Judaism: Travel Guide: Blessings for Special Sights
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
This is the time of year when many people take trips. In order to elevate these outings by observing the greatness of the Creator, it is worthwhile mentioning the blessings enacted by our Sages to recite when one sees an unusual sight.
Blessing over Impressive Landscapes
On five impressive landscapes our Sages determined one recites the blessing: “Baruch Atah A-d-o-n-o-I, E-l-o-h-e-i-n-u Melech ha'olam, oseh ma'aseh bereshit” (Blessed are You, G-d, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who reenacts the work of creation). The five are: seas, rivers, mountains, hills, and deserts (Berachot 54a). As a result of seeing such special landscapes, a person is open to reflect on creation, and recite a blessing of praise. A person who is not moved by seeing such landscapes is nevertheless required to recite the blessing, provided the majority of people do consider it an impressive sight.
Thirty Day Calculation
A person who saw the unique landscape within thirty days of the current trip does not recite the blessing, because for him, it is not a novel sight. But if thirty days have passed from previously seeing it, one is obligated to recite the blessing. And although some people are so sensitive that even a week later, they get excited when seeing the same sight, and conversely, others are so indifferent, they are not enthused even after a year – our Sages determined the blessing be recited in accordance with the accepted reaction of most people, namely, after thirty days most people are stirred anew.
In order to make calculating the days simpler, the thirty-first day, the time one can recite the blessing anew, will always fall out after four weeks and two days have passed. For example, if a person viewed the sight on a Sunday, the thirty-first day will take occur after four weeks, on Tuesday. If one saw it on a Monday, the thirty-first day will occur after four weeks, on Wednesday (similar to the halakha of calculating the date of a pidyon ha’ben).
On Which Sea do we recite the Blessing?
Viewing a sea is always striking; consequently, a person should recite a blessing over every sea or lake, provided it contains a lot of water all year round, and is not man-made. In the Land of Israel, therefore, a blessing is recited over four seas: the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), and the Dead Sea.
However, if the lake was created by a man-made dam, even if it is extremely large such as the Aswan Dam, a blessing is not recited, because the blessing was enacted as praise over the work of the Creator, and not over the work of man.
Blessing over Oceans
On oceans surrounding continents, the following blessing is recited: “Boruch Atah A-d-o-n-o-I, E-l-o-h-e-i-n-u Melech ha'olam, sh’asah et hayam hagadol” (Blessed are You, G-d, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created the great Sea). Some authorities, however, are of the opinion that the great sea is the Mediterranean (S.A., O.C, 228:1). Nevertheless, in the opinion of many poskim (Jewish law arbiters), the blessing “sh’asah et hayam hagadol” should be recited only over oceans, while the blessing for the Mediterranean is “oseh ma'aseh bereshit”, and this is the generally accepted custom (Rosh, Ra’av, M.A., M.B. 228:2, see Biur Halakha, ibid).
Over which Rivers is a Blessing Recited?
In order to recite a blessing over a river, the Sages required two prerequisites: 1) that the river flows naturally, without its course having been altered by humans, and 2) that the river is at least as large as the Prat (Euphrates), which the Torah describes as a large river. All the more so is one required to recite a blessing over larger rivers, such as the Nile, Volga, Rhine, Amazon, and Mississippi. But over ordinary rivers, such as the Yarkon, Jordan, and the like, a blessing is not recited, because they are not so impressive (M.B. 228:2).
Mountains and Hills
The prerequisite for reciting a blessing over mountains is that they are particularly high in relation to their surroundings. Regarding hills, the requirement is their shape is particularly striking, for example they boast steep and sharp cliffs, such as the striking cliffs in the Judean Desert. But over the standard mountains in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, a blessing is not recited. However, upon seeing Gamla, Arbel, Masada, and Sartaba, a blessing is recited due to their unique appearance. A blessing is also recited over seeing Mount Tabor, for its height is striking, and its appearance is unique.
Mountains and Hills in Israel
To illustrate this halakha, I will point out the familiar mountains in the Land of Israel that travelers frequently visit. In the Golan – Mt. Hermon and Gamla. In the Galilee – Arbel, Mt. Hazon, Mt. Atzmon, Mt. Meron (especially from the north), and the Rosh Hanikra ridge (mainly the western section). In Samaria and Judea – Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval, Mt. Kabir, Mt. Tamon, Sartaba, Baal Hazor, Kochav Hashachar, Masada, and along the entire length of the Judean Desert cliffs, overlooking the Valley of the Dead Sea. In the Jezreel Valley – Mt. Tabor, and the Gilboa (particularly Mt. Saul); Mt. Carmel, in locations where it descends steeply into the Jezreel Valley, or the ocean. In the Negev and Eilat – the Makhteshim (craters) [looking into them], Mt. Ardon (Ramon Crater), Mt. Shlomo and Mt. Tzfachot (I received this list from a relative, Dr. Yossi Spanier).
The desert is a barren and desolate area where little rain falls. A blessing is recited also over the Judean Desert, provided its appearance elicits an extraordinary reaction, such as hiking in it and being surrounded by all the deserted areas, or going to a lookout point to observe the arid expanses. But one who sees the desert while routinely driving through does not recite a blessing.
Seeing Several Sights in One Day
Seeing a large mountain does not prevent reciting a blessing when seeing an additional mountain, for if one sees Mt. Hermon, and afterwards travels to the Galilee to see Mt. Meron – the blessing “oseh ma’aseh bereshit” is recited once again. Only when one sees the same mountain within thirty days is a blessing not recited. Thus, a person could be required to recite the blessing “oseh ma’aseh bereshit” a number of times in one day. For if on the same day a person sees the Mediterranean, and then Mt. Carmel, and afterwards Mt. Tabor, and later on, the Kinneret, and finally Mt. Hermon – he recites the blessing “oseh ma’aseh bereshit” on each one of them.
Similarly, a person who flies from Israel to America, upon seeing the Mediterranean blesses “osheh ma’aseh bereshit”, and after passing over Europe, sees the Atlantic Ocean, blesses “sh’asah et hayam hagadol”. And if one sees particularly large mountains – he recites the blessing “oseh ma’aseh bereshit” over them, as well.
A person who sees a number of impressive sights simultaneously recites one blessing over all of them. For example, if one is in a location where he can clearly see the Kinneret and Mt. Arbel, one blessing is recited over both.
Several Striking Mountains in One Area
A person hiking in an area with a number of unique, similarly shaped hills, covers them all with one blessing, since they are all in the same surrounding area and are similarly shaped. This is the case even if he sees them one after the other.
Likewise concerning large mountains – if they are located in the same surrounding area, one blessing is recited for all of them. For example, the entire Carmel Mountain range is considered one area. On the other hand, Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee which are larger areas, are divided into several regions according to the terrain. Therefore, one recites separate blessings on the mountains and the hills, unless he sees them simultaneously.
Regarding a hiker in the Judean Desert – entering the area, the blessing over the desert is recited, and afterwards, if a particularly large mountain is spotted – a blessing is recited over it as well. When one reaches the area of unique cliffs and hills, even if he sees them individually, one blessing is recited over all of them, since they are all in the same area and shaped similarly.
One who Lives near Striking Landscapes
People living near the ocean, or travel by it frequently, does not recite a blessing because seeing the ocean is not a novelty for them. However, if they see a different ocean, a blessing is recited. Therefore, people living close to the Mediterranean coast, or frequently travel on the Coastal Highway, do not recite the blessing on seeing the Mediterranean, even if they see it from a different vantage point. Even if a person living close to the ocean does not happen to see it for thirty days, he does not recite a blessing – given that he could have easily seen it, it is not novel for him. However, if one leaves for thirty days and after returning wishes to gaze at the ocean – this is considered seeing it anew, and merits the blessing. The halakha is similar for a person who lives near a high mountain, or a uniquely shaped hill.
Blessings over Striking Landscapes in Our Times
Nowadays, people are accustomed to traveling long distances by car to get to work, or for social and family gatherings, and while traveling, often see mountains, hills, and oceans. The question arises: Should a blessing be recited over such an incidental and routine sighting? The basic doubt is that in the past, when people travelled by foot or donkey, they rarely saw unique landscapes. Upon seeing the ocean, they were moved; and when they traveled near the coast, and suddenly saw the towering Carmel meet the shore, it was a thrilling vision. But today, people are accustomed to travel back and forth on a regular basis, and the sights have become routine.
In practice, only one who sees – in other words, one who takes notice of the unique landscapes, is required to recite a blessing; a person who does not pay attention, does not bless. Therefore, a distinction must be made between two types of seeing: while touring, or while on a routine trip.
One who Sees Impressive Sights during a Trip
On an outing, when the aim is to observe the beauty of nature, a person is clearly required to recite blessings over all the special landscapes – including the ocean and sea, Mt. Tabor and Mt. Carmel – provided he has not seen them for thirty days, and is not accustomed to travelling in their proximity. And even someone who is not personally moved, given that he came to see the scenery, he thus demonstrates his interest in them, and is required to recite the blessings.
If one is in doubt about whether a certain mountain, hill, or desert is sufficiently impressive, it is proper to recite the blessing without shem u’malchut (omitting the words “A-d-o-n-o-I, E-l-o-h-e-i-n-u Melech ha'olam”). If they are mountains or hills that travelers are accustomed to visit (such as the places previously mentioned), this is a sign they are impressive, and a blessing is undoubtedly required.
During a Routine Trip
When traveling on a routine trip, the halakha depends on the degree of excitement. If the sight arouses one’s attention – a blessing should be recited. If it does not grab one’s attention, although one sees it – a blessing is not recited. For example, if a person travels from Jerusalem to Haifa via the Coastal Highway – if the ocean catches his attention and he is somewhat moved – a blessing should be recited; if not, a blessing is not recited. If one notices the Carmel Mountains and observes their unique appearance – a blessing should be recited. If he does not pay attention to them – a blessing should not be recited. The same is true for Mt. Tabor, the Kinneret, and the towering mountains in Judea and Samaria.
May it be His will that through the blessings we recite, all our views will be elevated in faith, and by means of contemplating on creation, we merit walking in the paths of Hashem.
Translated from the Hebrew "Besheva" weekly.