Blessings on Nature
Moshe Ben-Chaim

Talmud Brachos, page 54a discusses various blessings recited over the natural world. On shooting stars or comets, earthquakes, thunder, winds (tornadoes), and lightning, we recite "Blessed are You Ha-shem, our God, King of the universe, that His strength and might fill the universe." Over mountains, valleys, seas, rivers and deserts, we say "Blessed are You Ha-shem, our God, King of the universe, Who performs acts of Creation."
What is the distinction between these two groups, that each deserves a different praise? What is each praise? Why must we praise God for these phenomena?
On the latter group, Rashi says that we recite "....Who performs acts of Creation", as each are heard or seen from a distance. What is Rashi's theory? What does distance have to do with our recital?
Tosfos states that the rivers which demand the former blessing are not all rivers, but only those mentioned in Genesis. According to Tosfos, all mountains would require a blessing upon seeing them, even those not mentioned in the Torah. (I might add that according to Jewish law, we only recite this blessing when we have not seen the mountains, sea, etc, in more than 30 days. This too requires an explanation.) But what is Tosfos' main theory, that only the four rivers in Genesis require this blessing, but no others? And why are rivers treated differently than other Earthly topography?
In both cases, Rashi and Tosfos define the essential criteria which demand these specific blessings. Analyzing their statements will direct us to the true features requiring blessings.
Let us first try to categorize these to sets. What category would contain shooting stars or comets, earthquakes, thunder, winds (tornadoes), and lightning? To assist in defining the unique character of these, contrast them to the latter set; mountains, valleys, seas, rivers and deserts. Think for a moment before reading further what two categories these phenomena represent?
It appears that the first set is of natural laws, or 'forces' in nature. The second set does not contain forces, but rather, 'objects', represented by various, but impressive Earthly topography. We learn that both, God's 'laws' of Creation, winds, lightning, etc., and His 'objects' of Creation - land and water masses - both of which are of impressive in man's eyes, require man to praise God. Our next step is to deduce what we can. That man must bless God over these phenomena, we deduce that man must direct his appreciation for the universe, towards the Creator. Witnessing Creation's primary and impressive features must culminate in an appreciation for the Creator, as this is a purpose in God's Creation of such marvelous forces and Earthly domains. God desires man reach his Maker through a study of the universe, and he therefore embedded in the natural world such startling evidence of His own handiwork.
This is of such great importance, that Maimonides says it is for this reason that the Rabbis instituted blessings. Hilchos Brachos, 1:4, "We find that all the blessings entirely, are three types; blessings over pleasure, blessings over commands, and blessings over thanks, which are in the form of praise, thanks and requests, in order to remember the Creator regularly, and to fear Him."
It is important to realize that only two categories are blessed over, as there are only two categories in Creation; 1)matter, and 2)laws, governing matter. I also believe it is these two categories which Genesis addresses. We first read of the six days of creation, of heaven and Earth, the luminaries, plant life, animals, and man. But what we notice is that we are reading only of of the objects created, matter. As we commence chapter 2 in Genesis, verse 4, we take note that the Torah describes the workings of plants, then, with no break, describes the creation of man once again, this time referring to him identical to animals, as a "nefesh chaya" a living soul - not as in chapter 1, where man was referred to a "tzelem Elokim", a likeness of God. Why the change? I believe in chapter 1, man is described in his true essence - a thinking being. In chapter 2, man is described in terms of his inner, psychological workings. This I deduce because just as plants are described in their workings, and with no break in that Torah section, man is introduced, our traditions teach that all subjects in one single Torah section must be related. Therefore, if plants are described with their governing laws, so to man. So Genesis describes the matter of Creation in chapter 1, and in chapter 2, discusses the workings, or governing laws of Creation. God made two things, matter and laws governing that matter. (As an interesting thought, if man is now being described in his behavior, where is his behavior described? All we see is the four rivers, but that too is of interest, as King Solomon also spoke of rivers in the beginning of his work, Ecclesiastes, "Koheles". Is there a parallel?)
Returning to the subject, we now see there are two areas of Creation, matter and laws. The blessing over laws, is now befitting, "...that His strength and might fill the universe." Laws refer to God's might. What about matter? Why does the blessing over seas, mountains, etc., deserve the blessing, "...Who performs acts of Creation"? The answer is that when we witness a vast ocean or a huge mountain, it is static. But, we are very impressed. We ponder, "Who made this?" Or, "How did this get here?" Our minds immediately reflect on its creation, as we know for certain that this mountain has been standing here since day one. It reflects Creation. For this reason, we praise God and recite, "...Who performs acts of Creation". Both blessings appear appropriate for their respective subject matter.
We can now turn to Rashi's and Tosfos' statements. Rashi says that we recite "....Who performs acts of Creation", as each are heard or seen from a distance. What is Rashi's theory? I believe Rashi indicates what demands blessing: It must be that which forms part of our experience, and although distant, a comet, thunder, lightning or an earthquake are very much part of our experience. They are all so impressive, distance plays no role in diminishing the effects of these natural phenomena. This I believe is Rashi's point. He teaches us that blessings demand personal experience, and in all cases, we have experienced something quite phenomenal.
Tosfos says that the four rivers in Genesis alone require blessing, and no others. But ALL mountains would require blessings. What is the distinction between a river and a mountain? A river is active, it flows. Why does this matter? Perhaps Tosfos means to say that the four rivers were the first rivers, and they created all others. Meaning, these four alone were created as rivers, and all others were not acts of God's direct Creation, but later offshoots. Tosfos teaches that we only bless over that which God made, not which nature created. But all mountains are direct creations of God, one mountain is not a cause for another. Therefore, we bless over any mountain. Other rivers may be the cause of rain, or snow caps on mountains that melt, so we don't bless on them. This latter explanation was offered by my friend and chavrusa, Yoni.