"Once upon a time, before the invention of the printing press and even before the creation of the Jewish prayer service, Jews did not learn blessings from teachers or books. In fact, the traditional blessings were not invented by rabbis sitting around a table in the study hall. Rather, they were composed by people going about their lives.
"The morning prayer service, usually prayed in synagogue, begins with a series of one-line blessings. Here are seven of them. The Baruch atah formula is followed by specific things for which we are grateful. Blessed be You, God, for
"1. giving the rooster understanding to differentiate between day and night
2. making me in the divine image
3. making me free
4. making me a Jew
5. giving sight to the blind
6. dressing the naked
7. making firm our steps
"Blessings 2, 3, and 4 are what I call theological blessings. They thank God for large, general gifts: freedom, the godliness inherent in human beings, Jewish identity. It's tempting to interpret the last three in similar fashion. But in fact, blessings 4, 5, and 6 address the concrete situation of the person's life. I call them practical blessings. The tip-off is the very first blessing. In it, we thank God 'for giving the rooster understanding to differentiate between day and night.' As we saw above, for us this would be the equivalent of blessing our alarm clocks. Reform prayer books understandably reinterpret it sans rooster (thanking God for giving us mind and instinct), as Jews today rarely have roosters. Conservative and Orthodox Jews recite it verbatim out of loyalty to the tradition. Once a prayer makes it into the prayer book, it is not to be removed. All of them miss the point. The morning blessings are not about theological principles or loyalty to the tradition. Rather, they are about seeing God in our daily lives.
"For most of human history, the cry of the rooster was the first thing a person heard in the morning. While still in bed, pious Jews would recite the first blessing of the day. Then they would open their eyes, the occasion for thanking God for sight (blessing 5). Then they would get dressed, expressing gratitude for the very fact that we have clothes (blessing 6). Then they would bless God for the ability to walk (blessing 7). When you look at these blessings in a prayer book, you notice that the last one thanks God for removing the sleep from our eyes. The morning blessings were originally meant to be prayed first thing in the morning, as one gets out of bed.
"Alas, Judaism as a religious practice is entering its fourth millennium. What were once spontaneous blessings that ordinary Jews recited without rabbis and prayer books have been codified, reified, canonized, and printed. These blessings have been divorced from their original context. What was once the profound practice of starting the day in the attitude of gratitude has turned into a list of theological principles disconnected from the actual experiences of one's life.
"But composing one's own blessings in response to life's encounters is a venerable Jewish practice. We can recover it. In fact, the tradition encourages us: a pious Jew is instructed to say a hundred blessings a day! What better place than wilderness?”