She-lo Asani Isha – Gemara and Rishonim

This is an introduction to Rav Wolbe’s commentary on the berach of she-lo asani isha.  This beracha has caused a great deal of discomfort among both women and men.  In this shiur we analyzed the text as it appears in the Tosefta, Bavli, Yerushalmi and Otzar ha-Midrashim.  In its original context the beracha seems to be about the elevated obligation of men in mitzvot as opposed to women. However, once we move to the Tur the language becomes difficult;

טור אורח חיים סימן מו

ויש עוד ג’ ברכות שצריך לברך בא”י אמ”ה שלא עשאני עו”ג שצריך ליתן שבח והודאה למקום שבחר בנו מכל העו”ג וקרבנו לעבודתו בא”י אמ”ה שלא עשאני עבד אע”פ שמברך שלא עשאני אשה שגם היא אינה חייבת במצות עשה שהזמן גרמא צריך לברך שלא עשאני עבד שהוא גרוע טפי בא”י אמ”ה שלא עשאני אשה שאינה חייבת במצות עשה שהזמן גרמא ונהגו הנשים לברך שעשאני כרצונו ואפשר שנוהגים כן שהוא כמי שמצדיק עליו הדין על הרעה

Tur, Orach Chayyim 46

And there are three more blessings that must be recited:  1. Blessed…that you have made me an idolater, for you have to give thanks and praise to the omnipresent one that He chose us from among all the nations, and brought us close to His worship.  2. Blessed…that you have not made me a slave.  Even though he will bless for not being made a woman and she is also not obligated in positive time bound commandments, a slave is more lowly.  3. Blessed…that you have not made me a woman, for she is not obligated in positive time bound commandments.  And the custom of the women is to recite “That You have made me according to Your will.”  And it could be that this custom arouse because it is like someone who accepts upon themselves the righteousness of the evil judgment.

This comment of the Tur sets a tone within the halakhik literature whereby this beracha can be used to reflect poorly on the rabbinic view of women.  While I do believe that this stream is problematic, I am not convinced that the original intention of Hazal was to make a negative statement about women.  In fact, I think that there might be something entirely different going on behind the beracha.

In the time period immediately preceding hazal and then in the Christian Bible you find the following texts;

Diogenes Laeriut, “Thales,” I,33

I was grateful to fortune:

1. That I was born a person and not a beast;

2. I was born a man and not a woman;

3. A Greek and not a barbarian.

Galatians Chapter 3

23 Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24 So the law was put in charge to lead us to JC that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.  26 You are all sons of God through faith in JC, 27 for all of you who were baptized into JC have clothed yourselves with JC. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in JC. 29 If you belong to JC, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

In fact a similar set of berachot was found in the geniza:

Geniza Fragments, Taylor-Schechter NS 121:5 (see HUCA 2 & Sinai 85)

Praised are you…who made me:

1. A person and not a beast;

2. a man and not a woman;

3. an Israelite and not a gentile.

It may be the case that Hazal were responding to the Pauline Christian notion of the removal of boundaries through belief in Jesus. What the rabbis could be saying is that in fact these distinctions are important and significant.  The way that I think about these berachot is that these distinctions remain important in our day.  Who is a Jew and who is a non-Jew is not simple.  Who is free and who is enslaved is, sadly, not so obvious.  Even questions of gender and sexuality have become matters of debate.  These berachot, for me, represent a reminder to be careful about matters that are not simple.

I believe that if the language of the beracha were totally positive (she-asani ish) that it would limit the possibility of bastardizing the beracha and using it as a club.  However, I do not think that the Halakha permits changing the “matbea – coined language” of tefila in this instance.  It is significant to note that we have found witnesses to many different alternatives within the history of the printed siddur.  None the less, I do not believe that is enough to set a precedent for changing the text.

You can see all the mekorot at this link.

She lo Asani Isha – Orginal Context with Geniza (here is the audio)

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One Response to She-lo Asani Isha – Gemara and Rishonim

  1. I like the idea that Hazal were responding to the Christian sources and their blurring of (or removal of) binarisms. Thanks for sharing that.

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