Prayer: Defining the Cycles of Life

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By Rabbi Naftoly Bier

This week’s newsletter marks the completion of its second cycle. We extend our profound appreciation to Rav Shimon Sternfield for his years of dedication, to Ms. Chayala Blumberg who diligently and professionally prepares each issue with supreme dedication, and to Rav Shloimie Lindenbaum for writing a weekly dvar Torah.

In this week’s פרשה we are taught by חז”ל that our patriarch יצחק instituted תפילת מנחה, the “afternoon service”. It is the shortest of the three services. Why?

Each of the three daily prayers was originally instituted by one of the Patriarchs. This arrangement is explained by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi as follows (Kuzari III, V): “The hour of prayer is the climax, the flowering and the goal, of the day; all other hours are merely preliminary to it. The blessing of one prayer lasts until the next, just as the strength gained from one meal lasts till the one after. The longer the interval between one prayer and the next, the more man’s soul occupies itself with worldly pursuits – the more it is dulled by them. During the time of prayer, however, man purges his soul from all that has contaminated it. He prepares his soul for the future.”

However, the fact that the prayers are each tied to certain hours of the day, requires explanation. As יעב”ץ explains: “No other hours are better fitted to turn men towards G-d, than the hours of sunrise and sunset. At sunrise, Nature springs to life in rejuvenated splendor. Man, refreshed by new strength, enthusiasm, and vigor, takes up his appointed task once more. At sundown, when the veil of darkness is spread over man, all that breathes entrusts its fate in the Omnipotent Creator.” Thus the hours of morning and evening arouse differing moods in the heart of man.
“Human life then moves along the two different sectors; the day-sector, its events being the product of the free creative activity of man; and the night sector, where man appears as the passive object of cosmic influences. There man is the power and the world his material; here he is the material and the universe is the power that masters and molds him.” (Rav S.R. Hirsch)

The morning and evening services correspond to these two contrasting themes. The morning prayer bears the imprint of gratitude for liberation from the grasp of the night. In its first part we offer the blessings for the rejuvenation of body and soul (ברכות השחר); then glorifying the splendor of nature (פסוקי דזמרה); finally in the שמע and its ברכות culminating in the historical reflections of the thankfulness for the redemptions of Israel.

The paragraph אמת ויציב recited in the morning, has reference only to the mercy shown by G-d to our fathers in the past. The evening section אמת ואמונה points to future events, to the faith “that He will sustain our lives and let us overcome our enemies etc.” Thus חסד the Divine mercy is the main idea underlying the morning prayer. On the other hand אמונה, the faithfulness shown to us by G-d during all the “nights” of our lives, is the motif of the evening prayer.

According the view of the Kabbala, the day is the time of rule of the מדת חסד the Divine love, which bestows upon man the full possession of his liberty and might so that he may strive, by perfecting himself morally, to become a replica of the Divine. The night, however, exposes man unprotected to the influence of the elements. It is the time of the Divine judgement, מדת הדין. However, these considerations ignore the third prayer, the מנחה of the afternoon. We are taught, Abraham inaugurated the morning prayer, Isaac the Mincha, Jacob the evening prayer. Abraham’s life was like the rising sun, that waxes ever brighter. Blessed with abundant success in all his undertakings, he stood alone facing the entire world and summoning it to embrace monotheism. He was highly revered as נשיא אלוקים a prince of G-d.

During Isaac’s life the light began to dim. He was greeted only with envy by his contemporaries for the Divine blessings he received. Finally, with Jacob the shadows of night close in. His entire life was a concatenation of trials and tribulations. They left as their heritage the means of elevating ourselves to G-d from the most divergent times of life: when the rays of morning rouse all to life, when the waning of the sun turns us to earnest self-contemplation, and when the night summons us to rally our thoughts towards G-d. Isaac’s life was subjected to greater severity than Jacob. For, to have to descend from the heights we have climbed, is a harder blow to bear, than to begin life in suffering and struggle with the possibility of ultimately reaching the summit.
The days of Isaac’s life ended in blindness, in hopeless gloom. In like manner, the hour of sundown, the time when Isaac poured out his heart in prayer to G-d, leads on inevitably to night-time.

This too, is reflected in the composition of the Minchah service. All the exultant hymns of praise uttered in the morning are omitted. The worshipper stands silent before G-d engrossed in earnest self-examination. At this hour, the day draws to its close; man will soon be surrendered to the obscurity of the night. At this hour the question is answered – have man’s actions rendered him worthy to have the aspirations and hopes uttered in his Tefilla, realized or not. The Talmud lays great stress on the importance of the מנחה, for this prayer consists only of spiritual self-appraisal before G-d, the Judge. The night, however, the hour when Jacob approached G-d, already points to the morning. It bears assurance of the existence of a merciful G-d, who in faithful solicitude, watches over sleeping mankind.

One begins the day in the morning, his heart filled with gratitude for the vitality and the vigor which G-d’s חסד has restored to him. Just before the day dies, when his daily work is done, man stands again before G-d to render an account in prayer (דין). Finally when night closes in, he prays that the merciful G-d grant him protection until the morning (רחמים). The Divine governing principles, Love Justice and Mercy are thus like shining stars shading their light over the daily life of the Jew, making him turn his eyes heavenward, in joyous gratitude (שחרית), in earnest self-examination (מנחה) and in steadfast trust (מעריב).


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