Blessings over Unusual Sights: A Traveler’s Guide
This is the time of year when many people take trips throughout the country. In order to elevate these outings by observing the greatness of the Creator, it is worthwhile mentioning the blessings our Sages enacted to recite upon seeing 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 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
However, a person who already saw the unique landscape within thirty days 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 receptive they are stirred after not having seen the unique landscape even after a week, and on the other hand, others are so indifferent they are not enthused even after a year – our Sages determined to bless in accordance with the excepted practice among most people, that after thirty days have passed, they are stirred once again.
In order to make calculating the days easier, the 31st day, the time one can recite the blessing once more, will always fall out after four weeks and two days have passed. For example, if a person viewed the sight on a Sunday, the 31st day will take place after four weeks, on Tuesday. If he saw it on a Monday, the 31st day will be after four weeks, on Wednesday (similar to the halakha of calculating when a pidyon ha’ben occurs).
Over which Sea do we bless?
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. Therefore, a blessing is recited over four seas in the Land of Israel: 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
The blessing recited over oceans surrounding continents is: “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 manyposkim, 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 minhag (Rosh, Ra’av, M.A., M.B. 228:2, see Biur Halakha, ibid).
Over which Rivers is a Blessing Recited?
In regards to rivers, two conditions were mentioned: A) that it flows naturally, without humans having altered its course. B) That they are at least as large as the Prat (Euphrates), which is described by the Torah as being 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 condition for reciting a blessing over mountains is that they be particularly high in relation to their surroundings. For hills, the condition is their shape is particularly striking, for example they have steep and sharp cliffs, such as the striking cliffs in the Judean Desert. But over the ordinary mountains in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, a blessing is not recited. However, upon seeing Gamla, Arbel, Masada, and Sartaba, a blessing is recited because of 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 well-known mountains in the Land of Israel that travelers tend to 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 part). 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 of mine, Dr. Yossi Spanier).
The desert is a barren and desolate place, 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 all the surrounding areas are deserted, 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 one large mountain does not hinder reciting a blessing upon seeing another mountain, for if one sees Mt. Hermon, and afterwards travels to the Galilee to see Mt. Meron – he should bless once again “oseh ma’aseh bereshit.” Only when one sees the same mountain within thirty days is a blessing not recited. Consequently, 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 – on each one of them he recites the blessing “oseh ma’aseh bereshit”.
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 from the plane one is able to see particularly large mountains – he recites the blessing “oseh ma’aseh bereshit” over them as well.
One who sees a number of impressive sights requiring a blessing at the same time recites one blessing over all of them. For example, if a person is in a location where he can clearly see the Kinneret and Mt. Arbel, recites one blessing over both.
Several Striking Mountains in One Area
A person hiking in an area with a number of unique, similarly shaped hills, given that they are all in the same surrounding area and have similar forms, even if he sees them one at a time, with one blessing he covers them all.
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 together.
Regarding a hiker in the Judean Desert – upon entering, the blessing over the desert is recited, and afterwards, if a particularly large mountain is seen – a blessing is recited over it, as well. Upon reaching the area of unique cliffs and hills, even if one sees them individually, one blessing is recited over all of them, since they are all in the same area, and have similar shapes.
One who Lives near Striking Landscapes
A person who lives near the ocean, or travels by it frequently does not recite a blessing because seeing the ocean is not a novelty for him. However, upon seeing a different ocean, a blessing is recited. Therefore, people who live 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 beach. Even if a person living close to the ocean does not see it for thirty days, he does not recite a blessing – given that he could have seen it easily, there is no novelty in his viewing it. However, if he leaves for thirty days and after returning wishes to gaze at the ocean – this is considered seeing it anew, and recites 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 or 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 meeting 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; someone who pays no 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 observing the beauty of creation, 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 whether a certain mountain, hill, or desert is impressive enough, 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 these are mountains or hills that travelers tend to visit (such as the places previously mentioned), it is a sign they are impressive, and undoubtedly a blessing should be recited over them.
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, even though he sees it – he should not recite a blessing. For example, if a person travels from Jerusalem to Haifa via the coastal highway – if he notices the ocean, and is somewhat moved – he should recite a blessing; 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 observe 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, everything we see is elevated in faith, and by way of reflecting on creation, we merit walking in the paths of Hashem.