Parshat VaYeitze

Oceans, Rivers, Deserts, and Mountains

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The Torah portion of VaYeitze speaks about the birth of 11 of the 12 tribes. The Torah recounts that when our matriarch Leah gave birth to her fourth son she said “This time, I will thank G-d! Therefore, she named him Yehudah.”[1]
Why the Special Thanks?
Rashi explains[2] that Leah thanked G-d in particular after having Yehudah because she realized that she had given birth to more than her expected share of the tribes. (I.e., since there would be 12 tribes born of 4 wives, it was expected that each of those wives would have three children. Her fourth child was therefor considered a special blessing.)
The First to Offer Praise
The Talmud says[3] that “Since the day G-d created the world there was no one who offered praise to Him until Leah came and did so.”
Why the First?
The commentaries point out that there were many people who praised G-d before Leah did so. For example, Adam thanked G-d for creating the world,[4]Malki Tzedek blessed Him for saving Avraham,[5] and Eliezer thanked G-d for sending him a wife for Isaac.[6]
Nevertheless, they explain, Leah’s praise was unique for the following reasons.
·        Personal Praise
Until Leah people had thanked G-d for general matters or for kindness He had bestowed on others. Leah was the first to thank Him for the kindness that He did specifically for her.[7]
·        Bad to Good
The word hoda’ah can also be translated as “admit.” This alludes to a praise which is uttered in recognition that something which appeared negative is in fact a blessing. (Hence, one is “admitting” to G-d that it was a blessing.) In the case of Leah, she had been upset that she was not as beloved as Rachel.[8]But when she was blessed to be the mother of so many of the tribes, she realized that her role was a blessing is disguise and she thanked G-d for it. No one is history had ever praised G-d in a similar way.[9]
·        Natural Blessings
In previous generations people had thanked G-d for supernatural (or highly unusual) occurrences, whereas Leah thanked G-d for a purely natural event – the birth of a child. The fact that we must thank G-d even for natural events can be learned from Leah.[10]
King David
King David composed the Psalms and praised G-d with many unique expressions. He had the inspiration to do so because he was a descendant of Yehudah whose birth elicited Leah’s unique praise as explained above.[11]
The rest of this article will focus on some of the blessings that one should recite when experiencing the grandeur of G-d within nature.
The Blessing on Mountains and More
The Mishnah says[12] When one sees “mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts, one should recite (the blessing of) ‘Baruch attah… oseh maase bereishit (Blessed are You… who does acts of creation).’ Rabbi Yehuda says, ‘One who sees the great sea recites a special blessing ‘Baruch attah… she’asah et hayam hagadol (Blessed…Who made the great sea).’”
Meaning of the Blessing
The blessing of oseh maase bereishit is recited when seeing things that have not changed since they were created by G-d in the Six Days of Creation. It is unique to see something in existence today that has remained the same since G-d Almighty created it. One should realize that if this creation still exists, its Maker must certainly still exist.[13]
We do not recite the blessing of “shekocho ugevurato male olam (whose might and strength fill the world)” when seeing these sights as the things mentioned above remain in their place and are only seen locally. The blessing of shekocho etc. is recited on thunder (or lightening), earthquakes and strong winds which are heard, felt or seen for a great distance.[14]
Which Mountains and Peaks?
The Shulchan Aruch writes[15] that this blessing is only recited when seeing mountains and peaks that are unusual and, thus, make a person aware of G-d’s greatness.
The Aruch HaShulchan writes[16] that the following mountains (for example) are considered awe inspiring mountains: The Pyrénées, the Alps, Mount Ararat, and the Caucasus.
Some say that one should only say the blessing on mountains etc. that are world famous.[17] Others say that one may recite the blessing whether or not the mountains are famous as long as they are unusually large and (therefor) awe inspiring.[18]
What are Geva’ot?
The Mishnah (quoted above) said that the blessing is recited on seeing “harim(mountains) and geva’ot.” Geva’ot are usually translated as hills[19] but in this context, when the Mishnah is discussing unusual sites, the commentaries offer other translations.
·        Peaks
Some say that it means a mountain that comes to a sharp peak.[20] This would include a canyon.[21]
·        Mesa
The Vlina Gaon says[22] that gevaot are smaller than a mountain but have a broad (flat) top. This is something like a mesa.
Which Rivers?
Tosfot writes[23] that the Mishnah is not referring to all rivers but only to those mentioned in the Torah such as the Tigris, the Nile and the Euphrates.[24]
This ruling is cited in the Shulchan Aruch (228:2). In addition, the Shulchan Aruch writes (based on Brachot 59b) that the blessing may only be recited if the course of the river was not changed (by man[25]) since the time of creation.
The later commentaries[26] explain that Tosfot (and the Shulchan Aruch) do not mean to exclude all other rivers but rather to point out that one may only say the blessing on rivers such as those, which are unusually large.
In practice, since the blessing may only be recited on rivers whose course hasn’t changed since creation, it is not customary to say this blessing nowadays as we cannot be certain which rivers have changed course and where they did so.[27]
Some say that one may say the blessing on large, world famous rivers that are known to have existed for thousands of years such as the Rhine and Volga rivers.[28] Perhaps this would apply to rivers like the Mississippi and the Amazon as well.
Which Deserts?
Rabbi Avraham David Varman of Butchatch (1770 – 1840) writes[29] that, it would seem that the blessing may only be said when seeing deserts that are so large and forbidding that people do not enter them unless there is extremely urgent need to do so.
Why a special Blessing for the Great Ocean?
As mentioned above, Rabbi Yehudah says that a special blessing (She’asa et hayam hagadol – Who made the great sea) should be recited for seeing the Yam HaGadol – the great sea.
The commentaries explain[30] that Rabbi Yehudah follows his reasoning elsewhere[31] that one should say a specific blessing for each item rather than a general blessing. He bases this on the verse “Bless G-d every day”[32] which is interpreted to mean, “Bless G-d every day with a blessing that is appropriate for that day.” I.e., there should be a separate blessing for weekdays, Shabbat days, holidays etc. The same logic can be extended to blessings on mitzvot and on other items.
The halacha follows Rabbi Yehudah in this regard[33] as the commentaries say that he is not arguing on the first opinion in the Mishnah but is rather adding to it.[34]
What is the Great Sea?
There are various opinions as to the definition of the Great Sea in this context.
·        The Ocean
The Rosh writes[35] that the Mishnah is referring to the ocean (i.e. the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans) and not to the Mediterranean Sea (or any other sea).
·        The Mediterranean
The Shulchan Aruch writes (228:1) that it is referring to the Mediterranean Sea. The basis for this is Numbers 34:6 where “Yam HaGadol” is referring to the Mediterranean Sea.[36] This sea deserves a special blessing because it borders the Holy Land.[37]
·        All Seas Connected to the Ocean
Some say[38] that the blessing can be said on any ocean or large sea that is connected to the ocean. This would include the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea and many more.
In Practice
In practice one should only recite the blessing of She’asah et HaYam HaGadol(who made the Great Sea) when seeing one of the oceans. When seeing any other large body of water (e.g. the Mediterranean and other seas) one should say oseh maaseh Bereishit (who does acts of Creation) as this blessing is a general one with which one fulfills their obligation according to all opinions.[39]
One may even say the blessing of oseh maaseh Bereishit when seeing a small sea such as the Kineret.[40]
How Often?
One should only say these blessings if they have not seen these sights within 30 days.[41] I.e. if one saw the ocean on Sunday, he may say the blessing on Tuesday, four weeks and two days later (if he didn’t see it in the interim).[42]
One who lives near the ocean (or any of these sights) and, for some reason, didn’t seen it for 30 days, should not recite the blessing when he does see it since he will not be awe inspired when seeing it since he can do so easily at any time.[43]
One who sees an awe-inspiring mountain range (as explained above) and then sees a different such range should say the blessing even if it is within 30 days.[44]
May we merit to praise G-d for His blessings, every day of our lives!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!
Copyright 2018 by Rabbi Aryeh Citron
[1] Gen. 29:35
[2] Based on Bereisht Rabbah 71:4 See also Rashi on Brachot 7b D.H. Hapa’am
[3] Brachot ibid quoting Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
[4] See Bereishit Rabbah 22:13
[5] See Gen. 14:19 and 20
[6] See ibid 24:26 and 27
[7] Ben Yehoyadah on Brachot ibid
[8] See Gen. 29:21 and commentaries
[9] Pardes Yosef on the verse in the name of the Tiv Gittin
[10] Ketav Sofer, Parshat VaYeitzei, D.H. Hapa’am
[11] See Bereishit Rabbah 71:5
[12] Brachot 54b
[13] Mishnah Berurah 228:1 in the name of the Elya Rabba (228:1) who is citing the Avudraham (Brachot Shevach Vehoda’ah, pg. 344)
[14] Mishnah Berurah ibid in the name of the Levush (228:1)
[15] 228:1 in the name of the Avudraham (ibid) who is quoting Rabeinu Shimshon
[16] 228:1
[17] Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 60:5 and Chayei Adam (63:3)
[18] Ketzot HaShulchan 63:14 and Badei HaShulchan 24
[19] See Radak on Psalms 115:4 and in many places
[20] Mor UKtzi’ah
[21] Piskei Teshuvot 228 note 29
[22] Imrei No’am on Brachot 54a
[23] Brachot 54a D.H. Al HaNeharot
[24] See Gen. 2:10-14
[25] The Shulchan Aruch says that one only says the blessing if the river was not changed “by the hands of man.” But see responsa of BeTzel Hachochma (vol. 2:10) that this is just an example and that the blessing can only be recited if the river has remained unchanged since creation.
[26] Magen Avraham and others
[27] Eshel Avraham ibid
[28] Aruch HaShulchan 2
[29] Eshel Avraham 228
[30] Biur HaGra 228:3
[31] See Sukkah 46a where Rabbi Yehudah says that one should say a specific blessing on each mitzvah rather than a general blessing on many mitzvot at once. This is the halacha.
[32] Psalms 68:20
[33] Rambam, Hilchot Brachot 10:15 and Shulchan Aruch 228:1
[34] Teshuvot HaRosh 4:4
[35] Ibid
[36] Biur HaGra
[37] Mishnah Berurah 2
[38] Mor UKtziah
[39] Biur Halacha on 228:1
[40] Dirshu edition of the Mishnah Beruah 228, note 3, based on the Mor UKtziah
[41] Mishnah Berurah 228:2
[42] Seder Birkot HaNehenin 13:13. But see Magen Avraham 218:4 who questions this opinion and suggests that one may not be able to say the blessing until the Wednesday of that week.
[43] Halichot Shlomo 23:28 cited in Piskei Teshuvot 228 note 6
[44] Piskei Teshuvot 228:1
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

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