Wednesday, September 21, 2022

(photo: Aharon Epstein)

Vatikin—the sunrise prayer service—was a revelation. I’d thought about it before—about getting up at the crack of dawn to pray with the faithful on the High Holidays. And the idea held some appeal. I liked the idea that I’d be finished with the endless hours of holiday prayer way before the rest of my family. I’ve always been the sort of person who prefers to get things out of the way.

I pictured it like this: I’d finish davening and be free as a bird. I could see myself in that space, in the afterglow of duty fulfilled. I could wiggle my toes and rest on the cool bed linen to rest until the afternoon meal.

I also just liked imagining myself as someone who rushes to shul to beg for another year from God, the very moment when it becomes possible to do so. I liked seeing myself as a zealot, at least in this matter if not in others. But the idea remained something I toyed with only. Vatikin was for me, a vague temptation, but not an altogether persuasive one. My bed was too comfortable, the hour of departure too dark. I’d stay in bed rather than stumble about and wake everyone, possibly hurting myself in the process of getting to shul on time.

The catch was that a seat in shul costs a hefty sum. And while our 12 kids are now grown, back then, finding a way to seat us all was a serious problem. You would have had to be a millionaire to pay for 14 seats. And so I decided to give the sunrise minyan a try, because the seats at the Vatikin minyan are free.

As it turned out, I liked the Vatikin service for its own sake, irrespective of cost or lack of same. In a Vatikin minyan, every congregant is absorbed in the act of prayer. No one is yawning with boredom or riffling the pages of the mahzor prayer book to see how much longer we have to mumble before we can go home and eat.

Vatikin is a pleasure. It’s prayer without vanity or status. You wear your comfortable shoes because prayer—and not your Manolo Blahniks—are what counts. It's one of the pleasures of Vatikin that begin before you even get to shul. Imagine —if you are of the gender that wears them—not having to walk to shul in heels. 

As a child I was a morning person,  who liked to greet the sun and the promise of the new day ahead. But the dark was equally enchanting. The night was fireflies blinking in your hands and the hope that our mothers would give us a little longer before calling us in for bedtime. Night was both quiet and loud, with purple-black skies and crickets that were heard but not seen. Now, as an adult, I find that Vatikin holds all of these elements, elements of morning and night.

I have to tell you what it feels like to get up before dawn, when all is dark, and everyone else is fast asleep. You get ready in silence and leave quietly, armed with your supplies—tissues, a scarf for kneeling on, a bottle of water, and a High Holiday prayer book—in a plastic bag slung over the crook of your arm. As you walk out under the glow of the street lamps, you feel caught somewhere between the light and dark, in the hush of your own private world.

As you inch closer to the building designated for the Vatikin service, you see, here and there, others who like you, have ventured out into the silent dark to be first at prayer. One may nod at an acquaintance, but mostly all are quiet, intent on getting to the main task of the day: prayer. Besides, it’s too early to talk.

Once inside the building, we concentrate on the task at hand, heads to our books. And at a point somewhere between the prayers—it always surprises me when it happens—I look up from the page to see through the window that night has become day and I have missed the moment. 

Sunup is like that: like a watched pot of water that never boils. You look away for a second, and that’s when it chooses to happen. That’s when light comes to slowly lift the coverlet of night, to peek into the windows of a small room somewhere in the Judean Wilderness. The light rises in company with the voices of a handful of supplicants, raised in prayer.

I have always felt that the in-between times of night and day are different in Israel, where night and day seem to tussle for pride of place. You still hear the dissonant call of the muezzin creeping in through your open bedroom window, even as the dew begins to sparkle on the golden stones of Jerusalem with the first light of dawn. 

The light in Israel is big and powerful, the night forcing your gaze upward. As you look up at the stars, you wonder why the hairs on your arms are standing up and if you really belong in this, deserve to be in this: the holiest spot on earth.

These doubts have no place in the Vatikin minyan; there's no oxygen for them to breathe. There's always this moment when the congregation lifts its voice in prayer, and your heart fills, because now you know that you belong here in this room with these people, and the only light that matters is the light that comes from prayer.

Shana Tova to all my readers, their families, and friends. 

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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

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