A couple of months ago I held a series of classes during which the meaning and structure of the morning service (Shaharit) was explored. To help participants follow the discussion, I provided the following explanatory outline of the tefillah. It is still a work-in-progress but I thought it might be of interest to some of the readers of this blog. Bear in mind that it is based upon the Sephardic format of prayer which is slightly different from the Ashkenazic in minor respects.
Structure of the Morning Service (Shaharit)
General Theme: Prayer is called Tefillah in Hebrew, which means judgment. Our objective in Tefillah is to place our existence in its proper context. We are dependent upon Hashem for our resources and we are free of the delusion that our own agendas and visions for this world should dominate it. We recognize that our ultimate goal should be understanding the purpose for which we were created and working to fulfill that rather than superimposing our own artificial plan.
The structure of the morning service, Shaharit, is organized around this principle. It progresses from the most basic awareness of G-d (morning blessings) to the most intense (Amidah or Shemoneh Esreh). It is useful to think of this progression by drawing a comparison to a physical workout which begins with simpler “warm up” routines and culminates in vigorous exercise. Similarly, our souls must be warmed up gently before reaching the heights of spiritual focus each day.
The concluding components of Shaharit, which serve as a sort of “cool down”, are not yet included in this presentation but will be added in the future.
1. Birkhot Hashahar – Morning Blessings
Purpose: Attuning us to the blessings we take for granted on a daily basis, including the function of our senses, our bodies and our minds. This prepares us for the broader vision of Hashem’s graciousness that is articulated in Pesukei Dezimra
Content: Blessings thanking G-d for sight, the ability to walk, giving us the Torah, etc. Concludes with Kaddish, prayer for the sanctification of Hashem’s name in the world, which reminds us of the ultimate purpose of all mitsvot and serves (as usual) as a transition to the next segment of the prayer service.
2. Pesukei Dezimra – Verses of Praise
Purpose: Awakening in us a recognition of how G-d’s goodness is not only present in our lives, it permeates all of creation – the stars and planets, animals and vegetation, humans and angels.
A. Introductory sections from the Book of Chronicles and Tehillim (Psalms) which remind us that the purpose of our national existence as the Jewish people, as well as our individual existence as human beings and Jews, is to spread knowledge and awareness of Hashem in the world. This section is expanded on Shabbat and Holidays with additional Psalms that reflect specific themes of those days.
B. An opening blessing, Baruch Sheamar, which acknowledges our inherent limitations in understanding and praising G-d and our reliance on the divinely inspired texts of Tehillim (Psalms) for this purpose.
C. Paragraphs taken primarily from the Book of Tehillim that express the kindness and goodness of Hashem throughout creation. Highlights include the famous “Ashre” psalm and the final chapter of Tehillim, which describes praising Hashem with instruments of various kinds. Two additional Psalms are included and one is excluded from this section on Shabbat and Holidays.
D. A closing blessing, Yishtabach, reminds us that the task of articulating G-d’s greatness can never really be “concluded” – the process is infinite. On Shabbat and holidays, this blessing is preceded by the Nishmat Kol Hay prayer, which expands upon the theme of our inability to fully fathom and/or express Hashem’s wisdom and graciousness with our prayers.
“THE MAIN EVENT”
1. Shema and Its Blessings
Purpose: Now that we have laid the groundwork of thankfulness and gratitude to Hashem, we reflect upon our obligations and duties to our beneficent Creator. Recognizing Hashem as the King of the Universe and also the One who directs and guides our intellectual and moral development as human beings, providing us with instructions as to the wisest and most fulfilling lifestyle.
A. Opens with Kaddish and Barechu (the call to prayer), signifying the beginning of a new segment of prayer in which the community, not just the individual, participates.
B. Two Preliminary blessings that set the stage for the declaration “Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”. The first blessing details G-d’s kingship over the Universe or the “macrocosm” – stars, planets, angels, etc. Everything we observe in the world is under the direction of His laws. In other words, “Hashem is One” – He is the single, transcendent Cause of all that exists. The second blessing acknowledges that Hashem is the guide of our development, He educates us with Torah and Mitsvot and brings us ever closer to the ideal of living in complete harmony with the rest of Creation – i.e., following Hashem’s plan for us just as the rest of the Universe abides by His plan. In other words, He is “Our G-d”.
C. The three paragraphs of the Shema. The first opens with the famous line “Hear Oh Israel Hashem is Our God Hashem is One”, the summary of the thrust of the two preliminary blessings. The first paragraph describes our obligation to love Hashem, study His Torah at every opportunity, and be constantly mindful of its importance in our lives through the wearing of Tefillin and the hanging of mezuzot.
The second paragraph speaks of the service of Hashem, referring to prayer as well as the performance of all of the commandments. This paragraph describes the ideal of a Jewish community living perfectly in line with its objective.
The third paragraph contains the Mitsvah of wearing tsitsit, or fringes. The theme of the paragraph is not to be drawn after the allure of material wealth or physical pleasure. It concludes with a verse in which the Exodus from Egypt is recalled. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of G-d’s kingship, since to truly accept His kingship means to reject the kingship of man represented by the Pharaoh and his materialistic and tyrannical society.
3. One blessing that follows the Shema and expands upon the theme of the Exodus from Egypt. We do not believe human beings have the ability to impose their own imaginary purpose on creation. Everyone is ultimately held accountable for his or her fidelity to Hashem’s plan alone. The Exodus was the method by which Hashem redeemed us from our belief in the saving power of human government.
2. Amidah or “Shemoneh Esreh” – The Ultimate Tefillah Experience
Purpose: To reflect upon our position as individuals and community members in G-d’s grand design. This requires us to focus on Hashem as the source and director of all existence, including our own. Then we must ‘reframe’ our practical pursuits – our pursuit of knowledge, personal development, health, material prosperity, social justice, etc. - as instrumental to fulfilling the purpose Hashem has determined rather than merely being steps toward the realization of our own agendas. Finally, we must acknowledge that the resources we have acquired and the development we have attained are functions of Hashem’s overarching plan steadily moving toward its full expression.
1. The First Three Blessings acknowledge that Hashem’s design manifests itself in the sustenance and management of human society, the material/biological world, and the metaphysical realm.
2. The middle blessings (on the weekday 13, on Shabbat only one) place our pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment (individually and communally) in the context of Hashem’s plan.
3. The final three blessings express gratitude for what we have already attained and acknowledge that these accomplishments are functions of Divine Providence directed toward helping us to act as agents of G-d in perfecting ourselves and our world.