Should you recite a blessing over earthquakes

November 3, 2011
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Question: A friend of mine said there is a blessing you can make if you hear thunder — which is also said on experiencing a hurricane or earthquake. But how can one make a berachah over events that wreak devastation and cause massive loss of life?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Your friend is correct and the source for this is a mishnah in the ninth chapter of tractate Berachot. The blessing one recites over earthquakes, hurricanes and thunder is: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe whose power and might fill the world". According to the 14th- century liturgist Rabbi David Abudraham, the blessing invokes the power of God reflected in nature and this in turn instils fear of God in man.

Fear is not a highly prized quality. In fact, we all hope to pursue a life free of fear. But fear of God, at least in this context, is something else. It is not about fear of retribution. It is more a sense of awe that comes with the recognition that we are not entirely in control of our lives. That try as we may, we cannot completely manipulate and master our environment. This "fear of God" brings with it a deep sense of humility and gratitude for the blessings we do have and it prevents us from taking life for granted.

Sherman McCoy, Tom Wolfe's iconic protagonist in The Bonfire of the Vanities, thinks of himself as a "Master of the Universe" because of his ability to manipulate the bond market. Yet, the whole point of Wolfe's satirical and insightful novel is just how little control Sherman actually has over the rest of his life. There is an ironic scene in the film The Devil Wears Prada,where the formidable and extraordinarily well -connected fashion editor Miranda Priestly throws a tantrum because her plane is grounded in Florida owing to a hurricane. She appears genuinely baffled that her assistant cannot "sort it out", even as gale force winds batter southern Florida. Sadly, many successful men and women similarly believe themselves to be Masters of the Universe with the ability to control all aspects of their lives. Yet, every now and then they are exposed to a force even they cannot control; be it nature, health or the markets. When this happens, they can respond in one of two ways; they can either enter a state of denial clinging to the erroneous belief that they are still in control or they can accept their limitations by reciting a blessing.

The blessing is about recognising just how vulnerable we really are. Although God gives us the ability to control many aspects of our lives, he alone is the Master of the Universe and that it is only through His grace and mercy that we exist at all.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Yes, there is a blessing on experiencing thunder and hurricanes, but there are blessings for more pleasant occurrences of nature, too, such as on smelling flowers or seeing trees blossom.

What they have in common is a sense of awe at the forces around us. This is partly on a practical level, with wonder at the complex workings of these elements, along with their interdependence, without which the world would not be able to function; and it is partly a religious response, recognising the Creative Power (also known as "God") behind them.

The blessings are also about us. So often we fret over the past or worry about the future, with the result that we do not enjoy the present. Physically we are here, but mentally and emotionally we are elsewhere. Blessings remind us of a moment that we will later look back on as among the best days of our life. They help us enjoy it while it happens and not just long afterwards in retrospect.

Blessings also warn us not to take nature for granted. We go to sleep each night assuming that the light will return in the morning, hens will lay eggs and the regularity of the seasons will continue. These may be reasonable assumptions, but that does not make them any less amazing.

This is strengthened by the fact that, although we try to control the elements - for instance, by building dams or erecting wind turbines - there are plenty of times when we are unable to either predict their movements or affect their impact. The destructive events are part of this creative cycle. Terrifying earthquakes are as natural as idyllic sunsets. The blessings are not welcoming them, but acknowledging their place in the overall equation.

Blessings are a reality-check. The world is harsh and full of dangers. We may make plans, but the unexpected is to be expected.

The traumas we have to face are not personal punishments but a normative part of life. We could spend our time cursing them, but a more mature response is to accept what has come our way, live with it, and continue as best we can. However, that acceptance does not mean complacency : we can still try to improve human conditions by, for instance, drilling deep wells in drought areas or installing tsunami warning alerts. Respecting nature also means learning to cope with it better.

    Last updated: 11:58am, November 3 2011