THE ROOTS OF JEWISH PRAYER

The Blessing of Bending

THE ROOTS OF JEWISH PRAYER - Introduction

with Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton


How do we speak our words of prayer with understanding? By learning - with heart, head, and breath - to take in their meaning on as many levels as we can discern.

This column will explore the roots of key prayer vocabulary, the words that appear regularly in the blessings and prayers of daily and weekly liturgy.  This column will guide you in "rooting" around the words of prayer, literally and figuratively.

Most Hebrew words consist of three root letters.  Brought together in prayer, they are the signposts on our spiritual practices, directing us to what is most alive.  Roots deepen and nourish, guide and shape what will grow.  May these teachings help shape your ongoing practice of prayer.

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

The Blessing of Bending

To begin this regular exploration of the key words of Jewish prayer, we start at the beginning with the invitation word: BaRuKH.

Barukh is most commonly translated as BLESS-ed, with the vocal addition of a second syllable - not the way we usually speak the word, if we speak it at all in our daily English-language lives. In a midrash, the rabbis discern that we are to say 100 blessings a day, as a response to address spiritual repair. What are we saying with all of our BaRuKHs?

To begin with, the three letter word immediately invites an embodied response, starting with the first letter bet. It connects us immediately to that other monumental beginning, that of Torah, where the first word is bereshit, in the beginning. The letter sound b is very basic. It begins with just vibration, a hum. Say "mmmm" and then you can shift directly into vocalizing a "b". To begin blessings with a barukh then is to begin with vibration, and with engaging the instruments of sounding prayer - mouth, lips and voice.

Looking at all letters of the root for blessing, we see even more physical connections. The three letters - bet, resh, khaf - form the word for "knee." To engage the knee, or any joint, is to really be in one's blessing, to be-come pliant, flexible, and thus available for the transformative possibilities of the moment.

BaReKHu - LET US BLESS - is the form of the root that appears at the beginning of all communal prayer services. For those who are able, the public call to prayer involves rising, bending, and bowing. The physical engagement invoked in a prayer-full knee-bend makes manifest two aspects of enlivening prayer. On one level, the repetition of gesture creates muscle memory, and can bring us back and forth through each prayer experience. On another level, it can serve as a jolt, a reminder not to stay stuck in what a blessing or prayer says, but rather to where it can lead us.

Multiple versions of the root appear in the prayer book, some using the undotted form of the letter bet, its vocal cousin v: BeRaKHot/BLESSINGS; yitBaRaKH/BE BLESSED, hameVoRaKH/THE BLESSED, and more. 

See, hear, feel and resonate through all of your BaRuKHs.


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