Thursday, September 3, 2009

Nice shoes. Want a blessing?

Recently, I subscribed to a daily e-mail about halacha (Jewish law). Every day, they send me a short e-mail describing one particular, random aspect of the law.  What are the restrictions on eating meat and fish off of the same plate?  Are we supposed to sway back and forth while we pray?  Most of these topics aren't relevant to my life, in a practical way.  I am not a halachic Jew - I don't profess to be bound by the letter of the law.  But, I've always found these tiny, even picayune, matters interesting. Kind of a hobby, I guess.

Today's e-mail was on the topic of saying Shehechiyanu (the blessing giving thanks for a happy occasion, or for something new) when we buy a new piece of clothing. It turns out, that we are supposed to do so. Most people actually say the blessing the first time they wear the clothing, but the idea is the same.  When paying for the item, or when putting it on the first time, we say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given us life, and Who has sustained us, and Who has brought us to this day.”

Underlying this law is a very interesting idea: clothing, a material thing, deserves a blessing.  Purchasing something deserves a blessing.  People tend to think that religion is supposed to reject anything approaching materialism.  Its goal should be to elevate us beyond such petty concerns.  But Judaism takes a different approach.  We certainly don't revel in materialism, and we don't claim that material goods are nearly as important as other, more obviously spiritual, matters.  But, we do acknowledge that happiness, even if it’s only in small amounts, can be found in the material world.  “Things” aren't inherently bad, or anti-spiritual.  If a new piece of clothing provides us with a small moment of joy, then we are supposed to sanctify that joy, and that moment, rather than reject or deny them.  In fact, the law actually states that we must say this blessing only over clothing which does bring us some joy. It's not to be said over something boring, such as new socks*.

* when listing clothing which is “boring” and therefore unworthy of a blessing, one authority includes “shoes.” I know a few people who would take issue, quite sternly, with that interpretation.

Judaism does indeed try to get us to focus on the more important parts of our world, and to elevate our lives.  But, sometimes, there's nothing wrong with finding a little bit of joy, and a little bit of holiness, in the ordinary, even prosaic, world around us.


StefWiss said...

One of the morning blessings speaks of providing clothes for the naked. Wouldn't that take away the idea that saying a prayer for clothes makes us materialistic?

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Stef - I'd say that there's a big difference between buying necessary clothes for a poor person, and buying a luxury item for myself. Tzedakah vs. indulgence. What's interesting, Jewishly, is that even though the first is obviously seen as more important than the second, the second is still seen as (potentially) holy.