But first, some memories.
My grandfather majored in Electrical Engineering at Brooklyn Tech High School, from which he graduated around 1940. He told me that the skills he acquired at Brooklyn Tech allowed him to join not only the manufacturing staff at his subsequent job, it actually allowed him to join the lab, “in which testing was done on that electrical equipment” that was being manufactured: sinine rectifiers (which apparently change alternating current into direct current). When, in 1941, my grandfather was drafted to serve in the American army in World War II, he then joined the signal corps, which involved “telecommunications between various parts of the army.”
I remember that one time when we were kids, Grandpa Larry and Grandma Norma brought us a prism. (It was sometime when we were living in our second house probably before we renovated the kitchen, so it had to have been sometime between 1994-1996, but I can’t remember precisely when.) I will admit that that day I was more amused by the pretty colors that appeared on the wall opposite me rather than wondering about what made the colors appear, but I remember as Grandma and Grandpa patiently tried to explain it to us nonetheless. I remember how happy it made Grandpa to try to get us to understand these concepts. It was that day that Grandpa explained to me how a sprinkler makes a rainbow appear. Maybe that’s why I’ve since loved chasing rainbows. Maybe that bit of understanding has contributed to how excited I am to say the b’rachah prescribed for viewing a rainbow – the more I understand, the more in awe I am of divine Creation.
And in that vein, in my grandfather’s memory, my study this year has focused on light. Particularly, I have focused on the first b’rachah preceding the Sh’ma in the morning service, called “birkat yotzér,” in which we praise God for the light He gives us every day. Commonly, the weekday version of birkat yotzér appears in the siddur as follows (translation adapted from Silverman siddur):
barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, ‘elohénu melekh ha’olam, yotzér ‘or uvoré hoshekh, ‘oseh shalom uvoré ‘et hakol.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of all.
Okay: God is the Creator of light, darkness, peace, and everything. A good opening. We continue:
hame’ir la’aretz veladarim ‘aleha berahamim. uvtuvo mehaddésh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh vereisheet. mah rabu ma’asekha adonai. kulam behokhmah ‘asita. mal’ah ha’aretz kinyanekha. hamelekh hamromam levado mei’az. hamshubah vehamfo’ar vehamitznasé mimot olam. ‘elohei ‘olam. berahamekha harabim rahem alénu. ‘adon ‘uzénu, tsur misgabénu, magén yish’énu, misgav ba’adénu.
In mercy You bring light to the earth and to those who dwell in it, and in Your goodness You continually renew each day the miracle of Creation. How great are You works, O Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your handiwork. O King, You alone have been exalted from times eternally past, and You will be praised and glorified until all eternity. O everlasting God, in Your abundant mercy have compassion upon us. O Lord of our strength, sheltering Rock, Shield of our salvation, You are a stronghold unto us.
‘el barukh gedol dé’ah, hékhin ufa’al zoharé hamah. tov yatzar kevod lishmo. me’orot natan sevivot ‘uzo. pinot tzeva’av kedoshim. romemé shaddai. tamid mesaperim kevod ‘él uk’dushato. titbarakh ‘adonai ‘elohénu ‘al shevah ma’asé yadekha. ve’al me’oré ‘or she’asita yefa’arukha selah.
O God, blessed and all knowing, You have designed handmade the radiance of the sun. You, O Beneficent One, have wrought glory to Your name; You have set luminaries around Your strength. All Your hosts in heaven continually declare Your high praises and Your holiness, O Almighty. May You be blessed, O Lord our God, for the excellence of Your handiwork and for the bright luminaries which You have made; all shall glorify You.
It is clear, still, that we are praising God for His creation of the celestial bodies – the sun, in particular. All of these in heaven praise God. Still straightforward. We continue:
titbarakh tzurénu malkénu vego’alénu boré kedoshim. yishtabah shimkha la’ad malkénu, yotzér meshar’tim, va’asher mesharetav kulam ‘omedim berum ‘olam. ‘umashmi’im beyir’ah yahad divré ‘elohim hayyim ‘umelekh ‘olam. kulam ‘ahuvim, kulam berurim, kulam giborim, vekhulam ‘osim be’émah ‘uvyir’ah retzon konam. vekhulam potekhim ‘et pihem bikdushah ‘uvtohorah, beshirah ‘uvzimrah. ‘umvar’khim, ‘umshabekhim, ‘umfa’arim, ‘uma’aritzim, ‘umakdishim, ‘umamlikhim…
May You be blessed, our Rock, our King, our Redeemer, our Creator of ministering angels who, as envisaged by the prophet, stand in the heights of the universe and together proclaim with awe the words of the living God and the everlasting King. All the heavenly hosts are beloved; all are pure; all are mighty; and all in holiness and purity, with song and psalm, all bless and revere, sanctify and ascribe sovereignty…
‘et shém ha’el hamelekh hagadol hagibbor vehanora, kadosh hu. vekhulam mekabbelim ‘aléhem ‘ol malkhut shamayim zeh mizeh. venotenim reshut zeh lazeh lehakdish leyotzeram benahat ruah. besafah berurah uvin’imah kedoshah, kulam ke’ehad ‘onim ve’omerim beyir’ah:
… to the Name of God, the great, mighty, awe-inspiring and holy King. They all pledge to one another to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and give sanction to one another to hallow their Creator. In tranquil spirit, with pure speech and sacred melody they all respond in unison and reverently proclaim:
kadosh, kadosh, kadosh ‘adonai tseva’ot, melo khol ha’aretz kevodo.
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Adonai Tseva’ot, the whole earth is full of His glory.”
veha’ofanim vehayot hakodesh bera’ash gadol mitnase’im le’umat serafim. le’umatam meshabbehim ve’omerim:
And the Ofanim and the Holy Beasts, in great sound proclaim to the leagues of Seraphim. They utter praises and proclaim,
barukh kevod ‘adonai mimmekomo.
“Blessed be the glory of the Lord that fills the universe.”
The ministering angels and all of the other celestial beings proclaim God’s holiness and His presence. The text then ties together its previous few paragraphs: beings singing, God is enduring, God combats evil, God is the Lord of wonders, and God made the heavenly lights.
l’él barukh ne’imot yiténu lemelekh ‘él hai vekayam, zemirot yomeru vetishbahot yashmi’u. ki hu levado po’él gevurot. ‘oseh hadashot, ba’al milhamot, zoré’a tsedakot, matzmiah yeshu’ot, boré refu’ot, nora tehilot, ‘adon hanifla’ot, hamhadésh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’asé v’réshit. ka’amur: le’oseh ‘orim gedolim, ki le’olam hasdo.
“To the blessed God they offer a sweet song; to the Ruler, the living and ever-enduring God, they utter hymns and make their praises heard; for He alone works mighty deeds and makes new things. He is the Lord who combats evil, sowing righteousness and causing salvation to spring forth. He creates healing, for He is the Lord of wonders and is revered in praises. In His goodness He renews the creation every day continually, as it is said in the Psalm: “Give thanks to He who made new lights, for His mercy endures forever.”
Up until this point, the liturgical text is clearly unified. God’s greatness, ministering angels, celestial bodies. With this in mind, what comes next is surprising:
Or hadash ‘al tsiyon ta’ir, venizkeh khulanu m’hérah le’oro. barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, yotzér hame’orot.
O cause a new light to shine on Zion, and may we all be worthy to delight in its splendor. Blessed are You, O Lord, Creator of Light.
The b’rachah at the end, acknowledging God as Creator of Light, nicely finishes this extended blessing — but where did Zion enter our discussion?
9th-century Jewish Babylonian scholar Saadia Gaon was unhappy with the insertion of Zion into this b’rachah, and omitted it in his siddur. The commentary to this section in the siddur of Saadia Gaon’s contemporary, Amram Gaon, indicates the following (before deciding to include this phrase in his compendium anyway):
Our master Saadia said that it is forbidden to say “And cause a new light to shine on Zion” in this blessing. Why? Because we are not blessing about the light to come in the days of the Messiah, but rather about the light that we see each and every morning.
Abe Katz, a pre-eminent scholar of tefilah in our generation and the founder of the Beurei Hatefila Institute, included in his commentary on this text the words of Naftali Weider, who apparently found the following in the handwritten manuscripts of Saadia Gaon (Katz’s translation):
“Between all that I heard about the additions and the deletions within the three B’rachot of Kriyat Sh’ma, I found that two of the changes do not fit into the original intent of the authors. The first: there are those who recite the line beginning: “or chadash al tsiyon ta’eer, v’nizkeh koolanu mehérah le’oro.” […] It is prohibited to recite that line. The type of light that was the basis of the B’rakhah was the light of the sun itself and not something else ([i.e.] the light of the [Messiah]).”
Further, the Tur, Orah Hayyim 59, according to Katz’s assembly of sources, indicates that the recitation of this phrase is not recited as part of the Sephardic liturgy. It affirms Saadia Gaon’s position and indicates that Rashi’s position is the same. The Likutei Maharikh, a Chassidic commentary, says, however, that whether one’s inclinations direct him or her to include or omit this phrase, “one should not digress from the custom within his area.” This much-later Chassidic commentary, in fact, reads into the entire previous b’rachah the light of Zion and the Messiah, particularly angled toward its devotion to the Ba’al Shem Tov.
On the one hand, I agree with Saadia Gaon – now that it’s been called to my attention, the acknowledgment of Zion in this passage does seem out of place. Perhaps another example of minhag avoténu beyadénu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands. While there was a place discuss its appearance in the 9th century, a piece of liturgy at least a millennium in its place feels permanent. However, as we daven in the days to come, it is perhaps important to be aware of the kavanah, the intention, of this paragraph. We thank God for His creating the celestial bodies which guide our days, our calendars, our tides, our sailors, and our lives. In this day and age, it is perhaps even more important that we acknowledge God’s power over the sun as we increasingly benefit from solar energy.
I never really got a straight answer about whether my grandfather believed in God, but it seemed to me that he did. He certainly davened when he was in shul. I do believe that from C. Lawrence Eisen I inherited an ability to see the divinity in physics and in the science of the world around me. God has given us the world to live in, to harness, to make our own, and He helps us embrace it every day. I loved and respected my grandfather with all of my heart; he was my teacher, he was my friend. Four years later, I still miss him, and I was blessed to have him in my family. May his memory be for a true blessing.