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Jewish Prayers: Early Morning Blessings (Birkhot Hashahar)

by Shira Schoenberg

The morning prayers start with a series of blessings that center around the routine of waking up in the morning. These blessings, which address many aspects of Jewish life, were originally said in the home, not in the synagogue. But gradually, as people became less knowledgeable about the blessings, they began to be included in the synagogue service so that the cantor could recite them out loud for those who were not able to recite them on their own. Even today, some people continue to say the morning blessings either at home or privately at the synagogue. Because the order of the preliminary prayers was never fixed in Jewish law, it differs not only between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, but even between different prayer books of the same liturgy.

It is customary to stand while reciting the preliminary blessings. The first blessing (al netilat yadayim) relates to washing the hands. It is a mitzvah to wash one's hands in the morning, both for hygienic and symbolic reasons: the cleansing represents the removal of spiritual impurity. The proper time to say this blessing is after washing the hands and dressing in the morning, but many people say it at the start of the morning prayers. The prayer leader does not say this blessing out loud.

The next blessings thank God for creating man's body and soul. Asher yatzar (literally "who fashioned") is a blessing that praises God for creating the body and for preserving man's health and life. Like al netilat yadayim, the worshiper says this blessing privately before the start of the service. Elohai Neshamah ("My God, the soul…") thanks God for restoring man's soul to him each morning when he wakes up. Since both of these blessings relate to parts of man that God created, Sephardim and some Ashkenazim recite them in succession. Most Ashkenazic prayer books, however, include Elohai Neshamah later on.

Since it is a commandment to study Torah daily, and since the daily prayers themselves contain Biblical passages, the next blessings recited are the Birkhot Hatorah, the blessings on the Torah. The first blessing relates to actual Torah study while the second blesses God for choosing the Jewish people to receive the Torah. One explanation of why two blessings are made on the study of Torah is that they symbolize the written and oral components of Torah. Once a person says the blessings on the Torah, it is not appropriate to delay the performance of the mitzvah of learning Torah. Therefore, the practice developed to recite a few passages from the Scripture, Mishnah, and Gemara. Two traditions developed as to which sections of Torah study to read, one tradition in Israel, the other in Babylonia. The first of these traditions is shorter, and this is the section immediately following the Torah blessings. It consists of the Priestly Blessing (from Numbers 6:24-26), a Mishnah from Peah 1:1 and a Gemara from Shabbat 127a. The Mishnah lists the obligations that have no quantitative components, one of which is Torah study. The Gemara lists a number of commandments that one will receive reward for in both this world and the next, and it ends with the statement that "the study of Torah is equal to all of them." The second traditional section of Torah study is said later on in the preliminary prayers.

The next section of the morning prayers is a series of 15 blessings, all of which start with the traditional formula "Blessed are Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe…" and thank God for some action relating to waking up and going about our daily affairs. Generally, the prayer leader recites these out loud and the congregation answers "amen."

The first of these blessings thanks God for giving the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night, and thereby being able to wake us up in the morning. The next three blessings in Ashkenazic liturgy are somewhat different from the rest of them: they thank God for not making one a gentile, a slave or a woman. A woman who is praying replaces the third blessing with one that thanks God "for having made me according to his will." One explanation of the meaning of these blessings is that a gentile is exempt from all of God's commandments except the seven Noahide laws, a slave is also exempt from a significant number of commandments, and a woman does not have to keep all positive, time-bound commandments. Therefore, one is thanking God for the obligation to keep the greatest number of commandments. The blessing that the woman says was created after the Geonic period. Some explain that this alludes to women's gifts of the God-like qualities of mercy and compassion. These blessings are put later in the series in Sephardic liturgy.

The remainder of the blessings, taken from the Talmud (Berakhot 60b), continue to thank God for seemingly simple actions, such as sitting up and stretching ("releasing the bound"), getting up ("straightening the bent"), putting on clothing ("clothing the naked"), and others. Even those that seem more abstract can be interpreted a relating to everyday actions (for example, "who crowns Israel with splendor" can be explained as a blessing over putting on a head covering, which reminds the Jew that God is above him). The general theme of these blessings is to remember to thank God for what seems basic, particularly the return of strength that one gets after awakening.

The last of the blessings is a paragraph-long prayer asking God to help us follow the Torah. This section concludes with a personal prayer of Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, beginning with the words Yehi Ratzon ("May it be your will"), to save a person each day from bad influences. This is also a good time to add one's own personal prayer.

The next part of the preliminary service is a series of long passages interspersed with supplication to God. The first passage is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the Akeidah, from Genesis 22:1-19. This is recited in most, although not all, congregations. Following this comes L'olam Yehei Adam("Always let a person…"). This prayer is made up of excerpts from Bible and Talmud and was compiled in about 456 C.E. when the Persian ruler forbade Babylonian Jews to read the Shema. This prayer, which affirms basic principles of Judaism, includes the Shema as an unobtrusive part of the service, in order to sneak it past the censors. Even after the Persian threat was gone, it remained part of the traditional service.

The conclusion of the preliminary prayers is a second section of Bible and Mishnah readings that deal with the sacrifices of the daily Temple service. These are actually skipped in many synagogues. Although these passages are not relevant today, one explanation why they are read is that reading about sacrifices is in a way spiritually equivalent to bringing them. The conclusion to this

Sources: Donin, Hayim. To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service. NY: Basic Books, 1991.
Schermon, Rabbi Nosson, editor. The Complet Artscroll Siddur. New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 1984.