During my childhood years, the most significant event every AM was my father OB”M forcing me awake against every fiber of my will. The idea of rising with the sun seemed ludicrous. ‘Just a few more minutes, Dad!’ Well, of course, I’d have slept till noon, if he’d just left the room. Our traditional morning prayers take a slightly different perspective. Sunrise is glorious! It daily reminds of the Creation and demands that we adulate the Creator. Now, in my eighth decade, I’m finally beginning to get it. I must admit that davening outside helps, with sunrise, birds and clouds increasing my KAVANA, connection to Tefila.
There seems to have been a very old custom to build the earliest synagogues facing west (Bava Batra 25). This was so that the rising sun could shine into the interior of the building from the east, just like in the Beit Hamikdash. As we all know, this early custom was eventually overruled by the need to keep the Beit Hamikdash firmly in our thoughts and prayers. However, this earlier custom was very cool and in keeping with the first BERACHA of BIRCHOT KRIAT SH’MA, which keeps us focused on the rising sun of the new day.
We start to get this orientation (like in Orient, east) with the opening blessing of this preparation for reciting SHMA. We declare: Blessed are You, O Eternal, our God, King of the Universe, Who has formed light and created darkness, made SHALOM and created everything. Light and dark are big in our consciousness as we pray. This blessing, composed by the Men of the Great Assembly a couple of centuries before the Common Era, is a paraphrase of a verse in Yeshayahu (45:7). In the original quote Yeshayahu credits God for created evil (RA), but that’s such a bummer, that our Sages went for ‘everything’ and let those who know the truth keep it to themselves.
So, we’re praising God for the light and dark dichotomy of our world. Of course, this was all before light pollution and streetlights stopped our nights from getting really dark. Then, we start to focus on the light and the rising sun, because the custom of the early pious ones (VATIKIN) was to daven with the sunrise, instead of the dictates of our smart phones. Isn’t the sunrise a better reminder to praise God than an alarm ringing (even a cute, personalized ring)?
At this point, we’re going to focus on the extended Shabbat version of this blessing. Immediately after we say that God created HAKOL (everything), we maintain that theme and begin a list of four HAKOL’s. HAKOL 1. thank You (I prefer ‘acknowledge’), 2. praise You, 3. say that there’s nothing else like You, and 4. exalt You. SELAH! (which denotes emphasis)
Now comes the reference to the shul door opening towards the east: The God Who daily opens wide the eastern doors and throws broad the windows of the firmament. Like God raises the TRISSIM (shutters) on the world to let in the light after a dark and scary night. Don’t you just want that blinding light at your back illuminating everything around you?
It’s God alone Who daily brings the sun out from its place (MEKOMA) of hiding, and the moon from its abode. Davening is supposed to be connected to the amazing natural phenomena all around us. That’s why the custom is to have 12 (the Tribes, months?) light-giving windows in our shuls (Orach Chayim 90:4). Just as Daniel prayed at an open window (6:11). It’s really sad that so many minyanim in Israel are reduced to davening in a MIKLAT (bomb shelter).
We praise God for providing this life-giving light to all inhabitants of our world. We view that as an act of RACHAMIM from God. Then we quote from the weekday version of this prayer, but I’ll save that for a couple of weeks.
We now identify God: The King Who alone has been exalted from days of old, is the Eternal God. Who has in Your great compassion shown empathy for us. You are the 1. Master of our strength, 2. Rock of our refuge, 3. Shield of our salvation, and 4. Stronghold for our safety.
From the original four parts of the verse in Yeshayahu (45:7), we’ve never let go of this motif of four. I’d like to think that the power of four comes from the image Yechezkel had of the Divine Chariot/Throne of God. In Chapter one of his book, there are fourteen variations on the number four to describe this vehicle for God’s presence and power in the cosmos. And the best of the fours is coming next.
- None can be compared to You; 2. there is none beside You; 3. Nothing exists without You; 4. Who is comparable to You?
That formidable foursome gets repeated by placing those four descriptive praises of God into four separate time frames: 1. In this world; 2. in the World to Come; 3. in the days of the MASHIACH; and 4. at the time of the resurrection of the dead.
The Vilna Gaon remarks that this prayer takes the side of Maimonides in his debate with the Ramban about the differing visons of Jewish eschatology (a fancy term for the ‘study of the end of things’). We state here the view that OLAM HABA is a different time frame than the resurrection of the dead.
Now we can end by discussing why this extended version of the first blessing for SHEMA is only recited in Shabbat, and not on CHAG, unlike the NISHMAT prayer, which we recite whenever work is prohibited. Two points must be made. First, this prayer is about God as the Creator of the Cosmos. That’s really a Shabbat issue. Jewish holidays are about God guiding Jewish history, and that’s going to be the topic of the third of the SHEMA blessings (GA’AL YISRAEL).
Plus, we finish this introductory prayer with a short discussion of the very special wonders to transpire at the end of Time. That’s also a Shabbat concern. We say that Shabbat is a little piece of the World to Come (MEI’EIN OLAM HABA). So, this beautiful extension of the blessing is unique to Shabbat.
Next week, we will continue this discussion with the wonderful PIYUT (liturgical poem), KEL ADON.