Sefasai Tiftach

Jonathan Baker

As we said last time, a bracha (Baruch atah H’ Elo-keinu Melech Haolam) declares our joining with the immanent and transcendent God in dedicating objects or actions to His service.  The two brachot Asher Yatzar and Elokai Neshama begin this process when we awaken, thanking God for our physical health (Asher Yatzar) and for our spiritual existence (Elokai Neshamah). 

The morning brachot continue,  thanking God for granting the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night.  Then come three brachot defining us as members of groups which are variously commanded in the mitzvot.  What links these four?

Having thanked God for physical and spiritual existence, we now thank Him for our intellectual ability, that which separates us from animals.  The Rosh sees “sechvi” as the heart, rather than the rooster – our heart is given an ability similar to the rooster’s in being able to discern light from dark.

Much of Torah and halacha consists of distinctions, many of which are mandated by God (day and night, kodesh and chol, kohen/levi/yisrael) and many of which we must sanctify ourselves (kiddush, shechitah.kashering, granting honors to castes).  The brachot defining us as members of one or another class of those who are commanded in the mitzvot demonstrate our ability to distinguish.

The brachot continue with short brachot of shevach [praise], many based on Biblical references.  The baraita in Brachot 60b mandates them for a sequence of actions taken upon awakening and preparing to face the world.  Today, we say them rapidly in synagogue, apparently unrelated to much of anything.

The brachot metaphorically link our actions to Torah ideas: 

Poqeiach `ivrim: for the ability to see (even the blind say it, as it is communal thanks).  What was first poqeiach our eyes?  Eating from the tree of knowledge (eitz hada`at) – the awakening of human judgment, the ability to choose good or evil.

Malbish arumim: for the ability to dress - because our eyes were opened, we gained modesty and free will.  In a larger sense, then, we thank God for da`at, knowledge, the minds which separate us from the animals, allowing us to choose Divine service.

Matir asurim: in sleep, our actions are involuntary, bound, so we thank God for the ability to move volitionally … and Zokeif kefufim: for our acting on that volition.  The pairing reminds us of the connection between will and action.

The sequence, thus far: we have ability to distinguish, we distinguish among categories, we recapitulate the actualization of human intellect and will in the Garden, and we celebrate the ability to act on that will.  Intellect and Will, combined with Torah’s commands, lead to choice which leads to action – and our actions praise and serve God. 

The next three thank God for our ability to walk: Roqa` ha’aretz `al hamayim: from Ps 136:6, not only is the ground flat for us to walk upon, it hints at the earliest stages of creation..  She`asa li col tzarki: who has helped me get all ready for the day, so I can walk out of the house with my shoes on (this bracha was to be made when putting on the shoes). Meichin mitza`adei gaver: The ground is flat, my shoes are on, and You help me to walk (from Ps. 37:23). 

These connote (following R’ SR Hirsch) all the walking metaphors: halacha, derech hachayim, shvil hazahav (the path of moderation). 

Other brachot thank God for belts, implying the separation brought about by waistbands or gartles; for hats, recognizing Him who is Above, etc. 

These short brachot, then, break down the activity of awakening into its component parts.  An efficiency expert might make these actions flow as quickly as possible. The brachot encourage us to think about each action, and what they imply about our relationship to God, Torah and all Israel.  Action is not simple, it relates to ideas, which link to the totality of Torah.

The siddur is based on progressions: large-scale progressions among sections, smaller-scale progressions within each major section of the service, and smaller-yet progressions within each prayer.  The morning brachot progress from simple existence (physical, spiritual, intellectual) through ability to physically act, to our place among people, and with God.