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Bless You!

08/04/2023 02:00:58 PM


Believe it or not, I have Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-ophthalmic Outburst Syndrome or ACHOO syndrome for short. It’s a condition where bright lights trigger my sneeze reflex. Whenever I walk outside or into bright light, I’ll sneeze about 3-4 times. Thus, on a sunny day, there are many kind people who will respond to my sneezes with a “bless you,” which is in itself very nice. But what does it really mean to say “bless you?” and why when I sneeze? Shouldn’t someone give me a blessing when I hold the door open for them or in appreciation for a kind act?

The Hebrew word for blessing is b’racha – ברכה, and interestingly it is a word with many connotations. When taken to mean blessing, we think of the person who does the blessing as bestowing on people some sort of good outcome. As we see in this week’s parsha, Parshat R’eih, Moses relates to the people the blessings of prosperity and rewards if the Israelites follow God’s commandments, and the alternative curses if they don’t do God’s will. As such, when someone says “bless you,” perhaps they are extending a wish, or a promise that God will bestow a positive outcome on me.  Historically, sneezes were connected with a fraction of one’s soul leaving the body and thus people would need a little extra blessing having undergone such an ordeal. But still I wonder, should we not bestow blessings on others during other types of social interactions?

Another translation for the word b’racha relates to kneeling. Based on the same b/r/ch, ב-ר-כ, root meaning “knees,” the word takes on more of a sense of “praise” than “bless.” Just as a petitioner would kneel as they’d offer their praise to the king, so too do we bend our knees when we offer a “blessing” of praise before the King of Kings. Now, it is inaccurate to transpose this translation to the original reason why people say “[God] bless you” when you sneeze, but I often fancifully think about this translation of blessing when people say the abridged “bless you.” Perhaps they aren’t blessing me. Perhaps they mean to say “bless You!” with a capital ‘Y’ signifying God’s abounding kindness and power during such a moment. But it still begs the question, why now? Why not during other moments in our lives. 

The answer is that there isn’t a reason why we shouldn’t bless people more often. We ought to bless people when they show kindness and act in ways worthy of blessing. Moreover, we ought to offer praise to God during moments of appreciation and gratitude. After all, humans have the capacity to translate mundane moments into holy ones, and thus we ought to act accordingly as much as possible. I’ve taken to responding to a “bless you” not with a “thank you” but a “bless you too!” Perhaps we can expand the reach further and offer more blessings and praises more often so they aren’t so far and few between (or at least more plentiful on cloudy days).

Shabbat shalom

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784