The Grammatical Tenses of Brakhot.
Most brakhot are expressed in present or present-progressive tense: “Thank you, G-d, Who does/ performs [xyz]”. Who brings forth bread from the earth. Who creates fruit of the tree. Who creates different types of foodstuffs. Who gives the Torah. Who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night. Who is extolled with praises. Who sanctifies Your Name in public. Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything. Who heals all flesh and does wonders. Who gathers the remnants of His nation Israel. Who blesses His nation Israel with peace. Who clothes the naked. Who sustains all. Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in [honoring] his covenant, and fulfills what He says.
Many other brakhot are expressed in past tense, particularly the brakhotstructured as: “. . . Who made us holy with His commandments and commanded us [to] [~].” To light the candle for Shabbat. To light the candle for Chanukah. Regarding raising our hands. Regarding the reading of Megillah. To bring him into the Covenant of our Father Avraham. Regarding redeeming the son. Who gladdens the groom [and/ with the] bride. To separate challah from the dough. Regarding immersion of vessels.
Therefore, one initially is struck by the past tense structure of three morning brakhot:
- Who did not make me a non-Jew
- Who did not make me a slave
- Who did not make me a woman
Past tense. Why are these brakhot not composed in the present tense as are the other Birkhot haShachar (Morning Blessings)? Indeed, who composed them?
The Source of the Three “Who Did Not Make Me . . .”Brakhot.
The Talmud in Menachot 43a discusses the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit. In that discussion, R. Shimon states that women are exempt from the mitzvah because it is a positive commandment that is time-related. He holds that tzitzit applies only during the day, not at night, because the Torah commands regarding the mitzvah that “you shall see it.” (Bamidbar 15:39). He perceived that, in his ancient times, before electricity, notwithstanding the existence of candles and natural moonlight and starlight, the commandment to see it was impracticable to fulfill at night – particularly in terms of being able to see whether a t’kheiletfringe was properly blue-dyed as compared to improperly dyed (Rashi atBrakhot 9b) or as compared to the white fringes (Tosafot at Menachot 43a, bd”hBein). Interestingly, the halakha follows R. Shimon, an individual, whom the Gemara’s b’raita aligns opposite the numerically predominant group in the debate – Rabbanan (“the Rabbis”). The Rabbanan explicitly would mandate women to fulfill the tzitzit mitzvah. Yet the Codes bring down the rule of R. Shimon. (Both Rambam Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:8-9 and Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim17:2 rule according to R. Shimon, observing nevertheless that women may put on tzitzit if it so pleases them. The Rema, who sees no societal impropriety in women opting to perform positive mitzvot that are time-related when they entail, as with a lulav, a general commandment to go out and obtain the mitzvah product, nevertheless perceives a social impropriety in a non-commanded person wearing tzitzit because even a free Jewish man is not obliged to go out and buy a tzitzit garment, but merely is commanded to affix fringes if he happens to have such a four-cornered garment in which he will envelop himself. See Mishneh B’rurah ad loc. s”k 5.).
Against the backdrop of this discussion, the Talmud proceeds to observe that that G-d loves the Jews because He surrounded us with mitzvot: tefillin on head and arm, tzitzit fringes on the garment, and a mezuzah on each applicable doorpost. After quoting King David the Psalmist’s thanks for these mitzvot, the Talmud adds that, even when David entered a bathhouse – under halakha,mezuzot are not affixed to bathhouse doorposts – and thereupon undressed in the bathhouse, leaving him briefly without any of those mitzvot, he still contemplated his circumcision: there remained on his very person a unique mitzvah to remind him of the covenant with G-d.
Amid all this discussion, the Gemara segues to a b’raita that R. Meir taught: a Jew must recite a hundred brakhot daily. The law is sourced in a reading ofShmuel Bet 23:1, derived from the gematria of ‘ayin-lamed in “al,” conveying that King David undertook to recite 100 brakhot daily in the face of a plague that saw a hundred Jews inexplicably dying daily in his kingdom; when he began the daily hundred-brakhah utterances, the deaths thereupon stopped. Tur, Orach Chaim 46:3 (citing Rav Netrona’i, the head of the Torah Academy of Mata Machseiah [alt. Mata Mechasiah], probably a suburb of Sura.) The Gemara in Menachot 43b meanwhile cites an asmakhta from Parshat Ekev, D’varim10:12: “And now, Israel, [mah = what] does the L-rd your G-d want from you [?] . . . .” Rashi at Menachot 43b infers from the word “mah” that a hidden fuller spelling – me’ah (adding an aleph, so that the word literally means “one hundred”) – is implied: “And now, Israel, [it is] one hundred that the L-rd your G-d wants from you . . . .” Tosafot ad loc. bd”h Sho’el finds a different basis for the rule, noting that the verse contains one hundred letters – albeit after superimposing a vav onto the actual diminutive spelling of the word “sho’el” in the traditional Torah text.
Specifically towards achieving this goal of reciting 100 brakhot every single day, the rabbis of the Talmud established sixteen particular brakhot to recite each morning. (Mishneh B’rurah on Orach Chaim 46:3 s”k 14; see also RambamHilkhot Tefilah 7:14). The Gemara at the very bottom of 43b thereupon brings another b’raita citing the same R. Meir, who is cited above as teaching the obligation to recite 100 brakhot daily.
As regards R. Meir himself, the Talmud in Gittin 56a records an account that Nero the Roman Caesar fled his station, upon perceiving that G-d intended him to be a Nebuchadnezzar-like emissary-of-evil who would destroy the SecondHoly Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud records that he converted to Judaism – and that R. Meir descended from him. R. Meir was married to Bruriah, a brilliant woman of exceptional Torah knowledge, who often is quoted in the Talmud, even imparting wisdom to her husband. On one occasion, for example, when R. Meir prayed for G-d to take the lives of thugs who lived in his community and caused him great aggravation, Bruriah counseled him instead to pray that G-d lead them on a path to repentance. He did, He did, and they did. Brakhot 10a.
In this next b’raita in Menachot 43b, R. Meir taught that all men are obligated to recite the following three brakhot daily among their daily pursuit of the minimum 100 blessings: (i) Who made me a Jew [note the positive formulation of the wording]; (ii) Who did not make me a woman; and (iii) Who did not make me a “boor.” A “boor” is someone who is dismally ignorant of Jewish fundamentals. In slight contrast, the Tosefta Brakhot at 6:23 attributes to R. Yehuda the teaching that those three brakhot should be: (i) Who did not make me a non-Jew [note the negative formulation of the wording], (ii) Who did not make me a woman, and (iii) Who did not make me a boor. Commenting indirectly on R. Meir’s teaching cited in Menachot, R. Acha bar Yaakov heard his son reciting the third brakhah – “. . . Who did not make a boor” – and challenged that blessing – “What is this all [about]?” – teaching his son instead to recite as the third brakhah among the trio “. . .Who did not make me a slave.”
The commentators cite several possible reasons that R. Acha bar Yaakov objected to the “boor” brakhah, including: (i) it seemed to him self-aggrandizing for someone to praise G-d for not making him a lout; (ii) whether one is a lout ostensibly depends more on what one does to raise his own station than on how Hashem ordains one’s birth; (iii) a lout is commanded to perform all the mitzvot, and he therefore differs from non-Jews and from those who areavadim because they are exempted from various mitzvot. Although no commentator seems to make the following observation, it seems fair to infer that, if R. Meir categorized the “boor” brakhah with the other two, thenperhaps his thinking in fashioning the three daily “she-lo asani“ brakhot was motivated by considerations besides, or in addition to, whether some people are commanded by G-d to fulfill more mitzvot than are others.
The Lechem Mishneh on Rambam Hilkhot Tefilah 7:6 cites his manuscript showing that R. Meir at Menachot 43b actually framed his first brakhah in thenegative, parallel to the Tosefta’s presentation of R. Yehuda’s brakhot: “Who did not make me a non-Jew.” In other words, the above-noted positive formulation actually had been formulated in the negative, like the other two in the set, but later was distorted by censors or inartful scriveners.
Among the early sources who word the first of the three brakhot in the negative – “Who did not make me a non-Jew” – are: Tosefta Brakhot 6:23, Talmud Yerushalmi Brakhot 9:1, Rambam Hilkhot Tefila 7:6, and most of therishonim. However, others whose Talmud manuscripts transmitted thatbrakha as constructed affirmatively – “Who made me a Jew” – include: our commonly printed version of R. Meir’s b’raita in Menachot 43b, the Vilna Gaon’s observation commenting at Orach Chaim 46:4, and the Pri M’gadim, Mishb’tzot Zahav s”k 4. The Shulchan Arukh rules at Orach Chaim 46:4 that men serially should recite the three blessings: (i) Who did not make me a non-Jew, (ii) Who did not make me a slave, and (iii) Who did not make me a woman. Our siddur follows that format. Mishneh B’rurah ad loc. at s”k 15 cautions to recite all three in the negative construction because if one says “Who made me a Jew,” that affirmative wording would deprive the reciter of the opportunity further to recite the “slave” and “woman” brakhot because they would be encompassed and subsumed within the positive construction of the first.
Centuries of Jew-hatred, with particular emphasis on attacking the Talmud, account for many cases when manuscripts either were censored or preemptively modified by Jews to prevent exacerbated feelings. Mishneh B’rurah at s”k 15 cites the censorship issue, adding that siddurim that print thebrakhah “Who made me a Jew” in the positive construction (instead of the proper version “Who did not make me a non-Jew”) are using a distorted version that stems from “shibush ha-d’fus”: a distortion of manuscripts. This same cautionary about the deviation in that brakhah caused by erroneous or censored manuscripts had been raised more than a hundred years earlier in the late 17th century by Rav Avraham Gombiner (the “Magen Avraham”), s”k 9 onOrach Chaim 46:4 (noting the “shinui min ha-madfisim”). See also Od Yosef Chai (same). Similarly, the Divrei Chamudot on Rabbeini Asher (the “Rosh”) inMesekhet Brakhot, Perek 9, s”k 89 bd”h “She-asani Yisrael” writes: “[The] essence of the [brakhah] formulation is ‘Who did not make me a non-Jew,’ like the other two brakhot, which are written in negative language. . . .” The Divrei Chamudot ad loc. proceeds to explain that variant manuscripts that couch thebrakhah in the affirmative stem from publishing/printing errors, and he notes an aged manuscript that preserves the negative formulation: “Who did not make me a woman.”
From a practical consideration, one can see how the censorship issue would play. Imagine that I, as an American, learn that people in France start their day by thanking G-d “Who made me French.” I would smile and shrug my shoulders: “Good, they are patriotic to their land. No sweat off my back.” But if, instead, I were told that they begin every morning by thanking G-d “Who did not make me an American,” that would irk me: “What’s their problem? What did I ever do to them?” When thought of in that light, it becomes even more understandable why non-Jewish censors would have forced Jewish prayerbook publishers to alter, or why such Jewish printers themselves preemptively would have altered, authentic negative-worded text, particularly in eras and places of persecution, to be worded in positive-language, even though the changed text would have critically altered and indeed distorted the prayer, its intention, and its meaning.
Rambam Hilkhot Tefilah 7:6 rules, writing in a different order, that a man serially recites daily: (i) Who did not make me a non-Jew, (ii) Who did not make me a woman, and (iii) Who did not make me a servant. Thus, he follows the order of recital that R. Meir laid out in the Talmud discussion in Menachot, while changing R. Meir’s third brakhah (“boor”), supplanting it with the the “slave” brakhah presented by R. Acha bar Yaakov. The Lechem Mishneh ad loc.notes that the custom is first to recite the “non-Jew” brakhah, then the “slave”brakhah, and finally the “woman” brakhah. Rashi on Menachot 43b interprets the order of the brakhot as following the relative mitzvah-status of the designated classes: (i) “Who did not make me a non-Jew” (lowest mitzvah-status because the non-Jew is commanded to fulfill only 7 commandments, although they have taken on 30, as per Chullin 92a), (ii) “Who did not [even] make me a slave” (higher mitzvah-status than non-Jew because he is commanded more mitzvot but not, for example, the positive mitzvot that are time-related), and (iii) “Who [even] did not make me a woman” (higher status because of her free social standing).
The Tur Orach Chaim 46, lists them as: (i) Who did not make me a non-Jew, (ii) Who did not make a slave, and (iii) Who did not make me a woman. This formulation parallels our siddurim. The Tur saw woman’s position as being on a higher level than that of the slave (although Rashi at Menachot 43b sees a wife as the maid to her husband, therefore more parallel in social standing to a slave, and further notes the halakhic parallels in both women and slaves being exempted from positive time-related mitzvot). Still, the Tur saw the woman’s mitzvah-status parallel to the slave’s mitzvah-status, limited in commandments by being exempted from the positive time-related mitzvot. Therefore, the Tur opined that perhaps she recites the alternate blessing that women adopted — “Who has made me according to His will” — as a painful personal acknowledgement by women that they are ordained to perform fewer mitzvot (“v’efshar . . . k’mee she-matzdeek alav ha-din al ha-ra’ah”). Commenting ad loc., the Bet Yosef sees the slave’s status as beneath the woman because (i) slaves are suspected in the first instance of stealing (citing PirkeiAvot 2:8), (ii) like non-Jews, slaves lack and cannot transmit Jewish lineage, and (iii) slaves may not marry a Jewish woman.
The Bach on the Tur ad loc., observing the unusual formulation of these threebrakhot – all negative – feels that the wording comports with a Jewish philosophical outlook on human existence, expressed in one famous Talmudic exchange that lasted two and a half years between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, concluding that people would have been better off never having been born.Eruvin 13b. It would be incompatible for those adhering to that theological perspective to thank G-d affirmatively for making one a Jew (“Who has made me a Jew”). Consistent with that perspective, and given that the reciter nonetheless has been brought into life, the blessings thus can be understood in their negative formulations as saying: “Well, if it had to be my destiny to be born, at least You did not make me (i) a non-Jew, (ii) a slave, (iii) a woman.”
By contrast, the M’harsha on Menachot 43b (bd”h Mevarekh she-lo asani) says that, if the up-side of being born a free Jewish male is that free Jewish men are commanded more mitzvot to perform than women, the down-side is that such men daily risk incurring greater punishment for greater sin if they fail to live the life demanded by the additional commands imposed on them by G-d.
While men include G-d’s name (Shem u-Malkhut) when reciting the brakhah “. . .Who did not make me a woman,” the custom among most Ashkenazim is that women recite their own brakhah, including G-d’s name in their utterance at that point: “Who has made me according to His will.” Its source is the Tur, Orach Chaim 46. Because that utterance is not of Talmudic origin but later derivation, many Sephardic authorities rule that women should recite their alternate brakhah without articulating G-d’s name, but instead should think G-d’s name in their minds at the appropriate point in the blessing. See, e.g., Ben Ish Chai on Parshat Vayeshev, first cycle, #10.
Amid other polemics, the common wisdom most frequently offered in understanding the three brakhot and their order of recital is that the free Jewish male thanks G-d for being offered the life opportunity to fulfill more commandments: (i) more than a non-Jew, and more than (ii) even a slave and (iii) even a woman.
The Position of Women in Judaism
Women are not better than men in Judaism, nor are men better than women. They both are good. But they are different. For example, women can have babies forming in their wombs. Men can have beards. In the latter instance, beards afford an extra set of mitzvah (or sin) opportunities: not to shave during aveilut, s’firah, the Bein ha-m’tzarim, particularly the Nine Days. Not to shave with a razor blade. A Nazir not to shave at all during the Nazarite period.
Because women menstruate, they are commanded to go to mikvah at the proper time approximately every month (excluding, therefore, most of the pregnancy periods, the post-menopausal years, and the like). They are commanded to act in the first instance on behalf of the family to light Shabbat and holiday candles. Women are bound by all prohibitive laws that forbid men, as well from certain behavior and activities, and by all positive laws that are not time-related.
The Torah lays out G-d’s six days of Creation, with each day’s creations ostensibly attaining and reflecting higher levels of sophistication and possibility. By the final day, G-d is creating the human being, the apex of G-d’s handiwork. Some observe that the woman is created after the man, perhaps reflecting a heightened innate spirituality in women. It also may have been intimated by the Torah that G-d revealed His word to the women of Israelbefore revealing to the men. (Mekhilta on Sh’mot 19:3 “ko tomar l’veit Yaakov v’tageid liv’nei Yisrael”).
Furthermore, the Torah conveys that Aharon knew that women’s higher spiritual plane would empower them to be Jewry’s ultimate line of resistance against the drive by men, among the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt, who were set on fashioning a god-like statue that ultimately emerged as the Golden Calf. Later, when the ten evil spies reported falsely about the Land ofIsrael, defaming the Land and prompting the men of the nation to cry on the Ninth of Av regretting that they ever had left Egypt, the women stood firmly in their faith. As a result, the punishment meted out to the nation was directed at male participants. Women had stood firmly in their fealty to G-d and Torah.
None of this is latter-day apologia, prompted by any social or cultural need to excuse a perception of supposed male chauvinism in Judaism. Rather, this is “Judaism 101,” basic Torah teaching that predates by millennia the contemporary feminist movement. In similar vein, Sarah is affirmed by G-d as being better aware of the needs of Yitzchak to be reared with proper purity. Breishit 21:12. Rivkah has deeper cognition than her husband that her son Yaakov is the favored of G-d over fraternal twin Esav. Id. 25:28. Tzipporah saves her family from Moshe’s near-fatal oversight. Sh’mot 4:24-26. Yocheved and Miriam save a generation of Jewish males from being drowned. Id. 1:15-20.
Post-Chumash, women continue to play profoundly insightful and wise leadership roles, evidenced inter alia by such events as: (i) the leadership role of Devorah the Prophetess, augmented when Yael kills Sisera (Shoftim 4:17-21); (ii) the wise intervention of Avigayil and her skillful diplomacy in saving her husband’s life (Shmuel Aleph 25); (iii) the wise woman who negotiates with the ever-intractable Yoav ben Tz’ruyah to save her city from utter slaughter and who politically induces her community to depose and dispose of the insurgent Sheva ben Bikhry (Shmuel Bet 20:16-22); and (iv) the critical intervention of Batsheva, acting to avert disaster that King David on his deathbed does not perceive, inducing him to name Shlomo the next king of Israel. M’lakhim Aleph1.
Thus, the role of women in Judaism is honored not because a rabbi pens an apologetic in 1995 or 2010, but because the explicit primary texts of Judaism cannot be read any other way. Only by undertaking to counter Judaism with anti-religious polemics, forcibly reading contemporary Western polemics into the Torah text of three thousand years ago, can the status of women in Judaism be portrayed negatively.
Beyond questions of equal intelligence and wisdom, the comparativespirituality and religious devotion of men and women remain a fascinating discussion to the present day. Even outside the Jewish world, and contradicting a cultural milieu that promotes a belief in sociological egalitarianism that posits that men and women are the same, the data do not support progressive theories of gender-sameness. Rather, contemporary objective data demonstrate that women are much more deeply religious than are men, and higher numbers of women: (i) affiliate religiously, (ii) believe in G-d, (iii) pray daily, (iv) report that religion is important in their lives, (v) have absolute certain belief in a personal G-d, and (vi) attend worship services at least weekly. See, e.g., “The Stronger Sex – Spiritually Speaking,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life(Feb. 26, 2009).
In Jewish communal terms, Jewish men unfortunately seem more prepared to marry out of the faith community than are women. Non-Jewish intermarried women who seek to convert to Torah Jewish life often induce their Jewish husbands to become more religiously committed along with them. Within the home, even in the egalitarian age, and notwithstanding the father’s critical role in child-rearing, the mother’s greater impact on the child’s spiritual growth and evolution often is dramatic. Consonant with that experience, as a matter of immutable Jewish law and policy, a child’s Jewish status follows the mother’s religion. The father’s religion is absolutely irrelevant in assigning a child’s Jewish religious status.
Men are different from women. The Torah seems to have imposed additional commandments on men partly to help keep men in check, keep their minds on the idea that G-d is watching. The tefillin on the head and arm, the tzitzit on the garment, the rabbinical obligation of a yarmulka on the head. Kiddushin 31a.The obligation to attend religious public prayer three times daily. The circumcision. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch offers the suggestion that, beyond physical biology, women are not so commanded because they do not need those mitzvot to maintain their spirituality at a proper plane of consciousness. (R. SRH Commentary on Vayikra 23:43, at end)
In addition, it may be that if women were commanded never to miss positive time-related laws, their pursuit of those laws would reduce their availability or willingness to bear and rear a maximum number of children. Halakha wants Jewish couples fructifying and multiplying, and the woman is the only partner in the couple who can bear children.
Contemporary experience reflects the unintended consequences of contemporary Western social and cultural egalitarianism imported into the Jewish religious sphere. When men and women vie for utter egalitarianism in Judaism, unintended consequences arise. Men, for example, are commanded to pray three times daily in minyan. They must hear the Torah when it is read publicly, particularly on Shabbat morning. Women are exempt from these commandments because they are positive laws that are time-related. (Prayer services are time-designated for morning, afternoon, or evening, and for Shabbat or weekday.) When men and women vie for utter egalitarianism, one common manifestation in certain “Modern/ Open Orthodox” circles is that they privately “cut deals” at home to alternate child-care and shul-going responsibilities. Thus, because the man devotes less time to the baby or tyke during the week, while he is away at work while the new mother is home-bound with the new screaming (and hopefully not colicky) darling, therefore the egalitarian couple’s rules require that the father assume primary baby-care duty from the moment he arrives home from work on Friday late afternoon until he departs back to work on Monday morning. As a result, he stops coming to shul on Shabbat morning – and all or most of Shabbat, also Sunday. Thus he misses the Torah reading, prayer in a minyan, Barkhu recital, Kedushah recital, answering Kaddish. Instead, he feeds and wakes up for baby while mom relaxes and regenerates – and perhaps mom even goes to shul. The halakha does not countenance an arrangement that results in a man abstaining from his duties as a Jew. Experience from the promontory of the congregational rabbinate teaches professional observers that this unfortunate contemporary phenomenon recurs over and over again, in all its redundancy, home to home, among egalitarians in the contemporary American milieu.
Other Distinctive Roles in Judaism
The woman is not the only person assigned by virtue of “an accident of birth” to a quasi-compartmentalized role in Judaism. Someone born to a father not of the Levite tribe is by definition neither a Kohen nor a Levi. Even though the non-Levite be among the most Torah-learned people in the shul, he never will be called to the Torah first or second – even though he be the congregational rav – if a Kohen is present. Likewise, a Levi takes precedence over him. At Festivals, he never may ascend the dukhan to bless the congregation with the Torah’s Divine three-fold blessing: he is not a Kohen and consequently, if he is not even a generic Levi, does not merit the right even to wash the Kohanim’s [Kohens’] hands to prepare them to bless the community.
Most non-“Kohens” probably are from the tribe of Yehudah, although some possibly stem from Binyamin. Ten tribes (nine plus the two halves of Yosef: Menashe and Ephraim) are lost, the tragic result of Assyria uprooting and dispersing the tribes of the Northern Kingdom by Divine plan. M’lakhim Bet 17.Therefore, inasmuch as a Jewish person is not of Levi, his possible ancestry inexorably is narrowed down to Yehudah and Binyamin, unless he unknowingly descends from conversions. (Ethiopian Jews frequently are assumed to be the remnant of the lost tribe of Dan.) Given that he is not a Kohen, and that Yehudah outnumbered Binyamin substantially, he probably is from Yehudah (the source of the post-Exilic term by which Jews most typically are known: Yehudi / Jew). By Jewish law, political leadership and royal sovereignty are assigned to people of that tribe only. Thus, a Kohen or Levi may not be king ofIsrael, and indeed Jewish history records Divine-inspired tragedy when the Maccabees, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen family of Chanukah glory, ascended well after the Chanukah story to the throne of Israel. Their reign was tragic. No one but descendants of David’s line in Yehudah may reign.
At some point relatively early in a Jew’s life, he learns his status and place in the framework of G-d’s people, and he rapidly comes to accept and even embrace it. If he is not a Kohen, he never will bless the nation. If not of Yehudah, he never will lead Israel. Our contemporary era in Western society has seen a range of social and cultural theological radicalizations that typically burgeon initially in the American Episcopal and Methodist churches. Those deviations from long-accepted American theological values then predictably are imported to the Jews of America by the radical reform rabbinate. In time, the less radical reform adopt the deviations, which next are imported into American “conservative Judaism” (which, in fact, is a very, very liberal Judaism akin to Reform Judaism of only ten to fifteen years before). Before this secular process, deriving from Episcopalian and Methodist progressivism, became commonplace, the recital of the brakhah “Who did not make me a woman” provoked comparatively minimal debate and rarely, if ever, was interpreted as rooted in male triumphalism or chauvinism.
Changing the Matbe’a Tefilah.
Dating to Yirmiyah 29:7 (“And seek the peace of the city into which I have Exiled you, and pray on her behalf to the L-rd because her peace will [assure] you will have peace.”), Jews have prayed for the welfare of their Diaspora sanctuaries. This Jewish religious practice still was common in the Middle Ages when David ben Yosef Abu Dirham – the “Abudraham” – the Spanish-based authoritative scholar of Jewish liturgy, who wrote in the fourteenth century, confirmed that the custom prevailed among Jews to pray for the king and that he have victories.
For more than eighty reasons that I perceive as warranted, I do not expect to vote for American President Barack Obama’s reelection in November 2012:http://www.rabbidov.com/obamareasons.htm Nevertheless I pray publicly every Shabbat for his well-being and that G-d protect him and his advisors (and that He imbue them with wisdom to treat Israel and all Jews beneficially). I pray for President Obama’s well-being with a full and sincere heart. If I allowed my personal politics and my opinions of him as a person to impact, I would not recite the prayer. Certainly, I never would wish him harm, but I would not lead my congregation to pray affirmatively for him either. However, it is not an option for a Jew to change the liturgy of the Jewish People to accommodate temporal exigencies, cultural norms, political preferences, or other personal tastes. Therefore, I recite the long-established prayer and compel myself to find justifiable meaning in it. In my personal case, I find that meaning in the lessons of centuries of Jewish Exilic history: Jews do our best in stable political environments and societies where political change is effectuated orderly in accordance with established rules of civil conduct. Political insurrection helps no one, and Jews often are blamed. Therefore, I heartily can pray with gusto that the President and his advisors should live and be well.
The act of changing any prayer formulation in Judaism is deemed outside the pale. The particular form of prayer has many layers of sanctity and sacredness. HaRav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik saw in reciting the unique formulations of David’s Psalms an extraordinary opportunity to praise G-d appropriately. Rav Soloveitchik maintained that we have no capacity, and certainly not the skills set, to compose proper praises of G-d. See, e.g., HaRav Hershel Schachter, Nefesh HaRav (1994), at 108-09. Thus, for example, we should say only “barukh sh’mo” but not “barukh Hu u-barukh sh’mo” when someone says G-d’s name in abrakhah because, although we conceivably may have a capacity to praise Hisname, we cannot properly praise Him. We do not even grasp how inadequately we contemplate the essence of He whom we are praising. Id. at 127-28. Therefore, we do not compose our own praises for the liturgy but recite the Psalms of David and other prayers composed, authored, and assembled by Anshei Knesset haG’dolah. We are forbidden from changing the coinage of prayer. If rabbis of the Talmud compose a prayer, and they teach that the prayer must be said daily, then we say it, except for such exigencies as impossibility. (For example, we cannot conduct a sacrificial service at the HolyTemple in our era.)
On another level, times change, values evolve, and great new progressive ideas sometimes recede as embarrassing failures. For example, the reform Judaism movement undertook, when founded in the nineteenth century, to delete from the prayer book all references to Jerusalem, Israel, and Zion. Their leaders proclaimed that Germany was their new Israel and that Berlin was their newZion. They explained that, by utterly dissociating Jews from Israel in the public mind, they would be building a showcase in Germany for cultivating a new era in Europe, a society devoid of anti-Semitism. In time, Germany did not comply with reform Judaism’s founding hypotheses. After staking its theology on opposing Zionism, reform Judaism finally had to admit a hundred years after its founding that its theology was founded on fundamentally flawed presumptions, and they rewrote all their prayers again, this time bringing Jerusalem, Israel, and Zion back in.
The universality of the liturgy binds Jews across continents and generations. We pray similarly in Paris, France and in Los Angeles, California. A Jew anywhere in the world can enter a proper shul, and she will find that the Hebrew language remains the uniform language of prayer, the prayers are identical to home, the weekly Torah reading takes up where her shul across the planet left off the previous week, and that she fits in. Her American ears will not be jolted by hearing prayers recited in German, nor will her French ears hear services dominated by Italian at the shul where she vacations in Rome. Rather, when in Rome, they will do as the Jews. By preserving a common prayerbook, with fidelity to the integrity of the prayers that we have prayed through the past two thousand years of liturgy, we are an Am Olam – an Eternal People, bound across continents, bound across generations. Our aspirations have remained remarkably shared across ethnic, racial, and geographical divides. We remain faithful to the currency of the prayer, thematbe’a tefilah.
Returning to Thinking About the Distinctive Past Tenses Employed in the Three R.Meir/ R. Yehuda “Who Did Not Make Me . . .” Brakhot.
Theories abound regarding why these three brakhot were made part of the liturgy. As noted briefly above, the most common tradition is that men are thanking G-d for all the mitzvot they have the opportunity to fulfill in His service: (i) more than only the seven (or as many as thirty, Chullin 92a) that non-Jews have, and (ii, iii) more than the limits on total mitzvot commanded to slaves and women, who are exempted from the time-related positive commandments. However, the rationales do not appear explicitly in the Talmud text in Menachot, and one even may wonder with humility whether that classic rationale comprises the exclusive basis for the blessings. Recall, for example, that R. Meir had included the “boor” brakhah among the three, even though the boor is commanded all the mitzvot.
Could there be additional reasons, pure and simple – devoid of contemporary cultural overlays and theological apologia – for R. Meir’s three “Who Did Not Make Me” brakhot?
(In R. Meir’s original formulation, the third of the three brakhot thanks G-d for not making the reciter a “boor” – namely, a person of exceptional ignorance, an illiterate lout. Yet, such a person in fact is commanded all the mitzvot, although he presumably misses out on many opportunities daily because of his profound emptiness. Nevertheless, he is commanded all of them. For Rav Acha bar Yaakov, therefore, that third brakha needed to be substituted with “Who did not make me a slave.” The Meiri on Mesekhet Brakhot 60b says that many follow a custom to say all four brakhot: non-Jew, slave, woman, and boor.)
At the outset, it was observed that the three brakhot – (i) Who did not make me a non-Jew, (ii) Who did not make me a slave, and (iii) Who did not make me a woman – seem to be constructed unusually, in a past tense that differs from the main common past tense usage in brakhot: “Who made us holy with His commandments and commanded us [to] . . . .” For R. Meir, one of Judaism’s brightest Torah luminaries, steeply immersed in the glory of the Chosen nation and its Torah mission, despite the persecutions endured under Rome, he may have had personal reason to appreciate more than most how fortunate and special is our lot (as we all recite in the daily morning preliminary prayers) – because he came from a prominent non-Jewish line that converted to Judaism. For him, Judaism and Jewish family may have been less taken-for-granted, more deeply appreciated. “But for the grace of G-d,” he might have been born a Roman pagan. Like contemporary converts to Judaism, adult ba’alei teshuvah, and, for that matter, teens who came into Torah observance through groups like NCSY or Israel experiences like those associated with “kiruv institutions” like Aish haTorah, R. Meir may have been more sensitive to a reality that FFBs – those born “frum from birth” – all-too-often take for granted: “how fortunate we are, how goodly is our portion, how delightful is our destiny, how beautiful is our heritage!”
Who Did Not Make Me a Non-Jew. Looking at the brakhah without any external overlay, it would seem that the first brakhah necessarily had to becouched in the negative (“Who did not make me a non-Jew”). If it had been couched in the positive, quaere whether such a brakhah would be permitted to recite daily. “Thank you, G-d, for making me a Jew” acknowledges a one-time event, like a brit or a pidyon ha-ben, that does not recur daily. Although G-d recreates the world every day (yotzer or u-vorei choshekh; ma’ariv aravim) and renews the moon every month (m’chadesh chodoshim), creates new fruit, gives the Torah to new recipients every day – he does not recreate the Jew every day. Yisrael af-al-pi she-chata, Yisrael hu – a Jew, though he sinned, remains a Jew and cannot escape his heritage. Thus, we thank G-d every morning forreturning our souls, not for recreating or renewing them (ha-machazir n’shamot lifgasrim meitim). Arguably, one can invoke His holy name to thank G-d with a brakhah only once in a lifetime for “making me a Jew.” (Cf. the halakhah that limits reciting the She-he-cheyanu brakhah for a new fruit to only once per season, and the fact that we do not say that brakhah daily to keep thanking G-d for continuing limited-season events such as each day of Sukkot, each day of Chanukah, or each day of Pesach. )
By contrast, on every day of a Jew’s life, he can thank G-d again that day for not having made him, during the prior 24 hours, a person who finally would have capitulated to the persecution or social ostracism around him, resulting in his abandoning his mitzvah-status, trying to convert to non-Jewish status. (Although a Jew who “converts” does not escape his heritage, the blessing in part thanks G-d today that nothing led me to try leaving my heritage. At the same time, as Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz has suggested, those words are a personal pep-talk: I will not quit. I will not devolve into something lesser than what I need to be.)
In R. Meir’s time, the pressure to try apostasy and live as a non-Jew was intense under Roman persecution. In “Chibur Yafe Min Hayeshua,” a collection of Midrashic traditions collected by R. Nissim of Kairouan, that author reports that Rome executed Bruriah’s father, enslaved her mother, and seized her sister who was turned over to prostitution until R. Meir ransomed her to freedom, then ultimately fled with his family to Babylonia. As the TaZ, Rav David Halevi (the Magen David) explains in his commentary on Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim46:4, the statement of gratitude “Who did not make me a non-Jew” acknowledges that non-Jews also have a valued place in G-d’s world. The Talmud tells us that every generation is blessed with many righteous non-Jewish people (tzadikei umot ha-olam). Chullin 92a. Indeed, non-Jews have nurtured some of Judaism’s greatest souls, including Ruth the Moabitess, progenitor of King David and, by extension, Moshiach. The TaZ even cites the rabbinic teaching that G-d exiled the Jews among the nations, at least in part, for the purpose of exposing Judaism to more people and thereby adding more worthy converts into the Jewish people. The negative formulation of thebrakhah thus lends itself to daily recital. By contrast, the positive affirmation (“Who made me a Jew”) – even if it were the true version advanced in Menachot43b by R. Meir and not a forgery resulting from printer’s errors or censorship, negating any actual halakhic importance – seemingly could lend itself to being recited only once in a lifetime.
It is useful to remember that, because G-d is fair and just, non-Jews are not expected to perform all the mitzvot of the Torah. In a fair paradigm, people who actually are commanded to act but who fail to to do so are deemed to have sinned. Sin is punishable. However, it would be unfair and unjust to punish or hold as sinful a person’s failure to act when that person and his forebears never were part of the Torah faith covenant and never opted in. Unlike other religious systems, which condemn all non-believers to eternal damnation, the Torah Covenant does not conceive such terms. Righteous non-Jews are promised eternal reward. That reality actually should depress triumphalism among people who happen to be born Jewish. It might even dampen Jewish commitment: “Why should I have to be Sabbath-observant, strictly kosher, faithful to the laws of family purity, adhere to a people who face discrimination and persecution, and stand outside the societal norm if non-Jews are rewarded with eternal life despite living a life that is outside the Torah Covenant?”
Judaism is very demanding, with its 613 Torah mitzvot, and one could see wistful advantage in never having been born into the Covenant. The brakhah in its negative-wording, then, is not commenting on non-Jews, whose status is valid and accepted as important in Judaism, but rather aims at affirming a Jew’s acceptance of his own responsibilities, affirming that he does not have the easier path, but that his mitzvah-status is purposeful. It is like an aspiring associate at a busy law firm who is called into the partner’s office and handed an additional major case assignment. If he responds: “I can’t take it. The workload here is impossible,” he will not be rehired the following year. By contrast, if he smiles and says “Thank you for this new opportunity,” he endears himself to the partner. It is attitudinal. Righteous Non-Jews are valued. Jews are valued. As we start our morning in prayer, we affirm every morning to our Maker that we are grateful for the new opportunity to fulfill our mitzvah-status, despite the heavy mitzvah workload already on our plates.
Who Did Not Make Me a Slave. In this same sense, each day a Jew can thank G-d that he has not been forced into slavery during the past twenty-fours. In R. Meir’s time, Romans indeed were enslaving Jews, as occurred in Bruriah’s own family, according to the report of R. Nissim of Kairouan. Similarly, the heart-rending account of the enslaved brother and sister, children of a Kohen family, who were purchased by two separate Roman slave-owners, who then contracted to mate them to profit from children they would produce, is painfully set forth in Gittin 58a and recounted in a Tisha B’Av morning lamentation (Kinah 23). Slavery was real in that time, and slavery never quite has disappeared from the earth’s face nor from Jewish existence.
Although we do not find Jews facing the kind of slavery that predominates in certain contemporary Arab and Moslem lands in the Middle East and Africa, nor Biblical “slavery,” slavery has continued as part of the modern Jewish experience, too. Beyond the precariously endangered stations Jews have endured this past century in the Arab world and in the former Soviet Union and its orbit, the Holocaust brought Jewish slavery into full twentieth-century actualization Accounts of concentration-camp-based Jews being compelled to work without wages in the factories of I.G. Farben and similar German chemical and manufacturing plants are well documented. During the Holocaust years, Rav Ephraim Oshry of the Kovno Ghetto, in the heart of Nazi-occupied Lithuania, received actual halakhic inquiries with questions like: “Should we still recite the blessing thanking G-d ‘Who did not make a slave’ while we in fact are enslaved here in the Kovno Ghetto?” Rav Oshry found reason to rule that Jews in the Ghetto should continue reciting the brakhah:
. . . [T]his blessing was not formulated in order to praise G-d for our physical liberty but rather for our spiritual liberty. I therefore ruled that we could not skip or alter this blessing under any circumstances. On the contrary, despite our physical captivity, we were more obligated than ever to recite the blessing to demonstrate to our enemies that even if physically we were slaves, as a people we remained spiritually free.
R. Ephraim Oshry, Responsa from the Holocaust (N.Y.: Judaica Press, 2001), at 86.
Who Did Not Make Me a Woman. As a Jew thanks G-d for not having made him a non-Jew nor a slave, so a Jewish man each day can find good reason to thank G-d that his role and mission as a man has not changed in the prior 24 hours. He remains who he is. The Talmud at Shabbat 53b relates the instance of a poverty-stricken man, further grief-stricken by his wife’s sudden death, who miraculously grew lactating breasts because he could not otherwise afford to feed his nursing child. Although R. Yosef’s perception was that the man must have been great to merit such a miracle, Abaye responded that such a man must have been cursed for having done something evil, resulting in G-d distorting his masculine nature rather than providing him with an honorable source for earning income sufficient to pay a wet nurse.
We are who and what we are, and we both socialize ourselves and find society socializing us to play our roles. The millennia-old role of man as hunter and forager, tasked primarily with providing for his wife and children, is incorporated into every Jewish marriage contract, derived from Sh’mot 21:10, as the man formally undertakes to provide for his new bride’s food, clothing, shelter, and other marital needs. That is his primary role as husband, just as her primary role as wife is to bring children into the world. Either partner may fail in the respectively assigned task: he may prove to be an unemployable ne’er-do-well; she may prove biologically unable to conceive. Even so, those are the roles assumed in the first instance by each marrying party. As the man builds steam, finds his employment, and pursues his income, he has reason to thank G-d each day that his place in the social landscape and his gender are secure, that G-d has not changed him. He is today who he was yesterday.
Meanwhile, women are disadvantaged in secular society. In the ancient world, unmarried emancipated women in particular needed protection from homelessness and starvation, savagery and rape. The Book of Ruth recounts Boaz ordering his agriculture workers to allow the young Moabite woman, without any access to income for herself or her widowed mother-in-law, to gather stalks of grain in Boaz’s fields – and to keep their hands off her. Ruth2:9. Unmarried women were so defenseless that the Talmud observes atKiddushin 7a that women then were better off in a polygamous marriage, sharing a husband and vying for his attention and affection with a co-wife, than living alone. In many parts of contemporary society, too, when lawlessness and chaos erupt, somehow rape follows.
The modern Western woman has her hands full. She often pursues a graduate degree, profession or other vocation, works hard to reach a successful achievement, and then finds herself confronted by immutable biology. If, for example, she goes straight from law or medical or business school into her chosen field, starting her career in her mid- to late-twenties, she will have to devote five to seven years at the entry level, rising up the ladder, until her status is secure enough to start building a family and taking maternity leave. Aside from the serious halakhic issues raised by delaying having children, the woman – even if she were secularist, non-Jewish – grapples with the Gordian knot of balancing career, family-building, rearing children. If she delays having children into her late 30s in order to build her career, she is gambling that biology may interfere with building the family she would have liked. If, instead, she places family-building first, then she must step aside early in her career, soon out of graduate or professional school, signaling to management that she is “not serious” but instead on “mommy-track.” As the children grow, they need their mom, and she hears it from them, or they start acting out. How she resolves the dilemmas are the stuff of page-one magazine cover stories about the Super Woman. It is remarkable – and unenviable.
Men simply do not have to be super women, nor super men, to succeed. Pregnancy does not “get in the way.” Although men have their own problems and have to deal with their own health issues, it is understandable that a man who does not have to deal with greater predisposition during the adolescent years to teen depression, subsequent issues ranging from menstruation and morning sickness, to greater prevalence of migraines would leave a man grateful to G-d, as he dons his morning tefillin and envelops himself in histzitzit and tallit, that his status with G-d is unchanged from yesterday, that he is at minyan doing his morning thing as he is commanded to do, and that his male role is secure. Nor does he have to encounter and spar with the uncouthness of men who populate the social underclass, ranging from those who leer and touch, to those who violently invade private space.
A fascinating manifestation of the insecurity of men who start feeling their masculinity slipping away from their control in the religious realm can be gleaned from the growing crisis in American reform Judaism, where sharply increased numbers of women reform rabbis and women cantors have resulted – true to the law of unintended consequences – in the dramatic decline in male attendance at reform temples and related reform services. This problem has played itself out with increasing public media exposure in recent years as reform Judaism conventions publicly aim to attract male participants by promising them a rare opportunity to participate at a male-only prayer serviceor a male-only seder.
For the man, whose gender is defined from his birth, an hypothetical brakhahthat would thank G-d “Who made me a man” can be recited only once in a lifetime and indeed is implied at the brit. G-d does not re-make the man every day, as discussed above, but R. Meir was reciting brakhot that could be reciteddaily through a lifetime to help with the tally to 100. Every day, reflecting on yesterday and before, a man can step into shul, turn to birkhot ha-shachar and thank G-d for not having changed him since yesterday, for letting him continue on his natural journey. While Sephardim recite the three daily “Who Did Not Make Me” brakhot at the end of most other morning brakhot, reflecting their nature as a stand-alone triad, Ashkenazim connect the three brakhot to the start of the litany, immediately after the brakhot thanking Hashem for (i) a properly functioning, healthy excretory system, (ii) restoring our souls after a night’s sleep, and (iii) giving wisdom to roosters to know day from night. TheP’rishah on Tur, Orach Chaim 46 at s”k 18 explains that Ashkenazim choose that liturgical placement because the three “Who Did Not Make Me” brakhot merely affirm the natural order of the universe, as do the three before them.
The Od Yosef Chai offers a kabbalistic understanding of the brakhot that accords with this sense of stasis within the natural order: Free Jewish men are giving thanks each day that, overnight during sleep, their souls have not been exchanged with nor attached to a non-Jew’s soul, a slave’s soul, or a woman’s soul.
The blessing “Who did not make me a woman” is not an insult or a slight. It derives from a time before political correctness when poets and composers did not prepare wording in ways to assure that every possible injured interest group would not be offended if reading the terms out of context. R. Meir, the author of the blessings, was married to an extraordinary woman of exceptional brilliance, self-confidence, and wisdom. Despite a disturbing and deeply questioned account in a Rashi in Avodah Zarah 18b – which every feminist and many, if not most, contemporary non-feminists reject ab initio as factually impossible – R. Meir particularly was sensitized to an exceptional woman, honored and respected her counsel and wisdom (as when he adopted her advice to change the way he prayed to G-d regarding the local thugs who were making his life intolerable), and he paid a kingly ransom of 400 silver zuzim to ransom his wife’s sister from a brothel, immediately thereafter fleeing with them toBabylonia. By his life’s works, and by the plain meaning of the blessings he presented, the brakhah never was meant to denigrate but to inspire the reciting male minyan worshipper to live up to the significant life burdens demanded by G-d from a free Jewish male obliged to live the Torah life to its fullest alongside his wife and life partner.
A Postscript: A Practical Suggestion For the Congregational Rabbi Whose Congregants Have Not Read This and Who Therefore May Take Umbrage Because They Do Not Understand the Brakhot‘s Context . . .
In most shuls, unfortunately, the only people who arrive at services on time are the non-Jews invited to that Shabbat’s Bar Mitzvah, who mistakenly assume that services begin at the time printed on the invitation. Shul often is empty in the woman’s side of the aisle when the first morning brakhot are being recited. Nevertheless, if women are present in the synagogue as services begin, and if there is concern that one or more may take umbrage because she has not read explanations like this analysis and therefore does not know the contextual backgrounds and meanings of these brakhot, a sensitive rav can introduce a practice that the prayer leader recite the brakhah “Who did not make me a woman” in an undertone. The rav can explain: “At this one brief line in the morning prayers, we digress with men reciting one sentence and women reciting another different sentence, thanking G-d for having made them proudly in accordance with His will. In order to avoid cacophony and confusing each other with different utterances, let’s just all recite our respective one-line blessings quietly for the next line.”Share