Modeh Ani: “I give thanks before You”


Modeh Ani: “I give thanks before You…”
Starting the Day with an Attitude of Gratitude

“I give thanks before You

eternal and living King

who returns my soul within me

with mercy.

Great is Your faithfulness.”

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ |

מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם |

שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי |

בְּחֶמְלָה. |

רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ: |

Modeh ani lifanecha melech chai v’kayam shehechezarta bee nishmahti b’chemlah. Rabah emunatecha.

Last time, in our first installment of this series we touched on the idea of Shiviti Hashem – placing G-d before us, recognizing His place in our lives. It is a silent meditation done before we open our eyes or say a single word. Now we are actually going to being discussing the recited prayers of Judaism. This first of these is the Modeh Ani, the prayer said up awakening and while still in this meditative state; with our eyes closed, remaining quiet and motionless until we say this prayer. As these are the first words on the lips of every religious Jew each day, its important for us to consider their meaning.

Historical Background

Before we begin talking about this prayer lets get a little historical background about it. Whereas with other prayers I would prefer to turn to the Shulchan Aruch, (Code of Jewish Law, 16th century) we cannot look that far back historically with this prayer. However, it would be mentioned in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Code of Jewish Law 1:2, 19th century). Though Jews have always begun the morning with prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgement of G-d, this prayer is actually a recent addition to our tradition.

The first existent instance of this prayer is in a work called Seder ha-Yom by Rav Moshe Ibn Machir of Tzfat, published in 1599, but merely as an addendum.1 Based on that the prayer is assumed by scholars to have its origin earlier in that century.

This is one of the most beloved of all Jewish prayers. The great love for this prayer comes from it’s simplicity. It is this simplicity that made this prayer memorable to so many people that it became a liturgical standard. It is also this simplicity that hints to many scholars that this was created as a simplified version of the prayer Elohai Neshama, which we will discuss another time. It was this prayer that was traditionally said in the morning since the times of the Talmud (Talmud Bavli Berachot 60b). This theory may hold some truth as Modeh Ani is one of the prayers that is included in many prayerbooks with a selection of essential prayers for children. This prayer is so well loved that it is often the first prayer taught to Jewish children, even as mere toddlers most every religious child can say this prayer by heart.

Even thought this prayer is relatively new in light of all of Jewish history, it should not be dismissed as though it were created at whim. Prayers are composed with careful consideration of sacredness. The best way we can be sure to say an appropriate prayer is to use the language of the righteous that went before us. We pray in the Hebrew language and with the tone of our forefathers. Just as they merited to connect to G-d with certain meaningful statements, we use like words to seek to connect to G-d in the same consciousness they did. We want to have a heart like the prophets and righteous, so we model ourselves after their example using words they would use.

Modeh Ani follows the general way that liturgy is derived; prayers, even the most obscure, can be drawn from and blended together with other prayers, Talmudic references and scriptures to make a new prayer.

Upon investigation it appears to me that this prayer might actually have its origins in the Talmud, or at least part of it. This connection goes unnoticed because it is presented in the Talmud Yerushali – the Talmud as documented in Palestine as opposed to Talmud Bavli – the Babylonian Talmud, which is more comprehensive and thus more popularly used. I’ll help with the English:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani

said three introductions

as they occurred during the day

changing with each creation.

In the morning

a man is obligated to say:

I give thanks before You

Hashem my G-d

and G-d of my fathers

who brought my soul from darkness

to light.

At Mincha (noon)

a man is obligated to say:

I give thanks before You

Hashem my G-d

and G-d of my fathers,

just as you privileged me to see the sun

in the east

likewise privilege me

to see it in the west.

In the evening [one is] required to say:

May it be your will, Hashem our G-d,

and G-d of my fathers,

just as I was in darkness

and you brought me to light,

so will you bring me out

from darkness to light.”

רבי שמואל בר נחמני |

אמר כננד ג׳ |

פעמים שהיום |‬

משתנה על הבריות |

בשחר |

 צריך לאדם לומר |

מודה אני לפניך |

ה׳ אלהי |

ואלהי אבותי |

שהוצאתני מאפילה |

לאורה |

במנחה |

צריך אדם לומר |

מודה אני לפניך |

ה׳ אלהי |

ואלהי אבותי |

כשם שזכיתני לראות |

החמה במזרח |‬

כך זכיתי |

לראות במערב |

בערב צריך לומר|

יהי רצון מלפניך ה׳ אלהי |

ואלהי אבותי |

כשם שהייתי באפילה |‬

והוצאתני לאורה |

כך תוציאני |

מאפילה לאורה |‬‫

Talmud Yerushalmi, Vilna Edition, page 58

Although these prayers are not know to have been made it into the traditions we know today, in the 3rd century Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani proposed three prayers to be said during the three times of the day; dawn, noon and dusk. Notice how two of them begin with the words “modeh ani lifanecha / I give thanks before You.” This is the first occurrence in the rabbinic literature of this phrase. They are beautifully reverent and hopeful prayers.

This prayer is made of three main pieces, from all three of the traditional sources: the first piece from the Talmud, Talmud Yerushalmi shown above; the middle part as a summarization of the Elohai Nishma prayer, which thanks G-d for returning our soul; and a phrase of scripture added on at the end as we will also explore.

Exploring The Prayer by Laying out The Parts

Let us to learn how to practice this prayer by exploring the words of it. It really is so concise and clear that the lesson truely is in the telling.

I give thanks

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי |

Modeh ani

Unlike other prayers, this one begins as a statement and not a blessing. The reasons for this we will explain in a minute. But one thing about this wording is very telling. Unlike the general blessings that bless G-d because of who He is and because He is “our G-d” (Eloheinu); this prayer is a personal statement. In some ways this prayer has more in common with a meditation than a blessing, which you will also see along the way.

The prayer is a statement that “I” (ani) give thanks to G-d. Modeh is actually a variant of the word hodah. Hodah does mean to thank, but it also has a deeper meaning. It can also mean to admit, to acknowledge, to confess, or rise to the understanding of something. This is very appropriate wording, because before we can actually give thanks we have to have the ascent of understanding that we should be grateful. Before we can give thanks we need to acknowledge in ourselves that we ought to give thanks.

Now women use the famine equivalent of modeh which is “modah;” thus a lady may say “modah ani.”

This is a perfect moment, lying on ones bed, with their eyes closed, before saying any other words, to consider all the reasons “I” have to be grateful. And it all starts with the obvious, that we woke up to a new day of life.

before You

| לְפָנֶיךָ

lifanecha

Why does it use the word “lifnecha / before You,” is this word really necessary? This word can only seem superfluous if we think that it is added to the statement in order for us to understand who we are directing our prayer to. But we are not giving thanks to G-d, we are giving thanks before G-d. As we learned in the morning meditation of Sheviti Hashem upon awakening we must immediately make ourselves aware that we are in the presence of the King, and therefore we should set our intention to act and speak becomingly. Likewise, being in the presence of our most important Master we are told in the halachic works to rise up with “gibor ki’ari / with the strength of a lion” meaning “halev ki gevurah / with a heart of bravery.” (Kitzur 1:3) Not only do we rise up quickly to face the day because we are laying idle in the presence of the King (which is also alluded to in the next words), but this Mighty King watches over us so we can face the day with courage. Who is this King? He is the:

eternal and living King

| מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם

melech chai v’kayam

Unlike the gods of the nations, with some gods ruling over certain days of the week, or certain hours of the day; our G-d is always the sole Deity in the universe. G-d is always the sole Authority. He is a living G-d, active and involved in our existence.

Now we should take notice that up until now this prayer has made creative descriptions and use of grammar in order to pose this prayer with references to G-d, but without use of any of the sacred names we normally use in prayer or in the scriptures. This is intentional. Until one washes their hands one should avoid saying any of the sacred names out of reverence. What names are these? They are all the names normally one is forbidden to erase. (The Rav’s Siddur, Nusach haAri-z”l of the Baal HaTanya) The reason for this can be found in the explanation for the next words:

who returns my soul within me

| שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי

shehechezarta bee nishmahti

G-d returns our souls to us. To hechezir means to return, to reinstate; simply put, to bring back. We are taught by the sages that during our sleep our soul departs from our bodies, we rest in a state that is close to death. The Talmud tells us this state of sleep we experience is so deep it is 1/60th of death (Talmud Bavli Brachot 59b). During our bedtime prayers one entrusts their soul to G-d, that He keep it and then return it to us in the morning so that we awaken. During that time it is entrusted to G-d our soul communes with Him. As we sleep our souls are able to recharge and rejuvenate (Kitzur 1:2), it returns to the Source of life from which it came and when we awaken it returns.

However, during this period of sleep we are told that an unholy spirit, an unenlightened consciousness comes over us in the absence of our enlightened self. The mystics teach that a residue of the unclean spirit remains on our fingers, therefore we should wash to remove it. On a practical level, during the night we may have touched body parts that are unclean, therefore we should take care to show care for ourselves and reference to G-d to clean ourselves up before we begin our daily service. I say that because that is what we awaken to do, to serve Hashem. And just as people in the days of the Temple would wash before saying their sacred prayers at the lavern, so we too wait until we wash to say the sacred. We will talk more about that later when we get to washing.

But this prayer of Modeh Ani, because it makes no uses of any of the Divine Names it is permissible for us to say even before we wash. By composing the prayer this way it was made possible to move the moment of thankful devotion from later in the morning ritual (after washing or going to the restroom, etc) to the moment one awakens. In fact, it is ideal to say this prayer before opening the eyes, moving or saying any other words.

For a moment I would like us to go back to the word “shehechezarta / who returns.” Quite often in everyday spoken Hebrew to hechezir means to pay back, retaliate, hit back; or return tit-for-tat. Though we entrust our souls into the hands of the Everlasting with total hope and expectation that He will return it to us, we do not presume to be so worthy to say we deserve such goodness from G-d. Thus is added the following word:

with mercy

בְּחֶמְלָה. |

b’chemlah

We should never feel that we are entitled to anything, most certainly none of us is a good enough person in our own merit that we can say to G-d that we deserve that He give life to us each day. The universe doesn’t owe us anything. But out of compassion and mercy life is restored to us anew each day. This word behemlah, can also mean pity. That doesn’t mean that G-d feel sorry for us in that He sees as pathetic. Its more like an adult who sees an infant needing something, this compassion is like their impulse to act to aid the child because their efforts might be valiant but they still need the help. G-d has that impulse towards us.

Now at this point we are told by all the major commentators that we should pause after this word and before we say the next two words. (see Rav’s Siddur; Kitzur 1:2, last sentence). And this is where our prayer shows all the clear signs of a mediation, we have the opportunity to pause and consider this truth. We have a brief moment to consider how compassionate G-d has been towards us, and how we in turn we should be compassionate towards our fellow man; being emulators of G-d’s graciousness.

The other reason we pause is because the next words are actually part of a separate clause that is a direct quote from scripture, the pause also helps us to recognize the sacredness of the scriptures by distinguishing its words from that of the common prayer. We also want to clear our minds to ready ourselves to recognize the following truth. It is summed up in the words:

Great is Your faithfulness.

רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ: |

Rabah emunatecha

These words are actually taken from the biblical verse of Lamentations 3:23. Though I’ve tried to keep this study as concise as possible, we really need to take a look at this scripture in order to understand the significance. Of course, its always best to have it in context especially since this is a responsive statement. The entire clause is:

“The kindnesses of Hashem

surely are not numbered,

surely His mercies have not run out.

They are new every morning,

great is Your faithfulness.”

| Chasdei Hashem

| ki lo tamnu

| ki lo chalu rachamav.

| Chadashim labekarim

| Rabba emunatecha.

Lamentations 3:22-23

This scripture charges us to understand that G-d is limitless, and thus the resources of His mercies are endless. They have not run out, they will not run out. Everyday He has just as much potential in this universe for us, its a renewable resource that can never be spent. Everyday G-d creates the day anew, and refreshes our souls anew. Everyday the world is a place of open opportunity and we are new people able to make a fresh start.

We again considering the thought of how G-d is faithful, in that we entrusted our souls to Him with confidence and He returned it to us. Thats what emunah, or faith as we say in English, means in Hebrew. In this case it is used of G-d, surely this word does not mean “belief.” G-d has no need to believe anything. Instead it means that you can trust in the person to do the right thing, you can have fidelity in them. Or as we say in Hebrew “b’emunah / I swear on my life;” we can have that much trust and confidence in G-d. Here we acknowledge how dependable our G-d is and worthy of our trust.

Now, we bring our minds back to the mindset of being emulators of godliness, modeling our behavior after the ways of a just G-d . We should now consider how just as G-d is faithful to us, we should be trustworthy and dependable in the ways of Torah and in our relationships with one another. And then say the words, “raba emunatecha.”

One should now rise to meet the day! This is usually followed by washing and other prayers, which we will also cover in this series in the weeks to come.

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

1– It has also been suggested, in a citation from the Authorized Daily Prayer Book (1946, 1116ff) of Rabbi Joseph H. Hurtz (1872-1946) – Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom (1913-1946). Though the citations of Rav Hertz always reflect the incorrect date of publication as 1695. This is historically incorrect as Rav Machir was a contemporary of the Ari z”l, who lived in 16th century.

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