Early Morning Traditions

by Jan Lee

According to our sages, when Abraham “arose early in the morning,” as we are told in Genesis 22:3, he was beginning his day in prayer. That tradition of beginning the day with prayer still is practiced daily today.

For many Jews, the morning shacharit service is when they acknowledge the yahrtzeits of loved ones and other lifecycle events. Others attend the daily service regularly to connect with the community and to maintain the traditions that link them.

Whatever the motivations, the opportunity to gather to worship continues to have a strong bearing on our connections as Conservative Jews.

Deuteronomy 11:13 calls Jews to “serve God with your whole heart,” which, according to the 12th-century Spanish scholar Maimonides, means doing so through both prayer and the study of the law.

But the explanation of how and why Jews pray three times a day is a bit more complex.

“There are two ideas about the origins of the daily services,” according to Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, who serves as rabbi of Conservative Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver, British Columbia. “One is, of course, that they were started by the patriarchs.”

Jewish tradition links the three main prayer times with the three patriarchs, attributing shacharit to Abraham, who is said to have begun the day in prayer after being told that he must sacrifice his son. The story serves as a powerful symbol of Jewish spirituality, which is paralleled in this tale with Abraham’s faith and willingness to do as God commanded.

The other two daily prayer times – minchah, said in the afternoon, and ma’ariv, the evening prayer – also have been attributed to passages in the Torah, inspired by Isaac and Jacob.

Infeld said that another possibility is that the afternoon and evening services “are connected to the daily sacrifices at the time of the Temple.”

Shacharit and minchah serve as reminders of the ancient sacrifices, which were an integral part of Jewish life thousands of years ago. While many Conservative Jews may not link their attendance at minyan directly with Temple sacrifices, the sacrifices did provide their own powerful means of communication to the Israelites who took part in them.

“Once the Temple was destroyed, we as Jews metamorphosed the way we worship, from physical sacrifices to a sacrifice of words,” Infeld said. “And the truth is, words, before the second Temple was destroyed, already were being introduced into the Temple service.

“That progression and that metamorphosis is one of the reasons that Judaism exists today. If it weren’t for that change, then Judaism as a religion never would have been able to sustain itself because the heart of its religious life was destroyed.”

Rabbi Daniel Isaak, who is the senior rabbi at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon, notes that despite the significant role that prayer plays in contemporary Jewish spiritual life, it is far less visible in our foundational text.

“Prayer is a relatively rare thing in the Torah,” Isaak said. “We have only a few times when we read about people who pray, and in fact the first person who prays in the Torah is not even Jewish. He is Abraham’s servant Eliezer, who is sent on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.”

The way we pray today, however, says a lot not only about our spirituality, but also about our compassion and connection with those around us.

And both Neveh Shalom and Beth Israel long have maintained that vital tradition.

At Neveh Shalom, Portland’s largest Conservative synagogue, congregants lead the weekday shacharit services. The main leader, Isaak said, is a 95-year-old man who is known for his punctuality, starting at 7:15 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. (The minyan begins 15 minutes earlier on Monday and Thursday, when the Torah is read, and at a relatively luxurious 9 o’clock on Shabbat and Sundays.) Other members of the congregation step up to read the Torah. Fifteen to 20 members come most days, which ensures that there will be a minyan.

“It is a very good mixture of men and women,” Isaak said. “It is an older crowd for the most part, but we have younger people too.”

To encourage younger attendees, the congregation offers a new pair of tefillin for each bar mitzvah student who attends minyan once a week for a year.

“The cantor also encourages bar and bat mitzvah students to read Torah on Monday and Thursday. And they get a lot of positive reinforcement from everyone there,” Isaak added.

Isaak acknowledges that there may be a wide range of reasons why congregants are willing to get out of bed for early morning services. One is to say kaddish, but another may be the desire to ensure that those who are saying kaddish can do so. (Halachah – Jewish law – requires a minyan of 10 adults for reading Torah and reciting the mourners kaddish.)

“If I am not there, maybe they will only have nine people and somebody will not be able to say kaddish,” Isaak said. “So it is important for me to be there in person.” It is a compelling reason, and one that attendees often take very seriously.

Minyan is well attended at Beth Israel as well, Infeld said. The kehilla, which was incorporated in 1932, is one of Vancouver’s oldest synagogues, and the only egalitarian shul in British Columbia that offers services seven days a week. On average about 15 people of various ages attend the daily shacharit service. Breakfast, discussion, and a d’var Torah (Torah study) follow the service.

“There are some people who come regularly, and the minyan is part of their social circle and an important part of their day,” Infeld said.

For those who have experienced a recent loss, the minyan can be a place to find reassurance and support.

“After coming for 11 months to say kaddish, some people find it so meaningful that they continue to come for the rest of their lives.”

And people also come for education.

“There is no better way to learn about Judaism or to sharpen your Hebrew skills or to sharpen your skills in tefillah – prayer – than by coming to services,” Infeld said. “Some people come because of the spiritual element, recognizing that they are communicating with God on a daily basis.”

Isaak pointed out that minyan can be especially stimulating to people who are retired and looking for meaning and purpose.

“The minyan not only gives people a reason to get out of bed, it adds a kind of meaning to their lives. That is something we need from the moment we’re born to our last days,” he said.

Jan Lee is the topic editor and a feature writer for's Judaism section (http://janlee. Her articles on Northwest history, culture, and travel have been published in Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia.

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