Let’s face it. For many of us getting out of bed in the morning can be a challenging ordeal.
It is therefore understandable that the traditional Jewish morning prayers begin with a series of blessings (texts following the formula “blessed are you, Lord God...”) that address the arduous process of waking up.
Most of those blessings stem from a passage in the Talmud in which each one is attached to a specific stage in the process: opening one’s eyes, sitting up, standing straight, getting dressed and so forth. Early in the Middle Ages, the Babylonian Ge’onim instituted the practice of reciting them all sequentially as part of the synagogue ritual.
As is the case with many Jewish blessings, it is not always easy to distinguish between the ones whose purpose is to endow an action with the status of a religious precept, to express our gratitude, or to convey the praises of the Almighty.
Amidst all this liturgical richness there is one particular blessing, at the end of the list, that many of us find most germane to our physical and mental states when the alarm clock—or, as the Talmud presumes, the crowing of the rooster— rouses us from our slumbers: “Blessed are you, Lord God, sovereign of the universe, who gives strength to the weary.” Indeed, sometimes I have the feeling that without a bit of supernatural nudging I would be incapable of overcoming my grogginess, returning to consciousness and setting about my morning regimen.
The first recorded discussion of this blessing was by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher in his code of Jewish law, the “Arba‘ah Ṭurim.” Rabbi Jacob’s comments are of particular interest because, though he composed his code in Toledo, Spain, he was actually born in Germany from which he migrated in 1303, and he was thus acutely conscious of the variations in custom and legal traditions between the main centers of Jewish culture. In his enumeration of the obligatory passages to be included in the early morning service, he observed, “There is an additional blessing included in the Ashkenazic prayer books: ‘Blessed are you... who gives strength to the weary.’ It was ordained because a person entrusts his soul at night into the hands of the Holy One when it is weary from labouring hard all day, but he restores it to him in the morning in a rested and peaceful state.”
Rabbi Jacob’s interpretation was inspired by a parable from the midrashic compendium Genesis Rabbah: Citing a text from the book of Lamentation, “renewed each morning, great is your trustworthiness,” Rabbi Simeon bar Abba expounded: “By virtue of how you renew us each and every morning, we know how great is your trustworthiness to restore the dead to life!” That is to say, the fact that last night’s worn and weary body can wake up refreshed and invigorated is a marvel that is comparable to the resurrection of the dead in the messianic future. On many mornings I can personally sympathize with that impression. Some later commentators read the blessing as a reassurance to the nation of Israel that they will be restored to vitality after the lethargy of exile.
The religious sentiment underlying the blessing seems beyond reproach. Nevertheless, there was considerable resistance to incorporating it into the standardized liturgy. The main objection was that it did not have a source in the Talmud—even though the expression itself comes from the Bible where it was uttered by Isaiah: “He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.”
As Rabbi Jacob ben Asher observed, the recitation of the blessing was initially confined to the realm of Ashkenazic Jewry. It makes its earliest known appearance in a manuscript of the Ashkenazi prayer book that was written in the twelfth century. Though it achieved some currency in French and German communities, even in those localities there were authorities who tried to keep it out of their prayer rites on the premise that all Jewish practice must be strictly and exclusively governed by the Talmud—a principle that had been laid down by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s own father, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel. For that reason Rabbi Joel Sirkes (died 1640) would later suggest that the blessing would not have been adopted unless it had been found in earlier versions of the Talmud text.
In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Caro’s Shulḥan Arukh upheld the conservative attitude that opposed any tampering with the authoritative sources of tradition; even though he was sympathetic to Rabbi Jacob’s appealing rationale for reciting the blessing. This would normally have ended the discussion, at least among the Sephardic communities for whom Caro’s Shulḥan Arukh was the definitive arbiter of Jewish law. On the other hand, the glosses of Rabbi Moses Isserles, which supplemented Caro’s rulings with alternative traditions developed in the Ashkenazic schools, concluded that “the widespread custom among the Ashkenazim is to recite it.” This in fact was something of an overstatement, as the practice had never came close to being a uniform policy.
Rabbi Caro himself completed his law code in the holy land, and he spent the latter years of his life as a prominent leader of the intensely kabbalistic community of Safed in the Galilee. Like most previous rabbis who followed the teachings of Kabbalah, he was generally quite resolute about not allowing mystical texts (such as the Zohar) to impinge on the integrity of the halakhic decision-making process. However, with the ascendancy of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his mystical circle, Kabbalah was making increasing claims to constituting an autonomous legal authority.
Although Luria himself did not commit his mystical teachings or his liturgical customs to writing, his disciples reported that he had taken issue with Caro’s ruling and insisted that the blessing “who gives strength to the weary” ought to be recited in the morning rites. As befits mystical thinkers, the reason that was given for the blessing was a profoundly metaphysical one emanating from the kabbalistic doctrine of reincarnation. The human soul earns spiritual “garments” that are woven for it in proportion to each person’s performance of meritorious deeds. In a manner reminiscent of Indian Karma, these garments accompany the soul through its various incarnations. This motif appears to have entered Jewish lore via a tale in Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob Ibn Shahin’s eleventh-century anthology of inspirational tales, which derived in turn from an Arabic source.
As explained by Luria’s most important interpreter Rabbi Haim Vital, at bedtime the righteous entrust their souls to the celestial powers for overnight “laundering”—whereas the sinners who are still lacking any spiritual garments are provided with brand-new ones. “A person who possesses a garment, but is weary, is supported and given strength.”
According to this scenario, the blessing about giving strength to the weary is linked with the one in praise of the Lord “who clothes the naked” that was recited when dressing oneself in the morning. When both of the blessings are understood in their allegorical senses, the distinction comes to hinge on whether the soul in question is being issued a new garment or is having their existing one refurbished. From the kabbalistic perspective, the uttering of prayers does not merely express one’s adherence to a spiritual attitude or theological belief, but actually has the power to alter spiritual reality.
This is bringing us into some very complicated and strenuous intellectual territory. It might be advisable to take a break, and to revisit the subject in the morning, after being refreshed by a good night’s sleep.