Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.
The Jewish prayer book (siddur) is thick with texts: blessings, thanksgivings, and petitions, instructions, theological claims, and historical memories. Some traditional texts bear especially outsized burdens. In this respect, few can rival three lines that begin “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me…” and conclude, respectively, “a goy [Gentile],” “a slave,” and “a woman.”
These three blessings, a standing provocation to all sorts of sensibilities, are at the center of a new book on the Jewish liturgy. Its author, Yoel Kahn, traces their history from antiquity down to the present, illuminating how they have been interpreted, revised, translated, excised, and, in varying ways, restored.
The three lines are embedded in a string of similarly-worded formulas that open the preliminary morning prayers known as birkhot ha-shahar or the “dawn blessings.” Most of these thank God Who “gives the rooster understanding to distinguish day from night…gives sight to the blind…clothes the naked…raises those who are bent down,” and so forth. They appear in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and, as presented there, are meant to be recited in private at home as one starts the day: awaking, opening one’s eyes, dressing, standing upright, and so on. Today we might call them an exercise in mindfulness, aligning our consciousness with the acts that knit together our daily routines and, as Kahn points out, heightening our awareness of God’s hand at work in the world.
Where Do They Originate?
The three blessings in particular seem to have originated outside Jewish circles. From the third century B.C.E., we find written record of a quip, ostensibly attributed to Socrates, that expresses gratitude for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, Greek and not barbarian. An analogous one-liner circulated in Zoroastrian circles. The Jewish formula, a version of which first appears at about 200 C.E., was unconnected with the dawn blessings and was recorded in a different tractate of the Talmud (Menahot 43b).
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