Over the past decades, psychologists have identified myriad social, psychological, and physical health benefits that come from giving thanks.
In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington explores the great benefits of expressing gratitude. She writes, “According to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the close of a day — and why the events made them happy — lowered their self-reported stress levels and gave them a greater sense of calm at night.”
Keeping a gratitude journal, even two to three times per week, can improve one’s attitude, be beneficial to one’s health, and increase happiness.
Yet if you’ve ever tried to start a gratitude journal, you might notice how difficult it is to actually keep it up after a week or two. It’s tough to build a new habit, easy to blow it off. This is in part because it becomes hard to find new things to write down every time, and who wants their writing (“I’m grateful for my health, my family, the roof over my head…”) to sound like a broken record?
It’s so easy to focus on the things going wrong in our lives. New fires flare up every day, new frustrations; and then there are the old issues that never go away– our own worst natures, the challenging personalities we might work with or live with or have to deal with in our families. It’s easy to get caught up in our hardships and forget everything that is actually going well. This is precisely the problem.
As Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, writes, “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them. It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
If it is so natural to adapt to, and disregard, the good stuff, then how can we keep our positivity fresh? How can we prevent gratitude from becoming eclipsed by negativity?
Robert Emmons answers this question with the following advice:
“The important thing is to establish the habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events.”
How can we successfully build this positive, and stress reducing, habit?
There is a practice within our tradition to focus on gratitude in a very structured way: by reciting blessings, called brachot.
The more observant a Jewish person is, the more blessings they tend to verbalize each day, because brachot are built into the very fabric of religious life.
While gratitude journalists recommend listing three to ten items at the close of each day, Jewish practice is rather more ambitious.
To utter no fewer than one hundred blessings every day.
The Century Letter
Hold that thought. Let’s turn our attention to the letter Quf.
Conceptually, this letter is a garden of meaning.
An example: Say you met someone who spoke an unknown language and you had to communicate the concept of Time by drawing a pictogram.
What would you draw?
In its timeless wisdom, the solution provided by the Hebrew Aleph-Bet is a circle bisected by a straight line, representing the sun at or below the horizon.
Dawn, dusk. A full day… Time.
Quf is the letter of time, and it is rather brilliant in its simplicity.
Over time, the horizon tilted and the letter went from an horizontal to a vertical orientation, eventually bringing us to our modern form of the letter. For those of you who read Greek, the letter Phi takes after this version of Quf. For you English readers, you’ve just met the ancestor of our letter Q. The Quf is alternately spelled “Kuf”, but as this letter is itself the progenitor of the Latin letter Q, I prefer to spell it with a ‘Q’.
Numerically, Quf represents one hundred. If you combine the temporal and numerical value of this letter, Quf represents one hundred years; a full century. A human lifetime.
The letter Quf first describes a lifetime and then teaches us how to live it to the fullest.
The Letter of Blessing
We’ve learned that Quf counts for one hundred. It also embodies kedusha, holiness. As such, it is ordinarily given a tag (crownlet) by scribes whenever it is written in a Torah scroll.
There is also a Quf that wears a different headpiece. This Quf is adorned with not one, but three tagin (crownlets).
According to the Sefer Tagin, this unusual Quf appears 185 times in TaNaCh (the Hebrew Bible). For today, let’s just focus on one occurrence, shall we?
While this atypical letter can be found in this week’s Torah portion of Eikev (Deut. 10:11), let’s explore the three-crowned Quf in last week’s sedra, Va’etchenan, and connect it to this week’s reading.
|ד וְאַתֶּם, הַדְּבֵקִים, ה’, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם, הַיּוֹם.||4 But you — those who cling to HaShem, your G!D — you are all alive this day. (Deut. 4:4, Va’etchanan)|
This verse is recited by the congregation every Shabbat morning in synagogue immediately before the Torah is read to the congregation.
The word ‘hadeveykim’, those who cling, contains within it the thrice-crowned Quf. The Baal HaTurim comments on the crowned Quf by saying, “The Quf of this phrase is written with [three] tagin. This is an allusion to the hundred blessings that each person is obligated to recite every day.”
Our verse is about clinging to the divine, and the Shoham Yakar interprets the Baal HaTurim to mean that the way in which one brings themselves to cling to G!d the entire day is by reciting one hundred daily blessings.
In his comment, the Baal HaTurim is actually referencing the Talmud, which teaches that each person should strive to utter no fewer than 100 blessings over the course of one day, from sunup to sundown (Menachot 43b). The prooftext used in this Talmudic argument is taken from this week’s sedra, Eikev:
וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your G!d demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your G!d, to walk only in G!d’s paths, to love G!d, and to serve the LORD your G!d with all your heart and soul” (Deut 10:12).
What does the Creator of the world ask of us?
Says Rashi, read the word מָה (mah), what, as if it were spelled מאה (me’ah), one hundred. The verse then means: And now, O Israel, one hundred blessings HaShem, your G!d asks of you.
An elegant proof. The Baal HaTurim comes to the same conclusion along different lines of thought, offering three pieces of evidence to support his argument:
“What does HaShem, your G!d, ask of you?” In the exchange system known as At-Bash, the letters Mem and Hay are exchanged for Yud (=10) and Tzadi (=90) respectively, [alluding to the Talmudic teaching that] G!d asks one hundred blessings of you every day. And for this same reason, there are one hundred letters in our verse. Similarly, the gematria of ‘you’, mimcha, is 100.”1
Many paths, then, lead us to the concept that the thrice-crowned Quf in this particular verse represents a reminder to recite 100 daily blessings.
What’s more, the letter Quf is inherently composed of two letters: A Zayin and a Reish. If you put those letters together you get the word Zer, wreath.
Quf is crowned with a wreath of blessings, and gently reminds us to lift up our heads each day by weaving blessing-crowns for ourselves. Just as you need many flowers and many leaves to form a beautiful wreath, you need to recognize and recite many blessings to fill a whole day with them.
The Letter of Sacred Time
What I love most about Yiddishkeit is that there is a blessing for almost everything.
If one hundred blessings each day seems like overkill, take a moment to think on how many actions an average human being performs in 24 hours, from waking up in the morning to going back to sleep at night. How many things might he or she consume, create, experience?
Brachot are designed to force us mere mortals to pay attention to gratitude-inspiring events. When we’re watching a good movie and have to dash out of the room for a moment, we bless the Pause button for holding our place in the action.
My grandfather Avraham Yosef, may peace be upon him, a writer, classical scholar, and lover of language, once told my father that he envisioned his tombstone would read:
As we travel through time, we unfortunately cannot stop it, even for an instant, and yet we can suspend it by pausing ourselves.
A blessing is our pause button for time. It gives us pause.
A blessing reminds us not to take things for granted, especially those things which we cannot exist without.
One daily event we ought not take for granted is our meals. Birkat Hamazon (aka Bentsching in Yiddish), the Blessing After Meals, forces us to pause the moment between eating and dashing off to the next task in order to express gratitude. This practice is inspired by a verse from Eikev:
|י וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.||10 And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee.|
From the kernel of this concept of blessing G!d after deriving satisfaction from a meal, Bentsching has evolved to a rather long combo of blessings. Bentsching includes paragraph after paragraph of thanksgiving, and it’s often tough to take the time to say the whole thing when you only have a 30 minute lunch break and it takes 5-10 minutes to read it with the proper intention.
But gratitude is inconvenient, sometimes.
When s/he wants to suspend time, how does a Jew make a blessing?
The first part of a blessing in Hebrew is always the same:
“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha’Olam…”
Blessed are you, HaShem our G!d, King of the universe…
While the second part is always different, because it names the gratitude. For example,
There are blessings over the bounty of nature which we consume:
Over fruit (apples, oranges, peaches)
“…for creating the fruit of the tree”
Over vegetables (watermelon, cucumbers, strawberries, lettuces)
“…for creating the fruit of the ground”
Over water, meat, and eggs:
“…shehakol neyiyeh bidvaro” that all exists according to His will
Then there are blessings over the vittles which we create:
Over cake and cookies:
“boreh minei mezonot” Who creates the myriad forms of grain
“Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz” Who brings bread forth from the earth
There are blessings over wonderful news:
“Hatov u’meytiv” Who is good and does good
And over the hearing of sorrow:
“Baruch dayan Ha’emet” Blessed is the True Judge
It makes me so grateful that these formulas exist, because our traditional blessings give a verbal shape to the variety of our human experiences: satisfaction, joy, awe, jubilation, ecstasy; as well as shock, sorrow, tragedy, and pain.
As a community, there are blessings that the Children of Israel say once every 50 years (over the sun), once each year (ex. during festivals or over the first fruit blossoms of spring), once every month (over the new moon), once a week (on Shabbat), once each day (in the daavening, ie prayers).
As individuals, we can recite blessings at each opportunity that they become relevant, and one who takes advantage of this practice is happy indeed.
There are blessings to be recited upon seeing a rainbow, witnessing lightning and hearing thunder, seeing the majesty of a king in person, meeting a great Torah sage. There is a blessing for seeing a totally gorgeous, stop-you-in-your-tracks human being. There are blessings to be said upon visiting a place where one has experienced a miracle. There are blessings to be said after experiencing a life-threatening event (may we say that one seldom).
There is even a blessing that is said several times a day after using the bathroom, and anyone who has had any issues with their urinary or gastrointestinal system can tell you that a body which functions well is not only a blessing, but a miracle.
I could go on. There are so many.
But I’ve run out of time.
In practicing gratitude, we cling to the Divine and elevate our lives (may we all live to be centenarians) to a level of kedusha, holiness. As R. Yitzchak Ginsburgh writes,
“The consciousness of truly blessing G!d is the awareness that all one receives from His open Hand…is in truth, a Divine miracle enclosed in nature.”
We can stop time by blessing it. Elevate our lives by blessing them. Bring holiness to ourselves and others through blessing.
Crown yourself, like the Quf, with a zer perachim, a crown of blessing-blossoms. And see if you can reach up to ten times ten from dawn to dawn.
To my parents.
To my rabbis and my teachers. Expressions of gratitude, like wildflowers, are ephemeral. Yet I am continually grateful to you. I am crowned by your teachings.
Baal HaTurim Chumash, ed. Avie Gold, 2007, pp. 1914, 1936-7.
Ben Ami, Dror. “Metaphors in the Torah: The Ancient Language of Paleo-Hebrew”. The Jerusalem Post. March 2, 2015. <https://www.jpost.com/Blogs/Torah-Commentaries/Metaphors-in-the-Torah-The-Ancient-Language-of-Paleo-Hebrew-392631>
Ginsburgh, Yitzchak. The Hebrew Letters: Channels of Creative Consciousness. Gal Einai: Jerusalem, 1990. p. 293.
Jessen, Lauren. “The Benefits of a Gratitude Journal and How to Maintain One”. July 8, 2015. Huffington post. <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gratitude-journal_b_7745854?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAADj23lCJvzPTYWitFCJL8qFa-FRAkRQCBcchNcwZZ2YBPruxE6cng-mQyAolRorGtZVL_eMBjNO-PjR66jsJoOOYdcOlHSXH3Yr2anMVYljpEdGiyBeMajAY9My9AMWEM_mVQRZMycFGmx3kv8cPWomJ0Z__oRoFS7W01rA_fYtJ>
Marsh, Jason. “Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal.” Greater Good Magazine. November 17, 2011.<https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_keeping_a_gratitude_journal>
Emmons, Robert. Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Sacks, Jonathan. “The Power of Gratitude”. August 3, 2015. http://rabbisacks.org/the-power-of-gratitude-ekev-5775/