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Baruch Hashem: Only Non-Israelites Bless God in the Torah

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Baruch Hashem: Only Non-Israelites Bless God in the Torah

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Baruch Hashem: Only Non-Israelites Bless God in the Torah

Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham’s servant, Laban, and Jethro all bless YHWH, but, as Rabbi Pappias notes in the Mekhilta, the Israelites don’t. Only later in the Bible do we find David and Solomon blessing YHWH, but so do Hiram King of Tyre and the Queen of Sheba.

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Baruch Hashem: Only Non-Israelites Bless God in the Torah

Prayer in the home, Jan Voerman, ca. 1884. Wikimedia

Whether during prayer, before ritual acts, before and after eating any food, or just appreciating natural phenomena, blessing God is a constant part of Jewish religious practice.[1] The central role blessings play in Jewish daily life is highlighted by the ruling of Rabbi Meir, a mid-second century C.E. Tannaitic sage:

בבלי מנחות מג: היה ר' מאיר אומר: "חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום, שנאמר (דברים י:יב): 'ועתה ישראל מה יי אלהיך שואל מעמך'".
b. Menachot 43b Rabbi Meir used to say: “A person must make one hundred (meʾah) blessings every day, as it says (Deut 10:12): ‘And now, Israel, what (mah) does the LORD your God require of you?’”[2]

Playfully reading mah (“what”) as meʾah (“hundred”), R. Meir claims that the recitation of one hundred blessings is what God asks of each Jew.

Another version explanation for the hundred blessings appears in Numbers Rabbah (11th century), as a gloss on the opening verse of David’s final psalm in Samuel:

שמואל ב כג:א וְאֵלֶּה דִּבְרֵי דָוִד הָאַחֲרֹנִים נְאֻם דָּוִד בֶּן יִשַׁי וּנְאֻם הַגֶּבֶר הֻקַם עָל מְשִׁיחַ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וּנְעִים זְמִרוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
2 Samuel 23:1 These are the last words of David: The utterance of David son of Jesse, The utterance of the man set on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the songs of Israel.

The midrashic interpretation is based the numerical value (gematria) of על as 100, and reading the preceding verb (הֻקַם), was set,” as active (הֵקִם, “establish”), thus presenting David as the one who established the 100 [blessings]. Noting that this prayer comes immediately before the story of a great plague (2 Sam 24), the midrash connects them:

במדבר רבה יח:כא (פרשת קרח) "הוקם על"—כנגד מאה ברכות שבכל יום היו מתים מישראל מאה אנשים בא דוד ותקן להם מאה ברכות כיון שתקנם נתעצרה המגפה.
Numbers Rabbah 18:21 (Parashat Korah)Huqam ʿal”—Referring to the one hundred blessings. For every day, one hundred Israelites would die in Jerusalem, so David came and instituted the one-hundred blessings for them. Once he instituted them, the plague stopped.[3]

R. Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (ca. 1255–ca. 1340), combining several sources, claims that the practice goes all the way back to Moses:

כד הקמח ברכה א' ונראה מכל זה כי משה רבינו ע"ה יסדם תחלה ואחר כך שכחום וחזר דוד ויסדן ואחר זמנו של דוד שכחום וחזרו חכמי התלמוד ויסדום.
Kad HaQemah Berachah 1 It appears from all this that our teacher Moses, may he rest in peace, established them first. Afterwards, they were forgotten, and David reestablished them. After David’s time, they were forgotten [again], and the Sages of the Talmud reestablished them.

In short, constant blessings are one of the hallmarks of classical Judaism.[4] It is thus surprising that in the Torah and other biblical narratives, blessings are said almost exclusively by non-Israelites.[5]

Outsiders Blessing God in the Torah—A Survey

Noah—The first to employ bless God is Noah, within his blessing his oldest son:

בראשית ט:כו וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי שֵׁם...
Gen 9:26 And he said, “Blessed be YHWH, the God of Shem…”

As Noah is the father of all humanity in the Torah, and Shem is an ancestor of Israel, he is not fully an outsider.

Melchizedek—The next time we see such a blessing is in the mouth of King Melchizedek of Salem, וְהוּא כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן “he was a priest of the God Most High” (Genesis 19:18), who blesses first Abraham and then Abraham’s God:

בראשית יד:יט וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ. יד:כ וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ...
Gen 14:19 He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 14:20 And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”…

Notably, while Melchizedek is not part of the Abrahamic line that will develop into Israel, he is still described as a priest of God and serves in Jerusalem (=Shalem) where the Temple will eventually be built.

Abraham’s Servant—The third person in the Torah to bless God is Abraham’s servant, who was sent to Abraham’s hometown to find a wife for Isaac. At the local well, he prays for a girl to appear who offers to give him and his camels water to drink. After this comes true, and he learns that Rebecca is even a member of his master’s extended family, he blesses God.

בראשית כד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ מֵעִם אֲדֹנִי אָנֹכִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ נָחַנִי יְ־הוָה בֵּית אֲחֵי אֲדֹנִי.
Gen 24:27 He said, “Blessed be YHWH, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by YHWH, to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”

As a part of Abraham’s household, the servant has learned of YHWH, though he thinks of YHWH as Abraham’s God, looking out for his master’s interests.

Laban—Notably, when Rebecca tells her brother Laban about the man and his expensive gifts, Laban runs out to the well and in the process of inviting the man home, he too either blesses YHWH (LXX trans.),[6] or refers to the servant as the blessed of YHWH (standard translation)—the Hebrew can be translated either way:

בראשית כד:לא וַיֹּאמֶר בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד בַּחוּץ וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים.
Gen 24:31 “Come in, Blessed be YHWH! (or: O blessed of YHWH)” he said, “why do you remain outside, when I have made ready the house and a place for the camels?”[7]

Whether he is blessing the servant or the servant’s God, early modern commentators grappled with how Laban knew the name YHWH. For instance, R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843–1921) writes:

או צריך להניח, כי במשפחתו של אברהם שם ה׳ ידוע היה, או שמא רבקה שמעה שם זה מפיו של עבד אברהם וכבר הספיקה לספר זאת בביתה.
Either one must posit that in Abraham’s family the name YHWH was known, or perhaps Rebecca heard this name spoken by Abraham’s servant and had time to relate this detail to the members of her house.

In contrast, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) suggests that the Torah was paraphrasing, and Laban didn’t actually know the divine name:

אין צורך שיהיה זה ממש מאמר לבן כי התורה העתיקה הדבור זה מלשון המדבר ללשון ישראל, וכן אמרה ברוך ה', גם כי לבן לא ידע את ה', ואמר ברוך אלהים או כיוצא בזה.
It isn’t necessary for this to be the actual words of Laban, since the Torah translates the language he spoke into Hebrew, and thus it says blessed of YHWH even though Laban did not know the name YHWH and said “blessed of God” or something like that.

Whether Laban is supposed to have known the divine name or not, he clearly invokes God/god in a blessing, and perhaps even blesses God.[8]

Jethro—Jethro the priest of Midian is delighted to hear from his son-in-law Moses כָּל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ־הוָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל “all the good YHWH did for Israel,” and immediately blesses God:

שמות יח:י וַיֹּאמֶר יִתְרוֹ בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעֹה אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶת הָעָם מִתַּחַת יַד מִצְרָיִם. יח:יא עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל יְ־הוָה מִכָּל הָאֱלֹהִים...
Exod 18:10 Jethro said: Blessed be YHWH who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharoah and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 18:11 Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods…”[9]

Like Melchizedek above, Jethro is introduced as a priest, in this case, כֹהֵן מִדְיָן “a priest of Midian.” Notably, several modern scholars believe that YHWH was originally a Midianite (or Kenite) divinity that was adopted by the Israelites, and even point to the Jethro-Moses narrative as an attempt to come to terms with how Israel ended up with a Midianite divinity.[10] Be that as it may, in the Torah, Jethro is hardly unusual in being a non-Israelite who blesses YHWH.

Blessing God in the Rest of the Bible

Outside the Torah, some Israelites do bless God. David blesses YHWH when Abigail shows up to talk him out of killing her husband Nabal (1 Sam 25:32), and again when her husband dies (1 Sam 25:39), and a third time when Solomon takes the throne (1 Kgs 1:48). Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok (one of David’s chief priests), blesses YHWH when he informs David that he has won the war against Absalom (2 Sam 18:28).

Solomon blesses God twice in his prayer after building the Temple (1 Kgs 8:15, 56). The women of Bethlehem bless God when they see Naomi has a grandson (Ruth 4:14),[11] and Ezra blesses God (Ezra 7:27) in response to the Persian king’s support of the Temple. At the same time, the theme of outsiders blessing God appears in these narrative works as well.

Hiram, King of Tyre—When King Solomon writes to King Hiram of Tyre about his desire to procure cedar wood and architects to build a temple in Jerusalem, King Tyre responds by praising Solomon and blessing YHWH:

מלכים א ה:כא וַיְהִי כִּשְׁמֹעַ חִירָם אֶת דִּבְרֵי שְׁלֹמֹה וַיִּשְׂמַח מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְדָוִד בֵּן חָכָם עַל הָעָם הָרָב הַזֶּה.
1 Kgs 5:21 When Hiram heard Solomon’s message, he was overjoyed. He said: “Blessed be YHWH this day for granting David a wise son to govern this great people.”[12]

While Solomon is the king building the Temple, it is Hiram who actually blesses YHWH in his speech.

Queen of Sheba—After Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba, and impresses her with his wisdom and wealth, she too blesses YHWH:

מלכים א י:ט יְהִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ אֲשֶׁר חָפֵץ בְּךָ לְתִתְּךָ עַל כִּסֵּא יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאַהֲבַת יְ־הוָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְעֹלָם וַיְשִׂימְךָ לְמֶלֶךְ לַעֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה.
1 Kgs 10:9 “May YHWH your God be blessed, who delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel. It is because of YHWH’S everlasting love for Israel that He made you king to administer justice and righteousness.”

In sum, while some Israelites bless God in the Bible, an unusual number of non-Israelites do so—even more so than the Israelites.

Why Doesn’t Israel Bless God?

Why does the Bible attribute blessing God to outsiders rather than the founders of Israel? In the Tannaitic midrash, Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, R. Pappias sees this as reflecting negatively on Israel:

מכילתא דר"י מסכתא דעמלק יתרו פרשה א אָמַר רַבִּי פַּפְּיָס: בִּגְנוּת יִשְׂרָאֵל הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר, שֶׁהֲרֵי יֵשׁ שָׁם שִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא בְנֵי אָדָם, וְלֹא עָמַד אֶחָד מֵהֶם לְבָרֵךְ לַמָּקוֹם, עַד שֶׁבָּא יִתְרוֹ וּבֵרַךְ לַמָּקוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: "וַיֹּאמֶר יִתְרוֹ: בָּרוּךְ י"י!"
Mekh. de-Ri Amalek §1 R. Pappias said: Scripture speaks to the disparagement of Israel, since six hundred thousand men were there (at Mount Sinai) and not one of stood up to bless the Omnipresent (hamakom) until Jethro came and did so. As it says (Exod 18:10) “And Jethro said: ‘Blessed is the LORD.’”

R. Pappias clearly sees the contrast between non-Israelite blessing and Israelite silence as disparaging Israel. Little did he know that the Second Temple Book of Jubilees has Jacob blessing God in this way:

Jubilees 45:3 Israel said to Joseph: “Now let me die after I have seen you. Now may the Lord, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac—who has not withheld his kindness and his mercy from his servant Jacob—be blessed.”[13]

But the biblical text need not be read as a veiled criticism of Israel and its ancestors. Instead, it seems like that the Torah wants to present the sensitive outsider as cognizant and grateful for God’s protection of God’s people. Israel’s relationship with YHWH is a given, and biblical narratives do not feel the need to point out that an Israelite has accepted, recognized, or blessed YHWH—there is nothing remarkable about this.

In contrast, non-Israelite recognition of YHWH is something uniquely admirable. The way the Bible highlights such a moment is by having a variety of non-Israelite characters bless YHWH explicitly. In this way, the Torah grants the “outsider” the privilege of blessing the God of Israel, signaling that they too have a share in Israel’s God.

The Development of Blessings

In the Psalms, blessing God is ubiquitous.[14] Already in the Second Temple period, blessing God becomes more integrated into Judean ritual practice. The many ritual blessings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran have helped scholars reconstruct the evolution of our vast system of blessings, that began in part before the common era.

After the destruction of the Temple, blessings became the primary form of Jewish worship. And yet, this should not obscure the fact that, in the Torah, blessing God is the role of outsiders who come to recognize God. Indeed, it is Noah, the father of all humanity, who first blesses God, implying that, at its core, blessing God is a universal human practice in which we all may participate as equals.

Published

January 30, 2024

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Last Updated

June 12, 2024

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