Beginning the day with Halakhah or with Spirituality?

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Yaakov Jaffe


Two, if not three, generations of American Modern Orthodox Jews first learned how to daven using the Shilo Siddur. First published by New York’s Shilo Publishing House in 1960, this siddur, famous for its numbered lines, large type, and concise English instructions, was a staple in Jewish schools for decades, and was still de rigueur even through the early parts of the 21st century. The siddur sparks many positive feelings for those such as myself who grew up using it and often shapes their attitude towards tefillah until today.

The siddur does not just affect attitudes towards tefillah, but also the order in which many pray. For years, I would begin my morning prayers using this siddur, and I would dutifully recite the same prayers in the same order as they appeared. Influenced by the siddur with which they grew up, generations of Modern Orthodox Jews such as myself have begun their prayer days with Modeh Ani, and then a series of verses which summarized the central facets of Judaism. These verses include “Torah Tzivvah,” reflecting the enduring belief that the Torah is the inheritance of all Jews (Devarim 33:4), and “Reishit Hokhmah,” conveying the idea that fear of God must precede all wisdom (Tehillim 111:10). Students continue with a series of prayers readying themselves for tefillah: blessings on handwashing, use of the bathroom, tzitzit, and tefillin. This is followed by piyyutim such as Mah Tovu (about the importance of the synagogue), Adon Olam, and Yigdal, before prayers begin in earnest with the blessings of the Torah, “Elokai! Neshamah,” and the morning blessings.

This order of the tefillah should not surprise us, as it is the order of tefillot which dominated historically in printed siddurim,[1] and also the order of tefillot that was used in many siddurim in America from the 20th century. These siddurim include Tikun Meir (Hebrew Publishing Company, 1933, 5-12), RCA/De-Sola-Pool (Behrman House, 1960, 101-107), Birnbaum (Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, 1-15), and Artscroll’s many siddurim (Mesorah Publications, 1984, 2-18) including their elementary siddur (1996, 2-10), among many others. Little should surprise us about this opening of the prayer service, until we notice how today, fewer new siddurim follow this order, as halakhic considerations have led to a radical redesign of the opening pages of the siddur.

Halakhic Problems

The conventional start to the morning prayers carries two small halakhic problems, both surfaced centuries ago. The first problem relates to “Elokai! Neshamah,” a prayer thanking God for returning our souls and consciousness each morning. This prayer seems thematically disconnected to what precedes it, the recitation of some aggadic texts about the importance of Torah study. Not only that, it also deviates from the expectation of the “long blessing” format. Generally, as per Pesahim 104b,[2] long blessings begin with the words “barukh attah Hashem,” unless they immediately follow another long blessing. However, this blessing, while preceded by aggadic texts and not by another blessing, does not begin with the phrase “barukh attah Hashem.” Thus, the role this paragraph plays within the wider context of the siddur has troubled scholars for quite some time.

This first problem was raised by the Tosafists nearly a thousand years ago (Pesahim 104b, Berakhot 14a, 46a), and they give a justification, albeit one which leaves many unsatisfied, arguing that “Elokai! Neshamah” need not fit the form of “long blessing” because it is mere praise, and not a formal blessing. Another solution offered by Provencal commentaries like Meiri and Rabad (cited by Tosafot Ha-Rosh Berakhot 46b and 60b) is that this blessing does not need to begin with “barukh” because it is juxtaposed to a prior blessing that does begin with “barukh,”[3] the blessing made just prior to sleep. By and large, Ashkenazic siddurim and prayer books lived with this tension and its answers; see for example the 13th century Avudraham (Birkhat Ha-Shahar), the conclusion of Tur Orah Hayyim 6 and Darkei Moshe 6 and 46, and Shulhan Arukh and Magen Avraham 6:3. This view reads more smoothly in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and appears to be the view of Rambam (Tefillah 7:3).

The second problem with the conventional start to morning prayers relates to the numerous Biblical verses that appear in the siddur before the blessings on Bible study, including Reishit Hokhmah, Mah Tovu, and other verses. Typically, a blessing performed on the occasion of a mitzvah must precede, not follow, the performance of the mitzvah (Pesahim 7b), and as a result the blessing should be recited before an individual begins to interact with Torah on a given day in any way (see Berakhot 11b). But then how can a Jew read these Torah verses if they have not yet made the blessing upon them?

This question, too, is raised in the Rishonim, and also has an adequate, though not totally satisfying answer. Many argue that while Bible study must follow the blessings on the Torah, the reading of Bible verses for praise or inspiration do not constitute Bible study and is therefore permitted before the blessings (Tur, Beit Yosef 46, Taz 6:5, Rema 46:9, Lehem Hamudot Berakhot 1:77). As with the first problem, here, too, most published siddurim accept this orientation and print numerous verses before the blessings of the Torah.

Indeed, the solutions to the two problems have been cited again and again by authorities over the course of centuries to justify the siddurim of their own era. Siddurim have thus matched this format through to the Shilo siddur and the end of the 20th century.

Siddur Evolution

The 18th century Vilna Gaon is well known for his numerous halakhic innovations and willingness to adjust or change the prevailing practiced custom or traditional texts to match what he believed was the more authentic halakhic practice.[4] Not surprisingly, an innovator like the Vilna Gaon was unsatisfied by the order of prayers typically found in siddurim, and he proposed an alternative. In the Vilna Gaon’s version, the blessings on the Torah were moved prior to any recitation of scripture, and “Elokai! Neshamah” was moved to follow the long hygiene blessings, thereby chaining it to a blessing that started with “Barukh Attah Hashem” and juxtaposing the thanks to God for our physical bodies right next to the thanks to God for the return of our souls each morning (Ma’aseh Rav 6, Bi’ur Ha-Gra 46:9, “venahagu”).

The Vilna Gaon was not the first to argue for this change. The 13th century Shibolei Haleket cited and rejected this approach (Tefillah, 2), which was accepted by the 15th century Maharil (Tefillah). Rosh (Responsa 4:1) attributes this view to the Geonim, although it is rejected by his son, the Tur (6).[5] While the Vilna Gaon may not have innovated this change, it was the tremendous power of his influence that led the authorities who followed him to doubt the Tosafists’ and Rema’s defence of the previously standard text. By the 19th century authorities begin to accept the recommendation of the Vilna Gaon, such that Hayyei Adam (7:8, 9:3), Mishnah Berurah (6:12, 46:27, 46:29), and largely Arukh Ha-Shulkhan (6:7-8, 46:14-16, 47:20) recommend making the change, although Arukh Ha-Shulkhan admits that the siddurim of his day did not reflect this view.

This reordering is accepted in a number of siddurim associated with the Vilna Gaon (including Siddur Aliyot Eliyahu (Weinreb Publishing, 1993, 20-27), and ultimately in most of the modern siddurim printed for the American Modern Orthodox market recently by Koren, including the Sacks-Koren Siddur (2009, 5-25), the Sacks-Soloveitchik Siddur (2011, 5-27),[6] and the new RCA Siddur (Rabbinical Council of America, 2018, 2-18).

Beginning the day with Halakhah or with Spirituality?

Does it matter how we begin the day? I would submit that there are two unstated implications to how the siddur begins that are worthy of surfacing. The first relates to the relationship between lived Jewish practice and legislated Jewish law, a theme surfaced most famously by Haym Soloveitchik in his seminal essay Rupture and Reconstruction,[7] as to whether Jews should continue to follow the practices of the generation that precedes them, or to rethink and innovate based on earlier legal texts. This is a certain discomfiture some may feel at rejecting or invalidating the prayers of their youth, on the basis of new, unearthed views and stringencies which advocate for a revised order of prayers. This issue finds many ramifications in contemporary Judaism and so many may have already come to peace with what they feel about this question.

However, there is a second factor here as well. I have noted in the past that our prayer service contains a mix of formal, objective, halakhic strictures and boundaries, but also contains a more spontaneous, instinctive, emotional and experiential feeling of living our lives within the rhythms and perspectives of religious Judaism. We might ask which of these approaches, however, is the better way to begin our day: Should we begin with the personal/emotional commitment to the Torah and Yirat Hashem, the awe and sense of spontaneous grandeur invoked by Mah Tovu when entering the synagogue? Or should we begin almost from the beginning with the precise rules of the obligated blessings and the time and place to recite each and every one of them?

Like any good alumnus of advance Yeshivot here and abroad, I confess that I now follow the stringencies of the Vilna Gaon in this way – juxtaposing “Elokai! Neshamah” to Asher Yatzar in those sleepy moments just after waking and reordering all verses that appear in the siddur prior to the blessings of the Torah. But I have noticed recently that the cost of this is that I – like the new printed siddurim – skip or minimize many of those inspired verses and mission statements that I used to chant at the start of prayer out of the Shilo Siddur of my youth. It may be valid, valued, and important for our siddurim to upgrade our halakhic commitment and our adoption of new ways to improve our davening, but perhaps not at the cost of beginning our days with the raw inspired words that reflect what our beliefs are, and why we are doing what we are doing.

[1] See for example the 1596 Krakow Siddur, 1628 Hanau Siddur, Isaac Satanow’s 1785 Va-Yetar Yitzhak Siddur, the 1881 Zhytomyr printing of Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Siddur, and partially in the 1562 Mantua Siddur. The editors of the reprint of the Hanau Siddur (Rafeld and Tabori) have a brief discussion of the historical variations of the early davening on pages 24-26.

[2] There are nearly 200 blessings in the Jewish tradition, defined as prayers which contain the three words “Barukh Attah Hashem” within them. A third of these blessings are short, less than a dozen words long, beginning with the phrase “Barukh Attah Hashem” including ten blessings on enjoyments, roughly a dozen blessings of praise, fifteen morning blessings, and more than 30 blessings preceding the performance of a mitzvah.

A second group of these blessings are longer, chains of prayer-based blessings, which follow the format that the initial blessing on a grouping begins and concludes with a “Barukh Attah Hashem” phrase, but the subsequent ones do not. Examples of this type of blessing include the 19 blessings of the Amidah, the three blessings of Birkat Ha-Mazon, the seven Shema blessings, the blessings surrounding the holiday and daily Hallel, the blessings after the Haftarah, and some of the Sheva Berakhot.

The final category of blessings are independent long blessings which begin with a “Barukh Attah Hashem” clause and end with a “Barukh Attah Hashem” (such as the final of the Sheva Berakhot, the blessings before and after Torah reading, before the Haftarah, and after Megillah reading, Kiddush Levanah, the Berakhah following Maggid, Kiddush, and Havdalah, the blessing before sleep, the blessing after circumcision, Asher Yatzar, and the shorter versions of the Grace after Meals).

Elokai! Neshamah” is one of only three lengthy blessings that is not part of a chain, but yet still does not open with “Barukh Attah Hashem,” along with the blessing found in the prayer “Le-olam Yehey Adam” and the prayer while traveling.

[3] A long blessing does not need to begin with Barukh Attah if it follows a different blessing that does begin with Barukh Attah, as can be demonstrated by the later blessings of the Amidah and of Birkat Ha-Mazon. A Biblical basis for this format is the Psalms of Hallel, where the first chapter begins and ends with Hallelukah, and the intervening chapters ending but not beginning with Hallelukah (Psalms 113-117).

[4] See Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 92-93.

[5] Though the Tur rejects this view, he himself seems to have followed it (end of 46).

[6] The OU Press Soloveitchik edition of Rosh Hashanah Machzor in entry #35 of the Rav’s customs, cites that the Rav’s view was to recite the two blessings together. However, as we have noted, the same problem of blessings beginning without Barukh applies to all three of the blessings noted in footnote 2 above, one of which is the prayer of “Attah Hu” but a few pages later. Rabbi Soloveitchik was consistent and emended the text of “Attah Hu” to solve this problem (#38), yet these newer published siddurim are not consistent, as they solve the problem at “Elokai! Neshamah” but not at “Attah Hu.”

[7] Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (Summer 1994).

Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education.