The non-blessing blessing

After partaking of and being satisfied from a bread meal, a Jew recites three blessings, known as the Grace after Meals or ‘bentching’ in the vernacular.  Our rabbis extended this obligation to such meals even if the person does not reach satiety.  They further invoked a condensed version of the ‘bentching’ for seven foods that are the sources of the praise of the land of Israel.  However, when partaking of foods that do not meet any of the these criteria, such as drinking a cup of water, the Talmud teaches us that afterwards we say ‘nothing.’  Surprisingly, this ‘nothing’ is none other than the blessing known as ‘borei nefashos.’  This blessing does not make mention of having eaten to satiety, but only that Hashem creates varied life, the needs of each life and the bounty to satisfy those needs.  It is strange, however, that after declaring that no blessing follows the drinking of water we then find the blessing!  How did a non-blessing turn into a blessing?!

There is a story told (I cannot vouch for its historicity – it is one of those stories that is true even if it did not happen) that a student (it is said that it was the then-young Rav Schwab) once approached Rav Yeruchum (the Mashgiach of the Mirer Yeshiva in Lithuania) for a loan to enable the student to travel home for the holidays.  The Rav was only too happy to extend the loan and the student was lavish in his words of thanks.  With a stern look the Rav pointed out that one is not permitted to say words of thanks for a loan, for even this small addition is viewed within the restrictions of paying interest for a loan.  The student was duly reprimanded.  He demonstrated his having learned the lesson when he returned from the holiday with the money in hand, dutifully and simply putting it down on the Rav’s table and turning to walk away.  No sooner had he stepped away when the Mashgiach called him back and gave it to him over the head.  How could he simply walk away without a thank-you!?  Now the student was utterly bewildered.  Here he had thought that he had learned his lesson and not said thank-you, and now he was hearing rebuke for not saying thank you!  What am I missing?!  Rav Yerucham went on to say that while it may indeed be the case that we are restricted from saying words of thanks, but how could it be that the room itself is not filled with the humble energy of gratitude for the kindness?!  You may not be able to say ‘thank you’ but where did the gratitude go, how can you just walk away?!

So it is, it seems to me, with the non-blessing called ‘borei nefashos.’  We are told that no blessing is needed after partaking of certain foods.  Fine.  Now, how do you leave the table, how do you walk away?  True, no blessing is needed, but where is the blessing?!  How can you simply move on?  And so, the Rabbis gave us a way to express our gratitude when the occasion demands no blessing, by instituting a blessing!

The depth with which one recites the blessing of ‘borei nefashos’ is not an indication of one’s fidelity to the law; it is a statement of his humanity.

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3 Responses to The non-blessing blessing

  1. Joseph says:

    In the story, the only reason why no thanks was given verbally (if is concept is even valid) was because of the prohibition of paying interest. How do you feel that a parallel can be drawn from that to our relationship with God?

    I think it will fit if you say that in both cases, you originally shouldn’t give thanks in manner X, but afterwards you must show gratitude as a matter of mortality.

    I still find it hard to believe that verbal thanking would be considered interest.

  2. E.D.Becker says:

    Joseph, I’m afraid I’m not getting the drift of your comment and I’d like to understand it. You indicated that there is some manner X that is not the right way to give thanks (which is true in the case of the forbidden interest, but in the case of the blessings after food, there is simply no requirement to say a blessing in such cases), and that gratitude must be shown as a matter of mortality. I’m not sure that I see the connection between the gratitude and one’s mortality.

    As for the law regarding verbal interest, the Halacha actually discusses the case where the lender asked the borrower to let him know a piece of information (eg. when so-and-so has come to town, when a certain flight is leaving or arriving, etc.) and the borrower gives him that information out of a deference that has been created by a loan. This is where ‘verbal interest’ is taught. The extension to expressions of gratitude which set up a relationship of submissive to master is where the teachers of Mussar saw the dangers of such verbal expressions of thanks. Let me know if you want references for this.

    Best wishes,

  3. Ephraim Geltman says:

    I was going to leave without commenting because I didn’t feel qualified, but then I realized I could just say thanks.

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