Counting Our Blessings

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.
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Rabbi Jonathan H. Gerard of Temple Covenant of Peace in Easton, Pa., writes that he has “been thinking about the word barukh as we use it in the liturgy.”

The Hebrew word barukh is almost always translated as “blessed,” and Rabbi Gerard is of course referring to its widespread use in the many “blessings” [berakhot] in Jewish religious and ritual life, such as the one said over bread by observant Jews each time they sit down to eat: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord [barukh ata adonai], our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

Correctly noting that the verb barekh, “to bless,” from which the adjective barukh is formed, derives originally from the noun berekh, “knee,” so that barukh must have meant in its earliest stage, “one to whom the knee is bent,” Rabbi Gerard writes:

“The word barukh in regard to God just doesn’t seem to me to mean ‘blessed.’ I know that a word’s meaning can diverge from its root, but does this word in our liturgical sense really wander so far from berekh? When we say barukh ata adonai, aren’t we saying, ‘You are the one who causes us to bend the knee’ — or, in somewhat more meaningful English, ‘Your presence makes us humble, God?’ Or how about, ‘Humbling are you, Eternal God’? It has no history and may sound odd, but isn’t that what the adjective barukh really means?”

Although Rabbi Gerard has touched on a good point and come up with an imaginative solution, I believe it is a solution to a nonexistent problem. After all, not only, as he himself observes, do the meanings of words diverge from their roots, but the connection of barukh to berekh was lost in Hebrew so long ago that it might be said to belong less to the history of Hebrew than to its prehistory; for while barukh in the sense of “one to whom the knee is bent” could apply only to God or a human potentate, already in the Bible we find it used for ordinary people, as when Jeremiah says, Barukh ha-gever asher’adonai, “Blessed is the man who has faith in the Lord” — a verse that clearly does not mean one should go down before such a man on bended knee.

Or take the verse in Judges 17:2, in which the mother of Micah, “a man of the hill country of Ephraim,” says to him, “Blessed [barukh] be my son by the Lord.” If we were to interpret barukh here as Rabbi Gerard suggests we should, we would have to say that Micah’s mother is wishing that God kneel down to her son!

Obviously, barukh took on, as far back as biblical times, a second meaning. When it refers to God, it means “adored” or “he to whom homage is due.” When it refers to an ordinary man or woman, on the other hand, it means “he on whom bounty [whether material, as in Judges, or spiritual, as in Jeremiah] is bestowed.” How this second meaning developed from the first is easy to see, since he who pays homage to a potentate is also he whom the potentate bountifully rewards. And this is also why barukh came to assume yet the third meaning of “he [or it] that bestows bounty,” as in the verse in Proverbs 5:17-18, shtey mayim miborekha…yehi mekorkha barukh, “drink water from your cistern… [and] may your fount be blessed [barukh].”

Why not, then, accept Rabbi Gerard’s proposal and distinguish among these different meanings of barukh by translating them into English with different words?

For a simple reason: Because the English word “blessed” has the exact same multiplicity of meanings and therefore translates barukh correctly in all of them!

Catholics, for instance, speak of Communion as “the blessed Sacrament,” in which “blessed” has Meaning 1. But we also say, “She is blessed with good fortune,” in which “blessed” has Meaning 2, and, “It was a blessed day on which he met his wife,” in which “blessed” has Meaning 3.

Nor is this a coincidence, since English “blessed” has been living, as it were, in close proximity to barukh for hundreds of years. To bless in English originally meant to consecrate. It comes from the Old English verb bloedsian, to spill the blood of an animal in sacrifice. Yet because “blessed” was systematically used in English Bibles to translate the Latin adjective benedictus, which in turn was used everywhere in the Latin Bible to translate barukh, “blessed” and barukh have come to have the exact same shadings and are the perfect equivalents of each other. Indeed, inasmuch as in all the many Jewish ritual blessings that begin Barukh ata adonai, the word barukh has both Meaning 1 and Meaning 3, God being both He who is adored and He who bestows bounty; “blessed” is the only English word that can communicate this. Rabbi Gerard’s proposal, therefore, must be respectfully turned down.

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