MEANING OF SHEMONEH ESREI
Rav Ezra Bick
Yeshivat Har Etzion mourns the passing
of Mrs. Golda Koschitzky z"l,
beloved matriarch of the Koschitzky family,
and widow of Mr. Israel Koschitzky z"l.
May the world-wide dissemination
of these shiurim be a fitting tribute to a family
achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren be comforted among the
mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.
there be no hope for the informers,
let all the heretics be eradicated immediately,
all the enemies of your people be speedily cut off;
the kingdom of iniquity speedily uproot, shatter, crush, and
in our days.
are You, Who shatters enemies and subdues the iniquitous.
Note: Chances are, a majority of the readers do not recite exactly this
version. There are an unusual
number of different versions of this berakha, which reflects its history,
subject to non-Jewish assault and Jewish self-censorship. All the versions recited today differ
from earlier ones. I have chosen
the version reflected in the translation for two reasons. One, it is the one I recite. Two, it will serve my purposes in this
shiur. It must be noted, however,
that it is impossible to rely excessively on any particular choice of words in
this berakha, whose "correct" text is impossible to determine. We shall discuss this point
This berakha, called "birkat ha-minim," has a unique status within the
Shemoneh Esrei. "Shemoneh Esrei"
means, of course, "18." There are,
in fact, nineteen berakhot in the Shemoneh Esrei (count, if you will). The nineteenth berakha, the one added
after the eighteen had already been formulated, is the one we are discussing
Gamliel says: Every day one prays eighteen (blessings)....
"eighteen" berakhot - there are, in fact, nineteen? R. Levi said: The blessing
of the heretics was drafted in Yavne (at a later date)....
Rabbis taught: Shimon HaPakuli arranged the eighteen blessings before Rabban
Gamliel in their proper order in Yavne.
Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: Is there no one who knows how to draft
the birkat ha-minim (blessing of the heretics)? Shmuel HaKatan stood up and
drafted it. The next year, he
forgot it, and paused for two or three hours (trying to remember it), but they
did not replace him. (Berakhot
It seems that the birkat ha-minim was added to the original eighteen
berakhot at a later time, and that its addition elicited a special problem for
Rabban Gamliel, the nasi. Who, he
asks, can possibly be the one to draft the language for this berakha? What's more, the one man who is capable,
Shmuel HaKatan, subsequently "forgot" the berakha, and there was no one who
could recite it. A noticeable
hesitation and confusion surrounds the institution of this additional
It is generally accepted that Rabban Gamliel decided to add this blessing
in response to the difficult conditions of his time. The Jewish community in the Land of
Israel was heavily oppressed by the Roman conquerors, and heretical sects in the
midst of the community eat away from within. These are the times of the
Judeo-Christian sects who were still part of the Jewish community, as well as
other deviations, such as the gnostics, etc. In fact, the opening word of our text -
"malshinim" (informers) is generally assumed to be a censored replacement for
something more explicit, (the most common sources use the word "meshumadim"),
including the possibility of "notzrim" found in some old texts, or "tzedukim,"
itself a common replacement for Christians, or heretics.
Nevertheless, the ferocity of the imprecations of this "blessing"
undoubtedly cause concern, especially within the context of daily prayer. "Uproot, shatter, crush, and subdue, cut
off and eradicate" - the berakha seems to delight in piling on synonyms of
destruction. I have defined the
blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei as listing the basic needs of man, in
relationship to his God and creator.
Is this fervent desire for the destruction of the wicked really a basic
need of Man?
Careful analysis of the berakha indicates that it has two parts and
refers to two different kinds of people.
This is made quite clear by the compound "chatima." Generally speaking, there is a rule
against a compound chatima, one having two verbs ("ein chotmim
be-shenayim"). In this case, it is
acceptable since the two parts are apparently close enough in meaning that it is
considered one theme. Nonetheless,
the compound form indicates that there are two different, if closely related,
themes here - "Who SHATTERS ENEMIES and SUBDUES THE INIQUITOUS." In other words, there are "enemies," and
there are "the iniquitous" ("zeidim").
This is borne out by a statement of the Talmud Yerushalmi concerning this
blessing. "One includes (the
blessing) of heretics and of sinners in 'subdues the iniquitous'" (Ber.
4,3). It is quite clear that there
are two distinct themes, which the Talmud is stating should be joined - the
birkat ha-minim and "Who subdues the iniquitous."
The "iniquitous" (zeidim) in the chatima is a reference to "the kingdom
of iniquity" (malkhut zadon) in the text of the blessing. (Again, many versions of the blessing
have the phrase "the iniquitous speedily uproot" in place of "the kingdom of
iniquity speedily uproot." This is
undoubtedly an emendation of the censor, who correctly identified the "kingdom
of iniquity" with the powers he represented.) In the Talmud, the phrase, "the kingdom
of iniquity" refers to the Roman empire, which was seen by the Sages as the
embodiment of tyranny, enslavement, enmity and evil. The Roman empire was understood to be
the "fourth (and final) kingdom" of exile, which continues to our day. So this phrase refers not to individual
sinners, or even enemies, but to the principle of political oppression, the
center of enmity to God's rule in the world, the principle we often call
"Amalek." (Rav Soloveitchik zt"l
once mentioned to us that the principle of Amalek exists in every generation and
need not be descended from the ancient Amalekites genetically. A few years before, he said, Amalek
lived in Berlin; now - this was in the early 70's - he had moved to
We now understand the military terms used in our blessing. This is not a request for JUSTICE OR
JUDGMENT - that was already included, in much less violent terms, in the
previous blessing. This is a
request for VICTORY, for victory of God Himself over the forces of evil, over
those who would banish His name from the world. This indeed is a basic need of Man. The world as it is, appears to the man
of religious faith to be an affront to the kingdom of God, as he envisions
it. If, in the previous blessing,
we prayed that "You should rule over us, HaShem, alone, with kindness and
mercy," we immediately understand that this kingdom of God, even if based on
Jewish society, is impossible as long as the world is in the clutches of forces
dedicated to erasing His holy Name.
Since, as I pointed out last time, we are now in a series of blessings
which express our yearning for redemption, for the ascendancy of God on His
throne, this is a necessary and crucial step in that
The language of this part of the blessing closely resembles the first
part of the special additions of Rosh HaShana. There we ask God to bring the entire
world to His worship, and then, "all the evil shall disappear in smoke, when you
cause the iniquitous kingdom to pass from the world." This is immediately followed by its
natural conclusion: "And You shall rule, HaShem our God on all your creation...
as is written, 'And HaShem shall rule, your God, Zion, for ever and ever." We
are not concerned with revenge here, or even primarily with personal
deliverance, as with redemption, redemption of the entire world, politically and
But this is only the original framework of the blessing. To this, the Sages added the "birkat
ha-minim," the blessing on heretics.
This clearly refers to Jews, like the ancient Judeo-Christian sects. By including them together with "the
evil empire," the Sages are indicating that we are no longer hoping for their
repentance, but for their destruction.
They are no longer seen as sinners but as representatives of sin, of
evil. And this, I imagine, leaves
all of us feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
R. Yehuda b. Yakar, in his commentary to this blessing, refers us to the
famous section in the Talmud (Ber. 10a):
were some ruffians in the neighborhood of R. Meir who greatly oppressed
him. R. Meir prayed that they might
die. Beruria his wife said to him:
On what do you base yourself, on what is written "Sins shall disappear from the
earth" (Psalms 104, 35)? Does it say "SINNERS shall disappear"? It says "SINS
shall disappear"! And furthermore, keep reading to the end of the verse - "and
the evil will be no more." When sins will cease, there will be no more
sinners. What you should do is pray
that they will repent, and then there will be no more sinners. He prayed for them and they
Here we see that the Sages were opposed to praying for the personal
destruction of sinners. The prayer
on Rosh HaShana as well refers to "evil" going up in smoke, not evildoers. But that is clearly not the aim of our
blessing. Here we explicitly ask
God to bring about the destruction of the informers, heretics, and enemies. How are we to understand this?
(R. Yehuda b. Yakar answers that we recite this blessing only after
having previously prayed for the repentance of all Jews. We are now only praying for destruction
on the assumption that repentance is no longer an option).
There is no simple answer to this question, but I believe that the answer
is found in the decision of the Sages to include the "heretics" within the
framework of the "kingdom of iniquity." Theoretically, the Sages will not pray
for the death of sinners. This is
not a matter of being "politically correct," or merely a matter of morality;
rather it indicates the true target to which we are opposed. Beruria, the wife of R. Meir, correctly
identified the enemy as EVIL, and not evildoers; SIN, and not sinners. While it is people who oppress R. Meir,
the root cause is sin, evil. If
that is removed, the people, today's enemies, can be rehabilitated. On the other hand, there exists a
concept of "the kingdom of iniquity." The forces of evil organize and create an
evil organization. Here, the
individual people become secondary.
It is a matter of principle that we fight and oppose these forces and not
hide behind the abstraction "evil." Judaism has never favored pacifism or
quietism. Acceptance of the
existence of evil in the world is collaboration with it, and is itself an
offense to the kingdom of God and the sanctification of His name in the
world. Hence, the martial and
bellicose language of this blessing, for indeed we conceive the world as a field
of battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil - "God is at war with
Amalek, for all generations" (Exodus 18,16).
some point in history, long after the original formulation of the basic needs of
Man in prayer, the Sages felt the need to pray for the destruction of the
enemies from within. This can only
be possible if these enemies are now identified with evil itself, with a war on
God. They are not merely
practitioners of sin, but have joined the forces which oppose the sanctification
of God's name in the world. In
other words, they have, perhaps unknowingly, joined the "kingdom of iniquity."
This is not an easy decision for the Sages to reach - and in fact, they cannot
find anyone who is able to simply compose such a prayer. Why is this so difficult? Simply because
these words DO NOT COME NATURALLY TO ONE WHO HAS BEEN TRAINED TO PLEAD WITH GOD
FOR THE VICTORY OF THE GOOD.
Destruction can never naturally be part of the victory of good. In fact, in a pointed indication of his
own sense of reservation with the prayer he has composed, Shmuel HaKatan himself
"forgets" the text of the prayer and remains silent for "two or three hours"
trying to say it. Can there be any
clearer indication of the ambiguous attitude that the Sages held for this
Shmuel HaKatan (Shmuel the Little) is the author of the comment in Pirkei
Avot, "Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemies." Undoubtedly, that is why he
was chosen to compose this prayer, for he can be counted upon not to allow the
war with evil to become a personal vendetta. This is the paradox - here he is called
upon to indeed aim the imprecation against evil personally, not merely against
abstract evil, or against the organized forces of evil, but against particular
individuals as well. At the same
time, he is qualified to do that precisely because even as he prays for the
elimination of such people, he is not truly fighting them personally, on the
level of the individual, but only because their identification with evil has
become so great that we cannot remain silent, lest our identification with good
be impugned. And yet, one year
later, he cannot remember the text.
The words remain foreign, even when they are
To put it another way, the principle that our opposition to evil per se
is absolute and unforgiving is a basic necessity - an unfortunate necessity - of
life. To imagine that it is
possible to maintain this attitude while holding only benign opinions concerning
all individual Jews is naive, and perhaps even contradictory. That is, refusing to EVER condemn
personally a Jew casts a doubt on the necessary degree of true opposition to
evil itself. This does contradict
another principle of Jewish life, the Beruria principle. Somehow, we live, uncomfortably, with
that contradiction, as Shmuel HaKatan did.
Personally, I do not think that you have to have any particular Jews in
mind when reciting this berakha (I do not). But I do think that you have to be ready
to do so, or else you are undermining your own commitment to the forces of good,
the kingdom of God, and the sanctification of His name in this
Next shiur, we come to a more pleasant topic - the opposite of this
week's. From the bad guys, we move
on to the good guys - "al ha-tzadikim."