Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 20 May 2014
The Modeh ani prayer is often used as an alternative to the Elohai n’shamah prayer as the first words that are spoken on waking in the morning. ‘Thanks’ is the first thought, followed by awareness of our intimate relationship with God, and the life that we are given. We usually think of Modeh Ani as being just a morning prayer, but we can cultivate gratitude throughout our day, making our lives and other people’s lives richer. The Jerusalem Talmud seems to suggest this:
“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said three introductions as they occurred during the day changing with each creation. In the morning a man is obligated to say: I give thanks before You Hashem my G-d and G-d of my fathers who brought my soul from darkness to light. At Mincha (noon) a man is obligated to say: I give thanks before You Hashem my G-d and G-d of my fathers, just as you privileged me to see the sun in the east likewise privilege me to see it in the west. In the evening [one is] required to say: May it be your will, Hashem our G-d, and G-d of my fathers, just as I was in darkness and you brought me to light, so will you bring me out from darkness to light.” [Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 4:1, 29b]
This article includes reflections on the following areas:
- Tradition (commentary through the centuries)
- Modeh / modah – Gratefulness
- L’fanecha / l’fanayich – Your Presence (‘faces’)
- Emunah – loyalty, persistence, faithfulness, trust
- Reishit chochmah – the beginning of wisdom
See the end of this article for the prayer text (Hebrew alternatives for masculine and feminine, transliterated and English translation).
a) Four elements: i) Modeh ani as a phrase originates in Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:1, 29b, 3rd century) “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said … In the morning a person is obligated to say: ‘I give thanks [modeh ani] before You Lord my God and God of my ancestors who brought my soul from darkness to light’.” ii) Nishmati – the reference to the return of the soul originates in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 60b) with the Elohai n’shamah iii) chemlah / rabah emunatecha (mercy / faithfulness) – these originate in Lamentations 3:23 [also see point 4]. iv) The line Reishit … la’ad is Ps. 111:10.
b) “Modeh ani tells us that every day we wake up to a new adventure, a new set of possibilities, and new chance to connect to God.” (Lamentations Rabah 3:8, probably 5th century)
c) The 11 word form of this prayer [from modeh to emunatecha] first appeared in Seder Hayom, a mystical commentary on the siddur. (Moses Ibn Machir of Safed, Venice, 1599)
d) “upon awakening we must immediately make ourselves aware that we are in the presence of the King, and therefore we should set our intention to act and speak becomingly. Likewise, being in the presence of our most important Master we are told in the halachic works to rise up with gibor ki’ari / ‘the strength of a lion’ meaning halev ki gevurah / ‘with a heart of bravery’ … to fulfil the will of our Father in Heaven.” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 1:3, 19th century)
e) “[The simplicity of the Modeh ani prayer] hints to many scholars that this was created as a simplified version of the prayer Elohai n’shamah.” (Gonzales 2011)
2. Modeh / modah – Gratefulness
a) I am not at the centre of the universe: Notice that the ‘thanks’ word comes before ‘I’. The centre of attention is not ‘I’, but thanks – and who the thanks is for (God). Life is a gift, and God is the Giver. “Modeh is actually a variant of the word hodah. Hodah does mean to thank, but it also has a deeper meaning. It can also mean to admit, to acknowledge, to confess, or rise to the understanding of This is very appropriate wording, because before we can actually give thanks we have to have the ascent of understanding that we should be grateful. Before we can give thanks we need to acknowledge in ourselves that we ought to give thanks.” (Gonzales 2011)
b) Gratefulness as a practice: “In Hebrew, the word for Jew, Yehudi, comes from this same root of modah. The Jewish people might be called The Grateful Ones. Judaism might be called The Path of Gratefulness. By waking up in gratefulness, we set the tone for the day; we step in to a particular groove; we open our eyes in search of both the obvious and the hidden blessings that God has set before us.” (Gold 2013, p.119-120) “Gratefulness is not a feeling; it’s a practice.” (Gold 2013, p.120) Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328) said that “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You’ that would be enough.”
c) Gratefulness and generosity: “Gratefulness, beginning in surprise, expanding into wonder, gradually grows into generosity as we look for ways to respond to this gift of life that we are given.” (Gold 2013, p.124) “Giving becomes the natural response to receiving.” (Gold, 2006)
d) One hundred blessings: “R. Meir used to say, A man is bound to say one hundred [mem-aleph-heh = me’ah] blessings daily, as it is written, ‘And now, Israel, what [mem-heh = mah] does the Lord your God require of you?’ [Deut 10:12]” (Talmud, Menachot 43b) In other words, the verse from Deuteronomy was creatively interpreted as: “Now, Israel, a hundred does God, your God, ask of you”. The blessings said in services and meals, whether on a weekday or Shabbat, take us to 100.
e) “We will do and we will hear/understand.” Na’aseh v’nishmah (Ex. 24:7): “Sometimes we offer words of gratitude because we are already feeling grateful. And sometimes we come to feel grateful because we are offering words of gratitude. This is something I learned from my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth many years ago: that when I’m not able to access the gratitude with which I want to invest my Modah Ani prayer, I can instead pray the traditional words in the hope that someday I might be able to feel gratitude again. … One might ask: what is the relationship between thanksgiving and gratitude? It seems to me that gratitude is an attitude which may be a precursor to giving thanks … and sometimes giving thanks is a way of cultivating gratitude. When we give thanks, we place ourselves in relationship to something greater than ourselves. Our prayers of thanksgiving and mindfulness carve channels of gratitude on our hearts, and the more frequently we carve those channels, the more easily our spirits flow in those directions.” (Barenblatt 2013)
3. L’fanecha / l’fanayich – Your Presence (‘faces’)
a) Emotional surrender: “Modeh ani l’fanecha – I give thanks before You – I give thanks in Your presence – is a clear and strong statement of divine relationship. In it one speaks directly to the divine, acknowledging the daily presence of the Spirit in our lives, the divine role in creation, and the divine aspect of ourselves created in the image of God. <…> This certainty is not intellectual; it is instinctive and emotional.” (Gafni 2014) “We don’t proclaim ‘Ani modeh’, which puts the ‘self’ before the acknowledgement of surrender.” (Pinson)
b) Shviti adonai l’negdi tamid (Ps 16:8): “I place the Lord always before me.” We begin the day with this act. Schachter-Shalomi (2014) re-frames this with: “I place myself constantly in Your Presence.” God not only surrounds us, but is the Centre, Source and Destination, and All That Is. “… To truly say shiviti is to invert the hierarchy, to insist that What Is simply is, whether I want it to be so or not. We do not accept What Is because it is acceptable; we accept it because it Is.” (Michaelson 2009, pp. 49-50) By naming God’s presence, we invite and invoke it – and we raise our own God-consciousness.
c) Know before whom you stand: Da lifnei mi atah omeid (conflation of Talmudic text from Berachot 28b and Pirkei Avot 3:1) How real is God for you? How do you experience the Presence – right now? “Modah Ani (I gratefully acknowledge) – L’fanecha (You… or literally, To Your Face… and the word face in Hebrew is plural, so even more literally… Your Faces).” (Gold 2013, p.119) All people are made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), so to look into the face of another person is to look into the face of God. Jacob refers to the stranger – his inner demon with whom he wrestles – as the “face of God” (Gen. 32). All people, all things, all situations, all moments present a ‘face of God’. What changes if we notice?
d) Nachman’s prayer: “Creator of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone. May it be my custom to go outdoors each day, among the trees and grasses, among all growing things, there to be alone and enter into prayer. There may I express all that is in my heart, talking with You, to whom I belong. And may all grasses, trees, and plants awake at my coming. Send the power of their life into my prayer, making whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing things, made whole by their transcendent Source. O that they would enter into my prayer! Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech; then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your presence.” Reb Nachman of Bratslav, late 18th century (Frishman 2010, p.22)
4. Emunah – loyalty, persistence, faithfulness, trust
a) Source: Chasdei Hashem ki lo tamnu ki lo chalu rachamav. Chadashim lab’karim, rabah emunatecha. “The kindnesses of God surely have not ended, surely His mercies have not finished. They are new every morning, great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
b) God’s abundant giving: The letters of emunah (aleph-mem-vav-nun-heh) can be permutated into man hu (mem-nun heh-vav-aleph), meaning ‘what is it?’, the question in Ex. 16:15 about the food God provided in the desert – from which comes our word ‘manna’. It is God’s nature endlessly and persistently to create and create and create. Every day, God provides for us anew.
c) “Now at this point [after b’chemlah] we are told by all the major commentators that we should pause after this word and before we say the next two words [rabah emunatecha] … We have the opportunity to pause and consider this truth.” (Gonzales 2011)
d) Death: If – or eventually, when – we don’t wake up, does this mean that God eventually gives up on us? If the soul continues beyond death, then maybe not …
5. Reishit chochmah – the beginning of wisdom
a) Choose happiness: To begin our first waking awareness, intention and words with a prayer of thanks is a positive act. It orients us immediately to look for what is possible, to engage with life creatively, to start wherever we are, with whatever we find, and make things better. If we look for what is good, we are happier, and our happiness can inspire others to cultivate happiness. To acknowledge I am alive is also to own that I am an agent in the world, at the very least, in my own life. “Everyday God creates the day anew, and refreshes our souls anew. Everyday the world is a place of open opportunity and we are new people able to make a fresh start.” (Gonzales 2011)
b) Tuning ourselves: Milton wrote: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (Lines 254-55) The Sufi mystic Inayat Khan echoed this: “There are two aspects of life: the first is that man is tuned by his surroundings, and the second is that man can tune himself in spite of his surroundings.” And Frankl, a survivor of 4 concentration camps, wrote: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
c) Discipline: “To respect You is the beginning of wisdom. You give a clear mind to those who follow Your rules …” (Schachter-Shalomi translation of Ps. 111:10) This translation emphasises that we can grow wise through living Torah values.
d) Make a good day: My father-in-law Izzy Wainer (z’l) was renowned for answering to those who told him ‘Have a good day’ with “Not ‘have a good day’, but ‘make a good day’.” And he walked his talk. “May I make this new day a special day. May I overcome my weaknesses and radiate around me the light of love, care and joy. May my desire for success and attainment not blind me to the needs and wants of others, especially those I love and those who depend on me. May I be able to make during this day, some real time for myself and my family, and some meaningful space for You. Help me to remember throughout the day, that my time is like a scroll; I need only write on it what I want to remember, lest I run out of parchment.” Rabbi Ady Assabi (1947-2003)
Modeh ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam,
shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, rabah emunatecha.
Reishit chochmah yirat Adonai, seichel tov l’chol oseihem,
t’hilati omedet la’ad. Baruch sheim k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed.
I thank You, living and eternal King,
for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.
Wisdom begins in awe of the Lord; all who fulfil [His commandments] gain good understanding;
His praise is everlasting. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and all time.
Modah ani l’fanayich ruach chayah v’kayemet,
shehechezart bi nishmati b’chemlah, rabah emunateich.
Reishit chochmah yirat havayah, seichel tov l’chol oseihen,
t’hilati omedet la’ad. Baruch sheim k’vod sh’chinatah l’olam va’ed.
I thank You, living and eternal Spirit,
for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.
Wisdom begins in awe of the Divine; all who fulfil [Her commandments] gain good understanding;
Her praise is everlasting. Blessed be the name of Her glorious indwelling presence for ever and all time.
- Barenblatt, Rachel (2013) ‘On gratitude and thanks: a sermon for the UU community of Montreal’
- Frankl, Viktor (1946) Man’s Search For Meaning
- Frishman, Elyse D. (ed.) (2010) Mishkan T’filah: a Progressive siddur, World Union for Progressive Judaism
- Gafni, Marc (2014) ‘The Modeh Ani Lafanecha – Prayer of Certainty’, 25 March
- Gold, Shefa (2006) ‘Vayikra’, in Torah Journeys
- Gold, Shefa (2013) ‘Gratefulness as the foundation for practice’ in Magic Of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love, Jewish Lights, Woodstock
- Gonzales, Shmuel (‘Shmu the Jew’) (2011) ‘Modeh Ani: “I give thanks before You”’, 20 Aug
- Khan, Hazrat Inayat (1882-1927) ‘9. The Divinity of Indian Music’, in ‘The Healing Papers – Vol 2. The Mysticism of Sound and Music’
- Michaelson, Jay (2009) Everything is God, The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, Boston, Trumpeter
- Milton, John (1608–1674) Paradise Lost: The First Book
- Pinson, Dovber (sourced 13 March 2015) ‘Modeh Ani: the Thanking ‘I’’
- Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman (2014) Psalms in a translation for praying, Aleph, Philadelphia