hazzan Diana Brewer was ordained through the aleph ordination program. she leads prayer services regularly at the jewish community of amherst, and is on the staff of the davvenen leadership training institute.

Three Set Times for Prayer or Gratitude, Gratitude, and More Gratitude

There is a particularly moving writing on this topic in the Jerusalem Talmud. In this writing, Keva and Kavannah are joined together in a way we haven't seen in the other writings we've explored in this series. I will take the time and space to give many direct quotes on this one. It's just so lovely. In this text, Chapter 4, Halacha Aleph, we first read:

"Whence did they learn three tefillot [a day]? Rabbi Shemuel bar Nahmani said: Corresponding to the three times that the day shifts for humankind (b'riyot)."

The first thing that strikes me as I read this is the idea of the day shifting. This speaks to me of a day that is a living, breathing organism. In this image, I experience the different personalities of different times of day. I also experience motion, and the sense of the sun moving, as would have been their notion of the phenomenon at that time. It's a bit hard to explain my experience of this, but I can say that it does inspire awe.

The next thing I notice on a deep level is the use of b'riyot/humankind, rather than, for instance, Adam or Ish. Not only is that word not exclusively male, it holds within it the possibility of extending to all creatures, all creation. It really expresses to me the totality of the communal experience. There is not a living thing that does not perceive the passing of the day. Every day. 

In this text, we are told what to say during these three prayer times. Here, we have tefillah with a lower-case "t". That is, not the Amidah. 

"In the morning a person must say 'Thankful am I before you HaShem, my G8d and G8d of my ancestors, for you have brought me out of darkness and into light." 

Let's take a good look at this. The first word we are to utter is "thankful" or "grateful". I can tell you, as a person that has had a very intentional gratitude practice for a long time, it is a powerful tool. In fact, it happens to be my personal opinion that gratitude is the antidote to everything. And I mean everything. What a way to start the day!

So, we give our gratitude to the Holy One of Blessing, and we acknowledge our ancestors. These folks are clearly important here, too. What are we grateful for? We have been brought out of darkness into light. Certainly, this can be taken at face value. It was night, I was asleep. Now I am awake and it is daytime. Well, of course, it's not that simple. For one thing, the word used to describe darkness, afilah [אפילה], carries with it a connotation of gloom, even the darkness of the underworld. Clearly, this is no ordinary darkness.  On top of that, the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 57b) that tells us that sleep is 1/60 of death. Death! We have not just been asleep, as we understand sleep. We have been a little bit dead all night!  Our souls have been wandering, mingling with the other realm, revealing things about our waking selves. If we are deemed worthy, we get to have our souls returned to our bodies, and so wake up in the morning. Anyone still fill inclined to take waking up for granted? Still want to smash an alarm clock?

"At Mincha a person must say, 'Thankful am I before you, HaShem my G8d and G8d of my ancestors, that just as you have allowed me to see the sun in the east, I merit, too, to see it in the west." 

OK, great. We spun around our axis a bit, and now we see the sun in a different place. Woo-hoo. Not so! As I referenced above, we must remember that, to people of this time, the sun was actually moving. This verse brings home to me the importance of stepping into the mindset of another time, as best we can, to appreciate its wonder. Not only have we had the experience of witnessing the movement of the sun, this celestial luminary being guided by the hand, the word, the thought of HaShem, but, at this time the directions were also imbued with deep meaning. East and West denote and connote past and future. The timeline of our lives is revealed in stark relief here. We have just had the privilege of watching half a lifetime pass before our eyes. More gratitude.

"In the evening a person must say, 'May it be your will HaShem my G8d and G8d of my ancestors, just as I was in darkness and you brought me out into light, so too will you bring me out of [this] darkness into light."

Here, gratitude turns into trust and faith. We acknowledge, once again, the great gift that we had been brought out of sleep (partial death) into waking life, and we ask for G8d's will too come into accordance with our own that we be restored again the following morning. To make such a request certainly involves a great deal of trust and faith in the proposition that the request will be granted. How are gratitude and faith/trust connected? For me, the faith that I have stems directly from gratitude. When I pause to give thanks, as I do many times a day, I acknowledge G8d's part in whatever it is that I am thankful for. In turn, I am awakened to what is, for me, the fact of Divine help and support. My awe is inspired. My gratitude builds my faith. My faith leads to more gratitude. 

Everything is scarier at night. The shadows make creepy shapes. We can't see very far off. Depending on the light, sometimes we literally cannot see our hand before our face. The thoughts in our heads become larger than life. Anything can happen in the dark of night. So, we put our trust in the best possible outcome, in the proposition that we may make it through the night and be judged worthy of emerging into the light of the new day. When we wake up, we get to begin the delightful cycle of gratitude all over again.

As we can see, this formula is quite prescriptive, full of keva. One of the things it prescribes, however, is a kavannah - the kavvanah of gratitude. This formula gives us the opportunity for dates with gratitude three times each day, lest we forget.

I'll leave you with an ancient Sanskrit poem by the poet Kalidasa, which beautifully embodies much of what I see in this text

Look to this day/ For it is life/ The very life of life/ In its brief course lie all/ the realities and verities of existence/ The bliss of growth/ The splendor of action/ The glory of power--  

For yesterday is but a dream/ And tomorrow is only a vision/ But today, well lived/ Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness/ and every tomorrow a vision of hope. 

Look well, therefore, to this day. 

Three Set Times for Prayer: Sacrifice? That's so 2,000 years ago!

Three Set Times for Prayer: Sacrifice & Gratitude