Nisim B'chol Yom Part Two
Birkhot Hashahar: The Morning Blessings
Mishkan T'filah, p. 198-199
Rabbi Richard Sarason
The series of short blessings that follow Elohai n’shamah (MT, pp. 36-40, 198-202, 293-296, 424-428) together are called Birkhot hashahar, “The Morning Blessings,” because they originally were to be uttered upon waking up, getting dressed, getting out of bed, etc., each morning. Later they were moved into the synagogue and recited as a unit independently of the actions that first prompted their recitation. Later still, the entirety of the morning liturgy before Pesukei d’zimra (“Verses of Song,” the Psalm-texts) came to be called Birkhot hashahar, the “Preliminary Morning Service.” To distinguish these specific blessings from this larger section of the service, Chaim Stern, in Gates of Prayer (1975), decided to label them Nisim b’chol yom,“For Our Blessings”—since that is their theme. MT keeps this Hebrew label, translating it more accurately as “For Daily Miracles.” (The expression comes from the next-to-last blessing in the Amidah---Modim anahnu lakh . . .v’al nisekha sh’b’khol yom imanu, “We give You thanks . . .and for Your miracles that we experience daily.”)
All (except one!) of these blessings derive from the Babylonian Talmud, most from b. Berkahot 60b, and three (the so-called “identity blessings;” to be discussed next week) from b. Menahot 43b-44a (and Tosefta Berakhot 6:18). b. Berakhot 60b describes how a person should express gratitude for every activity upon awakening anew to conscious and purposeful life each morning:
(1) Upon hearing the rooster crow, one should say:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given the rooster understanding to discern between day and night.
(2) Upon opens one’s eyes, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who opens the eyes of the blind.
(3) Upon straightening and sitting up, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who releases those who are bound.
(4) Upon getting dressed, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who clothes the naked.
(5) Upon rising, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who raises up those who are stooped over.
(6) Upon touching the ground, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who stretches out the earth upon the waters.
(7) Upon walking, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who prepares the steps of man.
(8) Upon putting on shoes, one should say:
Blessed . . . Who has provided for my every need.
(9) Upon fastening one’s belt, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who girds Israel with might.
(10) Upon putting on one’s head covering, one should say:
Blessed . . .Who crowns Israel with glory.
(11) Upon wrapping oneself in a fringed garment [tsitsit], he should say:
Blessed . . .Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves up in fringes.
(12) When he puts tefillin on his arm, he says:
Blessed . . .Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to lay tefillin;
on his head, he says:
Blessed . . .Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the mitzvah of tefillin.
(13) Upon washing hands, one says:
Blessed . . .Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the washing of hands.
(14) Upon washing the face, one says:
Blessed . . .Who removes the bands of sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. And may it be Your will, Adonai my God, to accustom me to Your Torah and that I adhere to Your commandments. Lead me not into sin, transgression, temptation, or shame. Bend my impulses to serve You Keep me from bad men and bad companions. Incline me to my good impulses and good companions in this world. Grant me, this day and every day, grace, favor, and mercy in Your sight and in the sight of all who behold me. Bestow lovingkindness upon me. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who bestows lovingkindness upon His people Israel.
The artistry and piety of these blessings lies in their metaphorical application of powerful biblical imagery of divine creation and salvation to mundane human activities:
- The first blessing cites Job 38:36, Who put wisdom in the hidden parts? Who gave understanding to the sekhvi? [mi natan l’sekhvi vinah] The word sekhvi occurs only this once in the Tanakh. Its likely meaning, on the basis of the parallelism between the two halves of the verse, is “mind,” but the Rabbis, in several talmudic passages, clearly understand it as “rooster,” hence the use of this verse in this blessing.
- Ps. 146:7-8 describes God as matir asurim (“setting free those who are bound”) poke’ah ivrim (“opening the eyes of the blind”), and zokef k’fufim (“making those who are bent stand straight”). Blessings 3, 2, and 5 artfully apply these descriptions of God’s mighty acts to the daily human experience of waking up, when we bestir ourselves from the “bonds” of sleep (parallel to the “bonds of death”). How better to express the miraculous in our everyday lives?
- Ps.136:6, referring to God’s creation of the world, uses the phrase [l’]roka ha’arets al hamayim (“[Praise God], Who spread the earth over the water”), an allusion to Genesis 1:9-10. Blessing 6 invokes this image of creation every time our feet newly touch the ground upon descending from bed.
- Blessing 4 alludes to the imagery of Genesis 3:21, where God makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve, “and clothes them” [vayalbisham]. This is another application of primal creation imagery to the “new creation” that takes place for us every morning upon awakening.
- Blessing 7 derives its imagery and language from Psalm 37:23—“The steps of a man are made firm by Adonai” [mei’Adonai mits’adei-gever kon’nu] and Proverbs 20:24.
- Blessings 9 and 10 derive their language from Psalm 65:7—“[O God, our deliverer . . .] Who is girded with might” (ne’ezar big’vurah) and from Proverbs 4:9—“She [Wisdom = Torah, for the Rabbis] will adorn your head with a graceful wreath; crown you with a glorious diadem” [ateret tiferet] and Psalm 103:4, “[God] surrounds/crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” [ham’atreikhi hesed v’rahamim].
Thus, the Morning Blessings literally wrap us in biblical imagery of divine goodness, to which the appropriate human response is gratitude.
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
B.S. Jacobson, The Weekday Siddur: An Exposition and Analysis of its Structure, Contents, Language and Ideas (Tel Aviv: Sinai, 1973), 40-41, 44-50
For more information about Mishkan T'filah, visit urj.org/mishkan.