What does it mean, to “bless” something? To give someone “your blessing”?
Every Friday night, we “make kiddush” – we say the blessings over candles, wine, and challah. But what is that DOING?
I’ve given it some thought lately, as our religious habits have changed. A few years ago, everyone would gather around the table, and we sing the blessings together. These days I make the blessing while everyone listens. Which has made me a little worried. I realized I have NO IDEA what it is I’m doing.
This is more than my usual hangups with the Hebrew language. I realized I have no concept of what is actually happening when a person utters a blessing on another object.
A glib answer might be “whatever you want to be happening”. But I’m surrounded by smart people in this community – orthodox from birth, Jews who came to orthodoxy later, and people who joined our community through conversion – people who would never accept a trite or glib answer about ANYTHING.
And that ignores the 3,000 years of smart people who came before – people who could find their way across oceans without GPS or radio; people who could remember and perfectly recall vast amounts of information because they never learned to write or read; people who could calculate the circumference of a circle, even though a decimal place value, or the concept of “zero” hadn’t been invented yet. Those smart people also wouldn’t have accepted a glib answer.
But every Friday night, smart people now and in ancient days said the blessing over candles, wine, and challah.
So WHAT is going on here?
First, Kiddush doesn’t mean “holy” or “bless” or anything like that. It simply means “set apart” or as i like to think of it “in a class of its own”.
When we make a blessing, we are setting the object aside. We are elevating it’s purpose from the mundane.
Stop there, and you have a magic item. You are imbuing holiness into the challah, and that’s not realistic. The bread doesn’t taste different. It doesn’t float or give you super powers.
There’s another dimension to this, and that’s time. Judaism is far less concerned with place or thing and much more concerned with time. When does Shabbat start? When is the correct time to say afternoon prayers? How do we commemorate the moment we enter into a covenant with another human being?
And that provides us (and me) with the key to what is happening. When we make a blessing we are not transforming an object. We are not imbuing it with power or purpose.
We are taking the object and recognizing its ultimate source – God – and through that recognition connecting us to Heaven in this moment.
We aren’t elevating the THING, we’re elevating US.
That we can be elevated, that we recognize our opportunity in this moment, and that we take that opportunity – that is the real blessing.