The patristic authority Jerome (342-420) complained bitterly, in his commentary to Isaiah, about the Jews’ condemnation of notsrim (believers in Jesus, “the Nazarite”), in the benediction of the daily Amidah known as Birkat ha-Minim: "The Jews . . . after having been invited by the Lord to do penitence . . . up to the present day persevere in blasphemy and three times a day in all their synagogues they anathemize the Christian name."
His complaint echoes even harsher early Christian polemics, such as that of the Church Father Epiphanius (315-403): "Not only do Jewish people have a hatred of their enemies; they even stand up at dawn, at midday, and toward evening, three times a day when they recite their prayers in the synagogue, and curse and anathemize them. Three times a day they say, 'God curse the Nazoreans.' For they harbor an extra grudge against them . . . because, despite their Jewishness, they preach that Jesus is the Christ, the opposite of those who are still Jews, for they have not accepted Jesus."
As Ruth Langer's masterful new book Cursing the Christians? amply documents, the frequency and vehemence of the Church’s condemnations of the prayer ebbed and flowed over centuries, tending to escalate during eras of heightened religious tensions—notably throughout the period of anti-Jewish theological disputations in 13th-century Spain and France. In that context, we find one of the nastiest assaults on the Jewish liturgy leveled by the disputant and apostate, Nicholas Donin, who writes of Birkat ha-Minim that
"Three times every day in a prayer they consider more important than others, the Jews curse the clergy of the Church, the kings, and all other people. This prayer is in the Talmud and must be recited with feet together and one should not speak of anything else nor interrupt it even if a serpent is wrapped around one’s ankle. This [prayer] men and women recite in a whisper. The priest then recites it twice in a loud voice and all respond 'Amen' to every such curse."
A chilling image. But is Birkat ha-Minim really about Christians at all?
Rabbinic understandings of the prayer's meaning and purpose were never unanimous, and its text was highly unstable for centuries. Sometimes, the prayer was changed as the result of Christian censorship, other times as the result of Jewish apologetics. Still other changes were occasioned by sensitivities to Jews coerced into apostasy. Correspondingly, opinions about the identity of those condemned by its maledictions fluctuated significantly in different times and places. In Christian Northern Europe, especially in the High Middle Ages, there was widespread consent among the rabbis that Birkat ha-Minim was indeed formulated with Christians in mind, and was still to be directed against them. In Italy and Muslim lands, the matter was far more muddled.
But it was particularly during times of persecution of Judaism by the Roman Catholic Church that many rabbinical authorities apologetically reversed this understanding, denying that the entreaty for the downfall of Israel’s enemies had anything to do with Christians. Among the dozens of interpretations that Langer analyzes, the most surprising is that of Rabbi Jacob Emden of Hamburg, one of the leading talmudic scholars of the 18th century. Not only does Emden rule out any connection between Birkat ha-Minim and Christianity; he goes so far as to proclaim that its curses are directed at any “meshumad” (apostate)—Jew, Christian, or Muslim—who converts from spite, rather than sincere conviction. Amazingly, Emden includes Christian converts to Judaism in the category of the meshumadim and minim condemned by the prayer.
Unsurprisingly, given Emden’s lifelong persecution of suspected sectarians, Emden insisted that the term minim, expunged by Church censorship in the mid-16th century, be reinstated, and that worshippers intend Sabbateans (believers in the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi), rather than Gentiles, while intoning its curses.
All such denials that Gentile Christians were the intended objects of the prayer notwithstanding, Christians (“notsrim” in Hebrew) are explicitly mentioned by name in many of its early variants. But while notsrim became an undifferentiated term in later Hebrew usage, during Christianity’s early centuries, as Epiphanius makes clear, the word probably referred solely to Jewish believers in Jesus’s ministry—and not to his Greek Gentile followers.
So as the question mark punctuating the title of Langer's erudite study suggests, resolving such matters is far from simple. Indeed, Langer reveals a host of uncertainties regarding just about every aspect of this blessing. On the most basic level, it is unclear when the prayer was composed and by whom. Nor can we know with any certainty its original formulation, on account of numerous medieval variants, and the half millennium following the redaction of the Talmud from which no manuscripts are extant.
Still, among the most surprising of Langer’s revelations is the malleability of this malediction’s intended “victims,” thanks to its many versions which refer, variously, to "apostates, sectarians, heretics, Nazareans, Thine enemies, the enemies of Thy people, the evil Empire, the insolent government,” and—most insipidly and commonly ever since the prayer underwent Church censorship—the “malshinim,” Jewish talebearers.
Langer questions whether it is indeed the case, as the Talmud recounts, that the first-century Sages instituted this appeal to God to destroy the Jewish followers of Jesus. The answer to this foundational question depends on the resolution of thorny historical and theological issues. Langer does a fastidious job untangling, if not always resolving, the many controversies that have arisen among both theologians and scholars, Jewish and Christian, in connection with the genesis and purpose of Birkat ha-Minim. In addition to her remarkable detective work on the textual history of the prayer, in which minim and notsrim were often replaced with alternate terms such as meshumadim and malshinim, Langer offers fine analyses of all the relevant Hebrew terms which at one time or another were introduced into the execration—all of which carry multiple meanings.
Ironically enough, the Church Fathers who railed against this prayer were in essential agreement with the talmudic rabbis about its origins—if not entirely about its precise objects. Patristic writers commonly cited John 9:20, which recounts how the parents of a blind boy miraculously cured by Jesus refused to admit to the Pharisees any knowledge of a miracle "because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue." The alleged means by which the Jews effected the banishment of believers in Jesus from the synagogue was the institution of a prayer cursing them. The Talmud's account of the prayer's etiology places it barely a generation later, when the sage of Yavneh, Gamliel II, established it in response to the proliferation of sectarians following the Temple's destruction, in 70 C.E.
Modern scholars, while not uncritically accepting the talmudic account, have tended to concur with the early dating of Birkat ha-Minim suggested by both Christian and Jewish ecclesiasts—a dating consonant with the anti-Judaism of the Church Fathers. But following the approach of the most recent revisionist talmudic scholarship (the work of Daniel Boyarin in particular), and based on a deft and thorough review of the earliest reliable sources testifying to its existence, Langer disproves the long-accepted arguments for the prayer’s antiquity, instead estimating its origins in late 4th-century Roman-ruled Palestine.
Langer’s concluding chapter on the fate of Birkat ha-Minim in the modern period is of particular interest, shedding much light on shifting attitudes among modernizing Jews to the faith of their Christian neighbors. Birkat ha-Minim proved particularly repugnant to a universalist Reform movement, which had no place for a prayer calling upon God to “bring low, break, and destroy” the Gentiles. The earliest Reform liturgies in Germany transformed the prayer from an ad hominem curse of wicked adherents of other faiths into an abstract entreaty to eliminate wickedness from the world. But even this didn’t last long, and Reform congregations, Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El first among them, began to expunge Birkat ha-Minim altogether from the liturgy. This is but the last of many instances cited by Langer demonstrating the degree to which a single paragraph from the Jewish liturgy might serve as a barometer of Jewish feeling toward its "daughter-religion" (to borrow a favored euphemism of Pope John Paul II).
Langer concludes her study with a provocative rumination on the Jewish outrage provoked by the current pontiff’s restoration of the Latin Mass, with its various derogations of Jewish faith. As she wryly observes, there was at least some measure of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, in this anger, given similar Jewish appeals for the conversion of the “nations of the world” to belief in the God of Israel, most strikingly in the Aleynu prayer. Then again, there is absolutely no reference to notsrim, and almost none to meshumadim, in contemporary versions of Birkat ha-Minim. While a few prayer books, mostly those used by Hasidim, re-instated the word minim, almost all current normative versions of the blessing—including those found in strictly Orthodox prayer books, such as the ArtScroll siddur—refer only to the malshinim. Thus, in a final irony, Jews today have preserved the variant that resulted from Church censorship.
For British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the irony is a fortuitous one. In Sacks’ edition of the 2009 Koren Siddur, he offers what may be the most ingenious interpretation of all, one that eliminates any challenge posed to ecumenical harmony by Birkat ha-Minim:
The text of this paragraph underwent several changes during the centuries. Its original object was the sectarianism that split the Jewish world during the late Second Temple period. There were Jews in the Hellenistic age who turned against their own people. Faith (emunah) in Judaism involves the idea of loyalty—to a people and its heritage. This prayer is a protest against disloyalty.
While Sacks’ interpretation is problematic as history, he is wise to reiterate that the dominant current usage of malshinim refers solely to Jewish betrayers of their own. But Sacks does one better. Like a modern-day Balaam, he doesn’t just nullify a curse—he transforms it into a blessing. What was once a prayer for the destruction of one’s enemies becomes an entreaty for Jewish unity and fidelity to God.
Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently on sabbatical in Montreal, serving as Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University and Interim Rabbi of Congregation Beth El.
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