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The Meaning of Modeh Ani

Talya Bernstein Galaganov

Like a song I misunderstood as a child and then believed I knew, I always thought the first prayer we say in the morning, Modeh Ani, meant “I thank G-d for returning my soul to me… .”  Given that most translations of the prayer (including the one linked above) translated “modeh” as thanking, there was no reason for me to think otherwise.

And while the Jewish tradition of giving thanks for everything from being able to eat to seeing a rainbow or new flower to having our bodies function properly is very consistent with the “modern” concept that being mindful and grateful makes one happier, I recently realized that the primary meaning of the Modeh Ani prayer is not one of giving thanks, but of acknowledging that it is G-d who brings our soul back to us.

The word Modeh comes from the root הדה.  This word can be used as meaning thankfulness, but also acknowledgement, or even admission.  It is used throughout the Talmud when one rabbi concedes to the argument, or to the portion of an argument, of another.  Its alternative usage, of, for example, a thief admitting to having stolen, is equally common.  But I was unaware of both of these usages as a child, when I only knew it as a way to say “thank you!”

Which usage makes sense?

The exact wording, which, translated word-for-word (though re-ordered for grammatical reasons), actually works by way of illustration in this instance, is:

I MODEH before You, living and existing king that you returned my soul to me.  The phrase used in Hebrew is מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ.

Although I generally discourage using the grammar of one language to examine another, in this case I think it is clear:  Were this “I thank you,” the phrase would have been מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְךָ, or “I am giving thanks to you.”  I do not think there is an issue of admitting guilt, so I will put that possibility aside.

 Unless I am missing something about modern grammar (which is entirely possible), the phrasing makes it clear that in this context, one is not primarily thanking G-d, but rather acknowledging that it IS G-d who made it such that our my soul returned to me so that I could wake up.  This is consistent with what we say before we go to sleep, declaring before all of Israel that there is only one, singular G-d.

As such, the phrase should be more accurately translated as “I acknowledge before You, … that you, … returned my soul to me…”  Of course, there is an element of thankfulness to this, but in this case I believe the acknowledgement is not only more accurate, it is also more important.

Why?

We thank G-d for everything we have.  But generally we think of G-d having done something, at some time, to make what we have possible.  In this case, I believe that this acknowledgement states that G-d has taken an active, direct role in returning my soul, and the souls of every living being, to our bodies. 

Rabbi Mandel, of Chabad Fort Worth, teaches that G-d is creating the world constantly, and that without such constant creation the world would cease to exist.  This daily acknowledgement, I believe, is a bite-sized piece that a person, small as one is, and even in a state of semi-sleepiness, can understand.

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