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Mah Tovu - Readying for Worship

Mah Tovu -

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How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!
- Numbers 24:5

The Mah Tovu is a mixture of verses from different places in the Tanakh: Numbers 24:5 and Psalms 5:8, 26:8, 95:6 and 69:14 (Hebrew verse numbers). The custom is to recite Mah Tovu as you enter the synagogue (or shortly thereafter). The theme of Mah Tovu is expressing our appreciation for being able to come together and worship in a makom kadosh (holy place).


How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel! As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your house; I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You.* O LORD, I love the House where You dwell, and the place where Your glory tabernacles. I shall prostrate myself and bow; I shall kneel before the LORD my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You, LORD, be at a favorable time; O God, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation!

* Bow here.


Mah Tovu
Mah Tovu

Mah tovu ohaleykha Ya'akov, mishkenoteykha Yisrael.
Va'ani berov chasdekha avo veytekha,
eshtachaveh el heikhal kodeshekha beyiratekha.
Adonai, ahavti me'on beytekha umekom mishkan kevodekha.
Va'ani eshtachaveh ve'echra'ah, evrekhah lifnei Adonai osi.
Va'ani tefillati lekha Adonai, eit ratson,
elohim berov chasdekha, aneni be'emet yish'ekha.

Kavanah: Preparing to "Cross Over"

The Mah Tovu helps us get our attitude readied before we go in to worship at the synagogue. We pause, attune ourselves to new surroundings, and leave our "baggage" behind us. We should feel as if we area passing over bridge into a new country. The Mah Tovu was first uttered by Balaam, an outsider of Israel, who nevertheless was awestruck with the glory of the God of Israel (Numbers 22-24). In the same way, we seek to apprehend and behold the glory of God as we make our way to worship before Him.

Mah Tovu and Inner Peace...

It is remarkable that the traditional morning blessing recited at synagogues around the world begins with words attributed to Balaam, the enigmatic and self-styled prophet: Mah Tovu: "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!" (Num. 24:5). The sages say that the word "tent" (אהֶל) refers to the inner life – how we really feel inside – whereas the word "dwelling" (מִשְׁכָּן) refers to the outer life - our place or circumstances. Together, the inner and the outer mark the quality of our lives, but the inner is the starting point, since we must first learn to live in peace with ourselves. This is vital: we must first tolerate our shortcomings and practice compassion toward our frail humanity... This is sometimes called shalom ba'bayit, "peace in the home" (of the self). Such inner peace is the greatest of blessings, since without it we will cling to pain, fear, and anger, thereby making us unable to find our place at the table in God's kingdom of love.


Mah Tovu Slow Reading Practice

Practice learning the Mah Tovu blessing with the following "slowed-down" readings.


Part 1:

מַה־טּבוּ אהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקב
מִשְׁכְּנתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל

mah · to·vu · o·ha·le·kha · Ya·a·kov
mish·ke·no·te·kha · Yis·ra·el

"How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
your dwellings, O Israel"
(Num. 24:5)


Part 2:

וַאֲנִי בְּרב חַסְדְּךָ אָבוֹא בֵיתֶךָ
אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל־הֵיכַל־קָדְשְׁךָ בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ

va·a·ni · be·rov · chas·de·kha · a·vo · ve·te·kha
esh·ta·cha·veh · el · he·khal · ko·de·she·kha · be·yir·a·te·kha

But I, in the abundance of your chesed, will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy Temple in the fear (awe) of you
(Psalm 5:8)


Part 3:

יְהוָה אָהַבְתִּי מְעוֹן בֵּיתֶךָ
וּמְקוֹם מִשְׁכַּן כְּבוֹדֶךָ

Adonai · a·hav·ti · me·on · be·te·kha
u·me·kom · mish·kan · ke·vo·de·kha

O LORD, I love the habitation of your house
and the place where your glory dwells.
(Psalm 26:8)


Part 4:

וַאֲנִי אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְאֶכְרְעָה
אֶבְרְכָה לְפְנֵי יְהוָה עשׁי

va'a·ni · esh·ta·cha·veh · ve·ekh·re·ah
[evrachah] lif·nei · Adonai · o·si

But I will bow down and kneel
before the LORD my Maker.
(Psalm 95:6)


Part 5:

וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי־לְךָ יְהוָה עֵת רָצוֹן
אֱלהִים בְּרָב־חַסְדֶּךָ עֲנֵנִי בֶּאֱמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ

va·a·ni · te·fil·la·ti · le·kha · Adonai · et · ratz·on
E·lo·him · be·rov · chas·de·kha · a·nei·ni · be·e·met · yish·e·kha

As for me, may my prayer to You, LORD, be at a favorable time;
O God, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation!
(Psalm 69:14)


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