Early Risers

“Wake up like a lion…”

Shulkhan Arukh, Code of Jewish Law

Laws of Rising in the Morning 1:1


When I taught young adults, one of my favorite quotes was, “Those who hoot with the owls at night, cannot soar with the eagles in the morning.” My children have heard this countless times when they’ve stayed up late then looked ghastly in the morning, trying to compose themselves for a day of school or work. What I love about the image is not the choice of animals but the choice of verbs. Do you want to muddle through the day or do you want to soar? Stay up late enough and you may have no choice in the matter. Feet drag. The brain feels foggy. And time seems to pass slower than ever until you can meet your bed again. The old Henny Youngman wisdom comes back: “If you’re going to so something tonight that you’ll be sorry for tomorrow morning, sleep late.”


In Rabbi Joseph Karo’s 16th century code of law, it is not the owl or the eagle who begins his book but the lion. The legal fragment above continues: “Wake up like a lion to stand in the morning to serve one’s Creator since he wakes up the dawn.” I’ve always struggled to understand who the “he” is modifying. Is it the lion who wakes up the jungle each day with a mighty roar, instilling fear in the other animals that generates adrenaline, or is it God who wakes up the morning? The contemplation of God inspires us to grab hold of the day and make it ours.


An early 20th century commentary, that of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, observes here the affect of the owl. A person in the winter lies in bed and thinks about the warm and toasty feeling of being under the blanket or the lethargy of the summer and then feels immobile. Why get up? He suggests that just as one has to rise for work commitments, the mandate is to get up early for one’s ultimate work. This plays on the verb “la-avod” in Hebrew, which means both to work and to worship.


A Talmudic principle underscores this sentiment: “The vigilant are early in the performance of mitzvot.” What are you waiting for when it comes to goodness? Tractate Rosh Hashana 32b uses the term “vatikin” to describe such individuals, a term that implies both piety and early rising possibly from the Greek for straight or trustworthy. People who rise early to pray, study and commit themselves to kindness show great enthusiasm for life and what it can unfold when you seize on the day’s energy.


Naturally, the slow to move become the object of chastisement in the Bible, particularly in the book of Proverbs, because if you’re lazy, you won’t be able to take care of your needs or those of others in the most basic way.


 “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the slothful person goes hungry” [19:5].


“The sloth will not plow because of the cold and then will beg during the harvest because he has nothing” [20:4].


“The desire of the lazy man kills him for his hands refuse to work” [21:25].


The momentary desire for inertia is overwhelmed by the long-term need to support oneself. But perhaps the best quote from Proverbs on the topic is about lions. “The lazy man says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming in the streets.’ As a door turns on its hinges, so does the sloth turn on his bed” [26:13-14]. A lazy man sees a fierce lion approaching but then turns over and goes back to sleep.


We know what the lion had for breakfast.


Shabbat Shalom