The Amidah’s Biblical and Historical Roots: Some New Perspectives – Part One by Mr. Allen Friedman


Allen Friedman is the father of Yosie Friedman (’11). This and next week’s columns are adapted from his article that appears in the Fall 2012 issue of Tradition.

The opening of the Amidah owes more to a few Biblical passages than we customarily think. Our goal over the next two weeks is to understand the magnitude of that debt and thereby deepen our comprehension of the opening and of the Amidah as a whole. We hope to achieve this through careful consideration of the source-texts and history of the Amidah’s beginning phrases, viewing them in light of both the approach of Chazal and the fruits of modern scholarship.

The Opening Phrase

Every Shemoneh Esrei opens with, “Blessed are You Hashem, our God and God of our fathers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Ya’akov.” This Matbei’a HaBerachah, blessing template, differs from that used in almost all other blessings in Jewish liturgy or ritual. Almost all others begin by addressing God in the second person – “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God” – and then immediately continue with a description of God as Melech HaOlam. By contrast, Shemoneh Esrei’s opening continues with a reinforcement of that second person intimacy as it addresses God, not as the remote “King of the Universe,” but as a familial “God of our fathers.”

The Amidah’s opening phrase is noteworthy for a second reason: its separate invocation of each of the patriarchs and the separate association of each of the patriarchs with God – “God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Ya’akov,” a feature already discussed by Chazal (Pesachim 117b).

The Source of the Amidah’s Opening Phrase

These two unique elements of the Amidah’s opening are found in – and are simultaneously justified by – the source-text that the opening quotes almost verbatim. The Pasuk states (Shemot 3:15), “VaYomer Od Elokim El Moshe Koh Tomar El Bnei Yisrael Hashem Elokei Avoteichem Elokei Avraham Elokei Yitzchak VEilokei Ya’akov Shelachani Aleichem; Zeh Shemi LeOlam VeZeh Zichri LeDor Dor,” “And God said further to Moshe, ‘Thus shall you say to Bnei Yisrael, “Hashem, God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya’akov, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be invoked in all ages.’”

Whenever you want to appeal to me, says God, from now until the end of time, use this formulation: “Hashem, God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya’akov,” or, to formulate this phrase from the perspective of the Jews, who will refer to “God of our fathers” (rather than from God’s perspective, who refers to Himself as “God of your fathers”), “Hashem, God of our fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya’akov.”

And, of course, Jews follow God’s instructions to the letter every time they begin their appeal: they begin each Shemoneh Esrei by appealing to “Hashem, [our God and] God of our fathers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Ya’akov.” The only (other) change made to the quote is to add “our God” toward the beginning of the phrase, a point we will discuss at the end of next week’s installment.

Chazal were very conscious of this ‘borrowing,’ as indicated by the statement in the Mechilta DeRabi Yishmael on Shemot 13:3 that cites Shemot 3:15 as the source-text for the opening of Shemoneh Esrei – a statement we will look at next week to help complete our understanding of Shemoneh Esrei’s message.

The Context of the Source for the Opening Phrase

The fact that God instructed Moshe to use Shemot 3:15’s formulation would be reason enough for the Rabbis to word the opening of Shemoneh Esrei as they did. But that instruction took place in a particular context – and we cannot fully understand the opening blessing of the Amidah, or Shemoneh Esrei as a whole, unless we understand that context.

The importance of examining that context stems from the fact that when Chazal chose to include or paraphrase a Biblical Pasuk in a prayer, they did so with the certainty that the person praying would know that context, and with the intention that the Pasuk’s ‘environment’ would ‘bleed over’ to, and become part of, the message of the Tefilah. Thus, we cannot truly understand a prayer merely by translating its words. Rather, it can be truly understood only if we know its Biblical source, and understand the message that Chazal were conveying with the selection of that source. And, if this is true about prayer in general, it is certainly true about Shemoneh Esrei, the prayer par excellence, and its opening phrase.

The source-text for that opening, Shemot 3:15, is a continuation of a unit which opens with the last three Pesukim of the second Perek of Shemot. Those Pesukim read (2:23-25):

“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel groaned because of their bondage and cried out, and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. And God heard their moaning, and God remembered his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Ya’akov. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

Three points about these Pesukim stand out. First, the Pesukim record Israel’s first collective prayer – “their cry for help rose up to God.” Second, they are animated by four action verbs that describe God’s response to His people’s cry: “God heard;” “God remembered;” “God saw” Israel and its suffering; “God knew” – He understood His people’s plight. Third, the Pesukim link God’s covenant with Bnei Yisrael, of His promise to redeem His nation, with the separate mention of each of the patriarchs: “God remembered his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Ya’akov.”

This third point – the linkage with the (separately-named) patriarchs found near the end of the second Perek – is repeatedly emphasized in the following Perakim. In Perek 3, God appears to Moshe and tells him that He has seen His people’s affliction and heard their cries and He has therefore decided to redeem them. Moshe then asks God (3:13), “When I come to Bnei Yisrael and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?” God responds with our source-text Pasuk (3:15): “Thus shall you say to Bnei Yisrael, 'Hashem, God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya’akov, has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and thus I am to be invoked in all ages.”

Now, as if to make sure that Moshe understands the importance of a formula that invokes each of the patriarchs and their relationship with God separately, this formula is repeated a third time in the very next Pasuk (2:16) and yet a fourth time in Shemot 4:5.

God’s sudden engagement with Bnei Yisrael and His invocation of the covenant with their patriarchs is especially remarkable in light of His seeming absence until now. Since God’s revelation to Ya’akov on his way down to Egypt at the beginning of BeReishit 46, God has not revealed Himself to, or (seemingly) involved Himself in the history of Avraham’s, Yitzchak’s, and Ya’akov’s descendants. In fact, with one almost-offhand exception (concerning the Meyaledot), God’s name does not even appear in Sefer Shemot until the end of Perek 2 (in the Pesukim cited above). As the Torah itself emphasizes, decades, then centuries pass as the Israelites sink deeper into exile and harsh servitude and God is seemingly nowhere to be found. (I am grateful to my wife, Rachel Friedman, who first brought these points to my attention.)

To summarize, the source-text for the unique-in-Jewish-prayer opening of Shemoneh Esrei draws our attention to the first several Perakim of Shemot and the story they tell: Israel’s descent into a long and harsh exile with no apparent evidence that God knows or cares – in fact, God seems conspicuously absent. As the burden of the exile becomes unbearable, the Israelites cry out to God in their first collective prayer and God responds, suddenly makes His presence known, and immediately begins their rescue, because, God emphasizes, of the promises He made to each of the three patriarchs.

Having established what the context is for the Shemoneh Esrei’s opening source-text, we now must determine why Chazal wanted to evoke that context. We can answer this question once we (a) take into account key points about the history, narrative, and framework of the Amidah that have been made by modern scholars and that are either made or alluded to by Chazal and (b) determine when the Amidah’s opening was composed.

The Amidah’s History, Narrative, and Framework

The first two points to be noted concerning the Amidah’s history are that (1) Rabban Gamliel and his colleagues in Yavneh in the late first-century C.E. created the institution of the Amidah, its nineteen particular subjects, and the order of those subjects (though not their fully-fixed text), and (2) this creation was a critical part of the Rabbinic response to the great theological challenge posed by the Second Temple’s destruction and the ensuing exile: how to account for God’s seeming abandonment of His people, and how to sustain hope for the future.

The next point follows naturally from the first two. The overarching theme of Jewish prayer – and especially of The Prayer, the Amidah – is the keystone of that Rabbinic response to the Churban: an unshakable belief in Israel’s ultimate redemption. Joseph Heinemann, one of the leading scholars in the modern study of Jewish liturgy, put it this way: “The central motif in the world-view of the prayers is unquestionably the belief in the Redemption, and the longing for its realization.” Even a superficial examination of the Shemoneh Esrei’s blessings reveals the truth of Heinemann’s statement when applied to The Prayer: (1) most of the ‘heart’ of the Amidah – the middle, petitionary blessings – are explicitly devoted to the final redemption and (2) a majority of the ‘framework’ blessings – the three introductory and three concluding blessings – have the Redemption as either their explicit subject (for example, the revivication of the dead, mentioned six times in the second introductory blessing, and restoration of the Temple service and the return of the Divine presence to Zion, the subjects of the first of the three concluding blessings) or as a very important subtext (for example, the invocation of God, in the opening blessing, as the One who will bring the redeemer: “UMeivi Go’eil LiVnei Veneihem").

How the point just noted – the centrality of the redemption theme in the Amidah – impacts our understanding of individual blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei, especially the seemingly non-redemption related ones (such as those for healing, agricultural prosperity, etc.) is a question whose answer is also critical to a full understanding of The Prayer, but one that we’ll have to leave for another time.

Interim Conclusion

Next week, we will build on our study of the source-text, and the context of the source-text, of the Amidah’s opening, and the just-noted points concerning the Amidah’s history, narrative, and framework. We will see how these observations interact with conclusions about the time and place of the composition of the Amidah’s opening in a way that sheds new light on the message of Shemoneh Esrei as a whole.

The Amidah’s Biblical and Historical Roots: Some New Perspectives – Part Two by Mr. Allen Friedman

Beit Din Basics – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter