Think of it as something like starting your car on a sub-zero day: you give it a few minutes to warm up before hitting 90 on the highway—no matter how late you may be for work. Here we’re not talking about a hunk of steel, but about your heart, mind and soul. Those are the power-engines behind your day and they demand caring maintenance.

So here’s the order of the morning, step by step. Like with the nighttime schedule, grow into it incrementally. Again, almost all of this is mentioned in the Code of Jewish Law (“Shulchan Aruch”)—but please, don’t rely on this guide alone. Take the time to go through the order of the day in the Shulchan Aruch itself, if you can. At least in the “Abridged Code of Jewish Law” (“Kitzur Shulchan Aruch”).

Wake up

Good morning and welcome to the ground floor of the cosmos. The great thing about the ground floor is there’s only one direction to go from here, and that’s up.

The bad news is that you’ll have to get out of bed to do that.

  • Wake up by your own body clock, before the alarm. King David said, “I will wake the morning”—not that the morning woke him. You see, if you are only awake because it is morning, you are not really awake—you are sleepwalking. If it is morning because you are awake, however, then you are truly awake and in control.
  • Say the Modeh Ani (described and explained in our previous installment) as you pass the borderline into consciousness. Be conscious of the presence of the Creator of the Universe in your bedroom. Be conscious of how He’s being conscious of you. That awareness is key to everything that comes next.
  • Get up right away, but gently. On the one hand, Judah ben Tema taught that one should be “mighty like a lion” to overcome the urge to stay in bed. On the other hand, the Talmud asserts that someone who jumps out of bed is closer to death than to life.

Wash up

The body is called the “temple of the soul” so we need to keep it clean, externally and internally. Your hands need special attentions, since they are your principal interface with the world around you.

  • Wash your hands. Three reasons for this:
    1. Your hands may have touched unclean places of your body while you were sleeping.
    2. In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the kohanim (priestly caste who worked there) washed his hands before their daily service. We are all kohanim in our particular temples—our bodies, our homes, our lives—so we wash as well.
    3. Sleep, the Talmud tells us, is one-sixtieth of death. While the body rests, the soul ascends heavenward to recharge. Only the most basic soul-powers are left in place—those required for basic bodily functions. The resulting void allows for a negative spiritual state called tumah. When you awake, the impurity of death leaves the body, leaving just a trace at the fingertips.
  • Here’s some basic instructions:
    1. Before sleep, prepare a cup of water and an empty basin and place it beside (not beneath) your bed.
    2. When you wake, after reciting the Modeh Ani, wash the right hand until the wrist and then the left hand; repeat, and then repeat again. This washing is called Netilat Yadayim (or, in Yiddish, Negel Vasser).
    3. Say the blessing: Blessed are you, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.
    4. Discard the water ASAP.
  • Here’s some details:
    1. Chabad custom: After washing hands, getting dressed, and using the restroom, wash a second time (using same procedure) at a sink, and only then recite the blessing—in a more presentable state of mind and body. (Note: Water should be poured on to the hands from a vessel, not a faucet.)
    2. Before Netilat Yadayim we do not: walk four cubits (approx 6 feet); touch clothing, food, or any body orifice; recite any blessings or prayer.
    3. Didn't wash at your bedside? Wash at first possible opportunity.
    4. Wash anytime you sleep more than 60 minutes. If it's a daytime nap, no need to prepare the water beforehand, just walk to nearest sink—and no blessing.
  • Attend to your bodily needs. The rabbis were not shy to extoll the virtues of bowel regularity for both bodily and spiritual health. In fact, the Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital, considers this step one of the four basic material preparations to prayer (the others are tzitzit, tefillin on the hand and tefillin on the head).
  • Wash your face, especially your eyes. You are created in a divine image, and your face reflects that.
  • Rinse your mouth. It’s the part of you that will be most involved in praising its Creator.

Dress up

When life is sacred, nothing is trivial. Getting dressed is also a divine service, and so is done in a mindful way following meaningful protocols.

  • Right comes before left—for sleeves, pant legs, socks, whatever. That’s because the right hand is a representation of kindness and giving, while the left represents judgment and withholding. In our lives, there is a place for that darker, left side—but only within the context of the brighter, right side. So we start by holding our clothes in the right hand, focussing our minds on the thought that all begins with the right, positive side, and within that context, all finds meaning.
  • The exception to the above is tying your shoelaces: Since tefillin are tied onto the left arm, we tie the left shoe first. So you put on your right shoe, then your left, then tie the left, then tie the right.
  • Wash again at a sink outside the washroom (such as the kitchen). Stand and say the morning blessings from the siddur. (We will cover those in a later installment.) Don’t leave the house without saying them, except in an emergency, or if your custom is to say them together with the minyan in the synagogue. Be especially careful in pronouncing clearly the four-letter name of G‑d.
  • If you’re a man, a tremendous boost for tefillah comes from immersing in a mikvah beforehand. Rabbeinu Yona (13th century) wrote that “prayer is accepted in a greater way after immersion in the mikvah.”1The Baal Shem Tov made immersion in the mikvah one of the three essential strands of divine service (along with sincerity and joy). Chassidim have a saying that “immersion is not a mitzvah, but where it brings you, no mitzvah can.”

Be up

As much as an environment is created by doing, even more so by not doing. The greatest challenge—and the greatest accomplishment—of any morning is the restraint from starting the business of the day too soon.

So, while this may seem superfluous, I’m adding a list of things not to do before you’ve finished your morning tefillah:

  • Don’t eat a meal.
    Eat what you need to focus your mind in tefillah. Maybe that’s just a hot drink. Maybe a light snack. But stop there. First connect your soul, then feed the body.
  • Don’t check the news.
    Sure it’s important to know what’s going on in the world. Starting from the event of the greatest, earth-shaking import. And that is that you are about to talk to the Creator of the Universe. Keep your head clear. You’ll need it.
  • Don’t visit a friend.
    This is a classic, mentioned in Talmud. You’re about to greet your Maker, so it’s not good protocol to visit someone else first. If you do see someone you haven’t seen for a while, the custom is to not say, “Shalom Aleichem” or even “Shalom”. Shalom (peace) is a name of G‑d, so we don’t use it for anyone else until we’ve spoken with Him personally. “Good morning, how are you?” is fine.
  • Don’t check your email or otherwise take care of business.
    Getting tough? Consider each day to be like a mini-week, and the late night and early morning comprise the mini-Shabbat.
  • Don’t get into distracting conversations.
    You don’t have to be rude. But once those conversations start, there’s no end. When you try to put your head into meditation before tefillah, everything you heard and said that morning keeps rattling around in your head. Why add noise, when it’s already so hard to quiet down the mind?

Now you’re ready…

Run your morning like this—and your night as we described earlier—and your head will be in the optimum state for what it needs to do next: meditate deeply. Deep enough for its light to spill over into the heart. That’s what we’ll be dealing with next: how a Jew meditates in preparation for tefillah.