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What Does Modeh Ani Really Mean?

This post is the latest addition to my Finding Tradition project.


מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך

Those 12 words mark the start of each day for many Jews. It’s a beautiful prayer and an expression of the many debts we owe to God. But three of those words might, on reflection, represent a significant theological innovation.

Here’s the whole thing translated:

“I acknowledge before you, the living, eternal God, that you returned to me my soul, with grace and good faith.”

The three words in question are: שהחזרת בי נשמתי – “that you returned to me my soul.” Where’s the innovation in that?

Well for God to have returned our souls first thing each morning, He would have had to have first taken them. And, while relevant but ambiguous language can be found in a few midrashim (see עיון תפילה לספר אוצר התפילות) I’m not sure we should be so quick to assume that death and rebirth is what literally happens each night.

A similar prayer is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 4:1 – 29b in the Vilna print):

בשחר צריך לאדם לומר מודה אני לפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותי שהוצאתני מאפילה לאורה

“In the morning a man must say: I acknowledge before you G-d…that You took me out from darkness to light”

But that makes no mention of the soul and its travels.

So where did the idea come from? As far as I have seen, the first reference to the text of מודה אני itself would appear to be ספר סדר היום, written by the 16th Century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe ben Makir of Tzfas. As Tzfas during that time was famous for its culture of innovation, it would seem reasonable to assume that Rabbi Moshe himself is the prayer’s author.

But isn’t the idea that our souls are taken each night itself common in traditional Torah literature? Not that I’ve seen. In fact, The Bais Yosef himself (אורח חיים ד), while quoting a Zohar on the subject of washing hands in the morning, testifies that it’s “not found in halachic sources (פוסקים).”

Here’s the Zohar itself (1:184b):

הכא דלית בר נש בעלמא דלא טעים טעמא דמותא בליליא ורוחא מסאבא שריא על ההוא גופא. מאי טעמא? בגין דנשמתא קדישא איסתלקת מיניה דבר נש ונפקת מניה, ועל דנשמתא קדישא נפקת ואסתלקת מניה שריא רוחא מסאבא על ההוא גופא. וכד אהדרת נשמתא לגופא אתעברת ההוא זוהמא…

“There is no man on earth who doesn’t taste the taste of death at night, (as) an impure spirit rests on his body. Why? Because his holy soul …leaves a man and because his holy soul has left, an impure spirit rests on his body. And when his soul returns to his body, the impurity is removed.”

So it’s certainly true that the Zohar associates the concept of a departing soul with the laws of washing hands in the morning. But it’s equally true that, according to the Bais Yosef at least, it’s not an association that finds an easy home within the halachic tradition

Indeed, the traditional explanations for hand washing in the morning make no mention of our souls. The Rosh (ברכות פרק ט סימן כג) wrote that we should wash because:

לפי שידים של אדם עסקניות הם ואי אפשר שלא ליגע בבשר המטונף בלילה

“A man’s hands are busy (i.e., always moving) and it’s impossible that they didn’t touch unclean parts of his body during the night.”

And the Rashba (שו”ת הרשב”א א סימן קצא) attributed the rule to our need to recognize the spiritual rebirth we have just experienced:

בשחר אחר השנה אנו נעשים כבריה חדשה

“In the morning, after sleep, we become like a new creation.”

…None of which hints to any association between sleep with death. Now, as I’m sure you’re already wondering, the Gemara (Berachos 57b) does state that “sleep is one sixtieth of death.” But it would be hard to see a connection between such a general comparison and the claim that our souls leave our bodies when we sleep.

In fact, as I’ve written on more than one occasion, drawing logical or legal proofs from aggadic sources is virtually impossible: their language and context is just too ambiguous. This would most certainly apply to a passage in that most ambiguous source of all: Zohar.

Just how difficult is it to understand the meaning of the Zohar by reading its words? Let’s see what one of the undisputed giants of Kabbala, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad (the Ben Ish Chai), wrote in his halachic work, Rav Poalim (Vol 1, Responsum 56). He was explaining why one should never translate Idra or other Zoharic works into Arabic or any other language. It’s fine, he wrote, to translate the Tanach (even though no translation can capture the full, inner meaning), because the Tanach also has a simple meaning…

משא”כ דברי האדרא וזוה”ק אין להם פשט כלל ובעל המאמר לא כיון לפשט הדברים כלל ועיקר ויש מקומות שהפשט יהיה חירוף וגידוף ואם אתה מתרגם הדברים ללשון אחר נמצא אתה עושה הפשט אמת כי התרגום הוא יהיה כפי הפשט ולפי האמת אין הפשט של דברים אלו אמת…

“Which is not true of the Idra and the Zohar: they have no simple meaning at all. And the author never intended a simple meaning for the words at all. And there are passages where the simple meaning is pure heresy! And if you would translate these words to another language, you will have elevated the simple meaning to ‘truth,’ because a translation is (assumed to be) true. But in truth, the simple meaning of these words is not true.”

The bottom line is, that we really can’t know exactly what the Zohar meant. But we should hesitate before taking this fairly modern prayer as a literal expression of mainstream Jewish belief.

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