The Feminist Version of the Jewish Morning Blessing

Do you thank the Almighty for making you a man or a woman? Two fifteenth-century manuscripts show the choice is yours!

The words “who has made me a woman and not a man" are highlighted here in a siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York

Farissol’s revised version in the 1471 siddur now kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

The traditional Jewish morning blessing includes a verse in which males thank God with the words: “who has not made me a woman.”  Women reciting this verse often modify it to “who has made me according to His will.” This tradition took root in the siddur (Hebrew prayer book) centuries ago, but two fifteenth-century manuscripts reveal a groundbreaking thinker who chose a somewhat more progressive wording for this controversial blessing.

Abraham Farissol changed the familiar wording of the blessing to “who has made me a woman and not a man” in two prayer books he dedicated to two anonymous women.

As a Jewish thinker of the highest order, Abraham Farissol’s reputation preceded him. Recognized for his erudition in his lifetime, Farissol’s many pursuits included cantor, scribe, and teacher. Deeply interested in the advancements of the Age of Discovery sweeping across Europe, he composed the first essay in Hebrew dealing with the discovery of America.

Along with being a pioneering thinker, he was also an exceptional man of faith.  In 1471 and 1480 Farissol hand-wrote two prayer books for women which contain a fascinating feminist innovation. In the prayer book as we know it today, the man reciting the morning blessings thanks God for life that is renewed each morning, for not making him a Gentile, for not making him a slave, and in the words of the prayer that has provoked countless debates, he blesses the Almighty “who has not made me a woman” or in another version “who has made me a man and not a woman.” The woman, for her part, thanks God with the words “who has made me according to His will.” In fact, the text of the accepted blessing for women – “made me according to His will” – is not found in the Talmud, but is mentioned in the early–fourteenth-century halakhic work Arba’ah Turim (lit. “Four Rows,” an important work of Jewish law by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as Ba’al Ha-Turim – “Master of the Rows).

And so, 150 years after the Ba’al Ha-Turim, when Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages, Abraham Farissol wrote two Hebrew prayer books which changed the accepted wording of this morning prayer. In the age of the Renaissance, Farissol abandoned the medieval wording “made me according to His will” in favor of a more interesting, progressive verse – “who has made me a woman and not a man.” One of these books is today kept at the National Library of Israel, while the other is preserved at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

Farissol’s revised version in the 1480 siddur, kept at the National Library of Israel.

We do not know the identities of the two women who Farissol dedicated his books to, as their names were erased from both siddurs. It is possible that Farissol wrote additional prayer books with this blessing which have not yet (or may never) come to light. It is not clear how widespread the change Farissol introduced was or whether it remained the exclusive province of the thinker. What is certain is that at least these two women walked with their heads held high, feeling proud that their Creator had chosen to make them women, and not men.

The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the National Library

How Did Jewish Children Learn to Write a Thousand Years Ago?

How did children practice their Hebrew letters in Medieval times? A glimpse through the Cairo Geniza offers us an answer and reveals that not much has changed.

How do children practice writing the Hebrew alphabet?

By writing each letter, one at a time, over and over again, of course. This is common practice today and it was common practice back in the middle ages. There are several pages preserved in the Cairo Geniza which contain these types of children’s writing exercises. The Cairo Geniza is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments that was originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old.

Practice sheets: Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.17


Practice sheets: Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.19

Often a child would learn the entire alphabet and practice writing all the letters in a row. You can see that kind of practice sheet here, accompanied by children’s drawings drawn on the margins of the page.

Practice sheets with children’s drawings: Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.19


Practice sheets with letters and nikkud, the signs representing vowels in Hebrew: Cambridge manuscripts T-S K 5.25

More skillfully written letters may have been inscribed by the Sofrim (scribes of religious scrolls) in order to teach the children the most correct way to write Hebrew.

Letters outlines and colored in: Cambridge manuscripts T-S K 5.13


Practice sheet with a Torah blessing on the bottom: Cambridge manuscripts T-S K 5.10

As Geniza scholar S. D. Goitein remarks, “Even then they understood that the most efficient way to teach is by making it into a game. The letters were written in different colors, the teacher would stencil large outlines of letters and the child would fill them in with red, brown, green, and any of the other abundant colors… or the other way around, the teacher would draw letters in black ink and the child would give it a colorful frame.” (From S.D Goiten’s book:  Jewish Education in Muslim Countries, Jerusalem 1962)

These practice sheets that show the methods used a thousand years ago were discovered in the Cairo Geniza.

Practice sheets signed by the writer, Saadia Bar Yehuda: Cambridge manuscripts T-S NS 110.11


The child wrote the sentence over and over again: Cambridge manuscripts T-S NS 129.11


Cambridge manuscripts: T-S AS 118.272

Translated and abridged from the original Hebrew article by Prof. Shulamit Elizur, researcher of Hebrew piyyut and poetry from the Late Antique Period until the Middle Ages.

How Did Napoleon Bonaparte Invent a Rabbinical Court?

With the breakout of the French Revolution, the supporters found themselves having to face what was called “the Jewish question”.

With the breakout of the French Revolution, issues of civil rights, freedom of religion and from religion moved to the top of the popular agenda. The revolution’s supporters found themselves having to face what was called “the Jewish question.”

When they were not engaged in destroying the old world order and creating a brave new one, the Jewish question gnawed at the French revolutionaries until it came to symbolize the most difficult question of all for the Enlightenment: Is it in the power of man to change? The Jew, who more than any other group symbolized the “Other” (and mainly an “other” who was not Christian), was now at the top of the great “Renewal” project that the French revolution had intended for its people.

Bound up with the idea of “Renewal” was also a cold political calculation: it considered which of the groups in post-revolutionary French society will be prepared to accept political rights and contribute their share toward the establishment of a more enlightened, rational world that was free of prejudices. The initial inquiry carried out by the revolutionaries touched on the question of citizenship: whether France’s poor, among them the Jews, were entitled to “active citizenship” – that is, the right to elect and be elected to the revolution’s political institutions or whether they were entitled only to “passive citizenship” embodied most clearly in the defense of the patrimony of the Republic? Even for the most ardent supporters of emancipation of the Jews there was a precondition: France’s Jews must renounce any aspirations of Jewish nationalism and assimilate as individuals within the French nation. The Judaism of the Jews of France was, therefore to be solely an expression of their faith and nothing more.

The most interesting expression of the ambivalent, yet also positive, attitude toward the Jews in the revolution is found in an essay by the revolutionary Henri Gregoire who argued that the poor condition of the Jews stemmed from two main reasons: Christian discrimination against them and the ridiculous theories spread by their rabbis. He called upon the French nation to extend their hands toward its Jews in order to raise them up from the gutter, and for the Jews to respond in kind and make themselves over into more modern individuals.

Advocate of the Jewish Renewal, Henri Gregoire, etching by S. J. Le Gros

In September 1791, unprecedented legislation called for the abolition of any legal distinction between Jews and non-Jews in the French Republic. From a legal standpoint, during the decade of the revolution, the Jews had stopped being a distinct group. However, this step was both a blessing and a curse. Their unexpected emancipation allowed for Jews to more easily integrate into French society as individuals. However, as a society with a distinctly communal nature, there was no collective body – rabbinic or other – that could approach the government to bargain for its collective rights.


The French Giant Steps onto the Stage of History

In 1789, the glorious general Napoleon Bonaparte stepped into the revolutionary fray.  In a military coup, he unseated the Republic and established the short-lived Consulate regime.  At the head of this new governing body, which replaced the failed revolutionary directory, stood the first consul, Napoleon himself, along with two other consuls below him.

Out of a deep desire to learn from the failures of the revolution, First Consul Napoleon, who had meanwhile crowned himself emperor in 1804, sought to reach a series of historic agreements and compromises, among them reconciliation with the pope (the Concordat) in 1801, and recognition of the legitimacy of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in France. Rabbinic authority in France which, with the revolution, had lost much of its power and its role turned to the new regime demanding a similar solution.

In an attempt to legitimize the dictatorial regime whose origins lay in an illegitimate military takeover, Napoleon chose the Jews as a case study in propaganda. After solidifying his position as liberator of the Jews with the abolishment of the obligation to reside in ghettos, on 30 May 1806, he invited an assembly of Jewish leaders that included rabbis, enlightened Jewish officials and leaders and other well-known figures. The meeting was arranged following a complaint filed against the usurious practices of the Jews of Alsace. Napoleon’s aim was to bring about the integration of the Jews and even to their full assimilation into French society. Napoleon was especially eager that Jews give up their erroneous ways – mainly the source of their livelihoods as moneylenders to the Christian populace – and adopt crafts and occupations that will benefit them and the French nation.

The Emperor Napoleon Grants Emancipation to the Suppliant Jews, from a French print, source unknown


Between Church and State: The New Sanhedrin

In order to formalize, consolidate and expand the conclusions of the meeting, Napoleon convened an even larger gathering not only from France but from across Europe. As with everything the emperor did, behind this step was an ambitious vision for the future: Napoleon demanded the creation of a religious constitutional codex for Jews to which they would be beholden as they were to the Talmud. He called the new body established in February 1807, “The Great Sanhedrin,” and decreed that like its ancient counterpart it have seventy-one members. But unlike in the past, twenty-five of its members would not be clerics.

The document issued by “The Great Sanhedrin”, which was written in French and translated into Hebrew, offered twelve answers to twelve questions posed by Napoleon. The members of the Sanhedrin tried their hardest to offer solutions that would please both sides: they declared that Jews must work toward integrating into the realm in which they lived but must also preserve their religious identity. But when loyalty to state conflicted with loyalty to halakha, apparently loyalty to the state took precedence. An example of this is the sixth amendment in the document, which states that when a Jew’s military duties clash with religious observance, he may refrain from certain religious observance in order to defend his country.

Introduction to the document issued by “The Great Sanhedrin,” printed in 1814. The complete document can be downloaded from Hebrew Books


In the rest of the amendments, an attempt was made to integrate the two authorities – the French state and the Jewish religion – and find a middle way. The most prominent example is the wedding ceremony: in order for the wedding ceremony to be “kosher” according to the Sanhedrin, the couple must register the marriage with a government official in addition to the religious ceremony performed by a rabbi.

The Sanhedrin debate the questions: Is a Jewish man permitted to take more than one wife? The complete document can be downloaded from Hebrew Books

With the Sanhedrin’s presentation of its learned answers to the twelve questions posed by Napoleon, the Emperor called it to disband and in its stead called for the establishment in France of six consistories, official bodies whose role it would be to enforce the rulings of the Sanhedrin.

If all this sounds somewhat familiar, you would not be mistaken. This was in fact the first modern incarnation of the “Chief Rabbinate,” an idea that made its way across various communities in France and Germany, and even to the State of Israel. As a mark of appreciation for the tireless efforts of the French Emperor (and of the French Jews), the Jews of Napoleon’s expanding empire composed dozens of songs, sermons and religious texts hailing Napoleon as “God’s chosen one.” The Jewish community used every opportunity to celebrate every positive event in the life of Napoleon: his escape from an assassination attempt, the victories of his army, his crowning as emperor, his birthday, his royal marriage, the birth of his son and more.

“A Blessing for the Emperor” from the National Library collections

Chilling Testimonies: How Christians Twisted the Talmud to Harm the Jews

For centuries, scholars deliberately distorted Jewish teachings to confirm their antisemitic views

A theological debate between Jews and Christians, 1483, unknown artist

Just like the Jews who own and study them, the books of the Talmud have also experienced challenging times. They were also burned at the stake in town squares, such as in Paris in 1240 and Rome in 1553.

The physical assault on the Talmud was usually preceded by attacks regarding the work’s content. Jew-haters understood that the books themselves could be used to harm the Jews.

The topic often arose in debates between Christians and Jews, such as in Paris, Barcelona and Tortosa, when Christians or apostate Jews accused the Talmud of containing anti-Christian content. Many clergymen tried their luck at studying Talmud, even learning Hebrew and Aramaic for this purpose. It was easier for them to make claims against the Talmud if they were armed with “knowledge” of its content, even if they did not always interpret it correctly. One of the first Christians familiar with the Talmud who recorded its teaching was a Spanish Dominican monk named Raymundus Martini (1220-1285). He wrote two anti-Jewish works. One of them was called “The Dagger of Faith Against the Moslems and the Jews” (Pugio fidei adversus Mauros et ludaeos), in which Martini attempts to prove the falsehood of the Jewish religion. The lion’s share of the book is dedicated to quotes from our Sages. Martini claims that the Jewish sources collaborate the authenticity of Christianity, and that the Tosefists and the rabbinic commentaries distort the truth.

Pugio fidei adversus Mauros et ludaeos, Leipzig 1687

Many anti-Talmudic works were written, and the invention of the printing press enabled these slanderous works to reach wider audiences. The sources were usually distorted and falsified. Even when exact quotes were supplied, they were usually taken out of their original context, or partially translated, translated erroneously, or related to and interpreted in a modern way despite being ancient texts.

Martin Luther was an expert in utilizing the invention of the printing press to promote the ideas behind his reform. Toward the end of his life, the founder of Protestantism published a treatise called “On the Jews and Their Lies”. In this treatise, Luther attacks the Talmud, describing the work as “Idolatry, lies, curses and apostasy.” Some consider Luther’s works to be the basis of German antisemitism.

Luther was not the first German to print works against the Talmud. In 1475, the Catholic writer Peter Schwartz published the book “The Star of the Messiah”, in which he writes, among other things: “The cursed book – the Talmud, which German princes should no longer tolerate, but rather should burn forcibly”. It is interesting to note that the first Hebrew letters printed in Germany appear in this antisemitic book.

Another German, Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633-1705), despite having a close relationship with several Jews and even studying Hebrew, wrote against the Jews, mentioning the Talmud as well. He published his views in his book Tela ignea Satanae. Among other things, he translated the Talmudic tractate of Sotah into Latin. Photographs of Jewish manuscripts which Wagenseil owned and which he used to get to know his “enemy” are kept in the National Library.

The greatest attacker of the Talmud in Germany and overall was Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, who was born in Germany in 1654. He was educated in England and Holland, where he learned Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

In 1700, Eisenmenger published his magnum opus in Frankfurt, Entdecktes Judenthum – “Judaism Unveiled”. In this work, he attacks the Jewish religion, and claims that Jewish literature such as the Talmud and Midrash spread nonsense about belief in God, defame Christianity and Jesus and permit the Jews to relate to Christians in a hurtful and derisive manner.

This work was printed in two thick volumes and is approximately 2,000 pages long.

Entdecktes Judenthum, Frankfurt 1700

In this book, he compiled quotes from 193 Jewish sources in Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, such as the Babylonian Talmud, the Zohar, prayer books, the works of Maimonides and Nachmanides.

Eisenmenger read the sources as they are and refused to interpret them in the historical context they were written in. He claimed that Jews are commanded to take false oaths, to murder children who converted to another faith, to test medication on Christians and to sell them rotten meat.

Emperor Leopold’s court Jew, Rabbi Samson Wertheimer (an ancestor of the author of this article), requested that the Emperor halt the circulation of the book. Later, the Austrian banker and diplomat Samuel Oppenheimer persuaded the Emperor to confiscate all two thousand copies. After Eisenmenger’s death, his successor printed new copies of the book in 1711. In 1740, the confiscated books were released from the Emperor’s storehouses, where they had been kept under lock and key. One complete copy is currently found in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library.

Edtdecktes Judenthum, Frankfurt 1700

Eisenmenger’s book was the first attempt to publish a “scientific” book which quotes the very Jewish sources which ostensibly attack Christianity and Christian society. It was followed by other books printed in various countries.

However, there were also other ways to “prove” the authenticity of Christianity: in 1836 in England, a missionary named Alexander McCaul printed a weekly journal named The Old Paths. The journals were later compiled into a book which was also translated into Hebrew by a Jew who had converted to Christianity. As a missionary trying to bring Jews closer to Christianity, McCaul did not attack Jewish literature, attempting instead to write in a more pleasant manner and to prove the veracity of Christianity. The book contains quotes from the Bible, Talmud, Maimonides, Arbah Turim and the Shulchan Aruch.

The Old Paths, London 1837
Netivot Olam – the Hebrew translation of The Old Paths, London 1851

Isaac Baer Levinsohn of Kremenetz was one of the foremost Russian Maskilim and had close ties with the Czar and the Russian government. In 1863, he wrote his book Zerubbabel refuting McCaul’s claims. A comment at the beginning of a later edition of the book states that McCaul rescinded his claims about the Jews before his death.

The Slyness of the Talmud’s Opponents Is Revealed

Two blood libels revealed the true faces of the Christian slanderers: antisemites who distort Jewish literature to prove whatever they desired at any price.

In 1871, August Rohling, a professor of ancient Judaism in Prague, published Der Talmud-Jude, which contains distorted and falsified quotes from the Talmud. The book was mainly a copy and re-working of Eisenmenger’s work, to such an extent that some even claim it to be plagiary. Rohling was so sure of himself and of the things he wrote that he challenged Austrian Jewry to find mistakes or lies in the book. Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Bloch raised the gauntlet and accused Rohling of ignorance and lies. Rohling sued Bloch but withdrew the suit from fear of undesirable exposure. Rohling was a witness in the blood libel in the Hungarian village of Tiszaeszlar in 1882, where he testified that the Talmud commands Jews to use Christian blood.

Der Talmud-Jude, Leipzig 1891

Another famous Talmudic scholar is Father Justinas Pranaitis (1861-1917), a Catholic priest and professor of the Hebrew language in Saint Petersburg. In 1892, he wrote a book in Latin named Christianus in Talmude Iudaeorum, where he brings quotes in Hebrew and Aramaic with their Latin translation. He took most of the material from Eisenmenger. There are indeed sharply worded expressions in the Talmud against apostates, Kutim [non-Jews settled in the Land of Israel by the King of Assyria after the exile of the Ten Tribes], Amei ha’Aretz [uneducated people] and idolaters. Pranaitis considered all the above to be synonyms for Christians, hence his desire to attack.

Like Rohling, Pranaitis was called on as an expert witness in a blood libel case. This time it was the Beilis Trial in 1912 in Russia, in which a Jew named Menachem Mendel Beilis was claimed to have murdered a Christian child in order to use his blood to bake Matzah. Pranaitis’s expertise was challenged during the trial after it became clear that he did not know the names of the Talmudic tractates. This is most surprising, as the names of the tractates appear at the beginning of his book. He also claimed the Pope’s letter opposing blood libels to be a forgery. The documents were proved to be genuine – which again damaged the expert witness’s legitimacy.

Christianus in Talmuda Iudaeorum, Petropoli 1892

But make no mistake, even after the two modern slanderers of the Talmud were exposes as frauds, the Talmud continued to come under attack from Jew-haters and the negative attitude toward it (and the Jewish people in general) went from bad to worse. In the next article, we will examine the Nazis’ approach to the Talmud.