Let’s return to discussing the blessing Yotzer Or, “Who creates (or ‘forms’) light”, the first of two brachot (blessings) before reading the Shema in the morning.
As previously mentioned (in this earlier post) I like to think of this as “the astronomers’ blessing” because it focuses on light, but also so much more…
As previously discussed, I find it to be very helpful and meaningful to think about astronomical ideas to enhance kavana (focus, or intentionality) when praying daily. This is certainly true for this particular blessing!
The blessing begins with the sentence:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא אֶת־הַכֹּל.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all [things].
As we have discussed before (see this post…) modern cosmology explains the connection between the first initial light created at the moment of the Big Bang – which was all that existed at that time in the very early Universe – and the rest of matter and energy that formed from that light as the Universe expanded and cooled. Thus astronomy relates the creation of “all” directly back to the creation of light!
However, in the course of describing God’s greatness as the Creator of “all”, the text of the blessing veers beyond the initial focus on light itself, until, it reaches the closing lines of this extended long-playing blessing:
הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל־יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית: כָּאָמוּר: (תהלים קלו:ז) ֖לְעֹשֵׂה אוֹרִ֣ים גְּדֹלִ֑ים כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ: אוֹר חָדָשׁ עַל־צִיּוֹן תָּאִיר וְנִזְכֶּה כֻלָּֽנוּ מְהֵרָה לְאוֹרוֹ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ יוֹצֵר הַמְּאוֹרוֹת
The One Who renews, in His goodness, every day the [work of] Creation. As it is said “To the One Who creates great lights, for His kindness is forever.” (Psalms 136:7) Shine a new light on Zion and may we all merit its light. Blessed are You, God, who forms the lights.
[As an aside: In many nuschaot [different traditions/ textual versions] of this blessing the phrase “Shine a new light..” does not appear. It is found in the Ashkenazi version, but not some others, such as Nusach Ari or Edot Hamizrach. So let’s ignore it here, for now.]
Notice that the closing blessing “yotzer hameorot” – “who forms the lights” – is actually somewhat different in meaning than the opening one, “yotzer or” – “who forms light”. The “light” in the beginning of the blessing, along with darkness and “all” would seem to refer to light – the stuff of photons and waves. However, the מְּאוֹרוֹת – “lights” – in the conclusion refers to “heavenly luminaries” – i.e. heavenly bodies, the specific sources of light that are visible to us in the sky – the Sun, Moon, planets and stars.
This is not a sudden “bait-and-switch” by the rabbis who authored the blessing. There is a trend or progression from the beginning to the conclusion.
The initial lines of the blessing’s long text continue to describe creation in general or as a whole:
הַמֵּאִיר לָאָֽרֶץ וְלַדָּרִים עָלֶֽיהָ בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל־יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית
מָֽה־רַבּ֬וּ מַֽעֲשֶׂ֨יךָ ׀ ה’ כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ מָֽלְאָ֥ה הָ֝אָ֗רֶץ קִנְיָנֶֽךָ
הַמֶּֽלֶךְ הַמְרוֹמָם לְבַדּוֹ מֵאָז הַמְשֻׁבָּח וְהַמְּפֹאָר וְהַמִּתְנַשֵּׂא מִימוֹת עוֹלָם
Who shines light on the earth and those who dwell on it in mercy, And Who renews each day in His goodness, constantly, the “work of Creation.”
“How great are your works Hashem, all of them You created with wisdom; the world is filled your creations.”
The exalted King, alone since eternity, praised, glorified, lofty since beginning of days.
These lines while still focused on the theme of light, are a general description referring to all of Creation, the whole Universe. Phrases such as לְבַדּוֹ מֵאָז – “alone since eternity” and מִימוֹת עוֹלָם – “since the beginning of days” – harken back to the primordial creation of everything.
However, in the alphabetical acrostic piyut (poem) in the next portion of the blessing, the focus shifts to the heavenly “lights” – meorot – in particular the Sun, Moon, planets and stars.
אֵ-ל בָּרוּךְ גְּדוֹל דֵּעָה הֵכִין וּפָעַל זָהֳרֵי חַמָּה טוֹב יָצַר כָּבוֹד לִשְׁמוֹ מְאוֹרוֹת נָתַן סְבִיבוֹת עֻזּוֹ פִּנּוֹת צְבָאָיו קְדוֹשִׁים רוֹמֲמֵי שַׁדַּ-י תָּמִיד מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד־אֵ-ל וּקְדֻשָּׁתוֹ: תִּתְבָּרַךְ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ עַל־שֶׁבַח מַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶֽיךָ וְעַל־מְאֽוֹרֵי־אוֹר שֶׁעָשִֽׂיתָ יְפָאֲרֽוּךָ סֶּֽלָה:
The Blessed G-d, great in knowledge
He prepared and made the shining of the Sun
He created well [or “The Good One created”] glory for His Name:
Lights He placed surrounding His power; points [of light] of His hosts, holy ones, lofty ones of the Almighty
They constantly tell of G-d’s glory and His Holiness.
May the L-rd our G-d be blessed for the praise of Your handiwork and for the radiant lights that You have made may they glorify You [selah!]
Furthermore, אֵ-ל אָדוֹן – “El Adon” – the alternate parallel prayer said in place of the above paragraph on shabbat, has even more to say about the heavenly luminaries.
טובִים מְאורות שֶׁבָּרָא אֱ-להֵינוּ
יְצָרָם בְּדַעַת בְּבִינָה וּבְהַשכֵּל
כּחַ וּגְבוּרָה נָתַן בָּהֶם
לִהְיות מושְׁלִים בְּקֶרֶב תֵּבֵל
מְלֵאִים זִיו וּמְפִיקִים נוגַהּ
נָאֶה זִיוָם בְּכָל הָעולָם
שמֵחִים בְּצֵאתָם וְששים בְּבואָם
עשים בְּאֵימָה רְצון קונָם
פְּאֵר וְכָבוד נותְנִים לִשְׁמו
צָהֳלָה וְרִנָּה לְזֵכֶר מַלְכוּתו
קָרָא לַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וַיִּזְרַח אור
רָאָה וְהִתְקִין צוּרַת הַלְּבָנָה
Good are lights that our God created
He formed them with knowledge, understanding and intelligence
He gave them strength and might
To rule throughout the world
Full of splendor, radiating light
Beautiful is their splendor throughout the world
Happy as they go forth and joyous as they return
They do with awe their Creator’s will
Glory and honor they give to His name
Rejoicing and song at the mention of His Kingship
He called for the Sun and it shined with light
He saw and established the form of the Moon
The “lights” here are the Sun, Moon and stars that God created with His supreme knowledge, understanding and intelligence so that they “go forth” and “return” to “rule” – i.e. traverse the sky and shine – throughout the world. From a scientific viewpoint, He created and planned out the laws of physics – with knowledge, understanding and intelligence – in order to bring forth the heavenly luminaries according to His will, so that they follow predictable orbits and shine by means of nuclear fusion, to illuminate the world.
Note that the Tur (and Abudraham too) suggest that the line referring to the Moon being “established” could/should be ” ראה והקטין ” “He saw and reduced the form of the Moon”, in reference to a midrash about the Moon being reduced due to complaining.
It even includes a line that refers to the planets – albeit in a hinting manner:
שֶֽׁבַח נוֹתְנִים־לוֹ כָּל־צְבָא מָרוֹם
All the hosts on high give Him praise
The first letters of this phrase are the initials of the Hebrew names of the five planets that are visible with the naked eye and known to the ancients: Shin: Shabbtai -Saturn, Nun: Nogah – Venus, Kaf: Kochav – Mercury, Tzadik: Zedek – Jupiter, Mem: Maadim – Mars. (This interesting fact is noted in the footnotes of the classic Birnbaum Siddur. )
The blessing continues after the acrostic, describing how the servants that G-d created – here, the heavenly bodies – serve Him in the “heights of the world” – i.e. the sky – and spread His words in unison:
תִּתְבָּרַךְ צוּרֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ וְגוֹאֲלֵֽנוּ בּוֹרֵא קְדוֹשִׁים: יִשְׁתַּבַּח שִׁמְךָ־לָעַד מַלְכֵּֽנוּ יוֹצֵר מְשָׁרֲתִים וַאֲשֶׁר מְשָׁרֲתָיו כֻּלָּם עוֹמְדִים בְּרוּם עוֹלָם וּמַשְׁמִיעִים בְּיִרְאָה יַֽחַד בְּקוֹל דִּבְרֵי אֱ-לֹהִים חַיִּים וּמֶֽלֶךְ עוֹלָם:
May You be blessed our Rock, King and Redeemer, Who created holy ones. May Your name be praised forever, our King, Creator of those who serve [Him] and Whose servants all stand in universe’s heights, and proclaim together in awe the words of the living G-d, the eternal King.
From a scientific point of view, these servants in the heavens, by demonstration, metaphorically proclaim the laws of physics, which are the words of G-D
כֻּלָּם אֲהוּבִים כֻּלָּם בְּרוּרִים כֻּלָּם גִּבּוֹרִים וְכֻלָּם עֹשִׂים בְּאֵימָה וּבְיִרְאָה רְצוֹן קוֹנֵם… וְכֻלָּם מְקַבְּלִים עֲלֵיהֶם עֹל מַלְכוּת שָׁמַֽיִם זֶה מִזֶּה
All of them are beloved, all are clear, all are mighty, and all do the Will of their Creator in awe and fear… and all of them accept upon themselves the yoke of Heavenly Kingship…
Furthermore, the heavenly bodies demonstrate to humans the acceptance of Ol malchut shamayim – the “yoke of Divine Kingship” – by constantly following G-d’s laws. This appears at a point in the daily prayers shortly prior to saying the Shma’, which is our statement of the acceptance of Divine Kingship, and commandments.
If we ignore the anthropomorphic metaphor, for now, and opt for a more science-focused explanation, it is easy to see “the heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Psalms 19:1) by displaying how amazing the laws of physics are, and how God has made them.
In a similar vein, Rambam – Maimonides – discusses how studying and thinking about the laws of nature provides us with insight into God’s wisdom. (Note: My friend Prof. Chip Manekin has pointed out to me that the idea of “laws of nature” is not one found in medieval thought, but we moderns understand it that way.)
ON considering the Divine acts, or the processes of Nature, we get an insight into the prudence and wisdom of God as displayed in the creation of ….
(Guide for the Perplexed 3:32)
Similarly, regarding Moses, Rambam writes:
The words “all my goodness” imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31); when I say “to show him the whole creation,” I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular. This knowledge is referred to when we are told of Moses,” he is firmly established in all mine house” (Num. 12:7); that is, “his knowledge of all the creatures in My universe is correct and firmly established”; for false opinions are not firmly established. Consequently the knowledge of the works of God is the knowledge of His attributes, by which He can be known. (Guide 1:54)
Thus observation of the heavenly bodies, and how they metaphorically proclaim in unison the words of G-d – i.e. natural laws – inspires us to accept “the yoke of Heaven” upon ourselves and to follow God’s laws (the Torah, as well as the laws of physics) as the heavens do.
Now, however, I would like to focus on the overall transition from light and creation of everything, to the specific creation of the heavenly luminaries – specific points or bodies of light that we see in our skies.
As we have discussed before, creation began with primordial light; everything, all – “hakol” – has been made from that light. Over the ensuing billions of years since then, the heavenly bodies we see in the sky – and on which we live – have formed from the primordial light by slow processes that God alone could have planned. Our extended blessing is actually a recap of the entirety of the processes of cosmology, stellar formation and planet formation (and a few others too), which have yielded the wonderful and awesome Universe we inhabit today.
The Sun, Moon and stars give us light today, that we need to have every day and without which life on Earth could not exist or survive.
The energy from the Sun’s nuclear fusion reaches Earth in the form of light. That light is essential to life as we know it. Whether we think of how it is being absorbed by plants in photosynthesis today, thereby providing food for people and animals, or whether we consider similar plant processes eons ago that produced for us an atmosphere with oxygen that we breath. Without sunlight, we would not be here.
I could go on and on, explaining many other natural phenomena – that also depend on the Sun. But also, the Moon and stars contribute greatly to our world as we know it. In addition to giving us light at night, they function for us as timekeepers and navigational tools, and the Moon creates tides, to name just a few of their regular contributions to human life.
In fact, the contributions of the heavenly bodies to human life are so great that the ancients worshiped them, especially the Sun. Furthermore, in Ezekiel (see 8:16) we find that in the late First Temple period (the time of Ezekiel) the Jews themselves were guilty of worshiping the Sun!
יחזקאל פרק ח
טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, הֲרָאִיתָ בֶן-אָדָם; עוֹד תָּשׁוּב תִּרְאֶה תּוֹעֵבוֹת, גְּדֹלוֹת מֵאֵלֶּה. טז וַיָּבֵא אֹתִי, אֶל-חֲצַר בֵּית-ה’ הַפְּנִימִית, וְהִנֵּה-פֶתַח הֵיכַל ה’ בֵּין הָאוּלָם וּבֵין הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, כְּעֶשְׂרִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה אִישׁ; אֲחֹרֵיהֶם אֶל-הֵיכַל ה’, וּפְנֵיהֶם קֵדְמָה, וְהֵמָּה מִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם קֵדְמָה, לַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
15 Then said he unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations than these. 16 And he brought me into the inner court of the Lord’s house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east!
It is almost rather ironic then, that the first major prayer of our day also features prominent mentioning of the Sun, and is ideally said right before/during sunrise! (The ideal “vatikin” practice is to complete the last blessing after the Shma’ at sunrise. However, actual sunrise takes a few minutes, so perhaps this blessing would be said just a few minutes earlier, roughly at the beginning of sunrise if that one is completed at the end of sunrise…) It almost seems reminiscent of our ancestors’ sinful Sun worship!
However, the Mishnah tells us that in the Second Temple period, they repudiated their ancestors’ practice, and declared thus during the Simchat Beit Hashoeva [Rejoicing of the Water Drawing] celebrations on Sukkot:
משנה – מסכת סוכה ה,ב
היו תוקעין והולכין, עד שמגיעין לשער היוצא למזרח. הגיעו לשער היוצא למזרח–הפכו פניהם למערב ואמרו, אבותינו היו במקום הזה “אחוריהם אל היכל ה’, ופניהם קדמה, והמה משתחוויתם קדמה, לשמש” (יחזקאל ח,טז); ואנו, לי-ה עינינו. רבי יהודה אומר, שונים אותה לומר, ואנו לי-ה, ולי-ה עינינו
Mishnah Sukkah 5:2
They went on, blowing [their trumpets] as they went, until they reached the gate that leads out to the east. When they reached the gate that leads out to the east, they turned westward [with their faces towards the Temple], and said, “’Our ancestors, who were in this place, turned their backs on the Temple of the Lord, and their faces towards the east; for they worshiped the Sun towards the east’ (Ezekiel 8:16) but we lift our eyes to God.” R. Yehudah says, they repeated again and again, “We belong to God, and raise our eyes to God.”
Obviously, in our blessing we’re not worshiping the Sun but thanking God for the Sun – and that’s a big difference!
Furthermore, the entire text of the blessing adds in extra context beyond just the Sun and daylight. By adding in a “history of creation” from primordial light until the heavenly bodies, we’re both staying on theme – even enhancing the theme – and reinforcing the knowledge that God created everything – including the Sun, ha’meorot – other heavenly bodies, etc. – and we are only worshiping Him, and we are His, as R. Yehudah says in the Mishnah!
Similar to the proclamations of the priests and levites described in the Mishnah, our extended long-playing blessing, while focusing on light and heavenly lights, avows that we know that God is the sole Creator of everything. Thus the transition from “yotzer or” to “yotzer ha’meorot” serves a valuable function in the blessing of “recapping” the cosmic evolution of Creation and attributing it all to God!
Overall the Blessing is a dual reminder and recap of the history of God’s creation – from the light of the Big Bang that encompassed “all” to “all” that exists today; from primordial light to daily illumination, etc. that we humans – who are also God’s creations – experience and benefit from directly. We focus on all the scientific processes involved and thank God for it all.