Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Structure of Shaharit

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.


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.


micha said...

The way I view it, there are three mitzvos of prayer:
1- Shema
2- Tefillah - fixed formalized text
3- Tachanunim - an appeal from the heart of what's really on your mind

We therefore have all three in the siddur, with the caveat that E-lokai Netzor and Tachanun aren't really tachanunim. By definition, tachanunim can't come from a text. Instead, we are provided with scaffolding, conversation starters.

Leading up to the three mitzvos are preparatory steps of
- birkhos haShachar
- qorbanos
- Pesuqei deZimrah

In true internet style (where voicing agreement is rarely done), I won't make further comments.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I appreciate your comment.

I haven't gotten around to a discussion of tahanunim just yet, but my feeling is that the dichotomy of tefillah/tahanun is not just formal/spontaneous, especially since the original format of tefillah was more open-ended as well.

I believe that tefillah represents an ideal state of amidah lifne Hashem, and tahanun is the "reality check" where we reflect upon how distant from that coveted state we truly are.

micha said...

Although tachanunim is a separate chiyuv, I would agree that they are more arctypes than actual distinct sections.

So, while I already called E-lokai Netzor and Tachanun "scaffolding" for tachanunim, the gemara also tells us that Shemoneh Esrei, THE tefillah itself, must also contain the personal element. Kol ha'oseh tefilaso qeva, lo asa tefilaso tachnunim. (Whomever makes their prayers fixed didn't make their prayers tachanunim.)

So, both obligations exist, and it would seem that in reality prayers can only be divided by which they are designed to emphasize.

Something else to note, tefillah is always for the community. If the phrasing is in the singular (e.g. "E-lokai" instead of "E-lokeinu", "leshoni" instead of "leshoneinu), we know the prayer was designed for tachanunim. I am told that this idea is from the Vilna Gaon, but I never found it in a primary source.

In the case of E-lokai Netzor, it's among the prayers that various tannaim said "basar tzelosana -- after their tefillah". So one might take that to imply that they aren't an extension of the mitzvah of tefillah, but something else. Or, it could just mean "after their Shemoneh Esrei".


Anonymous said...

Rabbi Maroof,

You write that the purpose of tefilla is:

"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."

Why should we "reframe our practical pursuits as instrumental to fulfilling the purpose Hashem has determined..."?

With the assumption that man is self-serving, what motivation does he have to fulfill the Will of God as opposed to his own will? As one philosopher once said, "Who is God to tell me what to do?"

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


Your comment presupposes that adherence to God's will would not ultimately be of benefit to mankind. This is not the Torah's understanding. We believe God issues commandments only for the purpose of facilitating the development and fostering the happiness and perfection of His creatures.

As the Creator, God determined human nature and living in harmony with our design is the very definition of a good life.

Human beings who decide that their subjective worlds represent the ultimate reality and allow egotistic fantasy, desire for honor and sensual whim to govern their behavior are in fact doing themselves an intellectual, moral and psychological disservice.

"Who is God to tell me what to do?" He is the One who created you and therefore knows best, and to disregard His instructions would be foolhardy. To align oneself with the principles of God's wisdom is to actualize one's potential as a human being and thus experience genuine satisfaction and fulfillment.

Anonymous said...

So, if I understand you correctly, the only plans we must realign are those not in line with our nature. However, a perfected philosopher would not need to realign his plans, with the exception of cases of chukim where he may not understand how the mitzva is beneficial to him.

I understand what you are saying in how it applies in most cases, but there seem to be instances where God's Will is not in line with man's happiness/perfection. How about a young budding metaphysician dying al pi Kiddush haShem? Had he lived he would certainly have become a truly perfected individual!

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


An excellent question, which can really be posed on the institution of death al qiddush Hashem in general.

The answer is that the true metaphysician will recognize that his commitment to the ultimate truth, manifest through his death al qiddush Hashem, is the essence of perfection, inasmuch as it is a testimony to his understanding that his particular material existence is subordinated to the eternal and transcendent existence of God.

This is the whole concept of dying al qiddush Hashem - it reflects unwavering dedication to the most fundamental truths even when this requires a total vanquishing of the instinct for self preservation which derives from man's overestimation of his own significance in the world.

"There are those who acquire eternity in one moment" because when challenged they make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of truth, and the knowledge that leads them to take this leap is the very essence of human perfection.

This level of recognition of God, which the "martyr" experiences when threatened with his own demise, is something which the average person who is not faced with such trying circumstances must labor to acquire over many decades.

Anonymous said...

I just want to clarify your answer -- are you saying that he will achieve more perfection by dying al kiddush hashem than by ignoring the commandment and living the next 40 years as a metaphysician, or are you saying that he would get more perfection by ignoring the commandment (and thus living) but there is another factor which makes it rational to die al kiddush hashem?

I understand that dying al kiddush hashem would contribute to his perfection -- but quantitatively it seems to me that living a couple decades as a metaphysician would contribute to his perfection more.

Also, what did you mean by, "inasmuch as it is a testimony to his understanding that his particular material existence is subordinated to the eternal and transcendent existence of God." What is the testimony and how is it being testimony'ed?

Thank you! I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your answers.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


I think you are conceiving of perfection as the quantitative process of metaphysical learning. In reality it is qualitative - perfection is related to the clarity of one's perception of transcendent reality, not one's knowledge of a certain number of abstract points.

This is why the Rambam refers to intellectual growth as the gradual removal of misconceptions about Hashem rather than the gradual acquisition of understanding of Hashem.

When a person is faced with a conflict between his own existence and his acknowledgment of God's existence - such as when he is compelled to worship idolatry, hence acting in contradiction to his most fundamental conviction, or die - he is really being forced to assign primacy to one of two things, either the preservation of his own fleeting physical life or the upholding of the truth of Hashem's unity.

This stimulates internal reflection upon his own significance (or lack thereof) as a dependent and created being standing before a Perfect Creator, and the resultant clarity is a superior state of perfection that allows him to demonstrate the inviolability of the "fundamental of fundamentals" by sacrificing his life.

So, in a sense, the perfection attained in this moment is commensurate to that of the great metaphysician, in the sense that the situation enables the martyr to remove himself from his attachment to the realm of the material and sensuous, including his biological existence itself, and to reach a superior level of clarity in his recognition of God's unity and its implications.

Matt said...

Rabbi Maroof,

Wow, that was an excellent post! Do you mind if I post it on my blog as well? I think my readers would really appreciate it.

I also really like this unfolding discussion of kidush ha'Shem.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...



No need to ask, you are always welcome to cross-post material from my blogs.

I must say that my comments were written while I was in the midst of a conversation about something else, so I noticed afterward that they were a bit disorganized, repetitive and possibly unclear. I am glad you were able to penetrate through that and find something edifying!

micha said...

I once heard part of R' Noach Weinberg's "48 Ways" series and his notion that we're "happiness seekers".

However, what is happiness? Can it be defined in terms other than that which we seek? Happiness is not really a goal in and of itself; it's an element of the concept of human pursuit. I think that calling someone a "happiness seeker" is simply saying they are capable of having an emotional attachment to pursuit of a goal.

That didn't come out too clear, so let me try another phrasing: Man pursues. "Happiness" is what we feel when we experience (rightly or not) success in our pursuit.

We can't define our goal in terms of happiness because happiness is already defined in terms of having a goal.

As many rabbinic philosophers noted -- from R' Saadia Gaon (a 10th cent Aristotilian) to the Ramchal (an 18th cent mystic) and many many in between -- G-d created us because it's the nature of Good to have someone to whom to be good. We exist to receive His Good. This is then complicated by the fact that the greatest good Hashem can bestow upon us is an Image of He Himself, the Ultimate Good. And so, paradoxically, if it were all handed to us on a silver platter, the total good we would get is less than the Creator leaving us room to create. And so we were not made perfect nor given perfect lives.

Instead, we were told how to receive His Good, how to finish the job.

One can view finishing the job in terms of better connecting to the Source of Good (as Chassidim do), or finishing the receptacle for Good, one's soul (as Mussar did), or in another way. But they all boil down to figuring out how to finish the job of becoming better recipients of His Good.

WADR to the Rambam, few today would take it for granted that the metaphysician would acheive life's goal. The Image of G-d isn't to know about perfection, but to actually be (or approximate, it is just an image after all) perfect. We are very capable of being some way without understanding how we do it. We are also lamentably capable of knowing how we should be without being able to follow through in practice.

More than quality vs quantity, I think the distinction is It vs About It. The Rambam rejected such a distinction, believing that real da'as (knowledge) directly related to dei'os (emotional propensities or attitudes). It has to do with his take on Aristotilian "Form", but I think this comment is long enough.

Death al Qiddush Hashem, or any powerful experience, does more to internalize that Image than many years of abstract study ever could.

And thus, to perfect one's ability to receive.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Ah Rabbi Maroof,

What a wonderful presentation of Tefilla! I particularly like the bridging metaphor of the physical performance with that of the mind. As a great Chacham said, just as a (physical) fighter is guided to excellence through the art of boxing, so the (mind) thinker is guided to excellence through the art of higgayon.

Pinny said...

Rabbi Maroof,

Excellent Tefillah outline.
Your guess of tachanun is on the money. The Rambam puts - tachanunim as one of the 8 important - not me'akev elements for Tefillah.

Why is it part of the mitzvah of Tefillah? It should be a separate obligation.

The Mispallel must go from being an ambassador who stands and states his case before the King to an ani who falls before the king to beg for survival. This completes the picture of the mispallel. If one would skip Tachanun he would be left with a wrong impression of his place and level of entitlement.
Tachanum is there for the mispallel to recognize that he has no claim - and only deserves and receives Hashem's Tuv through HIS Chesed. Tachanun completes the Gavrah Ha'mispallel with a true limitation of being Omaid lefinai Ha'shechinah.

Dan said...

"Then we must ‘reframe’ our practical pursuits – our pursuit of knowledge, personal development, health, material prosperity, social justice, etc."

Rabbi Maroof, can you please exemplify "reframing" by taking a particular bracha (or 2 or 3) from shemona esrei.

I have particular trouble making the bakashot of shemone esrei meaningful. My mind seams to wander the most at this point in the davening.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


Let's take the first few blessings of request as examples:

1. Knowledge

This beracha emphasizes that it is YOU, Hashem, who is "honen l'adam daat" - who gifts man with knowledge. This is in contradistinction to the conventional belief that the growth of our knowledge is the extension of human power and influence over the world; on the contrary, it is a good that is given from Hashem to man.

We ask Hashem to grant us knowledge as the Honen Hadaat - that is, we desire knowledge not because it increases our power or importance, but because it is a function of Hashem's design that human beings should become knowers of Him to the extent possible.

2. Repentance - Teshuva

The overarching theme of this beracha is that repentance is facilitated by Hashem Who provides us with the necessary circumstances to exercise our free choice, and that our rehabilitation is a manifestation of His design for mankind.

Of course, it builds upon the first blessing because it is only as a result of acquiring theoretical and practical knowledge that we can apply it to our lives in Teshuva.

We recognize that Hashem's involvement in the process of our teshuva expresses itself in two ways.

The first is "return us, our Father, to Your Torah". As Our Creator ("Father"), it is Hashem's will that we (together with the rest of Creation) exist in the most excellent condition possible, which means being guided in our actions by His instruction.

However, Hashem is not only the Creator and thus the source of our existence. He is also our King, which means He is the one we must continually intentionally choose as the object of our worship (Avodah).

This means we must overcome our natural inclination to attach ourselves to material objects and physical gratifications and redirect our energy to transcendent pursuits.

So in this beracha we recognize that as created beings we must return to the wisdom of the Creator as our guide. Furthermore, we acknowledge that a complete return involves overcoming our instinct to be self-serving and consciously committing our energies to service of the true King.

Finally, we summarize by expressing our desire for complete repentance before Hashem, which is the ideal state in which all of our energies are properly balanced and directed, and the governing principles of our life are those of Torah and mitsvot.

The emphasis of the beracha overall is that our process of teshuva is dependent upon Hashem's providence as the Creator as well as our acceptance of Him as our King.

When we engage in repentance we do so out of an awareness of the fact that it manifests the design of Avinu Malkenu, our Creator and our King, and not simply to make ourselves feel superior.

Anonymous said...

Ηellο tо all, how is eѵerything, I
thinκ eveгу onе іs gettіng more from thіs
ωebsite, аnԁ your νiews are ρleaѕant in favor of new uѕers.

Аlso vіѕit mу ѕite: dallas seo client

Anonymous said...

Нi thегe! Thiѕ blog post coulԁ not bе
written much better! Going through this pοst reminԁs me of my рrevious
rοommate! He constantly kept ρreaching about
thіs. I'll send this post to him. Pretty sure he'll
have a vеry good read. I аpргeciate you for sharing!

mу weblog :: portable tens units