By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
The rabbis instituted blessings to recite every morning for our basic needs such as power of sight, ability to stand up and walk, etc. The first blessing recited is for giving the rooster the insight to distinguish between day and night. How does that figure into our basic needs like sight and walking? Also, it doesn’t take that much insight and intelligence to differentiate between day and night; this is a natural, physical distinction. Why should this come under the category of “understanding”?
Excellent questions. The early commentators of the Siddur (prayer book) have raised your questions. As with the entire Siddur, there are numerous layers of meaning supplanted by our sages to each word of the prayers; we shall attempt to understand this blessing on different levels.
Some commentators to the Talmud translate the word sechvi as rooster, as you mentioned, and that we are thanking God for giving the wisdom to this animal to be the world’s first natural alarm clock. This is the simple meaning, fitting in with our basic needs, the first of which is to wake up in the morning. However, as you pointed out, the blessing uses the word lehavchin, which is used in Hebrew for a deeper type of differentiation than simply seeing the sun rise; this word refers to a deeper understanding.
Other Talmudic sages interpret the word sechvi as heart, referring to the capacity of man to differentiate between night and day. This, however, does not seem to reconcile the issue. Why does man need deep intuition to tell between dark and light?
Some answer this by the fact that the rooster does not actually wait till daybreak to commence its crowing; it senses that day is about to begin, the first rays of the sun are soon to break the horizon and begins its mission while it is still dark. The rooster senses the imminent light from within the darkness, a unique endowment to this animal.
This is also an analogy to the endowment of human wisdom. Every day has periods of light, representing clarity, peace of mind and success. There are also spurts of darkness that can last for some time, times of confusion, challenges and difficulties.
It takes a level of wisdom, patience and maturity coupled with belief and trust to not get caught up in the darkness, rather to find the light in the darkness and the silver lining in every cloud. One needs to look at the rooster to derive inspiration that the darkness will eventually lead to light.
With this, the two commentaries of rooster and heart become one bigger reality reflecting upon the totality of the human experience; hence this is the first blessing recited.
Some point out that this also reflects the Jewish attitude on life. The rooster crows only with the onset of day but not when day turns into night. We always believe that no matter how difficult things might be, either individually or as a nation, there is always a brighter future in store; things will be all right.
We look at every new day with positive anticipation and excitement; the dawn of a new time to accomplish and grow and make a difference in the world.
One sage understands the rooster to be used symbolically in this blessing, which praises God for creating the intricately connected ecosystem that is our world. Flora and fauna, animal and human — each element is connected to every other. The rooster’s crowing acts as a natural alarm clock for human beings; it is the first manifestation of this interconnection and of the many ways in which the entire natural world is meant for our benefit.
All the above requires a deeper intuition, lehavchin, to use one’s full faculties and understanding to plumb to the more subtle depths and nuances in the world and in our lives. Our ability to do so is a divinely endowed gift, one that enables us to understand life itself, and is certainly worthy of our thanks to the One who gifted it to us.
The singer Matisyahu, who used to study with Rabbi Fried, asked this question during a meeting while he was in Dallas for a July 28 concert.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.