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Thoughts on Modeh Ani

The opening line of the first paragraph in the Shulchan Aruch, the major 16th century law code of Rabbi Yosef Karo, in the laws of arising in the morning, tells us that we should be “strong as a lion to arise in the morning to the service of our Creator.” Rabbi Karo was born in Spain in 1488, shortly before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Ultimately, he settled in the city of Safed, the center of Lurianic Kabbalah, in 1535, and there he published the Shulchan Aruch, which is an abridgement of his earlier, lengthy Bet Yosef commentary on the 14th century law code, Arbaah Turim of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher. Though Karo was a Sephardic rabbi, his work was well respected among the Jews of the Ashkenazic world as well as among Sephardim, particularly after it was annotated by his Polish contemporary, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, noting the variations in practice of the Jews of Ashkenaz, Central and Eastern Europe. The Shulchan Aruch, “the Set Table,” thus was adorned with the Mappah, “the Tablecloth” as Isserles' work came to be called popularly. On this particular law, Isserles doesn't speak of jumping out of bed like a lion, but suggests that at least one should not delay the morning prayers. I’m imagining a more gradual arising from bed in the colder climates of the North. Not everyone is ready to face the world with the abounding energy of a lion, perhaps, but we all should arise in a timely fashion in whatever manner and acknowledge our Creator who has granted us another day of life.

I must admit that I was surprised to notice that there was no mention in this passage of one of the first prayers I learned in Hebrew School at age 8, the Modeh Ani. A bit of research gave the obvious reason. Modeh Ani is not from the Talmud and does not appear in the works of the Rishonim, the earlier authorities prior to Karo, but first appeared in a work by Rabbi Moshe ben Machir, Seder Hayom, which was not published until the end of the 16th century, some years after Karo's death. Karo was a mystic who claimed to be regularly visited by a Maggid, speaking in the name of the Mishnah, the earliest work of the oral law. However, he was not a prophet, and knew nothing of Ben Machir’s later work.

My teacher in the first year of Hebrew School was Moses Z. Nachman, a survivor of the Holocaust, who was among those who found refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War, came to this country a few years later, and taught at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, CT, for many years. Mr. Nachman taught us Alef students a simple melody for this one line prayer. He was not really much of a singer; he had a rather gravelly voice. Nonetheless the tune has stuck in my head for some 65 years now. Its slow, deliberate tempo, makes me think that Mr. Nachman would not be one of those springing out of bed like a lion each morning to face the world. Usually, when I teach this prayer to children in Hebrew school, I sing Mr. Nachman's slow version and then contrast it with a very energetic version that a musical group in Israel sang some years back. Then I ask the students which version is closest to the way they feel when they get up in the morning. Clearly, we're not all lions. Checking on Youtube, it seems that there are at least a hundred different versions out there of this prayer and sampling them, I was unable to find either of the melodies I know. So you can take your pick or just read the prayer or recite it by heart.

The instructions that we're given about Modeh Ani in the halachic compendia are that one may say it even lying down in bed as one awakens. Unlike most prayers and the study of Torah, the vast majority of rabbinic teachers say that it is perfectly okay to say this prayer prior to washing one's hands since it makes no explicit mention of God, but uses only a pronominal suffix for “You,” referring to the Creator and refers to Him as “Melech,” sovereign.

The words are simply: “Modeh (or Modah, for women) ani l'fanecha, I offer thanks before You, Melech chai v'kayam, living and enduring Sovereign, she-hechezarta bi nishmati b'chemlah, who restored my soul within me in compassion, rabbah emunatecha, great is your faithfulness.” Its theme of the restoration of the soul each morning is similar to the prayer Elohai neshamah, said at the beginning of the morning service which does mention God explicitly. Some sages suggest that before this prayer was written, back in Talmudic times Elohai Neshamah might have been said the first thing on awakening since, they argued, our ancestors might have managed to maintain ritual purity through the night and thus could recite these words before the morning handwashing. Others suggest that it is possible to make arrangements to wash one's hand at bedside and then one may say the older prayer which begins by addressing God.

When we consider Modeh Ani, how appropriate that the very first word out of our mouths each day should be “thank you.” When our matriarch Leah named her fourth born son Yehudah, Judah, she based that name on the word for thanks. She said, “Ha-pa'am odeh et Adonay, this time I shall offer thanks to the Lord.” Odeh, todah, Yehudah, all based on the root of giving thanks, acknowledging God. We Jews are known in Hebrew as Yehudim, the descendants of Judah, those who offer thanks to the Creator every day for His infinite blessings.

The rabbis pictured God watching over each of us through the night. The nighttime prayer mentions four archangels surrounding us with the divine presence, the Shechinah, hovering over our heads. Hence, on awakening, we find ourselves immediately in the presence of God and thus we offer thanks before Him for restoring us to consciousness, bringing us back to life. God is described as “Melech chai v'kayam,”the living and enduring sovereign.” Every blessing said throughout the day requires both shem, God's name, and malchut, a recognition of God's sovereignty. Since we have not yet purified our hands, we do not mention God's name explicitly, but we may refer to Him and affirm His sovereignty over our lives and all the world around us even with unclean hands in an unclean environment. Some rabbis, however, are uncomfortable with this idea and suggest simply saying these words to ourselves, prior to handwashing.

As the prayer continues we acknowledge that God has restored our neshamah, our soul, to us in compassion. Rabbi Moshe ben Machir who introduced this prayer, being a noted Kabbalist, would have seen the term “neshamah” as representing a higher level of soul than “nefesh,” which animates all living creatures or “ruach,” the intellectual faculties that return when we become conscious once more. “Neshamah,” though related to the word for breath, “neshimah,” represents a higher, spiritual element of the soul which allows us to connect with the Divine. This daily restoration of the neshamah by God is seen as an act of “chemlah,” mercy or compassion, a term that appears in the second blessing before the Sh’ma, Ahavah Rabbah, each morning. There we speak of God’s love manifested through the gift of the Torah and its mitzvot. We say, “chemlah gedolah viteirah chalmalta aleinu.“ Using both the noun and verb forms we say, “with surpassing compassion have you shown compassion to us.” The Modeh Ani ends with the exclamation, “rabbah emunatecha” great is Your faithfulness. We’re speaking here of God’s reliability in restoring our soul on a daily basis, something we count on. Because God renews our souls each day, we have faith that in the world to come, our souls will be restored to us once more. This phrase comes from Lamentations 3:22-23, where we read, “The kindness of the Lord has not ended. His mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning – You are faithful beyond measure (rabbah emunatecha).” One could, however, read this mention of “emunah” as “great is Your faith,” acknowledging, perhaps, that even if we screwed up yesterday, God still has faith that today we might do better and sends us off into the world to give it another shot. His faith in us is very great.

A number of commentaries mention a more elaborate version of Modeh Ani that some, particularly in the mystical community, were accustomed to say. It appears in the Siddur HaAri by Rabbi Yakov Koppel. After the opening words, “Modeh ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam” it continues by saying, “adir v’naor hamefoar bigevurah ugedulah v’lo habinah v’hachochmah, haketer v’hakavod, b’rov chasdo v’amito hechzir bi nishmati asher pakadeti b’yado.” “I give thanks before You, living and enduring Sovereign, mighty and glorious, splendid in might and greatness. He has understanding and wisdom, the crown and the glory. In His great mercy and truth, He has restored my soul within me which I had entrusted into His hand.” This last phrase links up on the final words of “Adon Olam” which conclude the nighttime prayer that one might have uttered the night before: “B’yado afkid ruchi,” I entrust my spirit into His hand.” Thus one is saying that the following morning one retrieves one's soul from God's safekeeping. Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, in a footnote in his halachic compendium based on the teachings of his father Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, mentions this version and also notes that in Morocco, some add an additional prayer: “Y’hi ratzon, may it be His will that my heart may be prepared and dedicated in my actions (nachon umasur b’yadi),so that I not become angry nor anger You.” (my rough translation). Rav Yosef, says that most people, however, stick to the original short version as it appears in most prayerbooks.

In the Aliyot Eliyahu prayerbook that I have been using lately, however, another “Modeh ani” follows the version from Seder Hayom, Rav Yosef mentions it as well. This line, because it includes the divine name, requires that one wash one’s hands before reciting it. “Modeh ani l’fanecha, Adonay Elohai veilohei Avotai, shehotzeitani mei-afeilah l’orah.” “I give thanks before You, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that You have brought me forth from darkness to light.” This Modeh Ani is, in fact, mentioned in the Talmud Yerushalmi, in a discussion on the origin of the three daily prayers. In this passage (Yerushalmi Berachot 4:1), Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachmani says that one should recognize God for the changes that take place throughout the day. Thus in the morning, we say “Modeh ani, I thank You..that you have led me from darkness to light.” In the afternoon before minchah, one should say, “Modeh ani. I thank You...that just as You let me see the sun in the east, so have I merited seeing it in the west.” In the evening, he adds a third prayer, “Modeh ani, I thank You...that just as I was in darkness and You led me into light, so may You lead me from darkness to light.”

I've noticed that while not every traditional prayerbook includes this second Modeh Ani in the morning prayers, a number of other verses are someetimes included instead, most prominently, perhaps is the verse from Deuteronomy that is supposed to be taught to children as they learn to speak, “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, morashah kehilat Ya'akov.” “Moses commanded us theTorah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” Mr. Nachman taught us to sing that line also in a tune that many of us are familiar with as we sing it while the Torah is being wrapped after the portion of the week has been read. I found a little prayerbook in my library entitled Reishit Chochmah, the Beginning of Wisdom, a volume that we used in that first class and which I've held onto since then. The binding is shot and there are check marks in pencil next to the prayers that we were assigned to learn. The very first one checked off is the Modeh Ani. It is followed by the blessing for washing the hands and then two other short selections of biblical verses including the verse “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe.”

After his passing, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, my childhood synagogue, decided to dedicate a youth lounge in memory of Mr. Nachman and the rabbi at that time, the late Rabbi Israel Stein, who had not known Mr. Nachman himself asked me, as a graduating senior at the Seminary to offer a tribute to my former teacher. I mentioned at that time that according to Pirke Avot, one is required to show honor to anyone who teaches you even a single letter of Torah. How much more, I asked do I owe Mr. Nachman who taught me all of the letters and vowels of the Hebrew alphabet and so much more. Mr. Nachman was my alef teacher and again was my Bible teacher in Hebrew High School. When we acknowledge God's blessings in our lives, it is a reminder to us to show gratitude as well to all who have brought blessing into our lives, to our parents and teachers foremost among them. Indeed, I offer thanks to the memory of this first Hebrew teacher and others who followed for the foundation of my rabbinic knowledge and I must admit that when I say “Torah Tzivah lanu Moshe,” I think not only of Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher Moses of old, but also of this latterday Moshe, Moses Nachman, my teacher, as well.

Daily we praise God, acknowledge the gift of life, and all of the manifold gifts that are part of our lives. God, in restoring our souls, our neshamah, each day, allows us to connect with Him and to embrace His teachings. Whether or not we believe in ourselves, we recognize that God believes in us and great is that faith He has for each of us, His creatures. Each day then it behooves us to go forward and attempt to vindicate that faith through our words and our deeds, accepting God's compassion and showing it to others as well.

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