A while back, I wrote an article about how I learned the hard way to appreciate the bracha of asher yatzar, commonly undervalued as “the bracha on going to the bathroom.” At that time, I teased, “Asher yatzar may not be the only bracha we take for granted (remind me to tell you about shehakol some time).” Well, that time has come!
I’m going to take the opportunity to discuss a few blessings and prayers that may be underappreciated. Since I previously teased shehakol, I guess I’ll start with that.
In the hierarchy of brachos, shehakol is definitely the “low man on the totem pole.” Now “low man on the totem pole” is a dated expression I would normally avoid in our more enlightened age except for the fact that it perfectly captures the metaphor I wish to convey. We say “low man on the totem pole” to express that someone or something is the least significant, when the opposite is in reality the case. In Indigenous American totemic carvings, the figure on the bottom is actually the most revered. I believe this to be the case with shehakol – we consider it the least significant of all the brachos on food but I suspect we largely undervalue it.
The reason we may underappreciate shehakol is fairly clear: it’s a consequence of how we use it. HaMotzi is a special bracha that we recite only on bread. Hagafen is another prestigious bracha, reserved for wine. Mezonos, ho’eitz and ho’adomah are likewise unique for baked goods, fruits and vegetables, respectively. Shehakol? That’s the bracha on “none of the above.”
If something “loses its status,” its bracha changes to shehakol. Apples are ho’eitz; juice them and they’re shehakol. Corn is ho’adomah; grind it to flour and it’s shehakol. Not only that, if we don’t know the proper bracha for something, shehakol serves as a catch-all that would permit us to eat that food (though, honestly, many are too quick to rely on that as an out rather than take the trouble to find out what bracha should be recited).
Because of all that, people may consider shehakol to be insignificant, but consider what the bracha actually says: “Blessed are You, Hashem our God, through Whose Word everything is brought into existence.” Wow. To me, that seems to be a pretty impressive accomplishment – at least as big a deal as bringing forth bread from the earth or creating the fruit of the vine. When I say most brachos on food, I feel like I’m a guest at someone’s house saying, “Thanks for this awesome food.” When I say shehakol, I feel like I’m a guest at someone’s house saying, “O.M.G. I can’t believe you built this house – and these furnishings – and painted all the pictures hanging on the walls!”
Shehakol isn’t the bracha on anything, it’s the bracha on everything. I, for one, am pretty impressed that God created everything.
Unlike the other things on this list, this one may just be me but I have pretty strong feelings about Birkas Hodaah (AKA, “Modim”) nonetheless.
In my school days, Modim was by far my least favorite part of Shemoneh Esrei. This was strictly because it was the only part of Shemoneh Esrei that I didn’t know by heart, requiring me to use a siddur. (I’m still pretty bad when it comes to using a siddur or a bentcher, which is preferable to reciting things by heart. Don’t be like me.) The reason I didn’t know Modim by heart was because every other bracha in Shemoneh Esrei we both recite and we hear repeated by the shaliach tzibbur. When it comes to Modim, we pretty much only recite it. We don’t really hear it repeated because when the shaliach tzibbur reaches that part, we’re busy saying Modim d’Rabbanan. (The fact that we don’t hear Modim recited by the shaliach tzibbur ends up being part of my appreciation for it but I have somewhere else to go before I get there.)
My appreciation for Modim first grew thanks to books like Rabbi Mayer Birnbaum’s Pathways to Prayer and Rabbi Aaron Werner’s “Three Beacons” book on Shemoneh Esrei, both of which I discuss more here. Did you ever think about what Modim says? What it means? It says:
We give thanks to You, acknowledging that you are Hashem, Who takes care of us and took care of our ancestors and Who will do so forevermore. You are the Rock of our lives and the Shield of our salvation from generation to generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praises – for our lives, which are in Your hand; for our souls, which are entrusted to Your care; for Your miracles, which are with us every day; for Your wonders and various forms of goodness, which are at all times – evening, morning and afternoon. You are the ultimate Good because Your mercy is unending, and You are the Merciful One because Your kindness is without limit. We have always placed our hopes in You.
(I translated this myself, without referring to any books, but I wouldn’t be surprised if years of exposure to Rabbi Birnbaum’s and Rabbi Werner’s books have influenced my choice of words.)
So, the first reason I’m so impressed with Modim is because it’s such a moving expression of how much we owe to God – which is literally everything!
The second reason I’m so enamored of Modim is the reason we don’t hear the shaliach tzibbur repeating it: because we’re busy reciting Modim d’Rabbanan.
Modim d’Rabbanan means “Modim of the Rabbis.” (It’s not d’Rabbanan as opposed to “Modim d’Oraisa,” of which there is none.) The prayer gets its name from the Talmud in Sotah (40a). There, it asks what the congregation recites while the shaliach tzibbur is repeating Modim. This leads to a multi-part difference of opinion among Rav, Shmuel, Rabbi Simai and the Nehardai, with a concluding sentiment from Rav Acha bar Yaakov. Since each of authorities has something unique to contribute, Rav Papa says that we should recite all of them. Hence, the prayer is called “Modim d’Rabbanan” – “Modim of the Rabbis” – because it comprises the praises composed by all of them.
But why does the Gemara take for granted that the congregation is reciting anything at this time? The reason we do so is explained by the Avudraham: when it comes to asking God for things we need – health, wisdom, forgiveness, help making a living, even messianic salvation – it’s appropriate for the congregation to appoint a worthy member as their representative to address God on their behalf. But when it comes to thanking God for all the things that He gives us? That each person must do for himself.
So Modim is a special part of Shemoneh Esrei – one that’s too important to entrust to a messenger. To me, at least, that imbues the prayer with some special significance, both in the silent recitation and in the reader’s repetition.
To Be Continued
This has gone on a little bit longer than I had planned, so I will pick this up in part 2. Come back then and I will reveal what will invariably prove to be the undisputed most undervalued part in the entire liturgy.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.