Thoughts on the Opening Blessings of Birchot HaShachar
In recent months, I have focused on the various prayers that make up P'sukei D'zimrah, the Psalms and other biblical verses that comprise the major part of the preliminary service on weekdays, Shabbat, and festivals. Before we even get to that section of the service, however, there is a series of introductory blessings and prayers that constitute the section known as Birchot HaShachar, the morning blessings. In some synagogues, particularly in Israel, it is assumed that one recites these prayers by oneself prior to the communal service, and that the service proper begins with Psalm 30, followed by the Mourners' Kaddish, and the beginning of P'sukei D'zimrah, the blessing of Baruch Sheamar. Elsewhere, while there are some prayers recited by the individual, most of which I've written about previously, e.g. Adon Olam, Yigdal, the blessing for handwashing, Asher Yatzar and Elohai Neshamah, as well as the blessings for the study of Torah, the reader generally begins chanting aloud for the congregation starting with a series of blessings that we will examine in this essay.
Originally, it was assumed that each of the specific blessings that make up this group would be linked to some aspect of our morning routine, as we got up each day. Later, however, it was decided that it was better to have these blessings recited alt together in the synagogue as the opening of the worship service for the day. Each of these b'rachot is a short blessing beginning with the usual words, “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Praised are You, Lord, our God, Sovereign of the Universe. The first of these blessings was originally linked to the crowing of the rooster, awakening one for the day. We praise God who gives understanding to the rooster to distinguish between day and night (asher natan la-sechvi vinah l'havchin bein yom uvein lailah.) Some translations take the rooster out of the blessing, since the word “sechvi” is rather obscure. This phrase appears in chapter 38 of Job where some interpret it as a reference not to a rooster but to the human mind or heart (see the NJPS translation.) and others take it as a rooster. Actually, my one experience with roosters was not a pleasant one. It was during a visit in Israel to friends in Rechovot, whose neighbors' rooster decided to start crowing at 2:00 a.m. and continued to do so all night long. Apparently, contrary to the blessing, it could not distinguish between day and night.
This opening blessing is followed by three blessings about which Rabbi Yoel Kahn wrote an entire volume,The Three Blessings.. These blessings regarding one's identity appear in various versions over the centuries and have often been a source of controversy. In most Orthodox prayerbooks (e.g. Artscroll) they are rendered as “Shelo asani goy, shelo asani aved, shelo asani ishah” which they translate as praising God “for not having made me a gentile, a slave, or a woman. Women are expected to substitute for the last blessing, “Sheasani kirtzono” “for having made me according to His will.” Rabbi Sacks's siddur, also Orthodox, changes “goy” to “nochri” and translates it as “heathen.” The usual explanation is that a Jewish man in reciting these blessings thanks God for his higher level of obligation to the mitzvot. Since gentiles are only obligated to follow the seven Noahide laws of basic morality, slaves held by Jews in ancient days were only required to keep the 365 negative commandments of the Torah, and women were exempted from the positive commandments governed by time, only men had the full obligation to keep all 613 commandments in the Torah and for that we are to give thanks. In the original passage in the Talmud, instead of thanking God who has not made me an aved, a slave, we find who has not made me a bor, an ignoramus, whom the rabbis say cannot be God-fearing. Rav Amram Gaon in his early siddur changes this from bor to slave, perhaps assuming that not everyone who recites this prayer can honestly claim not to be a bor..
In some versions of these blessings that Rabbi Kahn cites, they are put in the positive rather than this negative form or in a combination, “who made me a man and not a woman, etc.” The various Conservative prayerbooks including the current one, Lev Shalem, use a positive formulation that was used in earlier prayerbooks going back to the Silverman prayerbook in 1945. There we find “Sheasani b'tzalmo, sheasani ben chorin, sheasani Yisrael.” “Who made me in the divine image, who made me free., who made me a Jew.” The Israeli Masorti siddur Va-ani Tefillati, uses these three blessings and adds “sheasani kirtzono” “who made me according to His will” the substitute blessing that Orthodox siddurim prescribe for women, here recited by all, both men and women. The Reform Mishkan Tefilllah uses a similar formulation to that found in the Conservative prayerbooks, replacing “b'tzalmo” with b'tzelem Elohim” to avoid the masculine pronoun suffix for God. In Geiger's 1854 Reform siddur, the three blessings were replaced by a single blessing, “Sheasani l'ovdo” “who made me to serve Him.”
Kahn notes a variety of versions in manuscripts from Medieval times. Some of these variations were due to censorship from gentile authorities who took offense at the blessing shelo asani goy, leading to the substitution of other terms for non-Jews that were deemed less offensive, such as nochri that we find in Rabbi Sacks's siddur, though goy does mean one of the (other) nations and in some prayers refers to Jews as well. Even so, it was seen as derogatory. One version he cites has changed the text to sheasani yehudi, who made me a Jew. Apparently, in at least one traditional prayerbook in Medieval times there was some pushback from some upper class Jewish women as well who replied to the blessing, shelo asani ishah, who did not make me a woman, shelo asani ish, thanking God who did not make me a man.
The rest of the blessings are much less controversial. With minor variations they follow the instructions in the Talmud (Berachot 60b). After the blessing for hearing the sound of the rooster, the Talmud proposes nine more blessings for each step of one's morning routine. The language chosen is almost always based on a biblical expression. The first of these blessings is “Pokeach ivrim” “who opens the eyes of the blind”. It is to be recited originally when one opens one's eyes. However, the word pokeach seems to indicate more than simply opening one's eyes. It appears to be related to pikeach, one who has particular insight. Thus blind people are welcome to say this blessings as well as the sighted.
The Talmud continues, “Upon sitting up straight, one should recite: Baruch...matir asurim, who sets captives free.” This reflects the feeling upon awakening that one has now regained control of one's body and can move to a sitting position. “Upon dressing, one should recite: Baruch...malbish arumim, who clothes the naked.” Apparently, people were accustomed to sleeping unclothed and before getting out of bed, would modestly throw on a garment of some kind. “Upon standing up straight, one should recite: Baruch...zokeif kefufuim, who straightens up those bowed down.” “Upon descending from one's bed and putting one's feet on the ground, one should recite: Baruch...roka ha-aretz al hamayim, who spreads the earth above the waters.” “Upon walking, one should recite: Baruch...hameichin m'tza'adei gaver, who makes firm the steps of man.” “Upon putting on one's shoes, one should recite: Baruch...she-asah li kol tzorchi, who has provided me with all my needs.” Shoes were at this time apparently considered to be a luxury item that not everyone could afford. When in mourning or on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'av, it is customary to take off one's shoes. The last two blessings seem to incorporate an element of ritual, since they both mention Israel, to indicate that there is a religious component to these acts specific to Jewish people. The first, “upon putting on his belt, one should recite: Baruch...ozer Yisrael bigvurah, who girds Israel with strength.” It was considered necessary during prayer to wear a belt over one's tunic to separate the upper part of the body from the lower portion, as a measure of modesty. You may see chasidim wrap a woven belt, a gartel, around themselves before praying to this day. The last blessing mentioned in this group is said “Upon spreading a shawl upon one's head (we'd say, putting on one's hat or kipah), Baruch...oter Yisrael b'tifarah, who crowns Israel with glory.” Of course, we would say that if one is reciting blessings, one should already have put on a kipah, though I don't know if this was already common practice in Talmudic times.
The last blessing in this group is not mentioned in the Talmud and thus becomes a source of controversy. It reads, “Baruch...hanotein laya-ef koach, who gives strength to the weary.” It does not appear in the Sephardic rite, but is included in most Ashkenazic prayerbooks. The fact that it is not included in the Talmudic blessings led some authorities to omit it including, apparently, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in our own time.
The blessing which follows these other blessings, “hama'avir sheina mei-einai utenumah meiafapai, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids,” at first may be considered one more addition to the list. However, on inspection we can see that this line is just the opening phrase of an entire blessing prescribed in the same passage from the Talmud as the other blessings. It parallels the blessing recited at bedtime before saying the opening paragraph of the Sh'ma which speaks of God putting sleep on our eyes and slumber on our eyelids. In the Talmud we read that when a person washes his face in the morning, he should say this blessing of Baruch...hamaavir (chevlei) sheinah mei-einai utenumah mei-afapai. And it continues with a personal prayer, “May it be Your will, Lord, my God, to direct me in Your Torah and cause me to cleave to Your commandments. Do not bring me into the hands of sin or of iniquity, or to testing or disgrace. Subdue my (evil) inclination in order to serve you and keep me far from bad people and bad friends, make me cleave to my good inclination and good friends in Your world. Grant me this day and every day grace, loving kindness, and compassion in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Reward me with great kindness. Praised are You, Lord, who blesses His people Israel with great kindness.”
Our prayerbook has maintained virtually the same language, except that it appears not as a personal prayer of the individual in the singualr form, but in the plural as a communal prayer instead. The Israeli Masorti prayerbook, however, restores the original language and keeps it as a personal prayer following the other blessings of birchot hashachar. Indeed, as mentioned, in Israel, it is likely to be said privately anyway.
Reciting these prayers each day as we begin our worship, is a reminder to us that each act we do in life is an opportunity to recognize God's presence in the world and to give thanks for each miracle we experience every moment. In the meditation that follows we express our intention to dedicate the day ahead to God's service and we ask for strength from the divine to help us stay true to the path we have chosen and to bless our day with divine grace and love.