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?

18 thoughts on “Survey: Morning Blessings (birkat ha-shachar)

  1. Wow! This is a lot to think about. I have tended just to ignore this prayer.. As a newly observant person (not SO new anymore but just a couple of years) I determined long ago that I would always be troubled by some of the liturgy and tradition and that what comes to me from living this life is worth the tough parts. This analysis is very exciting and I plan to take it to my rabbi. I’ll let you know. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  2. Thanks for the compliment and most of all for trying to provide a well thought-over(I doubt there is such a word) answer. I had always found it an interesting question and was glad to read what Telushkin wrote about it.

  3. Loved this post. I say the blessing that appear in regular orthodox sidurim. The explanation that these blessing are based on the assumption that the non-jew, slave and woman don’t have as many mitzvot to fullfill as the jewish man is sufficient for me. Although I do think that the positive way of putting it sounds more beautiful.

  4. I say the positive blessings per Sim Shalom. And yes, as a convert I say “who has made me a Jew”; maybe I wasn’t born that way, but that’s not the final word on the subject. (And if you believe that one’s neshama can be Jewish before the rest follows, then maybe it was always true.)

  5. Ilana Davita,
    This is a fascinating post which I would probably have never noticed as I am new to this blog. I came here because of the link you sent to KCC, which Batya encouraged me to edit this month. First of all, this is a lovely blog. I’m sure eventually I would have gotten around to reading some of it because I see you commenting on other blogs I have been to recently. I don’t know how all these bloggers manage to read so many blogs! (Gil Student notwithstanding JBlogging isn’t a community – it’s a whole WORLD!)

    Anyway, about the brachot. This has bothered me since I learned to read them (over 50 years ago!) and I have gone through various stages in attitude.
    Today, I say she’asani kirtzono. I believe that Hashem intended my creation as me and I am thankful to him. As to the greater women’s issues including the exemption from time bound mitzvot I have been concentrating on doing what I can and still remaining in what is known as the Orthodox fold.
    As to the childbirth issue. That is a new one for me. It is a serious consideration. Although childbirth is an amazing experience it is also painful and dangerous. I can understand a man’s fear and aversion to it. On the other hand there is nothing more exciting than giving life.

  6. It’s good I read your comments, so I can find Risa’s comment and this post!
    I don’t have a problem with “according to his will”.
    The bit about being thankful for not being a woman, that has always nagged at me a bit. I like being a woman and sharing with other women. Maybe the men should say they are glad they don’t have to do childbirth (or the multitude of specific women’s health problems).

    I always learned it as men being thankful that they have more mitzvot.

    But I also don’t care for changing the text so much. So I’ll stick with saying it as it is and having it nag at me a bit. Just a bit.

  7. The prayer was written very long ago. It’s entirely possible that the view of women in society, when the prayer was written, was very low, and men were glad they were not one. We should not deny this.

    However, though an orthodox jew might feel bound to say the prayer, he could be glad he is not a woman for whatever reason he pleases. Maybe, for example, he could be glad he is not a woman because he would then feel trapped in the wrong body.

    Even if you were to take the most fundamental approach to the Torah, it should be noted that Eve was created because Adam could not feel complete without her, and so, from this we are to conclude that women are no less important than men. Ask yourselves, what is more important? A heart or a brain? A brain cannot live without a heart to pump blood to it, and a heart exists for no reason without a brain.

  8. I find the Conservative’s utilization of “halufei girsa’ot” (different textual versions) rather interesting. Truthfully, I admire this. The vilna Gaon was quite pedantic on using proper texts, as was the entire Rabbinical world prior to the invention of the printing press. Of course, just because a text is an alternate one doesn’t mean it is the correct one, but as far as I can tell (I am far from a textual expert!), there is nothing objectionable in Conservative’s using the positive version “who has made me a Jew” as opposed to the negative. Of course, both mean the same thing, so let no one argue that one is ethically or morally superior to the other! I am quite perturbed when people substitute expressions of Jewish chosenness with some other expression of G-d’s having made the Jewish people His segula; not only does this appear to confirm the aspersions of the antisemites, who claim that chosenness is supposedly racist, but it looks (frankly) idiotic, when one tries to avoid ostensible moral issues by using a text which means the exact same thing, only in slightly different words! So if Conservative prefers the alternate reading, I have no objection, UNLESS it is because Conservative believes the positive is less offensive than the negative, in which case I DO object. For this reason, I highly object to the Reconstructionist alterations to Ahava Rabbah (Orthodox version: haboher b’amo yisrael b’ahavah – Who chooses His people Israel with love) and Aleinu L’shabeah (she’lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot v’lo samanu k’mishpahot ha’adamu – Who has not made us like the nations of the lands and Who has not (em)placed us like the families of the earth); I forget how the Reconstructionists altered them, but it is well known that Mordechai Kaplan was not well-disposed towards Jewish chosenness.

    The same goes for positive and negative formulations of being a slave.

    As for women:

    I respect and revere Rabbi Telushkin greatly, but I find his explanation unconvincing. To explain it as referring to childbirth leaves me incredibly unmoved. We have two tacks left, depending on how one has read the previous two blessings:

    1) If we view slaves and non-Jews as despicable and unworthy of our consideration, then so too women will be viewed as such. Slaves are certainly not the most respected of figures, and due to our many sins, there is no desideratum of anti-gentile passages to be found in Jewish literature; the Maharal and Tanya and much Eastern-European literature will afford us no lack of sources. As for women, it does not take an expert to know that from antiquity even until today, women were far from the most well-treated members of society.

    (Tangent, responding to hotep: Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits makes a fascinating analysis in Crisis and Faith (adumbrating what he writes in Women in Time in Torah): we find many aphorisms of Hazal that are incredibly well disposed towards women: a man is nothing without a wife, a man should love and respect his wife more than himself, a man should bend down to hear her advice, women have more insight and compassion than men, etc. All the same, we find many aphorisms against women: they are gluttonous and jealous and lecherous and overly talkative, words of Torah should never be entrusted to them, etc. There are also halachot that are far from fair towards them: Rambam says that a wife’s duty is to wash her husband’s face for him, and that she may leave her home once or twice a month, for she is not a homebound slave. But Rabbi Berkovits points out: notice she is not mandated to wash her husbands’ relatives’ or friends’ faces! Notice she does have some limited freedom! Do not see these laws as unfavorable towards women, but rather, see them as nevertheless ahead of where the rest of the world was with women! The key, says Rabbi Berkovits, is that the Torah, being “in the language of men” (it must be given with the mental, intellectual, psychological, moral, and cultural conditions of its recipients in mind), sometimes must suffer its own laws to be behind its own moral ethos. In every generation, we must strive to bring the law ahead, to unfold it, in order that the Torah’s laws come to be in accord with its own ethos. Do not misunderstand Rabbi Berkovits: he says explicitly that this is NOT because we are modern or because of Enlightenment values, but because we are Jews – our goal is NOT to resolve the contradiction between Torah and foreign non-Jewish culture, but rather, to resolve the conflict between the Torah’s laws and its own internal ethos. David Hazony, reviewing Rabbi Berkovits (“Eliezer Berkovits and the Revival of Jewish Moral Thought”, here: http://www.azure.org.il/article.php?id=271) highlights this fact, and cites it as a contrast to many Conservative thinkers.)

    2) But in our case, this is surely the wrong tack. We thank G-d for not being slaves and gentiles, not for any parochial or xenophobic dislike, but rather, because they have fewer mitzvot. So too with thanking Him for not being a women; not because women are inferior (at least, in this case), but rather, because they have fewer mitzvot.רבי חנניא בן עקשיה אומר: רצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לזכות את ישראל; לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוות, שנאמר: השם חפץ למען צדקו יגדיל תורה ואדיר Rabbi Hananyah ben Akashia said: G-d wanted to give merit to Israel, and therefore He proliferated for them Torah and mitzvot, as it says, “G-d desired, for the sake of its [Israel’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious”. We can argue why women have fewer mitzvot, but the bare fact is indisputable.

    Monica: Who says a Jew has any different a soul than a gentile? 😉 I can elaborate later.

  9. A funny story of how alternative textual readings are not always correct, as related by my rabbi:

    A certain text was found in the Cairo Genizah, which explained the laws of ritual impurity COMPLETELY differently than ALL the other authorities, both Geonic and Rishonic.

    An Orthodox Talmudic scholar seized this, and declared that this new understanding was revolutionary and surely the correct one. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik was perturbed, and disputed him, but the scholar held his ground.

    Rabbi Soloveitchik changed subjects: “You know that other Talmudic scholar, so-and-so?” The scholar replied, “Yes, and he’s such an idiot! I can’t believe they print his books!” Rabbi Soloveitchik inquired, “But they do print his books, right?”, and the scholar replied, “Yes, and I cannot believe!”.

    Rabbi Soloveitchik gave a deadpan look and asked, “Nu? And our genizah text is another idiot whose book got printed!”

  10. Let me add onto Rabbi Berkovits’s theory, just to flesh it out and make it not appear so extreme from an Orthodox perspective (but let there be no mistake, it is undoubtedly VERY extreme):

    We have a principle that the Torah is “in the language of men”, and that prophesy must be given in such a way as its recipients can understand it. (Rav Kook used this to explain why Assyriology can show so many similarities between the Torah and Semitic/Near-Eastern legal codes and literature styles.) I have already explained Rav Berkovits’s utilization of this.

    But we have another principle as well: certain Torah laws are naught but concessions to human nature. Hazal already said this of the permission to take a woman captive in war; Rambam says this of the Temple sacrifices; Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel/Samuel David Luzzatto – 19th century Italy) says this of the permission for the blood avenger to kill the accidental manslaughter until he arrives at the city of refuge: had the Torah forbade this, we would have ignored the law, in favor of Arab-style blood revenge; instead, the Torah limited but permitted all the same, so as to wean us off. As Nehama Leibowitz points out, the Torah speaks of the manslaughter *fleeing* to the city, whereas the Talmud speaks of *exile* to the city – the Torah’s intent to wean us worked!

    So Rabbi Berkovits argues that the Torah’s laws against women are time-bound concessions to human nature. This doesn’t mean that the laws no longer apply, but it does give us license to use our legal creativity to circumvent them, provided those legal applications are legitimate ones and not disingenuous or inauthentic. He notes, for example, that the Talmud found a way to permit Devorah to be a Judge and for women to be witnesses in cases of agunot, even though women normally cannot be either judges or witnesses; Rabbi Berkovits calls for us to find similar justifications today. It is worth noting that the Orthodox world has already easily found ways to permit women to learn Talmud, despite the fact that all the halachic codes forbid such study.

    (And we know Sefer haHinuch says that one’s thoughts follow his deeds. And thus, it is no surprise that after grudgingly permitting women to study Talmud, in order that they withstand the temptations of heterodoxy, we find stories such as the following:

    A student comes to Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Rav Kook, and father of the “settler” movement in Israel. The student complains that his fiance is a baalat teshuva, but Hazal tell us to marry the daughter of a Torah scholar. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda asks, “Where does she learn?”, and the student replies with the name of her seminary. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda exclaims, “Even better than being the daughter of a Torah scholar, she IS a Torah scholar herself!”

    Is it not clear that by permitting women, even grudgingly, to learn Talmud, we have become accustomed, and now view it as nothing exceptional, if not positively praiseworthy?)

  11. Speaking of rabbis putting novel interpretations into their novels:

    Rabbi Marc D. Angel, in his novel “The Search Committee”, about a university-educated Sefaradi rabbi with a convert-wife against a Haredi Litvak (Lithuanian) rabbi, and all that that entails (culturally and theologically), embeds a novel interpretation on Pirkei Avot:

    In Pirkei Avot 6:9 has a man ask Rabbi Yossei ben Kisma to be his community’s rabbi, in return for a generous wage. The rabbi replies that he’ll live only in a town of Torah, period, and rejects the offer.

    Rabbi Angel, via his novel’s protagonist, takes offense at this. He says that while living in a place of Torah is a value, it is also a value to spread Torah to those places which are Torah-less! If everyone behaved as Rabbi Yossei ben Kisma…!!! Moreover, the next mishna speaks of G-d having five special possessions: one is Torah, but there is also Israel (His kingdom of priests, whose mission it is to spread Torah), heaven and earth (Torah must be spread throughout the world), Abraham (who, as we know, was a missionary, who “made souls”), and the Temple (which will be a house of prayer for all peoples). So yes, Torah is indeed a special possession warranting our living exclusively in a place of Torah, but the other four possessions demand a more universalist outward-looking stance.

    As an aside, I saw another interpretation, I believe from Rabbi Telushkin, but don’t hold me to it: according to this interpretation, Rabbi Yossei ben Kisma did NOT refuse to be their community rabbi. Rather, he said that he refused to do it for the sake of the wife – by saying that he’d live only in a place of Torah, he meant that he’d either (a) live in a place that already has Torah, or (b) move to a place without Torah, for the sake of bringing Torah there. But to move there for a wage – this he would not due. So he accepted the offer, but clarified why he was accepting it – for the rabbinic position, not the money.

    Another interpretation I saw, I believe from Bunim’s Ethics from Sinai, but again, don’t hold me to it: Rabbi Yossei ben Kisma rejected the post because he felt the community only wanted a figurehead rabbi; pay him enough, put him on a pedestal, and everyone can assuage their Jewish guilt and point to the rabbi who vicariously keeps Torah for them. Thus, the high wage. This, Rabbi Yossei rejected. But had they offered him a real rabbinic post that the community would truly honor, of course the rabbi would have accepted!

    So all three commentaries agree that one should not use living in a place of Torah as an excuse to avoid spreading Torah to places without Torah as of yet. Either
    a) Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma is wrong, period
    b) He actually accepted the post, but clarified that it was for the sake of Torah, not a wage
    c) He rejected the post because he would have been a mere figurehead, but had it been an authentic offer of a real true rabbinic post…

    But I think it is obvious that Rabbi Angel’s, i.e. (a) is the most daring – rather than trying to reinterpret the Tanna of the mishnah, he simply declares him wrong!

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