MEANING OF SHEMONEH ESREI
Rav Ezra Bick
Shiur #23: Modim
The seventeenth berakha is the longest one of the Shemoneh Esrei; so
long, in fact, that the printers tend to break it up into distinct sections,
with different size prints, which may, for some people, disguise the fact that
it is actually one berakha. Since the first subject we have to discuss is the
meaning of the verb "modim," I shall leave it untranslated in the
We are MODIM to You,
that You are HaShem our God,
and the God of our
The Rock of our
lives, Protector of our salvation,
You are for all
We shall NODEH to You
and recite Your praises -
For our lives which
are entrusted in Your hands,
and our souls which
are deposited with You,
and for Your miracles
which are every day with us,
and for your wonders
and goodness at every time,
evening, morning, and
The Good, for Your
mercies are not exhausted,
and the Merciful, for
Your graces are not ended,
Forever we hope for
And for all of them,
may Your name be blessed in the mouths of all living,
Always and for ever
And all the living
shall YODU You, Sela, and praise Your great name,
the God Who is our
salvation and aid, Sela.
Blessed are You,
HaShem, whose name is good, and it is fitting LEHODOT You.
The four capitalized roots are all of the same root, and the berakha is
usually called by the same term, "modim."
What does this word mean?
A. Modim -
The usual translation, in this context, is to give thanks, gratitude.
This surely seems to make a great deal of sense, as we are after the requests,
and logic dictates that the proper emotion to express before leaving God's
presence is that of gratitude. Replacing each of the capitalized words with the
appropriate form of the verb "thank" produces a lucid and plausible translation,
whereby we thank God for all that He does for us on a daily basis, for His
goodness which accompanies us at every time, and, it seems, for the grace which
He will extend in the future.
The only somewhat perplexing expression is the opening one - "We thank
You, that You are HaShem our God and the God of our fathers." What are we
thanking God for? Before the list
of "miracles and wonders" there will appear another form of the verb. So what is
the cause of the "modim" in the opening clause. The way we usually understand
thanks, it is almost impossible to thank someone without stating for what. One
might attempt to claim that we are thanking God for being God, but this does not
seem to quite hang right. If by this we mean that He acts like a king who has
taken upon himself to protect his people and care for them, it would have been
simpler to spell that out, as indeed the rest of the berakha appears to
In Hebrew there is another meaning of the word "hoda'a," and that is
"confess." At times this can mean confession of guilt or sin (Lev. 16,21), or of
debt (in the Mishna), but also of any truth (as in the religious sense - a
confession of faith). This meaning suggests itself for the opening line, with
its direct object - we confess, declare THAT You ("she-ata") are God, not that
we thank You BECAUSE You ("al she-ata) are God. But then the term will have
different meanings throughout the berakha, as the continuation of the prayer
does speak of being "modeh" FOR the miracles; i.e., because of the miracles,
which seems to be closer to the meaning of thanks.
If we look at this root in Tanakh, we quickly discover many uses,
especially in Tehillim, which appear to mean no more than "to praise." The verb
appears without a cause of thanks, and also without a direct object as the
subject of a confession. A simple and well-known instance is the beginning of
"Pesukei D'zimra" - "Hodu LaShem kir'u b'shmo." Of course, one could claim that
this means to thank God, but it is strange that there is no given specific
reason for gratitude. We are called simply to praise Him and to publicize His
actions - "hodi'u va-amim alilotav." There are dozens of such cases in the book
of Psalms, and I think we really do understand them instinctively as being
basically synonyms of "to praise."
An especially striking case is found in the prayer of Shlomo when
dedicating the Temple. Shlomo is asking that God respond to the prayers of the
Jews in the Temple when they are in distress. Notice the order of the
When Your people
Israel be smitten before the enemy,
because they have
sinned before You;
And they return to
You and HODU Your name,
and they shall pray
and beseech You in this house.
And You shall hear in
the heaven and forgive the sin of Your people Israel....
(I Kings 8,33-34).
The process is one of repentance and petition. It seems incongruous, at
best, to translate this use of our verb as "thank."
This example also illustrates another common feature of this verb - its
taking as a direct object the "name" of God. There are times where it makes
sense to use the "name of God" rather than "God" as the object of a human
activity. It is quite common to find that someone is PRAISING the name of God;
firstly because practically speaking what is found in the sentence of praise is
the name of God, and secondly, because the result of praise is the glorification
of the name of God, where the "name" means the presence of God in people's
mouths, speech - in other words, in the world. But it seems quite strange to me
to be thanking the name of God. Surely we mean to thank God himself - there is
no point in thanking His name.
We have identified what appears to be three different meanings of the
verb "hoda," gratitude, confession, and praise. Our question is to determine the
common meaning behind this verb, thereby understanding not only our berakha, but
also a basic attitude which is apparently central to religious
I would like to suggest what I think is not only the true meaning of this
verb, but also the true meaning of the moral obligation we call gratitude.
Although common to all cultures, and ingrained in us from childhood, it is,
after all, a puzzling sensation. Just what do I mean when I say to some one
"thank you?" I am not saying that I will pay him back, for the essence of that
which engendered gratitude was that it was done without a request or an
obligation of payment.
In order to understand this verb, I suggest once again, following the
discussion of the previous berakha, that we remember the metaphor that the
Talmud suggested for the last three berakhot - "the last ones are like a servant
who has received a prize from his master and is taking his leave and going." As
I pointed out last time, there is a somewhat medieval flavor to this
"leave-taking." One has to feel what a subject would feel is appropriate when
taking leave of his lord. In place of gratitude, I would like to suggest a
medieval word - fealty. The subject of a feudal lord pledges his fealty to the
lord, meaning he RECOGNIZES and ACCEPTS that the lord is his master and will
receive his loyalty. In more modern terms, "hoda'a" is a pledge of allegiance,
an acceptance of obligation - not obligation to pay a particular price, but
obligation to be loyal, to serve as need be. A gift places one in a state of
obligation, not to repay (though sometimes that is what we would like to do, in
order to RID ourselves of the obligation of gratitude), but rather a far more
existential obligation. The act of giving turns the giver into the lord, and the
receiver into a subject. This sense is what we mean by gratitude - or at least
it is what we should mean. By saying thank you, I am saying that I pledge myself
to be at your service, in the sense that a medieval knight would pledge his
right arm to the service of his lord.
As an aside, I think that the reason that I continually find myself
returning to medieval terminology (pledging, fealty) and metaphors (lords,
subjects, knights) is because the commercialization of modern capitalist society
has indeed reduced gratitude to a commodity, a form of payment. Thanks is
expressed in payment, perhaps ten dollars for a kind word, twenty for a favor.
This has desiccated the true meaning of gratitude, and of course, would be
totally inappropriate if expressed towards God.
This meaning includes gratitude, in the usual sense, as well as
confession (as in confession of faith), in the sense that it requires an
acceptance of a truth and a commitment to abide by it. It is, when addressed to
God, a form of praise, as praise itself is a form of what is required by the
subjects of the King and Lord. Most importantly, it can easily be addressed to
the NAME OF GOD, for we are pledging allegiance and giving our loyalty to God's
name, in the sense that we are entering our own names on the roll of God's
subjects. Hence "hodu HaShem" means pledge yourself to God, accept Him as King,
and commit yourself to be his loyal subject.
The most explicit example I know to illustrate this sense of the word is
found in Psalms 140.
Deliver me, HaShem,
from an evil man; save me from the violent person.
Who think evil in
their hearts, every day they gather for war.
They sharpen their
tongues like a serpent, adders poison is under their lips,
Protect me, HaShem
from the hands of the wicked....
I SAID TO HASHEM, YOU
ARE MY GOD; hear, HaShem, the voice of my supplication.
continues to pray that God help him and save him, and then
I know that HaShem
will fight the cause of the afflicted and the right of the
Surely the righteous
will YODU to Your name, the upright shall sit in Your
There is no simple thanking of God here; the "hoda'a" of the righteous in
the last verse is parallel to sitting in the presence of the King. The
expression of hoda'a was given by the psalmist earlier when he declared, "I said
to HaShem, You are my God"! That is pure hoda'a - a declaration of
It is clear why King Shlomo saw this as an essential element of
repentance. It is the first step, the initial correction of what was wrong, and
hence, in this case, not a reaction to God's goodness but to the alienation
between us that had taken place. When God punishes His people and they come to
collectively ask forgiveness, they first have to declare their loyalty and
re-accept His kingship, for it is only by the right of loyal subjects that they
can approach Him. This is called "hoda'a" - the pledging of ourselves to His
name and "confessing" to the proper relationship between us and Him. This
relationship is based on the fact that He gives and we receive, and hence the
close connection between "hoda'a" and gratitude. The proper contents of
gratitude is the expression of obligation and fealty that we owe towards those
who have given us something.
Accordingly, the berakha begins with a general acknowledgment that God is
our God - "that You are HaShem our God, and the God of our fathers, the Rock of
our lives, Protector of our salvation, You are for all generations." Before
leaving the presence of the King, we declare our loyalty to Him and pledge our
We shall thank You and recite Your praises - For our lives which are
entrusted in Your hands, and our souls which are deposited with You, and for
Your miracles which are every day with us, and for your wonders and goodness at
every time, evening, morning, and afternoon. The Good, for Your mercies are not
exhausted, and the Merciful, for Your graces are not
Secondly, we enumerate the gifts we receive from God, which obligate us
in fealty. This can properly be translated as "thanking." Notice, however, that
we do not enumerate gifts which God has given us in the recent past, but rather
emphasize the constant grants - our lives, our souls, "every day... every time,
evening, morning, and afternoon." In other words, we are not thanking God for
having given us something particular yesterday - which all too often would have
the character of paying off your benefactor in order to AVOID the feeling of
obligation - but for the present and the future. We are explaining our fealty to
God because of the constant support He grants us in all ways, naturally and
supernaturally, so that it is clear that we are his subjects. In fact, this
fealty is inexhaustible and unlimited, for He is the Good, whose mercies are not
exhausted, and the Merciful, whose graces never end."
If the theme were gratitude in the usual sense, we would have expected,
"for our lives which are entrusted in Your hands AND YOU RETURNED THEM TO US,"
and for "our souls which are deposited with You and YOU GAVE THEM BACK TO US." I
claim that gratitude here is loyalty because God is taking care of our souls and
has total power over them, so that He is our lord and we are his subjects. We
praise Him, acknowledge Him and declare our loyalty to Him in whose hands our
lives and souls are entrusted.
"Forever we hope for You." What is "hope" doing in a berakha about
gratitude? Our relationship with God is one of dependence. Our hope and trust in
God is the other side of the coin of our loyalty to Him. We are His subjects not
because He has enslaved us but because He has freed us from the bondage of
Egypt, because He is our overlord and grants us the protection of His name. The
relationship of lord to subjects is a two-way street, after all, and is based on
the gifts and protection accorded by the lord. Our loyalty and our faith go
We shall have to finish this berakha next time.