On That Controversial Blessing of “Not Making Me a Woman”

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read about the five daughters of Tzlafchad, named Machlah, Noa, Chaglah, Milkah, and Tirzah. After the partitioning of the Land of Israel, the daughters approached Moses with a complaint. Because their family only has girls, and no boys, the daughters worried about what would happen to their father’s land and inheritance. Moses took the case up to God, who answered that daughters are able to inherit just as sons are in such situations. This is one example in the Torah of what might today be described as “gender equality”. The Torah (and Judaism more broadly) is sometimes criticized for its apparent gender inequality. One of the most common points of contention today is that blessing in Birkot HaShachar where men thank God for “not making me a woman”. Traditionally, women recite the blessing that thanks God “for making me kirtzono”, loosely translated as “like His will” Where did these blessings come from and what do they really mean?

Rabbis and Greek Philosophers

The source for reciting these morning blessings is in the Talmud (Menachot 43b):

It is taught that Rabbi Meir would say: A man is obligated to recite three blessings every day, and they are: “…Who made me a Jew”; “…Who did not make me a woman”; and “…Who did not make me an ignoramus.” Rav Aha bar Yakov once overhead his son saying “…Who hast not made me an ignoramus”, whereupon he said to him: “And this too!” Said the other: “Then what blessing should I say instead?” [He replied:] “Who has not made me a slave.” And is not that the same as a woman? A slave is more contemptible.

While here we read the first blessing is sh’asani Israel, “Who made me a Jew”, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 63b) has sh’lo asani goy, “Who has not made me a gentile”, and this latter one has been the standard traditionally. Why did the Sages choose to institute these blessings? One possible answer proposed by secular scholars is that it was influenced by the neighbouring Greeks. The philosopher Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE) was known to recite regularly the words: “Grateful am I for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, Greek and not barbarian.” It is possible that this phrase was adopted by later Greek philosophers who recited it as some kind of daily affirmation.

In those days, the Rabbis were seen by mainstream society as “Jewish philosophers”. In fact, this is how Josephus (37-100 CE) describes them to the non-Jewish world for whom he was writing, comparing them to the Greek Stoic philosophers (The Life of Flavius Josephus 2:12). This is a worthy comparison, since Stoicism is all about the pursuit of virtue, justice, and knowledge, and teaches living simply, spending a great deal of time on meditation and personal development, and overcoming one’s physical desires.

Bust of Socrates

Burton Visotzky points out an even clearer connection between the Greek philosophers and the ancient Jewish Sages (Aphrodite and the Rabbis, pgs. 134-135): The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 2:9) records an incident where Rabban Gamliel II and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah had a dispute regarding when Yom Kippur should be observed one particular year (based on lunar observations). Rabban Gamliel, being the president at the time, ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to appear before him with his “staff and satchel”. While this was meant to make Rabbi Yehoshua “transgress” his own Yom Kippur (by carrying a staff and satchel), there is another meaning to why it was specifically a staff and satchel. Visotzky points out that the staff and satchel were the traditional signs of a Greek philosopher.

In short, despite their differences the Rabbis were seen as philosophers, too, and presented themselves this way to society. As we’ve written on several occasions in the past, there was a great deal of cross-cultural exchange between Greeks and Jews. In fact, it was that same Rabban Gamliel (the second) whose academy the Talmud describes as having 1000 students, half of whom studied Jewish texts, and the other half Greek texts (Bava Kamma 83a). Therefore, the suggestion that the three morning blessings are connected to a Greek practice is a valid one. The texts of both are strikingly similar.

Christians and Mitzvot

Another suggestion for the institution of these three blessings is as a response to the rise of Christianity. We know the Sages worked hard to make a clear distinction between authentic Jews and those who had begun to worship a false messiah-god. This was done in various ways, including adding a nineteenth blessing to the Amidah. It is possible that adding the three morning blessings served the same purpose. (Keeping in mind that these three are mentioned in a totally different tractate, Menachot, than the rest of the Birkot haShachar, which are fittingly in the tractate Berakhot).

Christianity began as an exclusively “Jewish” sect. It was only when Paul came along that he opened it up to the non-Jewish world and began proselytizing among the nations. Part of his doctrine was that it mattered not whether a person was a Jew or gentile, man or woman, free or enslaved—everyone was welcome in Jesus’ supposed “kingdom of Heaven”. It is possible that the Rabbis wanted to institute a daily affirmation in response to this, stating the exact opposite, for it absolutely does matter who one is and what one does. The idea that a person is automatically “saved” just because they believe in a particular person’s divinity is absurd. God commanded His Torah to us and it must be carefully observed. And God does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6). Which brings us to the main answer for why the Sages instituted these three blessings: it all has to do with fulfilment of the Torah’s mitzvot.

Practically speaking, Jews have many more mitzvot than non-Jews, freemen have more mitzvot than slaves, and men have slightly more mitzvot than women. The Rabbis instituted these blessings in gratitude to God for giving us His beloved mitzvot. Since a Jew has so many more mitzvot than a non-Jew, there is a blessing to thank God sh’lo asani goy; and since a free person has more mitzvot than a slave, there is a blessing to thank God sh’lo asani aved; and since a man has a little bit more mitzvot than a woman, there is a blessing sh’lo asani ishah. The blessings are phrased in that particular order: from the widest mitzvah gap to the narrowest mitzvah gap.

We can deduce this answer simply from context: the entire page of Talmud (Menachot 43b) where the three blessings are mentioned is speaking about the greatness of various mitzvot. In particular, it devotes much to the value of tzitzit and tefillin, which women traditionally abstain from. In other words, the man is thanking God for all the many mitzvot that God gave the man the opportunity to fulfil; more than a gentile, a slave, or a woman.

The reason that women were exempt from a number of mitzvot is primarily because of their traditional obligation to care for children. For example, a mother who needs to breastfeed a newborn cannot be obligated to go pray Shacharit when the time comes, for the baby’s schedule takes precedence. In today’s world, technology has made this far less of a burden, and has allowed men to care for newborns as well (thanks to things like formula and baby bottles), something not possible in those days. The Rabbis back then appreciated how difficult it was to be a mother. In fact, in one place the Talmud states that it is “enough” for women that they have to raise children, and Rav Chiya went so far as to say he doesn’t care that his wife torments him for it suffices that women “raise our children and save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a).

This ties right into the blessing that women recite in the morning: sh’asani kirtzono, thanking God for “making me like His will”. What does this mean? Women have a divine gift of being able to bring life into the world. In this way, women are like God, and a woman’s will is more closely aligned with God’s Will. The Kabbalists point out that kirtzono (כרצונו) is an anagram of ktzinoro (כצנורו), literally “like His channel”, for a woman is like a divine channel able to bring Godliness into this world. And some say that because women are closer to God in this way, they require slightly less mitzvot compared to men.

The big question that remains is why did the Rabbis phrase the blessings in the negative (“for not making me”) rather than the positive (“for making me”)?

Better Not to Have Been Created

The Talmud states that the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years whether man should have been created or not (Eruvin 13b). They concluded that it would have been better had man never been created at all! However, since man obviously has been created, it is incumbent upon each person to “examine their deeds” and refine themselves to the highest degree. And we know from elsewhere that our Sages taught the mitzvot were given in order to refine a person. The conclusion is that we should maximize mitzvot and good deeds. This was also the conclusion of King Solomon, who ends his Kohelet with the words: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Rabbi Meir Eliyahu cites this as the reason for those three morning blessings to be phrased in the negative. If the Sages concluded that it would have been better for man never to have been created, how could they then institute a blessing thanking God for creating them? Therefore, they phrased it in the sense that, it would have been better not to have been created, but since You did create me, at least You didn’t make me a (fill in the blank)!

Still, the wording is certainly distasteful, for phrasing it in the negative might imply that there is something wrong with being a gentile, a servant, or a woman. As we’ve seen, the Talmud Bavli actually has the positive sh’asani Israel, thanking God for “making me a Jew”, in place of sh’lo asani goy. The Talmud also states one should recite sh’lo asani boor, “for not making me an ignoramus”, but we do not recite this blessing today. As we read above, Rav Aha didn’t agree with this blessing, for perhaps it sounded arrogant, and taught that one should instead recite sh’lo asani aved, “for not making me a slave”. His son argued that this is the same as saying “for not making me a woman”, to which Rav Aha responded that a slave is much worse. From this, one might argue that it suffices to say “for not making me a slave”, without having to add “for not making me a woman”.

Today, in more “egalitarian” Jewish communities, new blessings have been composed to replace those traditional ones. This includes sh’asani b’tzalmo, “Who has made me in His image”, and sh’asani ben/bat horin, “Who has made me free”. It is, of course, highly questionable whether composing any new berakhot today is valid. Having said that, it isn’t exactly clear where the blessing of sh’asani kirtzono came from. It isn’t in the Talmud, and the first mention of it appears to be in the Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (“Ba’al haTurim”, 1269-1343 CE). It is also briefly explained in Perushei Berachot v’Tefillot, aka. Sefer Abudraham, first published in 1339 CE by Rabbi David Abudraham, who is thought to be a student of the Ba’al HaTurim.

In light of modern social and technological advances, does it still make sense for a man to say “for not making me a woman”? There are certainly aspects of being a man that are advantageous compared to being a woman. However, there are also aspects of being a woman that are advantageous compared to being a man. Perhaps it might be just as appropriate for a woman to say sh’lo asani ish, thanking God “for not making me a man”. Surprisingly, this is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Rabbi Gavin Michal points out an amazing phenomenon: some siddurim from the 15th century (long before Reform, Conservative, or anything “egalitarian”) actually contain a blessing that says sh’asitani ishah v’lo ish, “for making me a woman, and not a man”!

A 1471 siddur for women produced by the great Rabbi Abraham Farissol, with the blessing for “making me a woman and not a man”, sixth line from the bottom (Courtesy: Kotzk Blog)

Whatever the case, and whatever a person might choose to recite (or omit), it is most important to always remember one thing that our Sages stated long ago (Yalkut Shimoni, Shoftim 42):

מעיד אני עלי את השמים ואת הארץ, בין גוי בין ישראל, בין איש בין אשה, בין עבד בין שפחה
הכל לפי מעשיו של אדם רוח הקדש שורה עליו

I bring Heaven and Earth to bear witness that the Divine Spirit may rest upon a gentile and a Jew, a man and a woman, a slave and a maid—all depends on the deeds of that particular person.