy because of his great level of spirituality. This was a power that Avraham had and some prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. But these were exceptions, not common as is the case today. The Torah itself has already warned us to beware of miracles and that false prophets would often be able to perform miracles in dishonest ways. As Maimonides says, miracles are the lowest level of faith.

It is one thing for a spiritual leader to radiate love, concern, and support. It is another to set up machinery for raising cash through blessings. Nowadays we are inundated with miracle workers wearing all sorts of different clothes and each one seems to have a gimmick–read your mezuzah, your ketuba, your tefillin, your skull, your palm, your eyes.

It is a principle of our religion that the Almighty deals with humans according to their deeds. Of course, this is impossible for us to see or measure, for Divine criteria are not ours and there are indeed forces beyond our control, call then fate, luck or Divine Intervention. But if one behaves according to the Torah then one is doing what is expected and this is what defines Judaism regardless of whether one is rewarded.

Superstition implies something different; that, no matter how you behave, the special person with unique powers can do something for you. This has been the secret behind the ability of many men of God to retain the deep loyalty and affection of even totally non-practicing sinners!

The Talmud has always been tolerant of superstition, according to Maimonides only because so many people actually believed in it. The role of a tzaddik, a saintly person, is to help us humans rise, not to take away our sins or help us win the lottery.

A great Lithuanian rabbi was once asked for a bracha. “Why?” he replied, “Are you a vegetable?” That has a double meaning, of course. But the fact is that he was no less a Jew for his opinion.

My complaint is not against placebos. They can help. Reassurance is terribly important at every stage in life. But I am offended when Judaism is seen as a placebo, that money achieves miracles. My fear is that this aspect of Judaism should come to be seen as an essential ingredient, because then what would there be to differentiate us from the pseudo-Kabbalists who also promise Heaven for cash?

According to the BBC today in Andhra Pradesh a holy man called Yanadi Kondaiah who claimed his leg could cure and perform miracles, was abducted and his leg cut off by thieves! Now there’s a thought!