Blessing on Viewing the Olympics

A person impressed by athletes and their accomplishments should acknowledge the source of their strength * The blessing “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has such [beauty] in his universe” was fixed over seeing a strikingly beautiful, strong and impressive creature, including athletes * One is not required to take interest or admire athletes * A blessing is recited when seeing the athlete in person, and not in a photo * An Olympic record can be used as a criterion to know over whom to recite a blessing * A blessing should be recited over every individual species, and likewise, over champions in each sports category * A blessing should not be recited over an athlete who behaves immorally, or a woman athlete who is not dressed modestly * How much more so should we admire Torah scholars, and settlers of the Land of Israel

Should a Blessing be Recited over a Sports Champion?

Currently, when billions of people around the world are following the Olympic competitions and athletic achievements, it’s worthwhile examining the question: What is the proper way of relating to these athletes, and is it appropriate to admire them and their accomplishments?

Indeed, our Sages fixed the reciting of a bracha (blessing) upon seeing a strikingly beautiful person, animal, bird or tree for the first time: “Baruch Ata Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam, she’kacha lo ba’olamo” (‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has such [beauty] in his universe’) (Berachot 58b).

Seeing creatures with special beauty or abilities arouses feelings of astonishment and admiration, excitement and all sorts of thoughts – occasionally adoration, and at times, envy. Idolaters deified particularly beautiful beings, made sculptures in their forms, and worshiped them. By bowing down to these creatures, they felt a certain connection to them, and partners in their greatness. Today as well, many people admire beautiful individuals and accomplished athletes, to the point where such people are called beauty or sports idols.

By means of reciting a bracha, we remember that this wonderful and unique phenomenon also comes from God, in the sense of: ‘What miracles you do, Hashem!’ (Psalms 92:5). In this way we can connect and elevate our feelings of admiration and excitement to the root source of emuna (faith). By doing so, our knowledge of the greatness and wonders of creation broadens, we thank God for having seen with our very eyes these unique creations, and receive inspiration to also reveal the greatness within ourselves – every person in his own specialty.

In a similar way, our Sages fixed a bracha upon seeing a king: “Baruch Ata Hashem, Melech Ha’olam, she’chalak me’kvodo l’basar v’dam” (‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who imparted [some] of His glory to mortals’) to remind us that everything comes from God.

The Blessing over All Wonders of Creation

It is important to note that the blessing “she’kacha lo ba’olamo ” is not a blessing unique to man, for indeed it was fixed over all beautiful creatures – humans, animals, and plants; anyone who sees a unique creature, and is excited over seeing it, recites the blessing.

The bracha unique to man is recited over the wisdom of Torah and science, “She’chalak May’chach’mato lee’ray’av” (‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who imparted [some] of His wisdom to those who fear Him’) upon seeing a Torah scholar with exceptional wisdom, and “She’natan May’chach’mato l’basar ve’dam” (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who imparted [some] of His wisdom to mortals) upon seeing a wise non-Jewish person.

Yet, among people who have reached unique athletic achievements there is also a combination of natural talent and human efforts, by means of which they were able to express their natural talents.

The Blessing is Optional

Although our Sages fixed a bracha to be recited upon seeing a person with special physical abilities, this does not mean there is a mitzvah to take interest in such sporting activities; rather, seeing as many people are naturally awed by this, for such people it would be proper for them to bless God upon seeing such athletes.

One Must Actually See the Person, and not a Film or Image

This blessing was fixed over actual eye sight, and not seeing the athlete through an image or a video. On the other hand, one does not necessarily have to recite the blessing on seeing the competition itself; rather, even if afterwards someone met the exceptionally capable athlete, and the meeting aroused excitement and admiration, he should recite the blessing over seeing him, in order to direct and elevate his feelings in an appropriate manner.

Over Which Creatures Should a Blessing Be Recited?

In general, it can be said that any creature that ordinary people admire and even go out of their way to see, is a sign that a blessing should be recited over it. For example, if there is a horse celebrated for its beauty and strength in comparison to other horses, and is admired by horse enthusiasts who would even go to see it – anyone who marvels at such a horse should recite the blessing upon seeing it. This is also the case upon seeing especially beautiful or large trees, or dogs and cats known for their unique beauty, to the point where people go to see them.

Similarly, when one sees a person who is especially beautiful or strong, or particularly agile and fast, who people regularly marvel at, and even go out of their way to see, the blessing “she’kacha lo ba’olamo” should be recited.

In a case where the athlete’s exceptionality is evidenced by a world record he set, this is unquestionably a unique phenomenon, and it is proper for anyone impressed at the sight of the record-holder to recite the blessing “she’kacha lo ba’olamo.”

A Blessing Should Be Recited For Each Species Individually

A blessing is recited over every species individually. If one sees an especially attractive cat and is impressed, a blessing should be recited; and if afterwards, one sees an especially attractive dog and is enthralled – another blessing is recited. The same holds true if one then sees an especially attractive horse, a particularly beautiful cedar tree, or an exceptionally fruit-bearing fig tree – seeing as he is impressed by each and every one of them, and although they were all seen on the same day – one should recite a blessing over each and every one of them individually. However, if one saw two species together at the same time, he should recite one blessing and have kavana (intention) for both of them.

Likewise, someone who sees a record-holding short-distance runner should recite a blessing, and if afterwards he sees a champion long-distance runner – he should recite another blessing; the same is the case for all different categories of sports – someone who is impressed should recite a separate blessing over each category. But one who sees all the athletes together, such as at the closing ceremony of the competition – should recite one blessing over all of them.

How often Should a Blessing Be Recited?

In principle, blessings over visual sightings are recited every thirty days. For example, someone who saw Mount Tabor and recited the blessing “oseh ma’aseh vereishit” (‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who forms the work of Creation’), if after not having seen it for thirty days, he sees it once again, and is impressed – he should bless. The same is the case for the Mediterranean Sea or the Sea of ​​Galilee. However, in regards to the blessing “she’kacha lo ba’olamo” a doubt arose whether seeing the same sight after thirty days arouses new excitement, and therefore the halachic ruling is that only one blessing is recited over each creature, or person (Peninei Halakha: Berachot 15:13). Nevertheless, it appears that if the athlete upon whom one had recited the blessing achieved a special feat – such as breaking a record – one who sees him after thirty days and is impressed, should recite another blessing.

Should a Blessing Be Recited Over a National Champion?

In the Olympics where athletes from all over the world gather, a blessing should be recited only over the gold medal winners, each one in their respective fields, for they are the outstanding world athletes. But in every individual country, blessings can be recited over the national champions, because in their own country they are unique in their field, just as one recites a blessing over impressive mountains in every country – even though in a different country, such mountains might not be considered so impressive. It follows, therefore, that after a national competition, someone who is impressed by the achievement of a national champion should recite a blessing upon seeing him.

A Creature Born Through a Halachic Prohibition

A question arose: Can one recite a blessing over an attractive creature produced through a halachic prohibition? For example, should a blessing be recited over a fruit tree grafted in a halachically prohibited way? Or should a blessing be recited over an attractive mule born in a prohibited manner of breeding a donkey and a horse? Or should one bless over an especially attractive person who is a mamzer (bastard), i.e., someone born of incest?

In the opinion of Rabbi Yaacov Hagiz, the author of ‘Hilchot Ketanot’, it is not proper to bless and praise God over a creature born in a prohibited manner. However, in the opinion of Rabbi Yaacov Emden, author of ‘She’elat Yavetz’, since according to the strict law, only the action of harkava (grafting one species onto the stock of another) or har’ba’ah (the prohibition of mating diverse kinds) is prohibited; but after the fact, one is permitted to use the mule, or eat the fruit of a grafted tree, and also, a mamzer can also be a Torah scholar – consequently, if the person is uniquely handsome, the blessing “she’kacha lo ba’olamo” should be recited upon seeing him.

Seemingly, it is possible to learn from this matter in question that if the sports champion is known for his immoral behavior, it is not proper to recite a blessing over seeing him.

A Blessing Over a Particularly Beautiful Person

The blessing “she’kacha lo ba’olamo” was also fixed over seeing a particularly beautiful person. Since the concept of beauty is often elusive, when a certain person is acknowledged in the eyes of the masses as being exceptionally attractive, such as actors known for their beauty, it is a sign that they are indeed among this category, and one who is impressed upon seeing them should recite a blessing. A blessing can be recited over each person only once, and an additional blessing cannot be recited after not having seen them for thirty days. When one sees an additional particularly beautiful person within thirty days of having seen the previous individual, as long as one is not sure that he is clearly more handsome, a blessing should not be recited over him. But if thirty days have passed from the previous sighting, and one is impressed at the beauty of the second person, even if one is in doubt whether he is clearly more beautiful than the previous person, but nevertheless, he is not less handsome – a blessing should be recited (Peninei Halakha: Berachot 15:12-13).

On Seeing a Woman

A woman who sees a particularly beautiful woman and is impressed by her beauty should recite a blessing. The question is – what’s the halakha for men? In the past, there were men who recited blessings over particularly beautiful women, and we as have learned in the Jerusalem Talmud: “One who sees handsome people or beautiful trees says, ‘Blessed [art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe,] who created handsome creatures in his world.’ Once, R. Gamaliel saw a beautiful gentile woman and recited a blessing on her account. They asked: Was it R. Gamaliel’s practice to gaze at women? It must have been that he encountered her along a winding street… and he could not avoid passing close by and looking at her” (Berachot 9:1).” In other words, he saw her without intending to do so. However, it appears that today a man should not recite a blessing upon seeing a beautiful woman for several reasons, most importantly, because it would be deemed as being extremely immodest.

Women Athletes

Similarly, a man should not recite a blessing upon seeing a woman athlete who is not dressed modestly, because the general halachic rule is that it is forbidden to recite a bracha or speak any words of holiness while facing a woman who is dressed immodestly (S.A., O.C. 75:1;4). And it is also forbidden for a man to go see women who are not dressed modestly, or are exercising in a way that could stimulate him.

However, after the competition, if a man meets a female athlete with a successful record who is dressed modestly, and he admires her achievements, he can recite a blessing. In this way, religious and traditional men serving in public roles, such as ministers, Knesset members and mayors, can also express their appreciation for female sport champions.

Admiration for Good and Righteous People

Out of the admiration for physical blessings and sports achievements, it behooves us all to learn a ‘kal v’chomer’ – all the more so, should we be aroused to appreciate, respect and admire people who merit contributing to the whole of humanity through their wisdom and good deeds, and furthermore, to extol the best and finest people who contribute through their actions to the building of the Torah, the nation, and the Land.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/

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