Share a Prayer: Modim Anachnu Lach; Thanksgiving

With the American festival of Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, the notion of expressing gratitude is very much in our thoughts. For Jews, this is not an annual event but rather a persistent theme in our hearts and heritage. Indeed, we wake up in the morning with “Modeh Ani,” a prayer thanking God for watching over and restoring our souls to us and fill our day with a myriad of Blessings acknowledging the role of the Blessed Holy One in all of our abilities and in everything we experience.

Several years ago when reflecting on the Jewish connection to Thanksgiving I related the following teaching:

… As my good friend Rabbi Mario Roizman points out, as Jews our very essence is to be thankful. Jewish people are referred to in Hebrew as “Yehudim.” We receive this name from our Biblical ancestor Yehudah, the son of Jacob. When Yehudah was born his mother Leah she declared, “Odeh et Adonai, I will give thanks to God; therefore they named him Yehudah.”(Gen.29:35) thus giving thanks is part of our DNA. Indeed, Rabbi Roizman points out that Yehidim can be understood to mean: “the people who say thank you.”

Perhaps the quintessential prayer that indicates how much we value giving thanks is Modim Anachnu Lach. This blessing is found in the Hodaiya, or prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgment section of Amidah, a collection of 7-18 blessings that are the central core of each of our daily, festival and Shabbat services. Below is the text according to Siddur Lev Shalem published by the Rabbinical Assembly.

“We thank You, for You are ever our God and the God of our ancestors; You are the bedrock of our lives, the shield that protects us in every generation We thank You and sing Your praises-for our lives that are in, Your hands, for our souls that are under Your care, for Your miracles that accompany us each day, and for Your wonders and Your gifts that are with us each moment – evening, morning, and noon, You are the one who is good, whose mercy is never-ending; the one who is compassionate, whose love is unceasing. We have always placed our hope in You.” Click here for the Hebrew text.

Our great Talmudic sages mandated that after having made a series of requests from the Blessed Holy One on weekday or even after expressing the uniquely holy nature of a Holiday or the Sabbath, we are to acknowledge the presence of God in all that we have in our lives. Ismar Elbogen one of the greatest scholars of Jewish liturgy of all time, notes that although the present text of Modim can be found as far back as in the 9thCenturay compilation of Rav Amram, earlier forms of this poetic expression can be found across time and liturgical traditions. Elbogen also points out that it is into this section of the liturgy that our sages required that prayers of gratitude for the miracles of Hannukah and Purim be inserted. Indecently, modern prayer books also include a similarly worded prayer for Yom Ha Atzmaut – Israel Independence day.

The devastating loss of the Beit Ha Miqdash, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. was a watershed moment in the development of the Jewish people. Our great sages in their wisdom opted to replace the biblically mandated sacrificial cult with a system of prayer which would enable us draw close to our Creator by expressing our thoughts, fears, yearnings and aspirations. At first only a simple list of mandated blessings was produced – it was up to the individual worshipper to compose the introductory text that would more deeply express the theme of the blessing. Eventually gifted authors would compose relevant poetry to be uttered by the worshipper. While the current text of our blessing is indicted above, a second version of the Modim prayer that became known as the “Scholars Modim” or, Modim d’ Rabbanan was found to be so relevant that it too is included in our prayer books.Click here for the text.

Thus, in communities where the Amidah is expressed individually by the congregation and then repeated aloud by prayer leader, individuals recite the Modim d’ Rabbanan individually while the leader chants the main version. One of the salient features of this scholarly Modim is the expression of gratitude for the very ability to express our thanks. The commentator on our Siddur Lev Shalem points out that “the ability to express gratitude is seen as a special gift to humanity. The attitude of thankfulness connects us to the world with a sense of humility and a joyful spirit of openness.”

Rabbi Ruven Hammer, noted authority on Jewish liturgy explains the process of bowing as we say Modim Anachnu Lach and the significance of this prayer in a note published in his wonderful commentary on the Conservative Sim Shalom Siddur entitled Or Hadash:

“Bowing at the beginning and end of the Modim blessing indicates that we are bringing our Prayer to an end. We began with bowing to God and we conclude with a bow. We physically symbolize our acknowledgment that God is our true Ruler, to whom all thanksgiving is due. The seriousness with which the Sages viewed this particular prayer can be seen by the fact that the Mishnah teaches that if one who is leading the service says the word ‘modim’ twice, ‘he is silenced’- i.e., stopped from leading the prayers (Berakhot 5:3). As the Talmud explains, ‘It is as if he acknowledged that there are two powers in the world’ (Berakhot 33b).”

Whether is it is because of what is hardwired into our identity as Rabbi Roismam suggested above or whether it is due of the many and sometimes harsh lessons of our history, we as a people never take anything for granted. On the contrary, Jews as people are continually expressing our gratitude. Jews do not only give thanks on special occasions or when we are siting down to eat a festive meal; we are constantly cognizant and appreciative of our special relationship with our Creator – “evening,  morning and noon.”

Here is a classic setting of this Prayer by Jacob Rapaport made famous by the legendary Hazzan Mordechai Hershman:

 

This is Hassidic version by Lev Tahor

 

Here is a contemporary setting of this Prayer by Cantor Jonathan Comisar sung by Cantor Sara Hass and Cantor Lizzie Weiss

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share a Prayer: Haneirot Halalu – These Lights which we Kindle

Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.

While many of our kids consider Hanukah the “Hag Kabalat Ha Matanot” the  festival of gift reception, Hanukah is commonly referred to in our tradition as “Hag Ha Urim”; the festival of light. Not only is light the first article of Creation, but it has always symbolized what is the very essence of Hanukah; joy, hope, happiness and freedom. Thus after kindling the Hanukah candles, it is traditional to recite or sing the brief but powerful prayer which extols and elucidates the Hanukah Lights – Ha Neirot Halalu, “these lights which we kindle.”

We all are familiar of the History of Hanukah – in 167 B.C.E. the evil Seleucid forces of King Antiochus defiled the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Replacing the ritual objects of the Temple with statues of Zeus and other pagan artifacts, Antiochus planned to have the Jewish people “forget the Torah” and completely assimilate into Hellenistic society; we would, in effect have disappeared. But, miraculously, in 164 B.C.E, the Selucids were defeated and the Holy Temple was cleansed and rededicated by the small but mighty forces of the priestly family of Mattathias under the leadership of the great Judah the Maccabee. The great miracle of Hanukah is not only a that small band of righteous fighters was able to defeat a mighty evil army, but, that despite all of the compelling forces of assimilation, we, the Jewish people still exist today. Furthermore, according to tradition, in the process of restoring the Temple, the Maccabees wishing to rekindle the Sacred Menorah, only found enough consecrated oil to last for one day. Miraculously, as the tale is told, that small amount of oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be produced.

Ha Neirot Halalu,  traces its origin to the Talmudic Tractate of Sopherim (20:6) and can can be found in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Siddurim. Recited After saying the blessings over the candles, this poem reminds us of “the reason for the season” – to remember the heroic acts of the priestly Maccabee family and to be thankful for all that God did for our ancestors and continues to do in our time. The other significant purpose of our poem is to underscore the centrality of the theme of light in our tradition. We are reminded that the Hanukah Lights are holy and therefore we are not permitted to use the candles for illumination, we are only allowed to contemplate them.

Rav Binyamin Tabory of the Virtual Beit Ha Midrash introduces an interesting discussion as to the reason for ascribing Holiness to the lights of Hanukak. He begins by citing a source from the Talmud, (Shabbat 22a) that suggests that the candles in and of themselves are not sacred;

“While the Gemara does conclude that we are not permitted to use the Hanukah candles for a purpose other than the Mitzvah, for example, for counting coins, it explicitly states that it is NOT because of their holiness!”

However, Rabbi Tabory reminds us that the sacred nature of the Hanukah lights comes form their connection to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. The Biblical Portion of Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1- 12:16) describes in precise detail the procedure for erecting and kindling the Menorah, the candelabrum that was a key feature of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that traveled through our the wilderness with our ancestors when they left Egypt. Paralleling this Torah portion is the Haftara (Zechariah 2:14-4:7) which describes the construction and operation of the Menorah in the Holy Temple. Appropriately, we also read this Haftara on the Shabbat of Hanukah. Recognizing the preeminent significance of the Menorah, the Maccabees, as we recall form the Hanukah story, make it a priority to rekindle the Menorah as they worked to rededicate the temple. Indeed, the traditional Hanukah miracle itself, revolves around the oil used in the Menorah. Moreover, one of the central Mitzvoth of Hanukah, Pirsumi Nisa – publicizing the Miracle of Hanukah as an example of God’s saving power, is accomplished by placing the Hanukah lights in a window so that all can see them.

Clearly, the Hanukah lights connect us not only to the Maccabees but all the way back to the Mishkan carried by our ancestors as they fled Egypt and on to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem which, for generations has continued to serve as the focal point for all of our prayers. The bottom line according to Rabbi Tabory is:

“The Mitzvah of lighting Hanukah candles can be seen as a continuation of the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem…The Halakha [Jewish law] tells every Jew to take the candles of the Temple (Mikdash) and light them in his private house. Not only is the synagogue a “miniature Temple” (a Mikdash me’at), but the goal of this Mitzvah is to transform every home into a Mikdash me’at.” 

The song Ha Neirot Halalu  indeed encapsulates the very essence of Hanukah. As we kindle the Hanukah lights not only are we illumined with joy, happiness and freedom, but we become part of an ancient, universal process that began in the wilderness of Sinai, continued in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and culminates in the miniature Temple that is our Jewish Home; the essential foundation of Jewish Life.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion, question or request, email me at hazzan@e-hazzan.com.

Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English

Here is a link to a previous post on Hanukah with several Hanukah melodies

This is a link to video of a traditional version of Haneirot Halalu

This is a link to video of a traditional version of Haneirot Halalu from Israeli TV

This is a link to video of a Moroccan version of Haneirot Halalu

Hag Urim Sameiach ! A Joyous and Inspirational Hanukah to all!

Hazzan Michael Krausman