Tefillah Tuesday: Gratitude, Joy, and Wonder

כל הנשמה תהלל י’ה!
Let every breath praise the Lord!

Returning to the beloved Psalm 150, the final chapter of David’s praises.

The chapter ends with the summons to “every breath” to praise God. The simple, semantic meaning of כל הנשמה is that every breathing creature should praise.

But as often is the case, classical – i.e. Talmudic era, roughly 70-450 CE – Midrash gives the Bible’s language half-a-turn to produce a beautiful creative “misinterpretation.” Here [בראשית רבא 14.9], amidst a discussion of different names and different functions of the soul, Rabbi Hanina creatively twists this verse: “Upon each and every breath a person takes, he or she must praise the Lord. Why? Let every breath praise the Lord!” Instead of speaking of each creature’s duty, the psalm becomes a directive about the perpetual character of praise: each and every moment deserves merits an expression of gratitude, joy and wonder.

Elsewhere, the Talmud [מנחות מג, ב] teaches that each person should recite 100 blessings daily. But according to Rabbi Hanina, that’s not remotely enough. The greatest of all medical authorities – the internet – informs me that we breathe about 16 times per minute, adding up to almost 1,000 each hour, more than 23,000 each day, some 8.4 million each year, and if you’re strong enough to reach 80 years old [as per Psalm 90] you’ll breathe some 673 million times. So as you daven this phrase, take Rabbi Hanina as a literal challenge: can you feel some joy each time? Can you identify something special and worthy of gratitude 1,000 times every day? May you bless Hashem for every breath you ever take.