Chapter nine-part one
Birkot HaShachar – The Morning Blessings
1. Blessings of Thanks
The Chachamim instituted the recital of many blessings immediately upon awakening in the morning. The purpose of these blessings is to thank Hashem for the good that He bestows upon us every day. Hence, the Talmud (Berachot 60b) teaches that when a person wakes up, he must thank Hashem and say, "My God, the soul which you have placed within me is pure… Blessed are You Hashem who restores souls to dead bodies" (Elokai Neshamah). When he hears the sound of the rooster, announcing the arrival of a new day, he must say, "Blessed are You Hashem, our God, King of the universe, who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night" (Hanoten lasechvi vinah). Upon opening his eyes, he recites, "…Who gives sight to the blind" (Poke’ach ivrim). When one stretches his limbs and sits on his bed, after being held captive in the shackles of sleep, he recites, "…Who releases the imprisoned" (Matir assurim). When he dresses, he recites, "…Who clothes the naked" (Malbish arumim). When one stands on his legs, he recites, "…Who straightens the bent" (Zokef kefufim), and when placing his feet on the ground, he recites, "…Who spreads the earth upon the waters" (Roka ha’aretz al hamayim). When one puts on his shoes, he recites, "…Who has provided me with all my needs" (She’asah li kol tzorki). As he begins to walk, he recites, "…Who prepares people’s footsteps" (Hamechin mitzadei gaver). When he fastens his belt, he recites, "…Who girds Israel with strength" (Ozer Yisrael bigevurah). When he puts on a head covering, be it a hat or a kippah, he recites, "…Who crowns Israel with glory" (Oter Yisrael b’tifarah). When he washes his hands, he recites, "…Concerning the washing of hands" (Al netilat yadayim). When washing his face, he recites, "…Who removes sleep from my eyes" (Hama’avir chevlei sheinah me’einai), etc. The Chachamim also instituted three special berachot of thanks which express gratitude to Hashem for choosing us and giving us His mitzvot. They are: "…For not having made me a gentile" (Shelo asani goy), "…For not having made me a slave" (Shelo asani aved) and "…For not having made me a woman" (Shelo asani ishah) Women recite, "…For having made me according to His will" (She’asani kirtzono).
Life’s routine generally wears away our attention from all the good that Hashem showers upon us. As a consequence of this ungratefulness, the daily blessing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu grants a person fails to delight him, and his life becomes dull and empty. In order to emerge from this desolation, he seeks out various pleasures. Hence, the Chachamim instituted Birkot HaShachar so that we will not be ungrateful. With these blessings we thank our Creator for all things, big and small, that help us function in this world. Out of this thankfulness to Hashem, we are privileged to observe the world with a rich and comprehensive outlook. We learn that every single element in our lives has Godly value, arousing our desire to add goodness to the world with every new day that God gives us.
2. The Order of the Morning Blessings
As we have learned, the original institution of the Chachamim was to bless and give thanks for each and every act immediately upon deriving pleasure from it. In other words, as a person wakes from his sleep, he thanks Hashem for the soul He placed within him and says Elokai Neshamah; as he opens his eyes, he recites Poke’ach ivrim; as he stretches his limbs, he recites, Matir assurim; and so on with all the blessings in that manner. However, today the custom has changed and usually all Birkot HaShachar are recited consecutively.
One may wonder why the custom changed, for it is obviously more appropriate to thank Hashem immediately when the pleasure is received. In that way the process of arising from one’s sleep attains profound significance, as the blessings of thanks to Hashem accompany each and every stage of waking. Indeed, the Rambam rules that all Birkot HaShachar must be recited exactly as mentioned in the Talmud, each berachah in its appropriate time. There are some Yemenites who are accustomed to following his ruling even today.
However, the widespread custom is to recite all Birkot HaShachar at once, either in synagogue, or at home after relieving oneself and getting dressed. There are a few reasons for this. First, the Chachamim established that the chazan recites Birkot HaShachar out loud in synagogue so that the uneducated who do not know them by heart may fulfill their obligation as well. Also, even those who do know the blessings by heart may forget a blessing in the disorientation of waking, while if they recite them from a siddur in synagogue, they will remember to say them all. Further, we want to enhance the mitzvah and recite Birkot HaShachar in the most respectful way, with clean hands and while properly dressed, and therefore we delay the recital of the berachot until after all the preparations for prayer are finished (Shulchan Aruch 46:2). Moreover, there are people who find it very difficult to concentrate immediately upon waking up, and only after they dress and wash their faces are they able to recite Birkot HaShachar with kavanah (Seder HaYom).
3. Birkot HaShachar for One Who Does Not Derive Pleasure
There is a dispute among prominent Rishonim regarding the question of whether a person may recite one of the Birkot HaShachar from which he does not derive direct personal pleasure. For instance, may a blind person recite the berachah, Poke’ach ivrim?
According to the Rambam (Tefillah 7:9), only a person who derives pleasure from something may recite a blessing on it. Therefore, a person who slept at night wearing clothing, since he does not get dressed in the morning, does not recite Malbish arumim. A handicapped person who cannot walk does not recite Hamechin mitzadei gaver. A paralyzed person, who cannot move his limbs, does not recite Matir assurim and Zokef kefufim. Some people of Yemenite descent follow the Rambam’s opinion today. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 46:8) takes this opinion into consideration and rules that one does not mention Hashem’s Name when reciting blessings from which he does not derive pleasure.
By contrast, the Kolbo (section 1) writes in the names of Rav Natrunai Gaon, Rav Amram Gaon, and the remaining Geonim, that the minhag is to recite all Birkot HaShachar in order, whether or not one derives pleasure from them, because they were instituted based on the general pleasures of the world. Furthermore, the fact that others derive pleasure from something can be indirectly useful for someone who does not directly derive pleasure from it. Therefore, even a paralyzed person who cannot straighten himself, blesses Hashem for all the other people who can straighten themselves and help him. A blind person also recites Poke’ach ivrim for the fact that others are able to see and can therefore show him the way and tend to all his needs. This is how the Rama rules.
Likewise, the opinion of the Ari HaKadosh is that every Jew must recite all of the Birkot HaShachar in their order to thank Hashem for all the general good that He showers on the world. In many minhagim regarding prayer, the Sephardim have the custom to follow the Ari, and therefore they recite all Birkot HaShachar in order.class="headnote" name="1a" href="#1b"> 1
^ 1.There is a dispute among the poskim regarding whether the berachah She’asah li kol tzorki, normally said on footwear, is recited on Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av, days on which it is prohibited to wear shoes. According to the Rosh, Ran, and the Tur, it is recited. That is also what the Mishnah Berurah writes in 554:31, based on the Levush, Eliyah Rabbah, and Pri Megadim. That is how the Ashkenazim and a few Sephardim practice; see Yalkut Yosef, part 1, p. 51. However, according to the Ari, even though a mourner does recite She’asah li kol tzorki, it is not recited on those days, as is written by the Chida, Ben Ish Chai, and Kaf HaChaim 46:17. Rav Pe’alim 2:8 writes that according to this minhag, even at the end of the fast it is not recited. (However, in Ma’asei Rav 9 it is written that the Gra was accustomed to reciting it at the conclusion of the fast).