Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Three Blessings

Chagall, "The Praying Jew," 1914.

The Jewish prayer book (siddur) is thick with texts: blessings, thanksgivings, and petitions, instructions, theological claims, and historical memories. Some traditional texts bear especially outsized burdens. In this respect, few can rival three lines that begin "Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me . . . " and conclude, respectively, "a goy [Gentile]," "a slave," and "a woman."

Relevant Links
Benedictions of Identity  Joseph Tabory, Bar-Ilan University Press. On the three blessings and efforts by traditionalists to adapt them to contemporary circumstances (originally published in Kenishta: Studies of the Synagogue World). (PDF, 2001)
“. . . Who Made Me a Woman”  George Jochnowitz, Commentary. A startling variant of a controversial blessing appears in a 14th-century vernacular prayer book from southern France. (PDF, 1981)
As I Am  Philologos, Forward. On the morning blessings and the two Hebrew words for “Jew.”

These three blessings, a standing provocation to all sorts of sensibilities, are at the center of a new book on the Jewish liturgy. Its author, Yoel Kahn, traces their history from antiquity down to the present, illuminating how they have been interpreted, revised, translated, excised, and, in varying ways, restored.

The three lines are embedded in a string of similarly-worded formulas that open the preliminary morning prayers known as birkhot ha-shahar or the "dawn blessings." Most of these thank God Who "gives the rooster understanding to distinguish day from night . . . gives sight to the blind . . . clothes the naked . . . raises those who are bent down," and so forth. They appear in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and, as presented there, are meant to be recited in private at home as one starts the day: awaking, opening one's eyes, dressing, standing upright, and so on. Today we might call them an exercise in mindfulness, aligning our consciousness with the acts that knit together our daily routines and, as Kahn points out, heightening our awareness of God's hand at work in the world.

The three blessings in particular seem to have originated outside Jewish circles. From the third century B.C.E., we find written record of a quip, ostensibly attributed to Socrates, that expresses gratitude for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, Greek and not barbarian. An analogous one-liner circulated in Zoroastrian circles. The Jewish formula, a version of which first appears at about 200 C.E., was unconnected with the dawn blessings and was recorded in a different tractate of the Talmud (Menahot 43b).

That changed during the centuries known as the Geonic period, when the great yeshivas of Babylonia emerged as the leading institutions of Jewish learning. The first text featuring both sets of blessings is the Sefer Halakhot Gedolot ("Book of Major Laws"), circa 750-825, and soon thereafter they were amalgamated into a single set. Although the details of the liturgy remained in flux for centuries, by the early Middle Ages the basic text had stabilized into what we know today: the full complement of blessings, recited not at home but in the synagogue.

In the 13th century, the Church, for reasons of its own, began to take a vigorous interest in the contents of Jewish prayers.  As, with time, the Inquisition expanded its writ and printing enhanced the reach of the censor, Jews began to insert an "explanatory note" to the effect that mention of Gentiles anywhere in the siddur referred not to Christians but to proper heathens. When it came specifically to the goy of the dawn blessings, Jews also took positive action to alter the text: either substituting a euphemism (like "Samarian"), employing the affirmative statement, "Who has made me a Jew," or skipping the line entirely. Sometimes the same scribe would have recourse to all three. But while the Church may have succeeded at times in driving the word into the shadows, it may also have inspired its preservation. Kahn: "If the effect of censorship and expurgation was to muzzle Jewish religious speech, this blessing was an act of spiritual resistance and identity-formation that reasserted the superiority of the Jews over the Gentile oppressors."

The "slave" blessing was problematic for another reason. The Hebrew word eved means not only slave but also servant and, more to the point, serf—which is just what many Jews in medieval Europe were.  Some therefore eliminated the blessing altogether, some embellished it (as in: "Who did not make me a slave to humans"), and some replaced the troublesome word with "boor" or "beast."

What about "Who has not made me a woman"? The first real alternative phrasing for women at prayer was "Who has made me according to His will," which appears early in the 14th century in the authoritative code of Jacob bar Asher. It seems to have been intended as an expression more of acceptance than of empowerment, though it also testifies to the engagement of women in the religious life of the time. In southern Europe in the 14th-15th centuries, women using the Judeo-Provençal vernacular adopted a more assertive stance, intoning "Who did not make me a man" or "Who made me a woman."

There were also internal, Jewish critics of the dawn blessings who were troubled not by any anti-Gentile content but by the danger of the formulas' becoming so ritualized as to be detached from lived experience. Two such critics were Maimonides and his son, the Judeo-Sufi pietist Abraham Maimuni. They were joined by the Franco-German pietists known as Hasidei Ashkenaz, whose richly mythic worldview otherwise differed greatly from Maimonides' rationalism. By contrast, the later kabbalists saw good reason for ritualizing the blessings: after all, they sustained the social and, implicitly, the cosmic order, both of which were threatened in the nighttime when the spirits of darkness were afoot and the unconscious soul experienced the whiff of death.

Meanwhile, the advent of printing standardized the texts of these and other prayers like never before. But then, starting in the 18th century, once emancipation came around, the three blessings became problematic again—not only because of Christian sensitivities but because of the Jews' own aspirations to merge their particularity with the values of the broader society. "Not surprisingly," Kahn observes, "not a single 19th-century European liberal prayer book includes 'did not make me a Gentile' in Hebrew." Even unimpeachably Orthodox figures changed the wording from goy to nokhri (foreigner), a term shorn of the negative connotations accrued by the former word over the centuries. 

In America, liturgists were freer still. By 1872, almost a decade after slavery had been abolished in the nation, "Who did not make me a slave" was gone from Reform prayer books, to be followed by the removal of the other blessings from the 1895 edition of the Union Prayer Book.  Proto-Conservative siddurim like Avodat Yisrael of 1873 replaced the three blessings with one: "Who made me an Israelite." The leading modern-Orthodox siddur of the 20th century, by Joseph Hertz, substituted nokhri for goy and added an elaborate apologetic commentary: "He who would serve humanity must first of all to himself be true."  As for "Who has not made a woman," it was glossed as "Who has set upon me the obligations of a man," while the corresponding blessing recited by a woman thanked God for allowing her "to win hearts for Thee by motherly or wifely devotion."

And today? Unfortunately, Kahn does not investigate the work of Israeli liturgists of various denominations. He does, however, attend to the further evolution of Reform and Conservative prayer books—and, pointedly, to the Artscroll phenomenon, in which everything old has become new again. (The Artscroll siddur contains the three blessings in unadulterated form, asserting unapologetically that "The Torah assigns missions to respective groups of people.")

Toward the end of his study, Kahn also offers interesting reflections on his experience in his own synagogue in San Francisco, a gay community that has proved more than willing to re-engage traditional liturgies from its perspective of theological agnosticism and commitment to inclusion: "Who has led me to my Jewish heritage . . . Who has made each of us unique, and all of us according to Your will."  Today's non-halakhic communities, he notes, perhaps because they are more distanced from the old texts and the forms of authority that accompanied them, are more eager than their immediate forebears both to appreciate those texts and to experiment with them.

The world in which the ancient prayers emerged was one in which clear social boundaries and correspondingly well-defined roles were a value and an end in themselves, however imperfectly realized in practice. Today, the category of slave has been discarded with a moral vehemence that can only be termed religious, and that was nourished in no small measure by both Scripture and the historical experience of Jewish suffering. The second two categories, distinguishing between man and woman, Jew and Gentile, are still with us but in a continual process of redefinition that shifts once-fixed expectations, rights, and responsibilities by seeking to minimize friction and maximize the reach of human freedom. 

Can God ground and guide these explorations as He once guaranteed those boundaries?  That would be blessing indeed. 

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Harold Zvi on March 23, 2011 at 10:49 am (Reply)
During the Mishnaic period Judaism fascinated many highly intelligent people throughout the Middle East, many non-Jews, although they didn't convert, enjoyed attending the local synagogue, Jews would also bring their slave attendants who participated too, so that although the building was full,only Jewish free males could be counted for a Minyan, or act as Hazan.
Hence the 3 blessings confirming his halachic status before commencing the prayers. Nothing offensive about it.
micha on March 23, 2011 at 11:17 am (Reply)
I think the blessings can't be understood without reference to a near-contemporary source to Rabbi Meir,
Paul's Epistle to the Galatians 3:38. I think the blessings were codified as a rebuttal against the anti-nomian, religion-without-halakhah, approach fomenting among the early Christians.

Paul is quoted as writing, "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law… There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman, male nor female…"

Notice the same three distinctions, made to point out the different treatment under halakhah of different groups of people.

In his commentary on the Talmud (Menachot 43b), Rashi says that these blessings refer to the greater number of commandments incumbent on the Jewish community, the Jews within that community (as opposed to any non-Jewish slaves owned by a Jew) and men, respectively. Rashi lived in the 12th century. He had no social pressure forcing him to a more PC spin on the text. And this historical data point bears him out.

mattis kantor EIC Zichron Press on March 23, 2011 at 11:34 am (Reply)
As for the theory of Socrates being the possible inspiration for the 3 blessings (of "phew", relief) non-jew; servant and woman, subscribers to that possibility display some level of ignorance as to the Halachic obligations governing the categories. It would also display the absence of sensitivity to religious observance at its full spiritual height; i.e. the more laws to fulfill, the "merrier". Thus, in such a frame of mind, one is thankful for a greater responsibility and obligation. Very much counter, to our current social mood.

[A note as to why the term "slave" is inaccurate: Slave is a misrepresentation of the status given by the laws encumbering the "master"; in the words of the Talmud, "buying a servant is akin to buying a master". Such were the obligations - but then what did the priests in the Court of King James know of the Talmud, particularly as Jews were yet expelled from the country that undertook translating the Bible into a "modern" language.)

The concept of "divine inspiration" (ru'ach ha'kodesh) is usually misunderstood, (the further from the concept, the greater the misunderstanding.) If a sage is deemed to "have it", it matters not whether he himself is aware of the depth and accuracy (scientific) that was unknown at the time it was written or said. One such example would be the blessing of the rooster crow at dawn. In an agricultural society (certainly not industrial, even if somewhat urbanized) the rooster's crow replaced the alarm without the snooze button. It's relevance today? Note the use of the word "binah" (comprehension, focus on detail) and not "chochma" (conception, creative inspiration, as Einstein once said "I think in "pictures" not in words). What does this rooster with the "bird-brain" have in comprehension, that warrants a blessing (in our times?) It knows the difference between day and night. Dark and light. On and Off. Binary. Just like the core of computer technology. The chip only knows two things: The state of On (positive) or the state of Off (negative.) The very foundation of comprehension is to distinguish between two choices (ask any programmer of computers. Always the choice of this or that - even when presented as a "case" formula.)

Divinely inspired indeed.
Novartza on March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm (Reply)
Unlike the distinction between slave and freeman or man and woman, the Jew/Gentile distinction is the subject of blessing also in the Kiddush ("asher bachar banu mikal am vehivdilanu mikol lashon," He who has chosen us from all nations and set us apart from every tongue) and Havdallah ("Hamavdil bein kodesh lekhol, bein ohr lekhoshekh, bein Yisrael La'amim"; He who separates the sacred from profane, light from darkness, Israel from the nations).

Mr. Kantor above is wrong; the blessing "Who has not made me a slave" refers to an "eved kna'ani," who has only the obligations that a Jewish woman has; whereas the servant that is an "encumbrance on his master" is an "Eved Ivri," a Jew who has been hired as a servant. The two should not be confused with each other.
David Aharon on March 26, 2011 at 9:49 pm (Reply)
Intersting that the order of these 3 blessings in the traditions of the Ashkenaz [siddurim] is at the beginning of the list of the brachos and in the Sephardic - Arizal siddirm it is at the end of the list]. Also notice that if you look in the Shulchan Aruch of Rav Yosef Caro or the Mishna Brura you will see that the reason for difference in the order is based on what we do in the morning is the order according to Rabv Yosef Caro ... the Rema [head of the Ashkenaz community] writes a gloss and says the order is in our comunities according to the way it is in our siddurim In the Shul.

Note that the Polish Nusach Sfard siddur has the order of the Ashkenaz communities and Sephardic siddurim from the Sepharsd Eduth Hamizeach follow the order of the Arizal.
Ben Plonie on March 27, 2011 at 9:52 pm (Reply)
I know this was stated in the earlier responses but I find it absurd that the article does not consider the answer I grew up with, which is that Jewish law affords free adult Jewish males the most opportunities to fulfill mitzvot (religious commandments), beyond the minyan requirement. That may not resonate in America, but it is considered a good thing.

Gentiles are not obligated or forbidden to observe, women are partially exempt in the interest of family obligations, and slaves because they have no freedom to choose. Even freed male slaves had only the obligations of women, and that was considered a promotion.

I have never heard of a woman other than 'Yentl' who itched for additional obligations, and my impression of non-Orthodox and/or 'egalitarian' religious structures is that they fail to generate any interest or motivation beyond the clergy. And those don't count if they equate the womens' roles with watered-down men's roles.
David Aharon on March 28, 2011 at 6:32 am (Reply)
To correct a popular misconception: The Chagall painting is a little off in that the head tefillin should be above the hairline not literally between the eyes as shown by Chagall. If in doubt as to where your tefillin should be, feel free to go to weekday services and ask a learned Jew in synagogue. Also, You can put on Tefilin anytime during the day until sunset.
Novartza on March 28, 2011 at 11:46 am (Reply)
Ben, wrong. Slaves still in bonding had only the obligations of women; freed male slaves had all the 613 obligations, as any other convert to Judaism.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham