The Mishna delineates the blessings over different types of produce (M. Brachot 6:1). All the blessings begin with the same opening: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe" which is complemented with a phrase appropriate to the specific food. Thus the addition for fruits of the tree: "the One who creates the fruit of the tree"; for wine: "the One who creates the fruit of the vine"'; for fruits of the ground such as legumes and vegetables: "the One who creates the fruit of the earth"'; and for bread: "the One who brings forth bread from the ground."
Rabbi Yehuda argued on one salient point, suggesting that where the plant itself is eaten, such as cabbage, the appropriate addition is: "the One who creates species of herbage." Elsewhere, a further stipulation of Rabbi Yehuda is cited: For unprocessed grains and legumes where the seed, not the plant, is eaten, one should add: "the One who creates species of seeds" (T. Brachot 4:6; B. Brachot 37a). Rabbi Yehuda, it appears, would agree that the addition "the One who creates the fruit of the earth" is used for turnips and melons (Ramban, 13th century, Spain-Eretz Yisrael). Thus Rabbi Yehuda advocates three different blessings for vegetables, instead of one.
The Talmud discusses the logic of Rabbi Yehuda's approach (B. Brachot 40a): Rabbi Yehuda advocates specific blessings for each category based on an exegetical reading of the verse - Blessed is God day [by] day (Psalms 68:20). The repetition of the word "day" is questioned: Do we only make blessings during the day and not at night? The biblical repetition teaches us that on each and every day we should give God praise that reflects the blessings granted to us on that day. The phrase employed for this approach is "me'ein birchotav," meaning "reflective of its - the day's - [particular] blessings."
In this vein, Rabbi Yehuda advocates reciting benedictions me'ein birchotav, specifically thanking the Almighty for what we have been granted. Based on this principle there should be different blessings for where the seeds are eaten, for when the entire plant is eaten and for other produce that grows below the ground.
Alas, Rabbi Yehuda's position was rejected in talmudic times. The Talmud is silent on the reason for the rejection of Rabbi Yehuda's opinion in this case, leaving that issue to the province of the commentators.
Yet Rabbi Yehuda's approach was not entirely rejected; in other cases his demand for nuanced blessings was accepted as normative law. The Mishna lists natural landmarks such as bodies of water and impressive mountains that warrant the pronouncement of the benediction "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who makes the work of creation." Rabbi Yehuda advocated that upon seeing the yam hagadol, the great sea, a unique blessing should be recited: "...who made the great sea" (M. Brachot 9:2). This opinion of Rabbi Yehuda in this case has been accepted as Halacha, though there is some discussion as to the identity of this "great sea" (Shulhan Aruch OH 228:1).
A further instance where Rabbi Yehuda's position advocating nuanced texts for blessings has been accepted is the case of concurrent fulfillment of multiple mitzvot (B. Succa 46a). The Talmud quotes an opinion that if a person was about to perform many mitzvot, he should recite the general blessing: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding the mitzvot." This nonspecific blessing suffices for all mitzvot about to be fulfilled.
Rabbi Yehuda dissented: An appropriate blessing should be recited over each mitzva individually. Here too we are told that Rabbi Yehuda's position is accepted law, and here too the reason given is that our benedictions should be me'ein birchotav.
Rabbi Yehuda's rulings on specificity in the wording of blessings have been accepted as normative law in some but not all cases. Nevertheless, his approach is one that accompanies us and is even voiced in our prayers every Friday night at the end of the service when we say: "And we will give praise to His name on every day, constantly, me'ein habrachot"; the phrase me'ein habrachot, meaning here "with the appropriate blessing" echoes the reason given for Rabbi Yehuda nuanced texts for blessings. As we stand on Friday night reflecting back on the week that has passed we are encouraged to thank the Almighty for the unique blessings we received each day.
Rabbi Yehuda's approach makes sense: A descriptive, pointed and heartfelt thank-you that specifies for what we are being grateful is always more appreciated than a general, often impersonal and distant vote of thanks. True thanks means that we graciously show detailed appreciation me'ein habrachot, thanks for each of the blessings that we have been granted.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.