It is an age-old Jewish practice to start a day with gratitude and thanks. The question was raised in a recent study session about why tunes for the earliest of morning prayers tend to be very peppy, while not all of us awaken like that. One associated teaching is that we should approach each day with as much vigor as we have. I no of no sleepier versions, so to speak, so perhaps someone needs to compose a “modah ani for slow wakers.”
Early blessings to accompany the acts of awakening — opening the eyes, putting feet on the ground, dressing, etc. — are found in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included, in various orders and with different forms of address to God, in countless Jewish prayer books. Among the blessings recited earliest in the day are those focusing on the soul, body and intellect. This practice is meant to train the Jew to enjoy nothing — not even the functioning of own bodies or brains — without acknowledging and thanking God.
As discussed in Temple Micah’s first Shabbat session on the siddur, the “modah/modeh ani” prayer came into practice more recently — recent, as in the last few hundred years. It is an odd blessing, in Jewish tradition, because it does not mention God’s name. Leaving aside the reasons for this, the real power of the prayer is in practicing conscious direction of thought upon awakening (or as soon thereafter as possible).
Here are two musical approaches to modah/modeh ani. One was composed by Cantor Jeff Klepper and is frequently sung at Temple Micah; it’s performed in this video a capella by a mother and daughter. Another is Rabbi David Paskin performing his own composition. There are many other versions, but these are two I like.
Gratitude without God
Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings is carefully crafted to remove gendered language and avoid addressing God directly in the second-person (“You,” “Thou,” etc., with their masculine or feminine aspects in Hebrew). She offers this version of modeh/modah ani:
The breath of my life
the cells of my being
— The Book of Blessings
New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, Harper Collins, 1996.
This and a few more excerpts, complete with the Hebrew
Falk’s poetry is beautiful, in my opinion, and worth reading on its own merits. In addition, I believe it can enhance prayers even for those who are not particularly concerned about gendered prayer language or about whether and how to address God at all.
Gratitude with Coffee
“A Mother’s Prayer Before Dawn” by Hava Pinchas-Cohen is a prayer for gratitude and focus in the midst of carrying out responsibilities. The specifics may not apply for all of us, but the spirit can be adapted to seek gratitude while taking care of other tasks. The prayer begins, “As I stand ready to prepare porridge, remove all other thoughts from my mind”: includes, “…may my patience not run out…”; and concludes asking that the aroma of coffee and milk be accepted like “the thanksgiving sacrifice and the daily sacrifice that I know not how to offer.” (This is Aliza Lavie’s translation, in A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book; here is another translation.)
Gratitude in Tough Times and in Mourning
Re-awakening to physical pain, to a loss, to the depths of our own depression or awareness of a loved one’s struggle can make gratitude difficult. Perhaps there are times when we have to be patient with ourselves and grant that our first thought of the morning is not — however hard we try — going to be gratitude. But there is plenty of time in the day for aching, worrying, crying, struggle of one kind and another. And the point of the “modah/modeh ani prayer,” in my experience, is to develop a mindset that also includes the possibility of gratitude and the simple, if powerful, acknowledgement that our lives are not entirely in our own hands. I have found that training myself to carve out a few seconds of gratitude at the start of the day — reflecting on the amazing, if sometimes painful, fact of being alive — made a sea change in my ability to cope with what came later… even when “later” was only seconds away.
I think it’s also helpful to note that “modah/modeh ani” — like the blessing of body, soul and intellect which follow in the siddur — join the nighttime prayers to the morning. And the bedtime Shema includes letting go of the day’s hurts and worries, an important step in attempting gratitude in the morning. In this context, see, for example, Debbie Perlman’s “Courage Lullaby”:
At least one participant in our study group is in mourning and notes the difficulty of gratitude when re-awakening to a great loss. R. Ariel Stone’s “Ritual for Letting Go,” which makes powerful use of the “Modeh Ani” prayer, speaks of death’s effect on survivors’ souls: “While body and soul may have been severed almost instantaneously for the loved one who died, the reweaving of body and soul in the survivors – the agenda of mourning – happens in stages over weeks, months, years, and generations to come.”
A short poem by Debra Cash, called Mourners’ Kaddish for Everyday, notes: “Each hour is mortal.” It was recommended to me at a time of loss by a friend as an alternative to formal kaddish, and I found it very helpful in beginning to turn grief to gratitude.
“A Ritual for Letting Go”
by Rabbi Ariel Stone, published at Ritual Well
…Love blurs the boundaries between one soul and another. In fact, love might be defined as that very erosion, absorption, commingling….
When the tenuous coupling of a person’s body and soul is undone by death, the bond of body and soul within each person who has been close to the one who has died is also weakened.
In the end it is all a gift, is it not? The brief entwinement of body and soul,
the breath of God that gives and sustains human life,
creates such a colorful, sparkling trail as it arcs through time.
It is so ephemeral, and yet it affects everything.
As we say when we open our eyes every morning:
“modeh ani l’fanekha – I give thanks to you, God of life which is eternal,
for returning my soul to me this morning.
Great is your faithfulness.”
Bereyshit 35.19-21 Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Efrat, which is Beyt-Lekhem. Jacob set a pillar upon her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. And Israel journeyed on.
–Rabbi Ariel Stone
Background of Modah/Modeh Ani
It seems that this little prayer developed in response to concerns about ritual purity, and not reciting God’s name before handwashing. Some say it began as a mystic’s practice and was eventually adopted by mainstream Ashkenazi prayer books; I’ve read by cannot cite an explanation suggesting that Jews living among Muslims some hundreds of years ago learned a new focus on washing before prayer. Here is one fairly succinct discussion of the background.
Modeh ani appears in Art Scroll, Koren and Metsuda prayer books — all orthodox; of these, only the newer (2009) Koren/Sacks translation offers the feminine, “modah,” as well as the masculine, although I know of no teaching suggesting that this is a time-bound practice and so one women need not perform. It appears with masculine and feminine verbs in Sim Shalom, Conservative; Siddur Birkat Shalom and other independent prayer books; and in Mishkan T’fillah, and in the old “New Union Prayer Book” for the home, both Reform.
It is not in Kol Haneshamah, the Reconstructionist prayer book. Perhaps that is an intentional, statement-making choice, but there’s no comment to say so. Modah/modeh does not appear in some other Orthodox prayer books, like the Bokser. It would require additional research (which doesn’t entice me) to determine whether these omissions are clear statements about the need for this prayer, space-based decisions, or an assumption that a siddur meant for public worship does not need to include a prayer often recited before even getting out of bed. In My People’s Prayer Book, David Landes’ remarks about the halakhah of waking up include the prayer while the text of the siddur itself does not. (Please see Source Materials for complete references to most sources cited here.)
The prayer appears in Mishkan T’fillah in three places — in the weekday morning prayers and in both Shabbat Morning I and Shabbat Morning II services. Many prayer books include morning blessings only once and then begin Shabbat/Festival services with a note along the lines of “continue here after pages 4-58.” I know of no teaching suggesting that the prayer upon awakening is specific to any day of the week.