The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:
- God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
- Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
- Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).
The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
Verses from Psalm 104 are associated with putting on a tallit:
Bar’chi nafshi et Adonai —– [Bless, Adonai, O my soul!],
Adonai Elohai, galdata m’od —– [Adonai my God, how great You are],
hod v’hadar lavashta —– [You are robed in glory and majesty].
Oteh or kasalmah —– [wrapping Yourself in light as in a garment],
noteh shamayim kay’riah —– [spreading forth the heavens like a curtain]
— Ps. 104:1-2, as it appears in the Mishkan T’fillah morning service.
(Here’s a link to the Hebrew)
Joining these words with the commandment to wrap in a prayer shawl gives us two interwoven images:
- God enrobed in light and stretching out the heavens, as a human might stretch out a prayer shawl before placing it over the shoulder, and
- a human donning a prayer shawl in imitation of God’s expansiveness.
The lush Hebrew of this psalm and of Psalms 36:8-11, also associated with putting on the tallit, supports the expansiveness in space and time:
gadalta [“You are great”] is a past-tense verb that is derived from an adjective and expresses a continuous situation…. According to the Midrash, gadalta and lavashta are active verbs denoting the past… when God first thought of creating the world, He revealed His greatness and clothed Himself in glory and majesty and created the world….The past form lavashta [“You are clothed”] is used here to describe a continuous situation [like the parallel gadalta][Oteh is a] participle bearing a double meaning — it alludes to the past, the creation of light on the first day of creation, and it alludes to the continuing situation in which light serves as one of God’s royal garments.
— Amos Hakham, The Bible: Psalms with the Jerusalem Commentary
One additional note, for those interested in links between the TANAKH and prayerbook language: Hakham tells us that noteh — participle for “to pitch (a tent)” — is parallel to oteh (as gadalta and lavashta are parallel) and that lavashta/oteh are similarly paired in Isaiah 59:17.
Where Psalms 104:1-2 employs past-continuous verbs followed by participles — extending multiple directions in time — Psalms 36:8-11 uses “a future form expressing a continuous action”: yechesayun [will find refuge] and yirv’yun [will feast, be satisfied]. Meanwhile, Hakham says, the flowing river of delight [adenekha] calls to mind Genesis 2:10 — “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden” — as well as the river flowing from the Temple (Ezekiel 47). Ellen Frankel (in My People’s Prayer Book) notes that adenekha carries echoes of Sarah’s laughing, “Am I to have edna with my husband so old?” (Gen. 18:12), stretching the river of delight in another direction.
The psalm continues with “In Your light we see light” (36:10), acknowledging a continuous situation — “man’s sense of vision comes from God” — and/or a request: “May we be worthy of light (which equals life),” according to Hakham. He quotes a Talmudic comment (Hagigah 12b), suggesting that God is extending a thread of lovingkindness (from past through to future), thus returning us to the images of wraps.
Some print resources:
Tzitzith: a Thread of Light by Aryeh Kaplan, (NY: NCSY, 1984) is a short and very rich volume including many sources on thought and practice surrounding putting on a tallit.
One member of the Temple Micah Siddur Study Group recommends Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual: A Prayer-By-Prayer Explanation of the Nature and Meaning of Jewish Worship by Arnold S. Rosenberg. (Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, 2000).
Ordering and Editing
Beginning with the 1854 Reform prayer book, the movement omitted Psalm 104 as a meditation on wearing the tallit/tzitzit. The blessing for wearing tzitzit, a biblical commandment (see Numbers/Bamidbar 15:38-39), was retained at first but then removed in 1870 (see, e.g., David Ellenson’s history in My People’s Prayer Book). The meditation and blessing returned to Reform prayer books in the late 20th Century, and Ellenson offers some interesting comments on this change. (The lines from Psalm 36 do not appear.)
Ellenson notes that verses and blessing associated with tefillin were omitted from Reform prayer books for roughly 100 years, returning in the 1970s. (BTW: note that Mishkan T’filah was published ten years after the Birkhot Hashachar [morning blessings] volume of My People’s Prayer Book.)
Mishkan T’filah, the (U.S.) Reform Prayerbook of 2008, places prayers for donning the tallit before Mah Tovu, recited upon entering a house of prayer, and before the blessings for body, soul, and intellect/Torah. This order correlates with public singing/recitation of those blessings. Blessings once associated with dressing — “blessings for daily miracles,” in Mishkan T’filah — have long appeared later in the siddur (after Mah Tovu), on the assumption that not everyone recited them earlier. Placing the body, soul, and Torah blessings after Mah Tovu reflects a similar assumption.
These blessings appear earlier in some prayerbooks, however, reflecting different concerns and assumptions about how a day progresses, from dressing, through beginning prayer/blessings, and/or arriving at a house of worship. In particular, the blessing which speaks of functioning orifices (AKA “body” or “bathroom” blessing) often appears close to awakening, on the assumption that it would be recited as soon as the individual relieved him- or herself. (The blessing for soul is considered inseparable from the one the body blessing.) The blessing for Torah study appears earlier, too, in some prayerbooks so that no passages of Torah — including those in Mah Tovu and those associated with putting on tzitzit and/or tefillin — are recited without blessing.
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Bethrothal, with or without Tefillin
The lines from Hosea are associated with laying tefillin, in the weekday morning prayers. Tefillin are not worn on Shabbat or festivals, but some prayer books — Siddur Eit Ratzon comes to mind — include Hosea 2:21-22 in the passages for study to follow the Torah blessing in the morning prayers. (More here on betrothal in justice, with or without tefillin.)
Additional notes on tefillin and related topics: Bo: A Path to Follow and Ki Tisa: Great Sources.
BTW, EVENT NOTE: The first Sunday in February is the Conservative Movement’s “World Wide Wrap,” a great opportunity to experience tefillin first hand. Adas Israel in the District of Columbia has a very welcoming and informative event each year.
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