The Meaning of Shacharit | Aleph Beta

The Meaning of Shacharit

Making Sense of: Morning Prayers

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Can morning prayers be meaningful and routine? Repeating the same, ancient, esoteric words every morning with genuine feeling can be incredibly challenging. And yet, this seemingly impossible task is exactly what Judaism asks of us. Tell us to pray whenever we feel truly moved. Or demand we daven shacharit on the clock, regardless of how we feel. But how are we possibly supposed to meet both of these demands at once? Solving this problem may lie in understanding the inspiring effect morning specifically can have on our prayers. 

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman begins to explore the relationship between morning and prayer by taking a close look at one of the most pivotal, yet confusing, sections of shacharit: the shema and its blessings.

This video is based on content that originated from part 2 of a 3 part lecture series on A Tale of God's Two Names. For a more in depth understanding of these materials, be sure to listen to A Tale of Two Names: Elokim and YHVH, A Tale of Two Names: Why Were There Days of Creation? and A Tale of Two Names: From The Garden To The Flood.


Hey folks, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and today I wanted to talk to you about a really big part of Judaism that seems particularly difficult to relate to.

You know, in terms of our daily or weekly routine, a lot of what I do, at least, as an observant Jew, every day, is, you know, pretty relatable. The Sabbath, for example. You know, once you get past some of the inconvenience of not driving your car around, not watching TV, you kind of find yourself welcoming that little breath of fresh air that’s this weekly day of rest.

It’s a time to kind of center yourself, collect your thoughts, reach out to friends, really be present with family, connect to God. It’s an amazing thing, very spiritual. Most of my friends, me included, we can relate to that very easily. We can say with real sincerity that we wouldn’t trade the Sabbath experience for anything, don’t know how anybody lives without it.

Chesed. Helping the needy. Being there for others in their times of crisis. Makes you feel pretty good, it’s a pretty relatable part of the religion, you know?

Learning Torah. Torah is amazing. Yeah, you know, my fifth grade Hebrew teacher was awful, and I’m sure many of us have had some not great experiences, but on the whole, you know, Torah’s amazing. It can be intellectually captivating, it can be spiritually stirring, it’s pretty relatable also.

But there’s one part of daily religious life, that, you know, speaking personally, at least for me, has always been a little bit more difficult to relate to. Hard to really get into in a genuine way. And that actually is prayer. Morning prayers in particular.

Because, you know, think of all the things that are barriers here. There’s a language barrier, for starters. And it’s not just the fact that it’s in Hebrew, even if you know basic Hebrew, reading the Bible is one thing, but reading the prayers? The prayers are poetry. And most of us don’t use poetry as a matter of course in our daily lives, prayer is like the only time when we’re routinely saying poetry. Routine poetry seems like an oxymoron, but in prayer, that’s what we do, every day.

And the real truth is, one of the things that makes morning prayer in particular difficult is, you know, just the fact that it’s in the morning at all! I mean, like, what if you’re not really a morning person? I was never really a morning person. I have vivid memories of my dorm counselor in high school, standing outside the door to my room, yelling at a still pretty much asleep David: it’s time to wake up already, you’ll miss zman krias shema!

Zman krias Shema…. The time to say Shema in the morning, yeah, the bane of my childhood existence. It turns out, folks, that there is a prescribed time, by Jewish law, to say the morning shema every morning, and it, folks, is earlier than a sleeping teenager might like. You know, I would stumble out of bed, half groggy, and sometimes you find yourself wondering to yourself, does God really want this? Is He into this? It just sounds so rigid, that I have to wake up in the morning, every morning, really early, by this prescribed time, to say these words, Shema, this great declaration of faith, as part of our morning prayers? Why does it have to be locked into this time?

And while we’re at it, it always seemed strange to me, why the Shema, this declaration of faith, was actually part of our morning prayers at all? What about it makes it prayer? It isn't obviously prayer. Prayer is this very subjective yearning. It's a very emotional, one-on-one, kind of, intimate dialogue with one's Creator. And the declaration that God is One sounds like something you'd say on a witness stand in a trial. It's a statement of faith. What is it that requires prayer to include statements of faith?

But even before you get to kriat shema, take a look at the blessings that were designed by the rabbis to introduce Shema, the blessings that are known as birchot kriat shema, the blessings of Shema. Why are the Birchot Kri'at Shema part of the picture? Because, if I were to come up with the language for a bracha, a blessing of Kri'at Shema on my own, I might say something like, blessed art Thou, oh God, Who is One, Who loves oneness, Who hates twoness, Who wants everyone to know how One He is. Blessed are You, Who is one. Then I'd say Shema, the text from the Torah that says that.

But if you actually look at the blessing, what we start Birchat Kri'as Shema with instead, the problem is that it doesn't seem to have much to do with Shema. Here's the blessing: 

ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך העולם

Blessed are you, oh God,

יוצר אור ובורא חשך. עשה שלום ובורא את הכל 

the Creator of light, and the Creator of darkness.

This is the main idea of the first blessing of Shema. And, the problem is, look, I have no problem with blessing God for light and darkness every day. Light is a really good thing, and I'm really happy that we have it. It's the basis for all photosynthesis in the world, it creates warmth, all sorts of great things. But what does it have to do with Shema? Don't call this a blessing of Shema. Make it just one of the blessings that we bless God for in the morning. When we talk about how great it is that we can walk, how great it is that we can talk, let's talk about how great it is that You created light. Why is it that we have this whole other category of Blessings of Shema and this introduces it? This is one of the two great blessings of Shema.

But let’s say there’s some sort of answer to this problem. I’m still not satisfied, because, look how this blessing progresses. It kind of seems to go off the rails. The easiest way to see this is if you imagine that this isn't some sort of sacred text, but your daughter, Susie, came up with this for her seventh-grade essay.

Teacher said, write a proposed blessing of Shema and here's Susie's blessing. And immediately after she blesses God for being the Creator of light, she then goes on to say the following words, these are from the actual blessings of Shema:

המאיר לארץ ולדרים עליה ברחמים 

The God Who causes light to shine upon the earth, upon all of the inhabitants of earth.

And I’d say, so far so good. Susie, that's a very nice blessing. Light is really great for the earth and it's really great for all the inhabitants of the earth. So far, so good. But keep on reading in the blessing.

ובטובו מחדש בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית

and in His goodness, the Lord renews every day, constantly, the work of creation.

 'מה רבו מעשיך ה 

look at all of Your things that You have made, oh God, 

כלם בּחכמה עשית 

all of them have been done with such wisdom,

מלאה הארץ קנינך. 

how the world is full with all the things that You own,

המלך המרומם לבדו מאז.

You, the King, Who is above it all from before.

At this point, I'm thinking, Susie, what beautiful poetry, you're sweeping me away with your words. But, when I actually stop to ask myself, but Susie, you've kind of gotten swept away with these ideas and we’ve just lost the whole train.

Because, this is a blessing of Shema. Fine. And for some reason, the blessing of Shema is talking about how great it is that God created light. Now, if I wanted to finish off that blessing, get into the body text, right? In other words, if the topic sentence is, God, it's amazing that You made light, so you would expect the body text to relate directly to that topic sentence.

So, Susie, if I was writing the body text, I would say, light is an amazing thing. Think how bad it would be to not have it. It would be like 321 degrees minus zero Kelvin. We'd all be freezing. That would be really, really bad. And if we had no light, there would be no life. I wouldn't be able to see and I'd be bumping into things. God, I hate bumping into things. Thank You for making light.

That would be a really great blessing. But that's not Susie's blessing. Instead, Susie starts talking about God renewing and recreating creation every day. And I'm thinking to myself, Susie, what are you talking about? What do you even mean? God made creation once. He didn't make creation a zillion times, every single day. So Susie explains, and, by the way, this is the explanation that I was given in school, I wonder if you ever came across this language in school, or what explanation you were given, but the explanation I was given was actually very abstract and very philosophical. And imagine Susie sat Mommy down and said, Mommy, here's what I mean. You see, it wasn't that God just created the world once, because the truth is that God is like the energy behind the world. So if God would withdraw His energy from the world, it would all evaporate like nothing.

There's a paragraph in Maimonides to this effect, and she shows me the paragraph. And I start nodding my head and I say, okay, I see what you're talking about. And Susie says, you see, if God would withdraw His power from creation, that tree over there would, like, evaporate. So the only reason why that tree is there, Mommy, is because really God didn't just create things once in the six days of creation. He's recreating that tree every day. Not just every day, every second, Mommy, that tree is being created. That wall, He's creating. He's creating every last little thing all the time, and that's what we're talking about in this prayer.

And I'm looking at little Susie, and I say, little Susie, that is a very fascinating abstract concept, but I do not see that it has anything to do with this blessing of Shema that you're making about light. What are you even talking about, Susie?

So I have three basic questions about prayer. A. why is Shema part of prayer? It's just a declaration of faith. Where is the prayerful part of Shema, so to speak? Two, why does the blessing of Shema start off with the blessing about light? And three, why does the blessing about light go off the rails to talk about creation and how great that God has all these things? What does that have to do with light?

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