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Responsa in a Moment Volume 1, Number 6, February 2007
Question: There is a custom today to add the Imahot to the first blessing of the Amidah. Is it permissible to do so according to Jewish law?
Responsum: Before we reply, let us present two of the versions of the Imahot currently in use:
a) Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, New York, 1998, p. 3b:
Barukh attah hashem eloheinu velohei avoteinu,
Elohei Avraham elohei Yitzhak velohei Ya’akov,
Elohei Sarah elohei Rivkah elohei Rachel velohei Leah,
Melekh ozer upoked umoshee’a umagen
Barukh atah hashem magen Avraham upoked Sarah.
b) Siddur Va’ani Tefilati, Jerusalem, 1998, p. 68:
Barukh attah hashem eloheinu velohei avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Elohei Avraham elohei Yitzhak velohei Ya’akov,
Elohei Sarah elohei Rivkah elohei Rachel velohei Leah,
V’zokheir hasdei avot v”imahot
Umeivee ge’ulah l’amo yisrael l’ma’an shemo b’ahavah.
Melekh ozer umoshee’a umagen
Barukh attah hashem magen Avraham v’Sarah.
One of the slogans of the Conservative movement is “Tradition and Change”.(2) There is no doubt that some Conservative Jews feel that there is something missing in the Avot blessing (the first blessing of the Amidah) and want to change it by adding mention of the Imahot. This is legitimate, for many changes in Judaism have resulted from the way that people feel.
However, in order to actually change the Amidah, which is the central prayer of the prayer book and of the Jewish people, it is not enough to want to change the wording but it is essential to prove that this is permissible from a halakhic point of view and appropriate from a liturgical and theological point of view. The applicable principle is “hamotzi meihavero alav har’ayah” – “one who demands something from another bears the burden of proof”. Authentic liturgical and halakhic changes are made on the basis of halakhic sources and historical precedents. Indeed, we have proven elsewhere that it is permissible for women to be counted in the minyan, serve as shelihot tzibbur, receive aliyot, decide halakhic issues, put on tefillin, and more – all on the basis of halakhic sources and historical precedents.(3) A change made on the basis of desire alone is not an authentic halakhic change that is based on tradition and which develops that tradition.
The proponents of this change make three central claims with which we would like to respectfully disagree:
1) They claim that some versions of some blessings of the Amidah from the post-talmudic era differ from our version which was accepted at the conclusion of the Geonic period (ca. 1000 c.e.). This is true, but it is not really relevant to our subject. Our question is not “Is it permissible to change a word or an expression in the Amidah?” but rather “Is it permissible to change the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing?”
2) They further assert that the Rabbinical Assembly has already changed certain expressions in the Siddur such as the omission of the words “v’ishei yisrael” (“and the fire offerings of Israel”) in the Amidah; the change of “we will make and offer [sacrifices]” to “they made and offered [sacrifices]” in the Mussaf Amidah; and the change of the early morning blessings referring to Gentiles, slaves, and women from the negative to the positive. Therefore, it is permissible to change the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing. However, as I have written elsewhere, “the question is not whether we may change the siddur, but whether specific changes are permissible, necessary or desirable”.(5) Indeed, it is permissible to change “we will make and offer [sacrifices]” and the early morning blessings on the basis of halakhic and liturgical precedents, as we shall see below. But such changes do not teach us anything about changing the Avot blessing which must be examined on its own merits.
3) There remains, therefore, only the third claim of the proponents – the halakhic claim. They argue that the proposed change is permitted by Maimonides. This claim will be examined in the next section.
The proponents rely on Maimonides (Laws Concerning Blessings 1:6): “And if one altered the wording [of any blessing], as long as he mentioned God’s name and sovereignty and the theme of the blessing, even if not in Hebrew, he has fulfilled his obligation (yatza)”. Indeed, the proponents admit that in the previous law (1:5), Maimonides ruled that “the wording of all the blessings, Ezra and his court enacted them, and it is not appropriate to change them nor to add to one of them nor to detract from one of them, and anyone who changes the wording coined by the Sages in the blessings is simply erring”. Moreover, the proponents acknowledge that in the “Laws Concerning the Shema” (1:7) Maimonides expresses an even more adamant position against changes in the wording: “The basic principle is: anyone who changes the wording coined by the Sages in the blessings is mistaken and he must go back and bless [the blessing] as coined”.
However, the leniency quoted from the “Laws Concerning Blessings” 1:6 proves nothing with regard to our topic. It is clear from the language used by Rabbi Meir and Rav in the Talmud (Berakhot 40b), by Rav Hai Gaon (Otzar Hageonim to Berakhot, Peirushim, p. 56), by Maimonides himself, and by the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 167:10 and 187:1) that one who changes the wording fulfills his obligation (yatza) only after the fact.(6) But those who wish to add the Imahot to the Amidah wish to do so three times daily ab initio (before the fact), not after the fact, and there is no doubt that Maimonides would have strenuously objected to such a practice.
Furthermore, the proponents did not cite Maimonides’ “Laws Concerning Prayer” 1:9: “And the three initial [blessings of the Amidah] and the three concluding [blessings of the Amidah], one may not add to them nor detract from them, nor make any change in them at all”.
Many important commentators have already discussed the internal contradiction between Maimonides’ “Laws Concerning Blessings” 1:6 and 1:5 quoted above.(7) The Vilna Gaon was of the opinion that Maimonides actually changed his mind (Beiur Hagra to Orah Hayyim 68:1).
Rabbi Joseph Caro, on the other hand (Kesef Mishneh to Maimonides ad loc.), says that there is no contradiction between 1:5 and 1:6. In 1:6 which says that one has fulfilled his obligation after the fact “he says the wording of the blessing enacted by the Sages, but he adds or subtracts something, or he uses a paraphrase of their wording… [In such a case], there is no error, but it is not appropriate to do it”.
In 1:5 where Maimonides rules that he “is simply erring”, he is changing the intent of the blessing, as for example, saying “blessed be the the Place [God] who created this” instead of Hamotzi (“Who brings forth bread from the earth”), and similar cases, “and since he errs, he has not fulfilled his obligation”.
In the “Laws Concerning the Shema” (he “is mistaken and he must go back and bless [the blessing] as coined”) Maimonides is dealing with one who ended with Barukh, or began in a place where the Sages enacted not to end or not to begin and the like. But in the “Laws Concerning Blessings” (1:6) we are dealing with a case of a change in the blessing in which “he did not use the exact language, but still said the theme of the blessing in different words, and did not change the beginning or the ending”.
The proponents claim that the inclusion of the Imahot in the Avot blessing “does not change the theme of the blessing”. We shall argue below that it does change the theme of the blessing. But even if one were to argue that it does not, this would only prove that it is permitted to change the wording after the fact and not ab initio.
In summary, the proponents have not quoted a single halakhic authority or a single liturgical precedent which proves that it is permissible to change the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing. Moreover, the proposed changes in the beginning and ending of the Avot blessing constitute “a change in the theme” since it attempts to change and rewrite biblical theology.
The proposed change in the conclusion of the Avot blessing is unprecedented in the last 2,000 years since the time of the composition of the Amidah.
1) In general, the conclusions of the blessings of the Amidah have not changed in 2,000 years, aside from a few exceptions made in the Talmudic period.(8)
2) The conclusion of the Avot blessing has never changed in any prayer rite in 2,000 years. The formula Magen Avraham appears in the prayer rites of all Jewish communities and in all manuscripts and Genizah fragments examined thus far.(9)
3) The formula Magen Avraham is based on the verse “Do not fear Avram, I am a magen (shield) for you; your reward is very great”(Genesis 15:1).
4) The Amora Resh Lakish who lived in Eretz Yisrael in the middle of the third century already knew and expounded on the traditional beginning and end of this blessing (Pesahim 117b).
5) The wording “magen Avraham upoked Sarah” found in Siddur Sim Shalom is quite surprising, as Rabbi Harlow has already emphasized (p. 23). The word “poked” appears in the Bible ten times and in every case it means “visits the sins” or “visits the guilt” as in the verses “who visits the sins of the parents on the children” (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9). (10)
The proposed change in the beginning of the blessing is also without precedent in the last 2,000 years, Moreover, the proposed change contradicts Biblical theology as well as biblical Hebrew which is the basis of the most of the phrases in Avot and it also attempts to rewrite biblical history.
1) The first blessing of the Amidah is called Avot in five different places in rabbinic literature (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5; Yerushalmi Berakhot, Chapter 4, fol. 8c = Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 4, fol. 59d; Rosh Hashanah 32a; Megillah 17b). Indeed, the name of this blessing reflects the content and purpose of this blessing, as we shall presently see.
2) The first sentence of Avot is not simply biblical Hebrew; it is a biblical verse (Exodus 3:15) “Our Lord, the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (and cf. Exodus 3:6, 16 for similar phrases). Indeed, the Mekhilta, the tannaitic midrash to Exodus, emphasizes this fact (D’pisha, Parashah 16, ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 60):
And what is the source for saying [in the Amidah] “Blessed are You our Lord, our God and God of our forefathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob”? As it is written: “And God further said to Moses: Thus say to the Children of Israel: Our Lord, the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:15).
3) This opening verse of the Amidah reflects a fundamental belief of the entire Bible – that God made a covenant with the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18 and with Isaac in Genesis 26:3-4. God then said to Jacob in his dream at Bet El (Genesis 28:13-14): “I am the Lord, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac, the land upon which you are lying, I shall give it to you and your descendants”. And so we declare every morning in the Hodu prayer taken from I Chronicles 16:16-17: “Who made a covenant with Abraham and an oath with Isaac, and He established it for Jacob as a statute, for Israel as an eternal covenant”. The Sages who wrote the Amidah innovated nothing here. They chose the opening for Avot from Exodus 3:15 and the conclusion from Genesis 15:1 in order to declare the founding fathers of our nation and their covenant with God at the beginning of The Prayer par excellence.
4) On the other hand, the phrase “God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah” is not biblical Hebrew because God did not make a covenant with the Matriarchs. Indeed, the expression “Imahot”, which appears 76 times in rabbinic literature and the expression “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” which appears 15 times in rabbinic literature (mostly in late midrashim) do not appear in the Bible at all. (11) There are those who say that we ought to include the Imahot in the Amidah in the wake of the Sages who created the concept of the Matriarchs but who were unable to include them because of their patriarchal ideology.(12) However, there is a simpler explanation. The Sages did not include the Matriarchs – a concept which they themselves had created – because Avot deals with the plain meaning of the biblical text and they did not want to rewrite history.
5) Indeed, it is surprising that Conservative Jews, who belong to “the Historical School” as Professors Schechter and Ginzberg called it, are interested in this case in rewriting history. To what can this be compared? To rewriting the Gettysburg Address to read:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers [and mothers] brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men [and women] are created equal. (13)
The United States was founded by men and Lincoln meant the fathers of the nation and not the mothers. Anyone who would add the bracketed phrases to his speech would be distorting history and distorting Lincoln’s own intent. And if this is true of a text written in 1863, how much the more-so is it true of the Amidah written by our Sages 2,000 years ago and reflecting the theology of the Torah written over 3,000 years ago.
6) If we add Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to Avot, why not add “Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David” as we do in the Ushpizin in the Sukkah, or “Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon” as we do in the Mee Sheberakh for the sick? Because these fathers were not the founding fathers of our nation. And if we add Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, why not add Bilha and Zilpa, for there are midrashim which state that there were six Matriarchs! (14) The answer is simple: Avot does not deal with midrash but rather with the plain meaning of the biblical text according to which their were three and only three founding fathers of the Jewish people.
7) Finally, the proponents also relied on an egalitarian Mee Sheberakh as a precedent. Rabbi Harlow has already responded (p. 24) that the Mee Sheberakh is a late custom with no fixed text, (15) and this does not prove that one may change the text of the Amidah. I would add that traditionally Mee Sheberakh prayers are also not egalitarian – some use the father’s name and some use the mother’s name. (16)
In our opinion, it is permissible to change the formulation of the statutory prayers for two reasons, and only if one also has halakhic sources and liturgical precedents to support such a change:
1) In order not to recite something which is patently false: This idea is already found in a well-known Aggadah (Yoma 69b and parallels). Indeed, this is why Conservative prayer books beginning in 1927 changed the wording of Mussaf. They began to say “they made and offered (sacrifices) “in place of “we shall make and offer (sacrifices”), since they did not wish to ask for something contrary to their worldview. Indeed, from a halakhic point of view, this is also permissible, since the halakhic requirement regarding Mussaf is that it should include something new which was not already said in Shaharit (Yerushalmi Berakhot Chapter 4, fol. 8c), and this requirement is also met by the Conservative formulation of Mussaf. (17) Similarly, Professor Ephraim Elimelekh Urbach and Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi changed the wording of Nahem for Tisha B’av after the Six Day War in order to avoid saying something patently false about “the city [of Jerusalem] that is ruined despised and desolate”. (18)
2) In order not to actively offend: this was the motivation of Rabbi Morris Silverman in 1946 to change the blessings which thank God “who has not made me a Gentile, a slave and a woman” to thanking God for making us “Israelites, free and in God’s image”. This change was done on the basis of halakhic authorities who were lenient in the matter, and on the basis of changes made in these blessings in the past. (19)
Champions of the Imahot wish to convert the language of our tradition into egalitarian language. But this type of language impoverishes our tradition. According to this logic, we will have to change the “Sabbath Queen” found in Shabbat 119a and elsewhere to the “Sabbath King”; “Come O Bride, Come O Bride” found in Lekha Dodi and also based on Shabbat 119a to “Come O Groom, Come O Groom”; “Hattan Torah” to “Kallat Torah” on Simhat Torah; (20) “Avinu Malkeinu” found in Ta’anit 25b to “Imeinu Malkateinu” (21); and the Mee Sheberakh for the sick to the son of the father instead of the mother.(22) Such changes water down the tradition and make everything in Judaism homogenous and parve. On the contrary, there are expressions in the masculine and expressions in the feminine and this diversity enriches the Jewish tradition.
Rabbis Debra Reed Blank and Harlan Wechsler – both of whom oppose this proposed change – have already explained that there is an enormous difference between liturgy and prayer. Liturgy is a more or less uniform text that expresses the classical ideas of the nation/religion. It is intended to connect us to the past rather than to be relevant and up-to-date. Prayer, on the other hand, is the personal expression of the worshipper which is supposed to change and the Sages set down fixed places for such prayers: in the middle of the Shome’a Tefillah blessing, just prior to the conclusion of each of the middle blessings of the Amidah, at the end of the Amidah, and in Tahanun. (23)
Therefore, most of the important national events of the last 2,000 years were not added to the daily Amidah. There is no hint in the Amidah of the Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49, and the Shoah. These things found their way into other parts of the liturgy, but not into the Amidah that is recited three times a day. The Crusades are recalled in Av Harahamim and in piyyutim, other tragedies were memorialized in their own piyyutim, the Babylonian Yeshivot were immortalized in Yekum Purkan, and the State of Israel in the Prayer for the State and in the Mee Sheberakh for IDF soldiers. Could one claim that these are not central events in our people’s history? They are not found in the daily Amidah because the Amidah is liturgy that expresses biblical and rabbinic theology and not prayer that expresses the personal needs of every individual worshipper.
I have been impressed by the sincere desire to include the Imahot in the Amidah and to make the Amidah more relevant. The problem is not the goal but rather the method. The method of changing the beginning and ending of the Avot is contrary to halakhah, contrary to our liturgy and contrary to classical theology as explained above, and stems from the fact that the idea apparently originated with Jews who are not well-versed in Jewish law and in Hebrew. (24)
But there is an authentic way to insert changes and innovations into the Amidah and that is through the use of piyyutim. From the talmudic peorid onward, liturgical poets continually composed piyyutim in which they expounded the weekly portion and even related to contemporary events. (25) This approach was especially popular in the Land of Israel until the end of the Geonic period. The authentic and traditional way to add the Imahot to the Amidah is to compose a short piyyut or several short piyyutim which will be recited in the middle of Avot or in the middle of other blessings of the Amidah. (26) In this way, the Imahot can be added without changing the ancient wording of the Amidah itself.
Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, has composed such a piyyut and it is found in an Appendix to this teshuvah.(27) I hope that such piyyutim will be adopted by synagogues who wish to incorporate the Imahot into the Amidah in a halakhic and authentic fashion.
Rosh Hodesh Adar 5767
Allen – Rabbi Wayne Allen, Update 4 (1993), pp. 6-10
Blank – Rabbi Debra Reed Blank, Conservative Judaism 47/2 (Winter 1995), pp. 53-63
Cooper – Rabbi Levi Cooper, Jerusalem Post Up Front Magazine, April 7, 2006, p. 33
Freedman – Samuel Freedman, Jew vs. Jew, New York, 2000, Chapter 3
Goldberg – Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Tradition 38/2 (Summer 2004), pp. 86-103
Golinkin – Rabbi David Golinkin, Conservative Judaism 41/1 (Fall 1988), pp. 38-55
Golinkin, Rosh Hashanah – David Golinkin, Perek Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah etc., (Hebrew), Ph.D. dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1988
Halevi – Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Aseh Lekha Rav, Part 8, pp. 31-33
Harlow – Rabbi Jules Harlow, Conservative Judaism 49/2 (Winter 1997), pp. 3-25
Kaunfer – Rabbi Alvin Kaunfer, Judaism 44/1 (Winter 1995), pp. 94-103
Marx – Rabbi Dalia Marx, Kescher 3/4 (Winter 2005-2006), p. 19
Ramon, 2001 – Rabbi Einat Ramon, “Regarding Mentioning the Imahot in the Avot Blessing of the Amidah” (Hebrew), unpublished, 8 Tevet 5761, 6 pp.
Ramon, 2005 – Rabbi Einat Ramon, Nashim 10(2005), pp. 154-177
Rembaum – Rabbi Joel Rembaum in: Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1986-1990, New York, 2001, pp. 485-490 = David Fine, ed., Responsa 1980-1990, The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement, New York, 2005, pp. 43-48
Ross – Tamar Ross in: Nahem Ilan, ed., Ein Tova, 1999, pp. 264-277
Wechsler – Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, Conservative Judaism 50/1 (Fall 1997), pp. 80-81
A Piyyut about the Imahot
for Inclusion in the Avot Blessing
by Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon
to be inserted after the words “l’ma’an shemo b’ahavah”:
Navo’ah oholei Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah.
Utehi gemilut hasdeihen lefaneinu b’khol eit u’v’khol sha’ah.
Let us enter the tents of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. May their acts of loving-kindness be an example to us at all times.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.