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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Count your [morning] blessings; Sotah 60b

     Those of you who know me, know that I am not a morning person. But from what I see in our Jewish morning rituals it might be that there are many others out there that are not fond of a morning wake up process either. Behold, our sages, with their wisdom, installed special morning prayers, which should help us wake up, move gradually from the sleep state to the wake state, and slowly gain awareness of our bodies, mind and spirit. I specifically refer to Birkot HaShachar, the morning/dawn blessing.[1]

     The Gemarah in Sotah 60b lists blessings that invite the worshippers to focus on the daily gifts that God restored for them. They move us through the natural process of waking up, like opening the eyes, standing up, getting dressed, etc.

Here are the blessings. I left out a number of them from this ritual (I wonder if you, the reader, can guess why):

When one awakens, he recites: 
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. 
You formed it within me, You breathed it into me, 
and You guard it while it is within me. 
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I thank You, 
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, O Lord, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

Upon hearing the sound of the rooster, one should recite: Blessed…Who gave the [sekhvi], the rooster (or heart) understanding to distinguish between day and night.

Upon opening his eyes, one should recite: Blessed…Who gives sight to the blind.

Upon sitting up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who sets captives free. Upon dressing, one should recite: Blessed…Who clothes the naked, as they would sleep unclothed.

Upon standing up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who raises those bowed down.

Upon descending from one’s bed to the ground, one should recite: Blessed…Who spreads the earth above the waters, in thanksgiving for the creation of solid ground upon which to walk.

Upon walking, one should recite: Blessed…Who makes firm the steps of man.

Upon putting on his shoes, one should recite: Blessed…Who has provided me with all I need, as shoes are a basic necessity.

Upon putting on his belt, one should recite: Blessed…Who girds Israel with strength.

Upon spreading a shawl upon his head, one should recite: Blessed…Who crowns Israel with glory.

What is special about these blessings, which I call a ritual?

     There is a Jewish belief that our sleeping state, symbolically, is a mini-death, טעמא דמותא, a crisis, which we need to overcome on a daily basis. We are to make a smooth transition from the nocturnal state of sleep, to the diurnal state of awakening. From an anthropological perspective, it would be proper to apply Victor Turner’s assertion that rituals we perform help us make transitions in life. Thus, we have our morning blessings recitation, a ritual we perform daily to move on from this Mini-Death of being out of control during our sleep to the awakening and gaining back control. And with this I face few problems which I put forth with questions but no answers;

     1. If it is about waking up and prepare for the day, why don’t we do stretches and deep breathing while we recite these blessings? Some synagogues have the custom to stand [still] while reciting these blessing. Others have the custom to be seated. Either way, when standing or sitting, I think that it is taking away from the personal experiential meaning of these blessings. [I only experienced movement during these blessing at Jewish Renewal services].

     2. Do we actually take the proper time at the synagogue to gradually internalize the meaning of each step? Can we please slow down the pace with each blessing?

     3. Do these blessings set aside those individuals who are blind, deaf, or in a wheel chair? I ask myself over and over again how does it feel for those who cannot see, or hear, or are not able to walk? I wonder what subjective meaning they create for themselves. It is true that commentators did ask similar questions. For example, should one recite hearing the sound of the rooster even if one did not or could not hear the rooster crow, or should a blind person make the blessing of who gives sight to the blind? (The Rambam thinks one should only recite if the corresponding occurrence is relevant to him or her. The Ramban, on the other hand, argues that everyone should say all of the blessings).

     With these questions in mind, I want to stress that one should feel completely free to assign a non-literal meaning of the blessing. Perhaps, the rooster could be the human insight to discern between night and day, good and bad. Or blindness could be the moral or spiritual avoidance we show at times. Or, freedom will mean that we be free from all types of tempting restraints. And lastly, while we recite these Birkot Hashachar we may acknowledge our privilege to have all the things we need. Especially when we know that there are many families who cannot afford to buy appropriate clothing, and that it is our social duty to dress the naked.

     Let us make the mornings happy and productive. Let us count our blessings. Amen!

כי מתער אומר אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה אתה יצרתה בי אתה נפחתה בי ואתה משמרה בקרבי ואתה עתיד ליטלה ממני ולהחזירה בי לעתיד לבא כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי מודה אני לפניך ה' אלהי ואלהי אבותי רבון כל העולמים אדון כל הנשמות ברוך אתה ה' המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים
כי שמע קול תרנגולא לימא ברוך אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה כי פתח עיניה לימא ברוך פוקח עורים כי תריץ ויתיב לימא ברוך מתיר אסורים כי לביש לימא ברוך מלביש ערומים כי זקיף לימא ברוך זוקף כפופים כי נחית לארעא לימא ברוך רוקע הארץ על המים כי מסגי לימא ברוך המכין מצעדי גבר כי סיים מסאניה לימא ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי כי אסר המייניה לימא ברוך אוזר ישראל בגבורה כי פריס סודרא על רישיה לימא ברוך עוטר ישראל בתפארה

[1] These Blessing were once said at home immediately upon waking up (the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer), but later were integrated into the regular morning prayer service out of concern that they were not being said at home.