Sisterhood Blog

Siddur: 'Thank God for Making Me a Woman'

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Equality for Jewish women is not a 20th century invention. A siddur, or prayerbook, from the year 1471 contains an alternative text to the much abhorred “shelo asani isha” blessing that thanks God for “not making me a woman,” a text that is not only misogynistic in content but assumes that the person holding the prayerbook is male. In this 15th century book, the text reads, “Baruch she’asani isha v’lo ish,” “Thank God for making me a woman and not a man.”

According to Professor David Kramer, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the “siddur was produced by the scribe and rabbi Abraham Farissol for a groom to give to his bride in 1471.” Farissol lived in Italy from 1451–1525. The siddur, housed in JTS’ library archives, can be viewed here.

This is a significant discovery for several reasons.

First, it demonstrates the flexibility and ongoing evolution of the prayer texts, even when it comes to issues of gender. It is perhaps obvious that prayers are not fixed in stone — after all, there are so many variations in “nusach,” or version, that it would seem difficult to make the opposite argument. Yet, the staunch opposition in even the most liberal Orthodox circles to the slightest textual changes can be astounding.

In one partnership synagogue that I wrote about in my new book, “The Men’s Section,”* when a woman made a one-word change to the liturgy for the purpose of gender equality, replacing the Hebrew word for husband “ba’al” (literally “owner”) that appears in Lecha Dodi for the less degrading “ish” (literally “man”), she was effectively ostracized from the congregation. Similarly, the opposition to changing “shelo asani isha” is confounding. Indeed, when a young Orthodox rabbi recently wrote about his own decision to stop saying that blessing, the attacks on him were fierce. At least he now has some support from at least one like-minded rabbi, even if he’s been gone for a while.

This discovery also disproves the notion that history has some kind of linear progression. The medieval Italian rabbi was pre-modern, pre-feminism, and even pre-industrialism. And yet, he executed what was arguably a great feminist act. Orthodox women are so often told by rabbis that change takes time, that we cannot rush history, that social understandings have to evolve at their own natural pace. (This argument is heard so often in dealing with the agunah problem.) It seems this 15th century rabbi had a basic understanding of humanity that is lacking in so much of the Orthodox community today.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Prayerbook, David Kramer, Prayer, Abraham Farissol, Siddur

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.