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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
September 5, 2006
© Rabbi Jack Moline

It is quite a statement that we make at the beginning of each brakha: Empowered are you, my Compassionate One, our Judge, as ultimate authority of the universe.... How are we to wrap our minds around the all-encompassing attributes that statement represents?

The answer is in a little word of apparently inconsequential meaning: asher. "Asher" appears explicitly or implicitly in almost every brakha. When it is not free-standing, it is sometimes abbreviated to "sheh-" or sometimes just understood.

Now, a quick primer in the structure of brakhot, which you may skip if you choose. There are two kinds of brakhot – the short brakha and the long brakha. And there is a long short brakha and a short long brakha. The short brakha begins with our formula and then ends with brief phrase: borei p'ri hagafen or hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz. The long short brakha (properly called "birkat mitzvah") includes the words "asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav" and then a concluding phrase: l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat or l'hit'atef batzitzit. The long brakha begins with our formula which is followed by a descriptive paragraph of some length, followed by the words "barukh ata adonai" and a brief phrase. The most familiar example is Kiddush for Friday night. The short long brakha is one that is stacked next to another long brakha. That opening formula drops off and the descriptive paragraph starts right up. You are most familiar with this kind of brakha (called "brakha ha's'mukha l'chaverta") in the Amidah.

The word "asher," means "who" – not the interrogatory way, but as a synonym for "that." The inclusion of asher after this grand and glorious salutation makes it possible to relate to a single manifestation of a single aspect of the infinite God. I cannot hope to stand in the presence of the ultimate authority of the universe, but I can relate to the creator of fruits of the tree or to the one who pulls bread from the earth or to the one who has kept us in life. Asher is the funnel that reduces a flood to a drop and protects us from getting overwhelmed. Asher makes it possible to survive the presence of God whose full glory we have just acknowledged.

That's it – a little word with not much of a meaning. Actually, there is another meaning to "asher" that technically has nothing to do with the brakha, though you know it from other prayers, like "Ashrei." Asher also means "happy." And that's appropriate: how happy we are to be able to call on the presence of God and acknowledge the multitude of blessings that allow us to relate to the Master of All.

(Dedicated to my friend Peter/Asher on the occasion of his bar mitzvah.)

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