Our sages mandated a variety of blessings that should be recited upon seeing various natural phenomena or human-made structures. Of the lesser-known blessings are the benedictions recited over houses of Israel in various states (B. Brachot 58b). Thus, upon seeing houses of Israel standing in their glory, meaning that the local community is under no threat, we pronounce: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who establishes the boundary of the widow."
The commentators note that this blessing must belong to the Second Temple era for prior to this period, namely when the First Temple stood, Israel could hardly be referred to as a widow (Rashi, 11th century, France). In this sense, the blessing recognizes the Almighty's hand in reestablishing the former glory of Israel.
What types of houses mandate this blessing? Some authorities maintain that the blessing should be recited specifically over synagogues (Rif, 11th century, North Africa-Spain). Others note that the blessing should not be limited to synagogues, but suggest that it may only be relevant to houses in the Land of Israel (Rashi). Halacha follows the former opinion and the blessing is recited only over synagogues (Mishna Brura 224:14). In deference to the latter opinion, however, when the blessing is recited outside of the Land of Israel, the Almighty's name is not invoked (Pri Megadim, 18th century, Galicia-Germany).
The Talmud continues with the blessing that should be recited upon encountering houses of Israel that stand in a ruined state: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, the true judge." This is the blessing also mandated for other sorrowful scenarios, such as receiving bad tidings (M. Brachot 9:2).
The talmudic passage continues with an encounter between two sages as they passed a ruined house. Ulla and Rav Hisda were walking along the road when they chanced upon the house of Rav Hana bar Hanilai. As they passed the entrance to the house, Rav Hisda let out a long sigh.
Ulla turned to his colleague and asked, "Why do you sigh?" Ulla explained his question by quoting a talmudic tradition: "Rav has said that a sigh breaks half a person's body, as it says - And you, O mortal, sigh! With a shattering of the loins and with bitterness, sigh before their eyes (Ezekiel 21:11)!" The loins are at the center of a person's body and as the sigh shatters them half of the body is broken.
Ulla continued citing talmudic sources to buttress his surprise at Rav Hisda's sigh: "Rabbi Yohanan went even further saying that a sigh even breaks a person's entire body, as it says - It will be when they say to you, 'For what are you sighing?' And you will say, 'Because of the tidings that are coming.' And every heart will melt and all hands will hang limp and all spirit will be dulled and all knees will turn to water; it is approaching and it will be - declares the Lord God (ibid v. 12)."
In context the verse is describing the people's reaction when they hear of the fall of Jerusalem; Rabbi Yohanan explained that the very act of sighing - not the bad news - breaks the person.
What ever the possible damage of a sigh, clearly it is reaction that can bring physical harm. Ulla therefore questioned Rav Hisda as to why he engaged in the dangerous practice of sighing.
Rav Hisda responded: "How can I not sigh! In this very house [referring to the house of Rav Hana bar Hanilai that they were passing] there were 60 bakers during the day and 60 bakers during the night, and they would bake bread for whoever needed. And he, Rav Hana bar Hanilai, the master of the house, did not remove his hand from his money purse because he was concerned lest a person of noble background come and while he reached for his purse, the poor person would become embarrassed and leave. Moreover, the house had four gates that opened to the four directions of the compass and whoever entered hungry would leave satisfied."
Rav Hisda continued to describe the affluent generosity that was displayed in this house: "And in years of famine - when even people who were not accustomed to taking charity were forced to do so - they would throw wheat and barley outside so that anyone who would find it embarrassing to take during the day could come and take at night." Returning to this sigh, Rav Hisda concluded: "Now this house has fallen in a heap of rubble; should I not sigh?"
Ulla sought to soothe his colleague, once again quoting Rabbi Yohanan: "From the day the Temple was destroyed, a divine decree was passed against the houses of the righteous, stating that they too will be destroyed. Rabbi Yohanan also said," continued Ulla, "that in the future the Holy One blessed be He will restore them to their inhabited state."
Alas, Rav Hisda was not to be consoled. Realizing that any further attempt to placate his colleague was futile, Ulla ended the exchange by saying: "It is enough for a servant to be like his master." The houses of God's servants, namely Israel, cannot be expected to remain standing in all their glory while the Almighty's own house, namely the Temple, lies in ruins.
Strangely, in the entire exchange the blessing over ruined houses was not recited. Could it be that the Talmud felt it was superfluous to state the obvious: that our venerable sages pronounced the appropriate blessing? Or perhaps the Talmud is suggesting that while the benediction is mandated law, the goal of the recitation should not be overlooked: We should truly be moved over the desolate places of our people. If we feel this sincerely and deeply then when we chance upon houses of Israel that stand in their glory - be it beautiful synagogues or homes built on what was once a bleak horizon - we will genuinely feel the joy of an heritage raised from the dust of ruins.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.