Weekday Morning Amidah: Avot v’Imahot

Medieval iconography.

The first blessing in the Amidah, traditionally known as Avot (fathers, in the sense of ancestors), explores God’s relationship with the founding fathers of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the mid-20th century, the Reform movement, as well as other progressive streams of Judaism, added in the founding mothers: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.

This addition posed an additional question of change, however, as the chatima (the “sealing” final line of the prayer) concludes “…magein avraham“, “shield of Abraham”. For the prayer to be fully egalitarian, it made sense to include a reference to Abraham’s female counterpart, Sarah. The Reform liturgy thus added the phrase “v’ezrat sarah“, “and helper of Sarah”.

By changing the prayer’s chatima, those who emended the prayer opened themselves up to a challenge on the grounds of a Talmudic opinion that a chatima should have only one object.

In b. Berachot 49a, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says one does not use two objects in a chatima. A sage named Levy challenges him, bringing examples of accepted prayers whose chatimot have more than one object.

First is a blessing from birkat hamazon, which concludes “for the food and for the land”. The discrepancy is resolved by arguing that food comes from the land, so it is really one thought.

The next example comes from a prayer specifically for holidays, which concludes “who sanctifies Israel and the [holy] times”. This one is resolved by arguing that it is the people of Israel who sanctifies the holy times, and thus what appears as two actions performed by God are actually one, with a trickle down effect when Israel, having been made holy by God, makes the holidays holy.

A final example comes from the prayer recited when a holiday falls on Shabbat. This one contains not just two, but three separate objects: “who sanctifies Shabbat, Israel, and the [holy] times.” This one is not resolved, but rather accepted as an exception that proves the rule. Of course, perhaps Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was simply very strict about not having two objects, while three or more were okay with him…

This sugya from the Talmud presents a liturgical principle, that a prayer should conclude with only one thought. Perhaps this is why the original chatima of Avot only included Abraham, rather than the other patriarchs who were mentioned earlier in the blessing. When the prayer was updated to include the matriarchs, and Sarah was included in the chatima, one could argue that it no longer follows the principle of one thought. It clearly has two objects, but I might say that it represents one thought in that the point is God has a protective relationship with our ancestors.

The new chatima is different from the examples that were brought in the Talmud and harmonized because it has two verbs as well as two objects. The extra verb proves more of a problem regarding the principle of one thought than the extra object, because two objects can be included under a unified verb, while two verbs appear very clearly to represent two thoughts. In this case, it may simply be that a new liturgical principle – egalitarianism – is in conflict with the existing single-thought principle.

What do you think of the principle of each prayer being dedicated to single thought?