August 7, 2008
Week 247, Day 4
6 Av 5768

Nisim B'chol Yom Part Two
Birkhot Hashahar: The Morning Blessings
Mishkan T'filah, p. 198-199
Rabbi Richard Sarason

How did the talmudic occasional blessings for waking, getting up, getting dressed, getting washed, etc., wind up being recited “in a heap” in the synagogue?  The process was in two steps, both of them documented in the earliest post-talmudic prayer manual, Seder Rav Amram Gaon (Babylonia, c. 865).  The rabbinic authorities in early Islamic Babylonia ruled that God’s name must not be pronounced in the morning after waking up before one has washed his hands, face, and feet (think of Moslems washing before entering a mosque for prayer!)—for who knows what those hands have been touching while one was asleep!  So, first one washes, and recites the blessing for hand-washing (al n’tilat yadayim) and for going to the bathroom (asher yatsar), and then one recites all the rest of the blessings as a group.  A later gloss in several manuscripts of Seder Rav Amram notes that the custom of Spanish congregations was for the prayer leader (sh’liach tzibur) to recite all of these blessings out loud in the synagogue, in order to make sure that all of the Jews in the congregation thereby fulfilled their religious obligations (since, in the days before printed prayer books, not everyone knew how to recite these blessings at home on their own—and the Rabbis weren’t sure that they did!).  Although no less an authority than Moses Maimonides objected to this custom—since it violated the original intent and purpose of these benedictions—the custom held and spread to other parts of the Jewish world.

The one short blessing in our prayer books that is not talmudic in origin is “Blessed . . . who gives strength to the weary” [hanotein laya’ef ko’ah].  The language derives from Isaiah 40:29—“[God] gives strength to the weary, fresh vigor to the spent.” The blessing is first found in early Ashkenazic liturgical texts (Mahzor Vitry, France, 11th c.), together with several other benedictions that are no longer recited.  (The Babylonian-style texts in the Cairo Genizah also add other benedictions; the texts that follow the rite of the land of Israel have none of these benedictions at all, since they derive from the Babylonian Talmud!)

Finally, there are the three “identity” blessings that derive from Tosefta B’rachot 6:18 and are discussed in both Talmuds (Babylonian, Menahot 43b-44a, and Palestinian, B’rachot 9:2, 13b). [The Tosefta  (3rd c. CE) is a collection of early rabbinic traditions, some of the same vintage as those in the Mishnah, some elaborating on those in the Mishnah, but all earlier than the Talmuds.  The Talmuds use many of these traditions to discuss the Mishnah.] Since none of these blessings is politically correct, they have all been modified in contemporary liturgies.  T. B’rachot 6:18 reads as follows:

       R. Judah says: A man must recite three benedictions each day:

  1. Blessed . . .Who has not made me a gentile;
  2. Blessed . . .Who has not made me a boor [that is, an ignoramus];
  3. Blessed . . .Who has not made me a woman.
    A gentile—as it is written, All the nations are nothing before him (Isaiah 40:17).
    A boor—because a boor does not fear sin (Avot 2:5).
    A woman—because women are not obligated to perform all the commandments.


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