Last week we looked at the source-text, and the context of the source-text, of the twelve words that open every Shemoneh Esrei. We saw how those words are a near-quote of Shemot 3:15, and that the context of that Pasuk is God’s response to Israel’s first collective prayer to rescue them after a seemingly-interminable and harsh exile. We also noted that (1) R. Gamliel and his colleagues in late first-century C.E. Yavneh created the institution of the Amidah, its nineteen particular subjects, and the order of those subjects, though not their fully-fixed text; (2) this creation was a critical part of the Rabbinic response to the great theological challenge posed by the Second Beit HaMikdash’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; and (3) 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.
This week 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.
Dating the composition of the Amidah’s opening
In the absence of an explicit statement of authorship – something that, with the possible exception of VeLaMalshinim, the Amidah’s blessings lack – or a datable text – something that does not exist in the case of the Amidah, at least before the time of the Cairo Genizah texts and the Siddurim of Amram Ga’on and Sa’adyah Ga’on (9th century C.E. and later) – the attribution of authorship of the Amidah’s opening to a particular time period must rely on circumstantial evidence. There are, however, several pieces of strong circumstantial evidence, all of which point to or are consistent with conclusions that:
The incorporation of Shemot 3:15 into the liturgy postdates the Second Beit HaMikdash’s destruction.
This liturgical incorporation took place in the Amidah’s earliest days, in the decades immediately after the Second Beit HaMikdash’s destruction.
The incorporation was, in the standard liturgy, exclusive to the Amidah.
The principal evidence that Shemot 3:15 was first incorporated into the liturgy post-Churban Bayit Sheini is perhaps most accurately characterized as evidence of absence: We know of no instances of the liturgical use of Shemot 3:15 before the Second Beit HaMikdash’s destruction. That is, although we have many examples of pre-Churban Bayit Sheni prayers, blessings, and other precursors to significant portions of the Shemoneh Esrei and to the standard liturgy, none of those examples invoke Shemot 3:15. Conversely, there are numerous examples of the liturgical use of Shemot 3:15 (outside of the standard liturgy), all of which are post-Second Beit HaMikdash.
If, as we contend, the liturgical use of Shemot 3:15 postdates Churban Bayit Sheini, we must determine when in the post-Churban period that use arose. The answer to that question is suggested by the near-identity of the opening words of the Amidah in all Nuscha’ot – an identity that exists with almost no other portion of the Amidah (other than with many of its Chatimot). This near-identity points to an early standardized use of Shemot 3:15 and pushes the time of the composition of that opening back toward the earliest days of the Shemoneh Esrei – the decades immediately following the Second Beit HaMikdash’s destruction. This is consistent with an assumption that even if the text of (many of the) individual blessings remained fluid for some time – as it appears was likely the case – R. Gamliel would have standardized the opening of the Amidah.
The dates of the earliest attestations to the use of Shemot 3:15 to open the Amidah are also consistent with the early post-Churban Bayit Sheini hypothesis. Explicit attestations date from the early decades of the third century C.E. (Sanhedrin 107a, Pesachim 117b, Midrash Tana’im LiDevarim 33:2, and the Mechilta DeRabi Yishma’eil on Shemot 13:3), while strong allusions to the use of Shemot 3:15 date from the early to mid-second century C.E. (Mishnah Bikurim 1:4 and Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 4:5). These sources would provide us with a terminus ad quem (latest point in time) for the composition of the Amidah’s opening that (while after the time of Rabban Gamliel DeYavneh) would be considerably before the earliest date-certain for the composition of almost all other specific wordings of the Prayer.
How the scholarship and historical evidence informs our understanding of the Amidah’s opening
We have seen that: (1) The Matbei’a HaBerachah that opens the Amidah is unique to the Amidah and, in sharp contrast to that used in virtually every other blessing in the Jewish liturgy, emphasizes the relationship between God, Israel, and its founding ancestors; (2) This Matbei’a HaBerachah is a near quote of Shemot 3:15; (3) The biblical context of Shemot 3:15 is the response of a heretofore seemingly-absent God to Israel’s despairing cry to rescue it from a long and harsh exile; (4) The Midrash acknowledges and plays off this context; (5) The institution of the Amidah and its content were critical elements of the Rabbis’ response to the theological challenge posed by the destruction; (6) The overall and pervasive theme of the Amidah is the keystone of that response: an unshakable belief in Israel’s ultimate redemption; (7) The Amidah’s basic framework was put into place in the decades following the Second Beit HaMikdash’s destruction; (8) As best we can tell, the opening of the Amidah was written in that same post-Second Beit HaMikdash destruction era, even as much of the rest of the Amidah’s text remained fluid.
These eight points, taken together, make it clear that Shemot 3:15 was chosen to open the Amidah not ‘merely’ because that is what God instructed, and not just because so doing invokes Israel’s first redemption. Rather, it was chosen because the context of Shemot 3:15 – the unfolding of the first redemption in the last Perakim of BeReishit and the first Perakim of Shemot – paralleled the nation’s current condition and foretold its future one: Bnei Yisrael – then (in Egyptian bondage), as now (after the second Churban) – find themselves in harsh exile; then, as now, God has seemingly abandoned His people and yet they remember the promise that God made to their ancestors; then, as now, Israel cries out to Him, invoking that promise and emphasizing the relationship with each of the patriarchs. And, His people express their confidence that God will hear their prayers, remember them and His promise now, as He did then, and end their suffering and redeem His people; that God is, as the Midrash states, the Shomei’a Tefilah– the one who hears His people’s prayers – even as His seeming absence and the suffering of His people might cause them to think otherwise.
That the liturgical use of Shemot 3:15 was reserved for the Amidah alone reinforces and dovetails with the points just made: The most logical explanation for the reservation is that Shemot 3:15 was set aside for the prayer most related to the context in which the quoted words originally appeared – a prayer whose wording and order took shape in the aftermath of (and largely in reaction to) the Beit HaMikdash’s destruction, and a context that had special resonance in that post-Churban period: God’s appearance as Israel’s Redeemer from an oppressive exile after His seeming abandonment of His people.
Two further points need to be made to round out this portion of our discussion. First, we need to explain why “our God” is inserted into the quote/paraphrase of Shemot 3:15 in the opening of Shemoneh Esrei: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God and God of our fathers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Ya’akov.”
On the most obvious level, the insertion preserves the standard Matbei’a HaBerachah to a greater extent than would be the case without that insertion.
On a more fundamental level, the insertion reinforces Israel’s faith that it has a continuing relationship with He who spoke the words of Shemot 3:15 3,300 years ago: God is not ‘merely’ the God of generations past, but is the God of every following generation as well – a reinforcement that was particularly necessary in the post-Second Beit HaMikdash destruction period in which Shemoneh Esrei took its current form. Additionally, and related to this point, the insertion picks up on the phrase “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” “I Will Be What I Will Be,” that appears in Shemot 3:14 – the Pasuk that precedes our key source-text of Shemot 3:15 – and, specifically, Chazal’s understanding of Shemot 3:14, quoted by Rashi in his comment on that Pasuk: “I am with them in this affliction as I am with them in all future exiles” – precisely the point that is emphasized by the insertion of “our God.”
We complete this discussion by noting the context in which the Mechilta observes that Shemot 3:15 is the source-text for the opening of Shemoneh Esrei. It is not a coincidence that the immediately preceding part of the Mechilta contains an extended discussion – much of which is familiar to many thanks to its inclusion (in a variant form) in the Haggadah – of the relationship between the redemption from Egypt and the future redemption:
(13:3) And Moshe said to the people, etc. Until now, I am only aware of an obligation to remember the Shemot from Egypt during the day. Whence the obligation to remember it at night? As it is written, “so that you should remember the day you went out,” etc. “The days of your life” – telling me of an obligation to remember it during the day; “All the days of your life” – to include the nights, as Ben Zoma stated. And the Sages say: “The days of your life” refers to this world; “all the days of your life” comes to add the days of the Messiah … And how do we know that we recite “Blessed are You Hashem, our God and God of our fathers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Ya’akov”? As it is written, “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.””
This juxtaposition of the future redemption, the Shemot, and the source-text for the opening of the Amidah reinforces our thesis that the selection of Shemot 3:15 to open Shemoneh Esrei is intended to connect the people’s first, past, redemption with their final, future one.
We examined the source-text for the opening words of Shemoneh Esrei, and the context of that source-text, and saw how that examination allowed us to see this most-familiar of prayer openings with fresh eyes. We then looked at the message of the Amidah as a whole and its history as they are understood by many contemporary scholars, and discussed the evidence pointing to the post-Second Beit HaMikdash destruction composition of the opening of the Amidah. We saw how these elements reinforced and deepened our understanding of the relationship between the opening of the Shemoneh Esrei and the body of the prayer. It is hoped that, in the process, we have at least partly lifted the veil of familiarity that can obscure the meaning of this most familiar of Jewish liturgical routines.