The Sweetest Hour
1 I will rise up at midnight to give thanks to You
for Your righteous judgments.
Every God-fearing individual should feel grief and concern over the destruction of the Temple. This refers to Tikkun Chatzot, the Midnight Prayer.
Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 1:2 and Mishneh Berurah, ad loc.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said, A Jew's main devotion is to get up for Chatzot...
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #301
Tikkun Chatzot has the power of redemption. It sweetens harsh decrees.
Likutey Moharan I, 149
Just as the Exodus from Egypt began at Chatzot, so too the final Redemption will begin at Chatzot. And it will come about in the merit of those who get up for Chatzot.
Reb Noson of Breslov, Likutey Halakhot, Hashkamat HaBoker 1:15
A Labor of Love
It's well into the night. The whole household is asleep, including the baby. Everything is quiet. Except for the beginnings of a restive murmuring, as the baby begins to stir... Before long, the baby is wailing and screaming for attention.
The cries quickly penetrate the parents' deep-night sleep. Few are so callous as to leave a baby to cry for too long, though it's far from easy to drag yourself out of the warmth and comfort of your bed, especially since as a parent in this day and age you never ever seem to get enough sleep! Do mothers become used to getting up at all hours? Even if they don't, what mother can leave her baby to suffer?
Attending to the baby's needs is more than a duty. It's a labor of love... and you just do it, even in the middle of the night, night after night.
Most people prefer the luxury of being able to sleep through the night undisturbed. But it's not a luxury that is really supposed to be a regular part of the life of a God-fearing Jew in this world. He is called upon to break his sleep in the middle of the night,
in order to heed a different cry... a bitter shriek... albeit one that few hear, because it is all but muffled in a world run wild: the cry of the Shekhinah, God's indwelling presence, exiled in this world of confusion.
The word ,umj, Chatzot is a noun from the Hebrew root vmj, CHaTZaH, which means to cut into two. Chatzot halaylah refers to the mid-point of the night, the moment that splits the night in two. (See Chapter 5, What time is midnight? pp. 50-56 for how to calculate the time of Chatzot.)
We may well ask if there really is such a moment. Does time come cut into pieces? Is Chatzot more than simply a construct of the human mind, one that we impose on the ceaseless flow of time?
Yes, say the Rabbis: the moment of Chatzot has a reality of its own. It is true that the mind of man cannot grasp the exact moment that marks the end of the first half of the night and the start of the
second. But God knows. And it was midnight, and God struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:29).
Exactly at midnight! The nekudah the invisible point of Chatzot marked the moment of redemption for the entire Jewish People. And indeed, throughout Jewish history we find that Chatzot was a blessed moment, a time of miracles for the tzaddikim Avraham, Sarah, Yaakov, Daniel and Mordekhai and one that heralded the fall of the wicked Pharaoh, Avimelekh, Lavan, Sancheriv, Nevuchadnezzar...
Chatzot is a moment of grace, the start of redemption every single night. Chatzot marks the beginning of a unique two-hour period of divine favor in the small hours of each night (Likutey Moharan I, 149). In the words of the Talmud, this time of favor is a thing (Yevamot 72a). It exists.
It is something that can actually be felt, at least by those who are willing to open themselves to it. Chatzot has a unique power of its own. As a time of favor, Chatzot calls for something more than just sleeping through. It is a unique opportunity for spiritual rectification. To repair is ie,k (le-TaKeN). A repair is a iue, (TiKuN). Tikkun Chatzot. The Midnight Service.
The Holy Temple
King David knew the preciousness of Chatzot. He wrote in the Psalms (119:62): I will rise up at midnight to give thanks to You for Your righteous judgments. The Talmud relates: A harp was hung above David's bed, and at the mid-point of the night a north wind would come and blow on it, and the harp would play by itself. He would get up at once and engage in Torah study and song until dawn (Berakhot 3b).
David's kingship was about one thing only: revealing the Kingship of God. And thus David's whole mission was bound up with Yerushalayim, the eternal city, from which the Torah, the word of God, was to go out to the entire world, spreading universal peace and harmony. It was from the Lishkat HaGazit, the Hewn Chamber at the side of the Temple, that the Torah would go forth. This was where the Sanhedrin, the Council of Elders, would sit. The whole purpose of their teaching was to guide mankind to unite in the service of God and direct their eyes to the House of the King, the House of Prayer for all the nations (Isaiah 56:7). King David's midnight prayers and Torah study were an expression of the very essence of what Yerushalayim represented: a beacon of spiritual light radiating in a benighted world.
King David's life's work was to reclaim Yerushalayim from the hands of idolaters and prepare for the building ofnGod's Temple. It was executed by his son, King Solomon. The Temple was built, then destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. Two thousand years later, the Jewish People are again established in the Land of Israel, and thousands and thousands of Jews of all kinds are rediscovering their religious roots. Yet the Temple is still in ruins.
The Temple is the of all true blessing, spiritual and physical, both for the Jewish People and the world as a whole. Indeed, the Rabbis tell us that the Holy Temple was even more valuable to the nations of the world than to the Jews! If they had known just how valuable it was to them, they would have surrounded it with fortifications to protect it (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:3).
The Jewish People need the Temple. The whole world needs the Temple. Where is it?
Yearning for Redemption
Throughout the long years of exile, the Jewish People have always looked forward to the building of the Third Temple, which will stand
eternally. Practically every one of the set prayers we recite day after day gives expression to this yearning for redemption and restoration.
More than this, every generation has had its God-fearing Jews, some of them scholars, others simple, ordinary people, who felt the need to add something more, over and above their day-time prayers.
Arise! Cry out in the night... Pour out your heart like water before God... (Lamentations 2:19) The three obligatory daily prayer services, Shacharit, Minchah and Maariv, had been instituted by the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (Berakhot 26b). The idea of a prayer in the middle of the night was introduced by King David. Because of the association between King David, Yerushalayim
and the Holy Temple, the night-time prayer was a fitting time to mourn over the destruction and yearn for redemption. The destruction of the Temple had brought dense spiritual darkness into the world, while the idea of a special night-time prayer is to bring light into the darkness.
God-fearing Jews would thus get up every night at Chatzot, the moment of favor, to mourn and grieve over the destruction of the Temple and
plead with God for redemption. Tikkun Chatzot. There were even cases of whole communities that would assemble every night in the synagogues to recite Tikkun Chatzot together, and then pray or study, each according to his capacity, until the light of day (see below p. 56).
Given the plight and suffering of the Jewish People through the ages, it might have seemed fitting that Tikkun Chatzot should have been
made obligatory for all, just like the three main services of the day. But rising regularly for Chatzot is not something that everyone is capable of, and the Rabbis never made enactments if it was clear that the majority of the Jewish People would be unable to abide by
them (Bava Kama 79b, Yad, Mamrim 2:5). Even
so, Tikkun Chatzot is so important that the entire Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law, actually begins with it:
A Jew must get up like a lion to serve the Creator. He must be the one to wake up the dawn! ... Those who get up early to entreat the Creator should aim to pray at the times of the changes of the watches... It is fitting for every God-fearing person to feel grief and concern over the destruction of the Temple. (Orach Chaim 1:1-3.) This refers to Tikkun Chatzot, the Midnight Prayer (Mishneh Berurah ad loc.).
Tikkun Chatzot is not an absolute duty. The Code of Jewish Law nowhere states that it is an obligation incumbent upon every Jew. This is
because Tikkun Chatzot is not so much a duty as a labor of love for those who truly yearn to know God, and feel pain and anguish over His concealment, and the stain on His glory as long as the Holy Temple is in ruins.
As a labor of love, it is one that has been specially favored by spiritual seekers throughout the ages, especially the mystics. Practically every portion of the Zohar includes a passage speaking of the great preciousness of Chatzot and the exaltedness of prayer and study at this hour, not only for scholars and mystics, but for Jews of all kinds. The kabbalistic writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the ARI (1534-72), explain in great depth the mystical meaning of the midnight service as a vital preparation for the service of the day. The importance of Chatzot is emphasized in many of the major works of mussar and chassidut.
By the 16th century, a Chatzot service had been compiled consisting of psalms and other biblical passages. A number of specially composed laments were added later. The term Tikkun Chatzot refers to this service. It falls into two parts. The first, known as Tikkun Rachel, focuses on the destruction of the Temple and the catastrophes that have overtaken the Jewish People in exile. The second part of the service, Tikkun Leah, consists of psalms of praise and yearning for God. Because of the mournful character of Tikkun Rachel, it is recited only on days when Tachanun is said. Tikkun Leah on the other hand may be recited not only when Tachanun is said but even on Shabbat and Yom Tov, Rosh Chodesh and other festive days. (For fuller details of the structure of Tikkun Chatzot, see below pp. 31-49.)
The very fact that Tikkun Chatzot is not obligatory means that there is plenty of leeway for each individual to arrange his Chatzot devotions in a way that best suits his own needs and way of life. Some remain awake until the time of Chatzot, recite the service and then go to sleep. Others remain awake after Chatzot to pray, meditate, or study Torah, each according to his capacity. Some people get their main sleep in the first part of the night, and after waking up for Chatzot stay up learning and praying until the light of day, taking a nap, if they need it, after the morning prayers. The common factor in all these approaches is a yearning for a better world, and a will to work to correct what we need to in ourselves so as to help bring that world about.
Is Tikkun Chatzot for us?
There was a time when Tikkun Chatzot used to be printed at the beginning of most of the larger prayer-books, before the Morning Service. However, the majority of contemporary prayer-books omit it. Many Jews have never even heard of it. Even those who have encountered the idea often tend to think of Tikkun Chatzot as a practice reserved for the saintly, who presumably have a superhuman ability to survive on little or no sleep. In large parts of the Jewish world Tikkun Chatzot has all but been erased from people's consciousness, and with it any sense that we should regularly focus our minds and hearts on trying to feel anguish over the loss of the Temple and our longing for redemption.
How much do we care? Is Tikkun Chatzot only for a minority of scholars, mystics and especially pious and saintly Jews? Or is it something that all of us can have a part in? Rebbe Nachman of Breslov certainly thought the latter. He went so far as to state that Tikkun
Chatzot is the main devotion of a Jew (Rabbi
Nachman's Wisdom #301). And as the ChiYDA (Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai 1724-1806) put it: The mitzvah of getting up for Chatzot applies to everyone, not just Torah scholars but ordinary people as well. This is why it says (Psalm 134:1) `Bless God, all God's servants who stand in the house of God in the nights' (Yosef Tehilot).
Even today there are people in all communities, Ashkenazi and Sefardi alike, who rise regularly for Chatzot not just advanced scholars or saints, but ordinary people in many different walks of life, people who care. Some recite it every night, others once a week, once a month, or whenever they can. Certainly, rising for Chatzot can be a difficult discipline at first. But those who persist with it become enraptured by the exquisite grace and beauty of this sweetest hour. The rest of the world is asleep; everything is quiet. There are no disturbances, no phone calls or appointments. There can be no more propitious time for clear, deep thought and contemplation, intimate prayer, satisfying study, and steady spiritual growth. The heart is open, the thoughts and feelings flow. It is as if the very gates of Heaven are open wide.
A saintly Jew who practiced Tikkun Chatzot for over seventy years, first in his native Ukraine and then in Yerushalayim, once remarked: Chatzot is such a time of favor, I simply don't understand how people can just sleep through it (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender, 1897-1989). But they do! For most of the world today it would seem to go completely against the grain to set regular sessions of prayer, study and meditation in the middle of the night!
What is Tikkun Chatzot all about? What does it mean? Why is it important? What does it actually involve? Is it relevant in our time? And is it practical? Is it conceivable that you and I
working people, businessmen, professionals, students, and so on could embrace it? Once a month? Once a week? Every night? And what
for? As a labor of love?
The saintly Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (1876-1970) started
getting up regularly for Tikkun Chatzot in his later years. When one
of his students asked him why, Rabbi Lopian said, When I leave
this world and come before the Heavenly tribunal, they will ask me
if I kept the Shulchan Arukh, and presumably I'll say I did.
They're sure to say, `Let's check,' and they'll probably start going through the Shulchan Arukh section by section, law by law. If they catch me on some detail after about two hundred sections, I might be able to come up with an answer. But what am I going to say if they catch me on the very first section? (Rabbi
Moshe Aharon Stern, Mashgiach, Kaminetz Yeshiva, Jerusalem)
God is now ready and waiting to rebuild our Holy Temple. For our part, we should be very careful to do nothing that might delay the rebuilding. Indeed, we ourselves should make an effort to rebuild it by getting up at Chatzot each night to mourn over the destruction. One should say to oneself, Maybe in a previous incarnation I was the cause of the destruction of the Temple. And even if not, it could be that my sins are holding up the rebuilding, and that is as bad as if I caused the actual destruction. One should shed tears over this at Chatzot each night, and then it will be as if one were trying to rebuild the Temple. Tikkun Chatzot brings a person to the truth. His eyes are opened and he sees himself and his life clearly. He cleanses himself of all negative traits and comes to know and understand the holy Name of God (Likutey Moharan II, 67).
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