Survey: Morning Blessings (birkat ha-shachar)

Traditional Jews believe that they are obligated to pray three times a day – morning, afternoon and evening.  The morning blessings are recited (some privately upon awakening, and some publicly in the Shacharit service) to express our gratitude to G-d for enabling us to start a new day, refreshed and reinvigorated. 

Originally recited by individuals in their home as they awoke, washed, and dressed for the day, these blessings, such as thanking God for giving sight to the blind (once recited before one opened his or her eyes in the morning), raising the downtrodden (recited before standing up from bed), and clothing the naked (recited before getting dressed), were transferred to the synagogue and included in the siddur. This section also included blessings after using the bathroom, a prayer thanking God for the creation of our souls, and selections of biblical and rabbinic texts to fulfill the daily mandatory requirement to study Torah every day. (myjewishlearning)

People disagree about the original, hence the correct, order of the 18 blessings, called birkat ha-shachar and which, with time, have become part of the communal morning service. 

In addition, Orthodox and Conservative Jews disagree on 3 of these blessings.

This is what Orthodox Jews say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has not made me a heathen.

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has not made me a slave.

Then men say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has not made me a woman.

Whereas women say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has made me according to his will. 

(Translation found in The Authorized Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth)

Now here is what Conservative Jews say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who made me in his image.

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who made a Jew.

Then both men and women say: 

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who made free. 

(Sim Shalom translation)

Apparently the original text was not fixed for some time and the Rabbinical Assembly gives the following interpretation for their wording.

The blessing “who created me a Jew” is the original version, it appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 43b). There R. Meir states that a Jew must say 3 blessings: “who created me a Jew”, “who did not create me a woman” and “who did not create me an ignorant”, R. Aha bar Yaakov replaced “ignorant” with “slave”. The blessing “who created me a Jew” was transformed into the negative form that we know: “who did not create me a goy” and the three negative blessings entered most sidurim. The positive “who created me a Jew” was maintained through the present time in the Italian rite and has existed in some Ashkenazi customs from the Middle Ages. The Vilna Gaon in the 18th century also supported the positive version. In the 20th century, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement proposed to change the two other blessing in “who created me a free person” and “who created me in His image”. 

The reason usually put forward for a male’s thanking G-d for not having been created a woman is that he is glad he has more mitzvot to fulfil than he would had he been created a woman. An explanation which frustrates me somewhat.

However in one of his novels, The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl, Rabbi Telushkin has his main character, himself a rabbi too, provide the reader with another explanation and a personal innovation:

“I don’t make that blessing … It was written at a time when a high percentage of women died giving birth … Today very few women die in childbirth, and without that association all we’re left with is a blessing that makes men feel superior and women feel bad.” 

First I prefer this explanation; I believe I find it less condescending. Besides I admire the rabbi’s stance and also Telushkin for putting it in his novel, all the more so as Rabbi Winter often seems to be Telushkin’s spokesman. This is what the rabbi adds:

“… there are very old Jewish sources containing alternate versions of the blessing we will say. Fifteen hundred years ago already there were rabbis who were troubled by the negative phrasing of that blessing. So they reformulated it in a positive form, thanking G-d that we are free-born Jews.”

Now the survey:

– if you are a woman, what do you say?

– if you are a man, what do you think women ought to say?

Hélène Berr, the Computer Age

I am currently reading Hélène Berr’s diary. Hélène Berr was a young French student, she was reading English, when the war started. In 1942, she began writing her own diary. It deals mainly with her daily life in occupied Paris, the friends she met, the lectures she attended, the relationship with her relatives. Obviously she also chronicles her life as a French Jew. For instance, she relates her first reaction when she heard about the yellow star the Jews were obliged to wear on their clothes. She then evokes people’s reactions when she wore the star: the compassionate ones as well as the not so well-intentioned.

The book falls into two parts. Thus, after some months, Hélène gave up her diary before going back to it. This time, things were different. Her fiancé, Jean, had left Paris to fight with the Resistance and now she was writing to him rather than to herself. She had decided that in case she was arrested the family cook was to give Jean the diary. From then on, her writing seems more mature and reflective.

Unfortunately this is precisely what happened to Hélène. She was arrested with her parents, deported and the three of them died in concentration camp. The diary was then turned over to the fiancé who only returned it to Hélène’s family a few years ago. At that point, one of her nieces decided to have it published; that’s why it has only just been released.

You can find more thorough reviews in The Gardian or The New York Times.

As a French Jew I have obviously many reasons to be interested in this diary and to find it compelling. Yet I also find it difficult to deal with my emotions while reading it. Furthermore, since it is a diary, and not a work of fiction, you get an insight into a young person’s mind which is fascinating.

However I am also a teacher and as such admire Hélène’s writing style, its fluency, her choice of words and her maturity. My students are barely younger than her and reading this book has lead me to wonder about their capacity to write. I sometimes come across their blogs and am appalled by their spelling mistakes, the paucity of their vocabulary, their lack of reflection and so many other flaws I could go on and on.

We tend to marvel at the computer age and the numerous new opportunities it provides. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling that something is being lost at the same time. Teenagers spend so much time on the net with their peers, mostly chatting through msn, that I fear they are also missing out. They no longer know what it means to be bored, to talk to adults, to read books, to walk to school in silence while being confronted with their inner thoughts. In the end I am afraid very few have Hélène’s accute capacity to reflect on their life and feelings.

Blogging from my Desktop, at long last

For some reason I much prefer to blog from my desktop than online. You can start a post, save what you have written, shut your computer down and then get back to your post whenever you feel like it.When I was on the LiveJournal platform I had a small app from which I could do all this. When I switched to WordPress, I tried to find a similar one but couldn’t find one I liked and I finally forgot all about it.Then tonight, as I was looking for information about the ipode touch – trying to decide if I needed one or not – I came across “MarsEdit” a multifeatured weblog editor for Mac which enables you to post on a number of platforms, WordPress included. I’ve just downloaded it and it seems rather easy to use, so far…

The Band’s Visit

10m.jpgBikur Ha-Tizmoret


This film was released in France three weeks ago and I think it has already been released in the UK and the US. I was lucky to see it in October at a preview during a film festival.

The plot is simpe: A brass band comprised of members of the Egyptian police force head to Israel to play at the inaugural ceremony of an Arab arts center, only to find themselves lost in a foreign town in the middle of nowhere. To quell grumblings already afoot among members, conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) hesitantly accepts a suggestion from cafe manager Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) to stay the night.

The film avoids mulling over the Middle-East conflict while showing that contacts, even if akward, are possible between the band members and the towndwellers.

I enjoy Israeli films and have seen as many of them as the programming of my local cinema theatre allows. Thus in the past few years I have seen Avanim, Late Marriage, Or, Walk on Water, The Bubble, and a few others. Yet my favourite remains Broken Wings.