Blessing Group Torah Study with Brakhot, Kaddish, and Kavvanah, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

What the Rabbis taught about teaching and learning was that all Torah study should begin and end with blessings, just as eating does. Often, in liberal Jewish circles today, these blessings are not done. But without them, it is easier for Torah study to feel like a mere academic discussion, devoid of spirit. And where the blessings are said but only by rote, it is easier for Torah study to feel merely antiquarian and automatic. In Jewish-renewal style, how can we bring new kavvanah — spiritual meaning, intention, focus, intensity — to these blessings — and therefore to the process of Torah study itself?

When I go out to speak and to teach, I define Torah study broadly to include not only traditional text study but also all serious examination of emerging Torah — where we are going into the new world of the next Judaism, and how it might address such down-to-earth questions as food, money, sex, the earth, rest. So it is not only when we gather in a circle to study a text but also when I am giving a talk or lecture on these subjects, to be followed by a discussion, that I explain this is a process of learning Torah together, and therefore I will begin and end with blessings.

I start with an untraditional version of the traditional brokha. It is in the “asher kidshanu” form (“who makes us holy through mitzvot… “), and ends, “La’asok b’divrei Torah” — literally, “to involve ourselves with words of Torah.” My form is untraditional in that I use “YAHH” instead of “Adonai” and “ruaḥ ha’olam” instead of “melech,” explaining that these are aimed toward experiencing God as the Breath of Life rather than King and Lord; and I usually suggest that for me, “mitzvah” means not “command” but “connection.” (In some Semitic languages, including Arabic, the cognate verb means “connect.” With or without this “etymodrushic”[1]an etymology based on midrash connection — if an act does not help connect the world into One, it isn’t a mitzvah.)

I often, teasingly but also seriously, translate “La’asok” as — “to soak ourselves in the living waters of the Torah.” Sometimes I will add that Torah itself means not “the Law” or even “the Teaching,” but is a word that comes from archery and means the process of aiming toward the target. (From the same root, “moreh/ morah” is a teacher who aims or points toward the truth; “yoreh” is rain that comes down like arrows. “Ḥeyt,” usually translated “sin,” is also an archery word; it means “missing the target.”)

So I will explain some of that, say “Blessed are You, Breath of Life, Who makes us holy through connections and teaches us to connect by soaking ourselves in the living waters of Torah,” and then say the brokha in Hebrew with “YAHH” and “ruaḥ” and sometimes feminine verbs, and with “b’mitzvot” rather than “b’mitzvotav” or “b’mitzvoteha,” so as to avoid the masculine or feminine “his” or “her.”

Then when the class or discussion is over, I will ask people to stand — if possible, in a single circle. I explain that I will use only the central paragraph of the Kaddish d’Rabbanan, mostly in English, and then proceed:

Hebrew (source) Free Translation (English)

Al Yisrael v’al rabbanan v’al talmidaihon v’al kol talmidai talmidaihon…
For the people Israel and
for all who wrestle with God;
For our teachers the Rabbis and
for all our teachers;
For their students —
ourselves — and
for the students of their students —
those whom we go forth to teach —
 
[and I literally, physically, look around the circle, making eye contact, as I say this] 
 
For all who study Torah,
who aim toward wisdom,
in this place
and in every place —

[and I will usually make two strong gestures, one to encompass this very place and one to reach beyond it] 
 
For all these may there be …
overflowing love,
peacefulness within and peace in the world,
a healthy and a healing life,
an honorable and sufficient livelihood
that comes from working with the earth, as part of it,
not from it or upon it —
and above all, a sense that all these blessings
come not from our own efforts only,
but from our efforts as part of the great
weave of Unity —
v’nomar …. ameyn.

I’m not suggesting that these words be what always get said. I vary them depending on what is uppermost in the learning we have just done together. I do suggest that some version of the paragraph in English, said “freehand” out of clear and direct intention (kavvanah) be said at the end of study. Not necessarily instead of the Hebrew, but for sure as well, in order to ensure that the blessings and the sense that learning is a holy act become actually and totally present in the real world of the very people and place of this particular time of study, as well as to all others. (Sometimes for the same reason I pause at the list of blessings besought, and ask the people actually present to name the blessings we need.)

Let me add that in regard to Mourners’ Kaddish, for myself and sometimes for sharing aloud if I happen to be leading davvening, there is great spiritual power in focusing on what it means to “Magnify and sanctify the Great Name.” For me the Great Name, the “shmei rabbah,” is that Name that has all names within it. — When we focus on the dead, that Great Name has as part of it a newly bright name, the name of the one who has just died or is being remembered. The name of our beloved dead has of course been a part of the Great Name all along. What is new is that in remembering the dead, we magnify and sanctify that Great Name by shining new light upon this name within it — a name that in our own lives may have become dimmer, but in the Great Name can now become far brighter.


This article, first written in 1996 was published as “Kaddish and Kavvanah: The Blessings over Torah Study” by Rabbi Waskow at The Shalom Center in 2001. We are grateful for his having shared his translation and explanation with a Creative Commons By Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA, 3.0 Unported) license. For many additional explorations by Rabbi Waskow into prayer, Jewish and beyond, see http://www.theshalomcenter.org/treasury/8 .

Notes   [ + ]

  1. an etymology based on midrash

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