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Thoughts on Adonai S’fatai Tiftach

Our Jewish tradition prescribes three daily prayer services, shacharit in the morning, minchah in the afternoon, and maariv at night. The central element of each of these services is the Amidah, made up of nineteen blessings (originally eighteen) on weekdays and seven on Shabbat and holidays. While there are variations in the wording in different traditions, the text is pretty well set and one is expected to read it as it appears in one’s prayerbook. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel referred to such prayers as “prayers of empathy” for one takes the words of our ancient authorities and, as we read them, we attempt to feel the emotions that the authors felt and make the words our own. This can be rather challenging sometimes and often we may read them by rote, reciting the words but not getting into the emotions, in the hope that sometimes we will connect with them as needed. It is argued that by regular prayer one leaves open that possibility of connecting on those occasion when we feel a strong need to do so. One need not be limited to these kinds of prayers, however. Heschel also recognizes “prayers of expression” where we express the feelings within us in our own words often in times of great distress or overwhelming gratitude, when we cannot help crying out to the Almighty.


You may have noticed a line of Hebrew in smaller print that looks like a heading or instruction that appears over the opening blessing of each Amidah throughout the Siddur. Even when the reader repeats the Amidah aloud, this line is generally not recited aloud. It is actually a quotation from Psalm 51:17 that is to be recited silently prior to the beginning of the first blessing of the Amidah, both by an individual prayer alone or by the reader prior to beginning the repetition of the Amidah. Since it comprises six words, the custom is to step back three steps as one recites each of the first three words and then step forward three steps and put one’s feet together at attention, as one recites the last three words. In this way, we symbolize our entrance into the Presence of the Divine, as if we are standing before an earthly ruler, when we recite this prayer and offer praise to God, present our petitions for our personal and communal needs, and then offer thanks to the Sovereign Lord of the Universe for His countless blessings that we enjoy. In some Reform congregations, it is customary to chant this line aloud first in Hebrew and then in English. The text reads, “Adonai, open my lips that my mouth may speak Your praise.” It seems to be a prayer that calls on God to help us make the prescribed words our own. Unlike the prayers in the Amidah proper that are in the plural as we join as a community in prayer, these words, like those which conclude the Amidah, are in the singular, as each of us attempts to connect with the whole congregation through our personal prayers.


There is a rule in the Talmud that one should not interrupt between the last blessing of the Sh’ma, the blessing of redemption, Geulah, and the beginning of the Amidah, known to the rabbis as Tefillah, the prayer. The note in our Siddur Lev Shalem explains that this rule “is as if to say that the possibility of prayer flows out of our experience of God’s love as exhibited in freeing us from slavery.” The great third century sage of the land of Israel, Rabbi Yochanan, however, recommended adding the verse of Adonai s’fatai tiftach…” before the opening blessing. The Talmud argues that this should not be considered an interruption between the Geulah blessing and the Tefillah, but it is to be considered a part of the Amidah itself. You may notice that at Musaf and for the Mincha Amidah where there is no Geulah blessing to link to the Tefillah, another verse from Deuteronomy (32:3) is added to this verse in some prayerbooks as well. That verse says, “As I proclaim the name Adonai, give glory to our God.” Some have suggested that this line might actually be a word of instruction to the congregation calling on them to offer the traditional responses, “Baruch hu uvaruch sh’mo” and “amen,” when the reader repeats the Amidah aloud.


As we have seen, quite a number of Psalms have been included in our worship services, some in the daily prayers and others less frequently. Psalm 51, however, is not a regular part of our liturgy. It is not all that familiar to most of us. A couple of other verses from this Psalm, aside from v. 17, however, do appear in our prayers. Verse 13 shows up, in the Selichot liturgy and throughout the day of Yom Kippur as part of the Sh’ma Koleinu prayer, with slight modifications from the singular to the plural: “Al tashlicheini milfanecha, v’ruach kodsh’cha al tasir mimeni. Cast me not away from Your presence, and do not remove Your holy spirit from me.” Verse 20 is also familiar as we sing it as part of the prayers for taking out the Torah on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The verse is preceded in the Torah service by addressing God as “Av HaRachamim, Compassionate Father”It goes on to pray, “Heitivah virtzoncha et Tziyon, tivneh chomot Yerushalayim. May it be Your will that Zion flourish; build the walls of Jerusalem.”


Psalm 51 is presented, according to its heading, as a prayer of contrition by King David when Nathan the prophet comes to rebuke him regarding his actions in taking a married woman, Bathsheba, and then sending her husband, Uriah, to the battle front where he will inevitably be killed. The rabbis let David off on a technicality, but after Nathan confronts him, he repents this great sin and the editors of the book of Psalms identify these lines as his words of contrition and penitence. “Show me favor, O God, according to Your kindness, in Your vast compassion erase my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity and purify me of my sin; for I recognize my transgression and am ever conscious of my sin.” As the Psalmist continues, “Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit.” Then comes the verse “Al tashlicheini…” “Do not cast me out of Your presence or take Your holy spirit away from me.” A couple of verses later we find our verse of Adonai s’fatai tiftach, as the Psalmist prays, “O Lord open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.” He continues, “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings. True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.” The Psalm concludes with the prayer for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, when God will again desire sacrifices.


This last section makes us suspicious of the placement of this prayer in David’s mouth by the editors of Psalms, since the Temple had not yet been built nor, obviously, destroyed. Some commentators have seized upon the line about God not desiring sacrifices, along with similar sentiments found in the words of the prophets, to argue against prayers for restoration of that primitive form of worship. Traditional commentators though note that one could never bring a sacrifice for an intentional sin such as those David committed. Only true repentance and a broken heart could bring about forgiveness for such sins. Sacrifices for inadvertent sins, however, would still be welcome in a new Temple, they argue. Whether or not we choose to see these words as a prayer by King David, they do provide a powerful expression of the emotions that can be aroused by prayer. Thus, when we recite the Amidah with this verse preceding it, we are urged to open our hearts before God, to offer these words in lieu of a sacrifice, with a broken heart, recognizing our sins and transgressions as we appear before the Holy One.


Rabbi Moshe ben Nachma known as the Ramban or Nachmanides, takes the word s’fatai, “my lips” and notes that the same word denotes the banks of a river, the barriers that confine a river to its channel. Rav Mordechai Gifter, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, takes this thought and suggests that our soul is stifled and confined within the narrow confines of our body. In offering this prayer, we are recognizing that we are standing in the presence of the infinity of our Maker and therefore we should allow our soul to surge until it overflows the banks of our body. Prayer should not be a matter of reciting words by rote. Rather we should open our hearts and let our emotions be fully expressed in our prayers. Thus, before we begin the Amidah, we call upon God to open our lips, the confines of our bodies, and allow our words to fully express our feelings and offer whole-hearted praise to the Creator. “When frail and insignificant man stands before his Maker and contemplates His praises, he should be struck silent with awe. Therefore, he must pray for divine assistance to open his mouth and grant it the ability to declare God’s praises.” (Artscroll Ketuvim.)


Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of American Jewish University, professor of Jewish Theology, an author and ethicist, writes, “We are, as it were, dumb when we want to address God. We need God’s help in what we are about to do. Prayer, in other words, is not the utterances of the person praying, as a subject, to God, as object. Prayer is, rather, the interaction of the person praying with God. For prayer to work, Dorff notes, God has to want to help us pray as much as we must want to pray.”


Taking a mystical view, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Nehemiah Polen write, “God is the ocean and we are the waves.” If we believe, as the Hasidim teach, that all is God, then “my mouth is God’s mouth. My praises are God’s praises.” They cite the Piasetzner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto, “Not only does God hear our prayers, God prays them through us as well!” As Rav Gifter suggests we are to let our emotions overflow the banks of our body and join together with God in our prayers and aspirations for this world. Say Kushner and Polen, “Prayer may ultimately be an exercise for helping us let go of our egos, hopelessly anchored to this world where one person is discrete from another, and from God, and soar to the heavens where we realize there is a holy One to all being and that we have been an expression of it all along.”


“God, open my lips so that my mouth may declare Your praise.” In this verse, we address God not by the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable four-letter name, but simply as Adonai, Lord, sovereign, the One who supervises and directs the world. We call upon God to direct our lips in paths of holiness. The Yom Kippur confessional again and again calls out the sins we commit by misusing our power of speech. So here, as we enter into that special relationship with God through the Amidah, we call for help in opening our lips to words of sanctity to allow us wholeheartedly to speak praises of the divine. Rabbi Eliyahu diVidas notes the use of the word “yagid” related to “haggadah,” in out verse, “telling” which he says indicates wisdom and insight. We are not simply to recite the words, not merely to speak God’s praises, but yagid tehilatecha, tell of those praises with deep understanding and insight, directing our hearts to God throughout our prayer. Thus as we recite this introductory verse, we are reminding ourselves to open our hearts and our lips to God, to feel free to express the inner longing we have for God’s blessings and help in time of trouble or joy.


As we face life’s challenges day by day, joy and sorrow, loving words and expressions of hatred, intractable problems and innovative solutions, people’s indifference or sometimes their loving embrace, we turn to the Almighty in prayer. May God open our lips so that our mouths may truly express what is in our hearts. As the Psalmist writes, “Lev tahor b’ra li Elohim v’ruach nachon chadeish b’kirbi.” “Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit.”

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