The Mishna lists various natural landmarks that warrant the recitation of a blessing: "Upon seeing mountains and hills and seas and rivers and deserts one recites the benediction, Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who makes the work of creation" (M. Brachot 9:2). The commentators note that not just any hillock or stream deserves the blessing, only such permanent phenomena whose extraordinary appearance capture our attention and indicate the might of the Creator (Rabbi David Abudraham, 14th century, Seville, Spain).
Some commentators suggest that only the four rivers listed in the Bible call for the recitation of the benediction (Genesis 2:10-14): And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from there it parted and became four heads. The name of the first is Pishon... and the name of the second river is Gihon... and the name of the third river is Tigris... and the fourth river is the Euphrates (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Later commentators understood that the four biblical rivers are examples and the list is not closed: The blessing should also be recited over other major waterways around the world, such as the Rhine and Volga rivers, and over mountain ranges like the Alps or the Pyrenees (Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Halevi Epstein, 19th century, Russia).
The Mishna continues with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yehuda, in general, advocated nuanced texts for blessings, so that benedictions recited would accurately express the circumstances of the blessing (see B. Brachot 40a; B. Succa 46a). In this vein, Rabbi Yehuda proposed that upon seeing the Yam Hagadol, the Great Sea, a unique blessing should be recited: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who made the Great Sea."
The identification of Rabbi Yehuda's Yam Hagadol has been the subject of some discussion amongst authorities: Which body of water is the Yam Hagadol? The most obvious candidate for Rabbi Yehuda's blessing is the Mediterranean Sea, for the Bible refers to this body of water as Yam Hagadol. For instance, when defining the borders of Eretz Yisrael, the Almighty told Moses: And as for the western border - You will have the Yam Hagadol and this border will be your western border (Numbers 34:6; see also Joshua 9:1; Ezekiel 47:15).
Some commentators, however, felt that the Mediterranean Sea barely justified the appellation Yam Hagadol; indeed it is a significant sea when looking at it from Eretz Yisrael, however it hardly stands out in relation to other bodies of water around the world. It is unlikely that Rabbi Yehuda would suggest a special blessing for a body of water that only has local significance. Yam Hagadol must therefore be referring to the ocean (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain).
A third opinion sought a middle ground: The Yam Hagadol refers to the vast body of water that encircles planet earth. All waters that are connected this body are to be considered part of Yam Hagadol. Thus the oceans of the world and the Mediterranean Sea would justify the recitation of the blessing. Only landlocked bodies of water, such as the Caspian Sea or the Dead Sea would not be considered Yam Hagadol.
In 1976 Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) delivered a eulogy in memory of Rabbi Moshe Dovber Rivkin, a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who had been the head of Mesivta Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn. Rabbi Soloveitchik related that as a child growing up in Russia he had never seen a major body of water. One spring he traveled with a cousin to Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland) and in 1976 he described the experience in a vivid passage:
"I remember that the water was blue, deeply blue. From afar it looked like a blue forest. It resembled the aboriginal forests near Pruzhana, where I was born. When I came close and realized it was the Baltic Sea, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. Spontaneously, I began to recite the psalm of 'Bless the Lord, O my soul.' I did not plan to do this. Yet the words flowed from my lips. O Lord, my God, Thou art very great; thou art clothed with glory and majesty (Psalms 104:1). There is the sea, vast and wide (Psalms 104:25). It was a religious reaction to viewing the majesty of God's creation. When I recited the blessing upon seeing the sea, I did so with emotion and deep feeling. I deeply experienced the words of the benediction: 'Blessed be He who wrought creation.'"
The experience described by Rabbi Soloveitchik is a lofty achievement. Rabbi Soloveitchik understood that this was a momentous occasion: "Not all blessings that I recite are said with such concentration. It was more than simply a blessing, it was an encounter with the creator. I felt that the Shechina (Divine Presence) was hidden in the darkness and vastness of the sea. The experience was unique and unforgettable; the blessing welled out of me." A few years earlier, in 1969, Rabbi Soloveitchik described this encounter as one of the greatest religious experiences he ever had.
Alas, for Rabbi Soloveitchik the experience could not be replicated and he was well aware that not every visit to the beach is an encounter with God: "Since then I have seen the ocean many times. I still recite the benediction if 30 days have elapsed since I last saw it. Nevertheless, since that first time it has become a routine blessing, a cold blessing (mitnagdisher bracha)" (Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, p. 164-166).
Recognition of God's hand should not be limited to the circumstances dictated by the strictures of the halachic system. Appreciating divine handiwork should ideally be borne naturally from a religious awakening that comes from within. Alas, we cannot wrest control over such experiences, turning the "tap" of religious experience on and off at will. Halacha seeks to provide structured opportunities to acknowledge the Almighty's power of creation, while at the same time hoping that this will not remain a mere formality, but will serve as a springboard, a trigger or a catalyst for true spiritual experience.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.