An Approach to the Morning Prayers


An Approach to the Morning Prayers


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The Shacharit Temple

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

Liturgist Evelyn Garfiel wrote that “the synagogue itself is essentially not a place at all; it is the people, the worshippers. A minyan, ten Jews anywhere, constitutes a synagogue and can conduct a full service . . . no specially marked out space is any longer necessary for a Jewish service.” In the absence of a centralizing Temple, and despite the preponderance of synagogues, physical structures are not necessary for Jewish prayer. Of course, synagogues have a limited degree of holiness, as they house the Torah scrolls; but it is the community gathered within the synagogue that imbues it with sacredness. In the history of religion, this marks an important evolution, in which the axis mundi—the center of the world—shifts from a physical structure to the kahal (“community”).

Historian Mircea Eliade described the significance of “holy centers” in religious traditions: “(a) holy sites and sanctuaries are believed to be situated at the center of the world; (b) temples are replicas of the cosmic mountain and hence constitute the pre-eminent ‘link’ between earth and heaven; (c) the foundations of temples descend deep into the lower regions.” Such holy sites are considered direct channels to the sacred, linking heaven, earth and the world below. Thus, in the Jewish tradition, as the worshipping community has replaced hallowed architecture as the sacred locale, the individuals in prayer become channels to the Divine.

Likewise, the liturgy becomes a semblance of the Temple, with specific prayer units symbolizing structural components of the ancient holy site. In the Shacharit service, for instance, the worshipper travels through the various “levels” of the Temple, advancing in stages of “holiness,” and affirming his or her place at the center of G-d’s universe. In grand metaphor, the morning brachot (“blessing”) are the Temple’s outer courtyard, Pesukei d’zimra (“Songs of Praise”) the inner courtyard, the Shema u’virchoteha (“Shema and its blessings”) the Holy area, and the Shemoneh Esreh (“Eighteen Benedictions”) the Holy of Holies. In this gradual model, holiness can thus be defined as psycho-spiritual separation from the ordinary material world leading to a non-rational, all-consuming sense of yirat shamayim (“awe of heaven”).

Due to the paucity of archaeological remains, scholars have relied on literary sources to help determine the blueprint of Jerusalem’s Second Temple. The Mishnah’s Tractate Middot (“Measures”), which originated during the last days of the Second Temple, provides important details of the Temple’s construction, some of which are supported in the writings of Josephus. From such sources, it appears that the major architectural components of the Second Temple were a porch, sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies. However, as some sources suggest the Second Temple was not as holy as the First (Ezra 3:12, 1 Enoch 89:73, 2 Baruch 68:5-6, etc.), and as other texts lament its desecration (Isaiah 2:1-6, Qumran Damascus Document 5:6-11, etc.), the First Temple seems a better metaphor for the Shacharit service.

Fortunately, the Bible (esp. 1 Kings, Ezekiel, and 2 Chronicles) provides a workable description of the First Temple’s construction. It is described as oblong in shape, and composed of three sections of equal width: a courtyard, main room, and the Holy of Holies. In addition, a large outer courtyard surrounded the Temple (2 Chron. 4:9) where the masses gathered to worship G-d (Jer. 19:14).

Understood as locations of increasing holiness, it is fitting that the outer courtyard is compared to the morning brachot. Originally, these blessings accompanied specific actions. For instance, as a man walked, he would say, “Blessed are You . . . Who firms man’s footsteps,” and while fastening his belt, he would say, “Blessed are You . . . who girds Israel with strength.” Divinity was recognized in these seemingly minor events; the uncertainty of life warranted constant words of gratitude. The Talmudic Sages understood the instability of existence, particularly in the liminal moments between sleep and waking life, and linked human biology with our capacity to praise G-d. In this way, the morning brachot are praises for the necessary and mundane aspects of daily existence—“base” prayers reflecting the limited holiness of the outer courtyard.

As the morning service progresses to Pesukei d’zimra, so does the worshipper move into an intensified state holiness, a phenomenon analogous to entrance into the Temple’s inner courtyard. In keeping with the Talmudic saying, “One should always formulate praise of G-d, and then pray” (BT Berachot 32a), Pesukei d’zimra precede Shema and Shemoneh Esreh in the weekday Shacharit service. These laudatory verses—mainly from Chronicles, Psalms, and Exodus—are designed to inspire the kavvanah (“intention”) necessary for the prayers that follow. In this way, Pesukei d'zimra marks a transition from concern with biology (the morning brachot) to an awareness of G-d’s infinitude. In contrast to the general mass gathering of the outer courtyard, the inner courtyard was the place of burnt offerings to G-d (2 Chron. 15:8). Pesukei d’zimra thus symbolizes departure from the masses gathered in the outer courtyard, and entrance into the heightened sanctity of the inner courtyard.

Following Pesukei d’zimra is the Shema u’virchoteha (“Shema and its blessings”). According to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the proper recitation of the Shema requires three mitzvot: 1) keriah (the reading of Shema); 2) yichud Hashem (affirming G-d’s unity); 3) talmud torah (the study of Torah, i.e., “You shall teach them diligently to your children”). As such, the Shema is not merely a routine liturgical utterance; it requires intense and undivided concentration. As Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests, the Shema embodies the unity of spirituality and law central to Jewish tradition:

"Spirituality is subjective; the very fact of its inwardness implies a certain degree of anarchy; it is unfettered and self-directed, impulsive and spontaneous. In contrast, law is objective; it requires discipline, structure, obedience, order. Yet both are necessary. Spirituality alone begets antinomianism and chaos; law alone is artificial and insensitive. Without the body pf the law, spirituality is a ghost. Without the sweep of the soaring soul, the corpus of the law tends to become a corpse."

In this way, the Shema u’virchoteha mark a distinct escalation of prayer, in which kavvanah reaches a higher level analogous to the Temple’s Holy area. This “greater house” (2 Chr. 3:5) had walls lined with cedar, on which carved figures of Cherubim, palm trees, and flowers were overlaid in gold. Like the great cathedrals of Europe, this décor was meant to be awe-inspiring; the Holy area was demarcated as a palace of G-d. And, as the beauty of the room focused the individual’s mind on G-d, so does the Shema demand full attention on G-d’s unity.

The Shacharit service culminates with Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), which has parallel in the Holy of Holies—the ancient dwelling place of G-d. Importantly, only the High Priest was authorized to enter this place, an honor he performed once annually during Yom Kippur. As such, the Holy of Holies was both the most restrictive environment in the Jewish world, and the place where one could stand on the literal ground of G-d. This concept of approaching G-d is essential to the Shemoneh Esreh, a series of petitions for G-d’s personal and communal favor. During the Shemoneh Esreh, the worshipper stands at attention, communicating to G-d in a direct and personal way beyond the limits of the previous prayers. And if these benedictions are to have efficacy, one must be in a state of elevated spiritual sincerity—a state equivalent to the physical structure of the Holy of Holies.

Despite its physical absence, the Jerusalem Temple remains a powerful symbol in Jewish belief; and though visualization of the Temple is hampered by the insufficiency of speculative renderings, its application to the Shacharit service reinforces the theological assertion that Jews in prayer have replaced specific architecture as signifiers of sacred space. Of course, the exclusivity of the Temple may hinder full embrace of this metaphor, particularly as the Holy of Holies was restricted to the High Priest, and as women were restricted to the “Women’s Court.” Nevertheless, it is helpful to conceptualize the service as an escalating ritual, taking the worshipper through levels of holiness analogous to the various structures of the Temple.


from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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