Be Hole

Consider the common association between Jews and bagels for breakfast.

Myself, I’m a quinoa-and-avocado man. Nevertheless, mentally constructing a scene in which I invite my Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Daoist friends to drop by for breakfast, my paranoid Jewish soul hears them translating, “That means bagels and cream cheese.”

What does chewy bread with a hole in the middle have to do with being Jewish? And with Jewish breakfast in particular?

It took me years, but I think I have the answer:

A Jew is meant to start the day with a hole in the middle.

This is crucial: Whenever eating a bagel, always start with the emptiness at the center and work outwards. The same with any bread, food or other form of beneficence you receive from Above. Always start with nothing, and only then will the something be truly chewy and satisfying.

Yes, sometimes the deepest truths are hidden in the most obvious places (my wallet does that all the time): When you start with something, nothing is good enough. But when you start with nothing, anything is fantastic.

Start with nothing, and anything is fantastic.What does it take to start with nothing? A lot. It takes a sense of smallness, a willingness to accept that you may not be as necessary as you would like to feel, a realization that “who says I should even exist, anyways?”

And then the next step: “Not only do I exist; I have food to eat for breakfast!”

With that step, all of life becomes a celebration. Every detail of it.

The strategy is tested and proven. Take Alice Hertz-Sommer, who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and is still happily playing Bach at 108—all because of that grateful-for-anything attitude. Her motto: Life is a gift.

Personally, I plan to live forever (so far, so good). If we’re on the same page here, this could be our best investment. We’ll invest in nothing—that is, in our own sense of nothingness. The returns are as endless as the circle of the bagel.

And the best place to start is with the morning blessings.

Thanks for Nothing

The morning blessings are a stroke of divine genius. It all started with King David, who was divinely inspired to kick off the “100 Blessing Campaign”: Every Jew has to say a minimum of 100 blessings per day. That sent folks scrambling for a while, so to make things simpler, the sages established a list of set blessings for what might seem the most trivial basics of life that everyone takes for granted.

Like, did you notice that when you got out of bed this morning, the earth was still solid beneath your feet? I mean, it was pretty solid when you left it, crashing onto your bed the night before, right? But who says it’s still got to be there the next morning?

The fact that there is anything solid beneath your feet is a quirk of nature

Well, if you lived on the Sumatran coast at tsunami season, the muddy banks of the Mississippi in the spring, Amsterdam in World War II or New Orleans to this very day, you wouldn’t take that so much for granted.

The truth is, it’s a totally quirky freak of nature that planet Earth has any dry land at all. Minerals are heavier than water, so they should all be submerged beneath a single, vast ocean. Which wouldn’t work too well for us dry-land critters. Not a bad idea to show some appreciation. Which we do, with this blessing:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G‑d, Master of the Universe, who spreads the earth above the waters.”

In a way, the morning blessings are just that: a firm platform upon which to build life. It may sound strange, but to build a solid structure, you first need to recognize that you’re essentially groundless.

So perhaps the blessing that sums them all up is . . .

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G‑d, Master of the Universe, who clothes the naked.”

. . . because to really feel rich, you need to know that you are essentially without anything. Neat, isn’t it? You can be rich just by celebrating what you already have. Even neater: The sages already summed that up long ago, when they said, “Who is rich? The guy who celebrates whatever comes to him!”1

Going Through the Motions—Mindfully

Originally, people said these blessings as they went through the motions. A very mindful way to start the day. But as the generations passed, not long after Talmudic times, that became impractical for a variety of ritualistic reasons. It was decided that everyone should say them after dressing and washing up. Some have the custom of saying them in the synagogue, others (this is the Chabad custom) say them all at home before leaving the house.

The precise order and wording of these blessings depends on the version of the prayerbook you follow, but all the blessings begin, “Blessed are You, Hashem our G‑d, Master of the Universe . . . ,” and continue . . .

Translation Commentary
1 . . . who has sanctified us with His mitzvahs and instructed us concerning washing of the hands. Little dust-speck me gets to say all these blessings to the Master of the Entire Universe!
2 . . . who has formed the human being with wisdom . . . My soul thanks G‑d for giving it a body custom-designed with awesome wisdom.
3 My G‑d, the soul You have placed within me . . . My body thanks G‑d for giving it a soul that always remains pure and holy.
4 . . . who has given the rooster understanding to discern between day and night. Both of them thank G‑d for the circadian rhythm. (That’s the internal bio-clock that keeps your body producing the right hormones at the right time.)
5 . . . who opens the eyes of the blind. I opened my eyes. I can see an entire world out there! Wow.
6 . . . who unties the bound. I sat up in bed. My limbs are moving. I’m alive!
7 . . . who stands erect those who are bent. Not only that, I even stood up!
8 . . . who dresses the naked. Essentially, I have nothing. But hey—I’m up, I’m dressed!
9 . . . who gives strength to the weary. I handed in my soul last night, weary and discombobulated . . . and the Master of All Souls returns it to me fresh and clean, with power to go!
10 . . . who spreads the earth over the water. . . . by rubbing tectonic plates against one another.
11 . . . who prepares the steps of human beings. I’m walking forward. I’m where I am supposed to be, guided by His hand.

The following blessing sums up all the preceding ones: Everything I need for my mission today has been provided for me. But, interestingly, we’re told that this blessing is linked to the act of tying your shoelaces (or sticking together the Velcro). As for the other needs that you will have fulfilled over the day, they have other blessings attached to them—such as the blessings we make before and after eating food.

That is why we don’t say this blessing on Yom Kippur, when wearing leather shoes is prohibited (except when other shoes are not available and you need to walk outside).

There’s a message here, as explained by Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel:

12 . . . who has provided for me all my needs. Everything I need awaits me. I just have to put on my shoes to go out there and get it.

The next two blessings are for my belt and my hat (or whatever I’ve got on top of my head that day). We don’t make a specific blessing on shirts, skirts or thermal underwear. But we do make a blessing on these. You see, these two items have special significance for Jews in particular:

13 . . . who girds Israel with strength. I buckled my belt. If not, well, there’s gotta be some elastic there around my waist somewhere. In order to pray, there has to be something distinguishing between the top half of my body and the lower half. (Women are not obligated in this, but still say the blessing.)
14 . . . who crowns Israel with beauty. Before cars made them inconvenient, people wore hats. Jews still do—well, at least something to cover the head—at least for the time of prayer. Not just to keep it dry, or block the sunlight, but to keep ever mindful of the One Above. (Single women are not obligated.)

A few technical details:

  • Make sure you wash your hands before saying these blessings. Even if you washed when you first awoke (we went through that in How To Get Out of Bed), wash again after getting dressed.
  • The blessings should be said standing, in a clean place, not in the lavatory or a place where people get dressed.
  • Even if you don’t wear a belt, a hat, wear shoes, or for whatever reason are missing any of the above, you can still say all the blessings. Other members of your people are benefiting from these things, and all the Jewish people are one.

Eternal Childishness

Ever watch an infant play with his toes? A toddler delighting in his newfound ability to walk? A youngster who has just discovered the butterfly? That’s the sense of perpetual wonder we’re trying to achieve every morning.

“We have found the elixir of eternal youth,” a wise man once said, “and it is immaturity.”

All day long, strive to be an adult. At the time of prayer, return to that essential child within. Start with the empty hole of the bagel and work outwards.