July 17, 2008
Week 244, Day 4
14 Tamuz 5768

ELOHAI N’SHAMAH:  FOR OUR SOULS
Mishkan T'filah, p.196-197

Richard Sarason

After praising God for the intricate workings of our bodies, we give thanks for the return of our souls—of our consciousness—each morning upon awakening.  This blessing also derives from the Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 60b, where it is prescribed as the very first thing to say every day upon waking up, while still in bed.  The text reads as follows:

Upon awakening, one should say: O God, the soul which You have put in me is pure.  You fashioned it within me; You breathed it into me, and You preserve it within me.  You will remove it from me at some future time, and You will restore it to me in the future age.  As long as the soul remains within me, I will give You thanks, Adonai my God and God of my fathers, Sovereign of all worlds, Master of all souls.  Praised be You, Adonai, who restores souls to dead bodies.

Immediately before this text in the Talmud is a prayer to be recited before going to bed at night, that is, before letting go of consciousness.  This prayer includes the requests that “bad dreams not trouble me . . .and lighten my eyes [in the morning], lest I sleep the sleep of death.”   The blessing upon awakening thus responds directly to this last concern with gratitude that our consciousness, our soul, has returned to us.

Our rabbinic ancestors viewed sleep as an analogue to, and anticipation of, death (“Sleep is one-sixtieth of death;” B’rachot 57b), because it involves a loss of consciousness and mobility.   In sleep, the soul was thought to detach itself from the body and have its own independent experiences (dreams).  Awakening was experienced as the return of the soul to the body.  The language of our blessing reflects these ideas: sleep anticipates death, and awakening anticipates (and provides a basis for belief in) the resurrection of the dead.  Thus, the chatimah, or peroration, of this blessing—“who restores souls to dead bodies”—refers to both waking up in the morning and resurrection of the dead, the ultimate “waking up.”

Problems with this traditional understanding of death and resurrection led reformers to alter this blessing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  German-language paraphrases of the (unaltered) Hebrew in many nineteenth-century prayer books omit all references to resurrection and deal only with the present experience of awakening each morning.  The first (1895) Union Prayer Book and subsequent revisions give this blessing only in English.  The first reference to resurrection is rephrased to refer instead to the soul’s immortality: “ . . .Thou hast preserved it in this body and, at the appointed time, Thou wilt take it  from this earth that it may enter upon life everlasting.”  The chatimah is changed to: “Praised be Thou, O God, in whose hands are the souls of all the living and the spirits of all flesh;” the language is drawn from Job 12:10—“In His hand is every living soul and the breath of all humankind.”  Gates of Prayer (1975) restores the Hebrew text, but eliminates (in both Hebrew and English) the phrases referring to death and resurrection.  The chatimah of the UPB is retained, now given in Hebrew as well.  The wording of this blessing in Mishkan T’filah is identical with that in GOP.

In recent years, this blessing has become a favorite for musical settings, perhaps because of the renewed interest in spirituality, with its emphasis on the non-material aspects of our lives.  In any case, this blessing—like the ones before and after it in the prayer book—requires us to focus on those things that we too often take for granted until we lose them: the miracle of waking up each morning and our return to consciousness, the intricate workings of our bodies.  Proper attention to these daily miracles should elicit from us constant feelings of gratitude.  And this is authentic Jewish piety.


For Further Reading

Dalia Sara Marx, “The Morning Ritual (Birkhot Hashahar) in the Talmud: The Reconstitution of One’s Body and Personal Identity through the Blessings,” Hebrew Union College Annual 77 (2006), forthcoming

Jakob J. Petuchowski, “Modern Misunderstandings of an Ancient Benediction,” in Petuchowski, Studies in Modern Theology and Prayer (Philadelphia, 1998), 183-191

David H. Ellenson, “Modern Liturgies,” in My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries (ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman), vol. 5: Birkhot Hashahar (Morning Blessings) (Woodstock, VT, 2001), 134

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