Checkout-Line Blessings at the Israeli Supermarket
Thursday afternoon has become my favorite time to run errands. The stores are jam-packed on Friday mornings as people bustle around the city preparing for Shabbat, and I prefer to beat the rush. Although I still get bumped with the occasional shopping cart, I feel far less claustrophobic and can usually find someone willing to explain the difference between two spice mixes that look identical to my untrained eye.
This past Thursday, I pulled my safta (grandmother) cart through the aisles of Osher Ad, the Israeli equivalent of Costco. I couldn’t resist the massive bottles of olive oil, the pounds of cherry tomatoes, the large boxes of fresh basil, or the seven-pack of dark chocolate bars that even-out the healthier foods on my list. The one downside to shopping at this big box store is the checkout line, where it takes at least 15 minutes to scan all the items in each overflowing cart. As has become my habit, I looked for the shortest line, rolled up behind the last customer, and popped in my headphones to listen to a podcast.
When I finally reached the front of the queue and began placing my items on the conveyor belt, I witnessed something that caused me to take out my headphones. After the man before me paid for his groceries, the cashier placed his hands on the man’s head and gave him a blessing. I thought perhaps the two knew each other personally, and maybe the cashier was getting married shortly. (It is common among some traditional Jews to ask a groom-to-be for a blessing.) Then, a man asked if he could go in front of me because he only had one item. I agreed, and after he purchased his pomegranate juice, the cashier put his hands on his head as well and whispered a blessing.
For anyone who has not been to Israel, or who has not been grocery shopping in Israel, I want to clarify that what I witnessed is not a normal occurrence. Yes, this is a country filled with many religious people, but most supermarket visits don’t come with a side of checkout-line-brachot (blessings). Nobody that I know says, “I’m going to run to the store for some milk, bread, and a prayer.”
When my turn finally came, I loaded the items into my cart and sheepishly asked the cashier, “Mah zeh im ha’brachot? What is this with the blessings?” He pulled out an article that had been written about him in a Hebrew-language newspaper and explained that he was a Kohen, a descendant of the priestly order. He offered blessings to those in line who desired them (to men only I presume, because the process includes placing his hands on their heads and ends with a kiss on the head, too). The cashier explained that he has also visited hospitals and wounded soldiers for the past 22 years, sitting with people in hard times, and offering spiritual support.
I smiled and said I thought he was doing important work. Whatever one may think about the practical efficacy of prayer or blessings, this man takes seriously his responsibility toward the community and gives of himself freely and genuinely. I wished him a Shabbat shalom as I took my receipt. When I exited the store, I stopped to give money to a woman sitting outside asking for tzedakah and wished her a Shabbat shalom as well. May we all find ways to give of ourselves, big and small, and to be inspired by others who do so in good faith and love.