This originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine online on May 16, 2018.
The starting time for a “Jewish” day can be described by three stages of light: Alot Hashahar, Misheyakir, and Hanetz Hahama.
Alot Hashahar refers to dawn when light is first noticeable on the eastern horizon. This is the earliest possible time for fulfilling daytime obligations, such as performing mitzvot like hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana or shaking the lulav on Sukkot.
Misheyakir follows Alot Hashahar and refers to the stage that there is enough light that a person can recognise an acquaintance from a short distance away. This is the earliest time for making a blessing on tzitzit – when there is enough light to discern the Tekhelet thread – or for donning tefillin. While Shema could be read from Alot Hashahar, the mention of tefillin and tzitzit in the Shema passages results in delaying its recitation until Misheyakir.
Once the fiery ball of the sun peaks over the horizon, this is called Hanetz Hahama and this is the ideal time to recite the morning Amida prayer.
For those who pray early in the morning these times shape the contours of their daily regime. On occasion, adhering to the times can be challenging. This is particularly so in cases when people need to set off to work early in the morning, to beat rush-hour traffic, or to catch a flight; especially during the winter months.
Even those who do not attend daily services so early in the morning, might experience the timing challenges on Shavuot morning. Many people stay up the entire night, religiously reciting the kabbalistic rite known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or opting for its popular permutation – a night spent studying Torah or attending public lectures.
As the morning approaches after the night-long vigil, it is not uncommon for those about to pray Shaharit to keep one eye on the clock. People who regularly time their prayers to coincide with the dawning of a new day, know how to schedule their prayers with precision. Those who experience the time challenge on rare occasions – perhaps only once a year after the Shavuot vigil – are likely to find themselves stretching out one section of the prayers to accommodate the clock. Thus, for example, supplicants might find themselves reciting the blessings before Shema at snail’s pace as Misheyakir approaches, or slowly wading through the blessings after Shema as the clock ticks towards Alot Hashahar.
Hasidic masters took a different approach to stretched out prayers on Shavuot morning.
Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkatch (1871-1937) is remembered as fiery leader and an outspoken anti-Zionist. He was also an important decisor of Jewish law, authoring a number of legal works, including a well-known collection of responsa entitled Minchat Elazar. Alongside these aspects of leadership, the Munkatcher Rebbe was enthralled by the gamut of customs that had become part of the fabric of Jewish life. Perhaps the most common objective in his rich oeuvre is the quest to track the sources for Jewish practices.
Twice in his writings the Munkatcher Rebbe related to stretching out the blessing immediately preceding Shema – the blessing that begins with the word Ahava (love). In one place, he noted that the righteous pietists had this custom on Shavuot morning. This was not a timing error; this was a conscious prayer meditation.
The Munkatcher parenthetically mentioned what he termed “the obvious reason” before proceeding to a deeper level. The “obvious reason” was not – as we might have thought – orchestrating the prayer to fit the sun’s movements. Rather, the “obvious reason” for the custom is that this is the moment of receiving the Torah, hence we pray for open eyes and true Torah enlightenment that will guide our every action. In the words of the Ahava blessing: “Illuminate our eyes with Your Torah, and let our hearts cling to Your commandments, and unite our hearts to love and revere Your name.”
The Munkatcher Rebbe then moved to the deeper reason for the practice by citing Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnnoye (1695-1782), author of Toldot Yaakov Yosef – the earliest record of teachings of the Besht. The Toldot recorded that the Besht was informed by heaven that the Messiah tarried because people hastily recite the Ahava blessing instead of taking their time and meditating on the passage.
The Munkatcher added: If this is what the Besht was told about the daily recital of the Ahava blessing, how much more so is this relevant to the morning of the festival of Shavuot, for this is a particularly auspicious time. As the kabbalistic Tikkunei Zohar points out, on Shavuot the Jewish people will be taken out of exile! Commenting on that statement, the Munkatcher Rebbe’s father and predecessor – Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Shapira (1850-1913) – tempered the promise: At the very least, the festival of Shavuot will be a stage in the redemption of the Jewish People.
Linking the various threads, the Munkatcher Rebbe concluded his brief discussion: Surely on Shavuot – the opportune time for redemption – we must meditate on the Ahava blessing, so that the messianic era is hastened at the very time designated for redemption.
In 1940, three years after the Munkatcher Rebbe’s demise, his student recorded that Rabbi Hayim Elazar would stretch out the Ahava blessing on Shavuot morning, reciting it in a pleasant voice and with a fervent heart and soul.