Holy Vessel

Nitilat Ya’dayim: “Holy Vessel”

By Rabbi David Weizman


Before Air B ‘n B, we had a house guest who was a chaplain in the Israel Defense Forces. In the morning he was surprised and pleased to find a becher by the kitchen sink. That is Yiddish for the hand washing cup that has two handles.

In Hebrew, the word for this cup is nat’lah, and the blessing that we recite over the ritual washing of the hands is called nitielat ya’dayim. We usually associate this ritual practice as something which we do before we eat a meal that begins with bread and the blessing of Ha’motze. However, this ritual washing is done at other times as well, like when you leave the cemetery, or before the Kohanim bless the congregation during prayer. The words of the blessing, nitielat ya’dayim, literally mean to raise the hands; symbolically, to higher state of holiness. So why do we perform this ritual in the morning?

Our Talmud teacher, Rabbi Ed Girshfield who hailed from Winnipeg, explained it in the following way. During the night, our predecessors believed that we experience a sort of partial death. And because of that, the shadim, the shadowy spirits would come and cover you like a willowy shroud. But with the first bit of light from the dawn and a slight stirring of the body, they would make their escape by way of the extremities, the hands and the fingers being the points of last departure. They would however, leave a bit of residue on the fingernails. And so was conceived the practice of keeping neggel wasser at the bedside, to wash of the nails as soon as possible upon waking. Those more brave souls make a break for the kitchen sink before you can say the word, go. The cup is taken in the left hand and the water poured over the right, once on the top and then the palm, then the left hand. Some repeat this process three times. The hands are dried with a towel and the blessing is recited.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al nitielat ya’dayim.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, instilling holiness within us through the performance of Your commandments, who has directed us to raise up our hands.

You may have noticed that the prayer, Modeh Ani, does not contain the name of God. Before we utter the Name, we make ourselves a holy vessel, and this is the real kavanah, the intention of the washing ritual. Through this purification, we become that cup, ready to be filled with the presence of God.

The Talmud teaches: kol berchah sh’ain bah hazkarat HaShem, ainah berchah (Berachot 12a). Every blessing must contain the Name of God. As we recite these blessings throughout the day, we bring the Presence into this world through our consciousness, so that everything we do is infused with holiness: my work I do in holiness, I talk to my friends b’kdushah, in holiness; I eat my food b’kedushah. Everything I do is meant to raise me up as an agent, and a conduit for the Divine Presence. Not only are we the vessel, but it’s as though we are the water as well.



Waking Up

Modeh Ani: “Waking Up on the Right Side of the Bed”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

For some, waking up is the first challenge of the day. When you have late-night binge watched on Netflix or stayed up late (again) working on a project, how are you supposed to “rise and shine”? In Jewish terms, “One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning for the service of his Creator.” (Mishnah Brurah 1:1) Sounds great! But then add the reality of awakening to the cell-phone-fumble, getting screen-blinded, pressing snooze a hundred times, begging our technology for “one more GPS minute” – it isn’t easy.

According to our tradition, however, no matter when, how or where we wake up in the morning, we are soul-directed to re-orient our thoughts to loftier words than the ones we might want to say at day break – Instead, we utter “Modeh Ani”– the quintessence of gratitude.


Modeh Ani L’fanecha

Melech chai v’kayam

She’he’che’zarta bi nishmati

Rabbah Emunatecha


מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ

Thankful, I am before You

Living and enduring King,

for returning my soul to me,

how great is Your faith.

Yes, the translation sounds like“Yoda back from the dead”, but that is just the nature of translation. The full force of the prayer comes from the wisdom that “gratitude” – not “ego” – is our raison d’etre. The rabbis who composed this prayer believed that sleep was a mini-death. To awaken from sleep was to be given another shot at life. To die another day, as it were.  But the prayer also has a wider application for the modern riser:

The first conscious thought of our day is “Thank You”.  Not just for another day, but for all that the day entails, all the wonderful people in it, all of the new opportunities awaiting us.  Without these words, our body wants to say – “five more minutes” or “bathroom please”, or  “need caffeine now”.  But, our soul won’t have it. Those creaturely habits can wait a second while we direct our consciousness toward the amazing fact of the New Day and having the wherewithal to express gratitude.

The second element of this prayer is the clincher. Usually when we think about faith, we tune into our faith in God. However, this prayer stipulates that God has faith in us. Rabba Emunatecha – How Great is Your Faith.

A teacher of mine in Sefad, Rabbi Gedalia Gurfein, once taught about this: It is obvious, he said, that God has faith in you – because you are here to tell the tale.  The real question is – do YOU have faith in you?  Do you believe in your own ability, your own power, your own purpose?  Those are the essential questions accompanying our first conscious breath of the day.

May each of us strive to greet the day again and again with the positive power of faith – in God, in humanity, in ourselves. May this faith energize us to power through our many gifted days.