Shiur #17: Enemies

  • Rav Ezra Bick


Let there be no hope for the informers,

and let all the heretics be eradicated immediately,

and all the enemies of your people be speedily cut off;

And the kingdom of iniquity speedily uproot, shatter, crush, and subdue

speedily in our days.

Blessed are You, Who shatters enemies and subdues the iniquitous.



            Note: Chances are, a majority of the readers do not recite exactly this version.  There are an unusual number of different versions of this berakha, which reflects its history, subject to non-Jewish assault and Jewish self-censorship.  All the versions recited today differ from earlier ones.  I have chosen the version reflected in the translation for two reasons.  One, it is the one I recite.  Two, it will serve my purposes in this shiur.  It must be noted, however, that it is impossible to rely excessively on any particular choice of words in this berakha, whose "correct" text is impossible to determine.  We shall discuss this point later.


A.        Birkat Ha-minim


            This berakha, called "birkat ha-minim," has a unique status within the Shemoneh Esrei.  "Shemoneh Esrei" means, of course, "18."  There are, in fact, nineteen berakhot in the Shemoneh Esrei (count, if you will).  The nineteenth berakha, the one added after the eighteen had already been formulated, is the one we are discussing today.


Rabban Gamliel says: Every day one prays eighteen (blessings)....

These "eighteen" berakhot - there are, in fact, nineteen? R. Levi said: The blessing of the heretics was drafted in Yavne (at a later date)....

The Rabbis taught: Shimon HaPakuli arranged the eighteen blessings before Rabban Gamliel in their proper order in Yavne.  Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: Is there no one who knows how to draft the birkat ha-minim (blessing of the heretics)? Shmuel HaKatan stood up and drafted it.  The next year, he forgot it, and paused for two or three hours (trying to remember it), but they did not replace him.  (Berakhot 28b).


            It seems that the birkat ha-minim was added to the original eighteen berakhot at a later time, and that its addition elicited a special problem for Rabban Gamliel, the nasi.  Who, he asks, can possibly be the one to draft the language for this berakha?  What's more, the one man who is capable, Shmuel HaKatan, subsequently "forgot" the berakha, and there was no one who could recite it.  A noticeable hesitation and confusion surrounds the institution of this additional blessing. 


            It is generally accepted that Rabban Gamliel decided to add this blessing in response to the difficult conditions of his time.  The Jewish community in the Land of Israel was heavily oppressed by the Roman conquerors, and heretical sects in the midst of the community eat away from within.  These are the times of the Judeo-Christian sects who were still part of the Jewish community, as well as other deviations, such as the gnostics, etc.  In fact, the opening word of our text - "malshinim" (informers) is generally assumed to be a censored replacement for something more explicit, (the most common sources use the word "meshumadim"), including the possibility of "notzrim" found in some old texts, or "tzedukim," itself a common replacement for Christians, or heretics. 


            Nevertheless, the ferocity of the imprecations of this "blessing" undoubtedly cause concern, especially within the context of daily prayer.  "Uproot, shatter, crush, and subdue, cut off and eradicate" - the berakha seems to delight in piling on synonyms of destruction.  I have defined the blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei as listing the basic needs of man, in relationship to his God and creator.  Is this fervent desire for the destruction of the wicked really a basic need of Man?


B.        The Evil Empire


            Careful analysis of the berakha indicates that it has two parts and refers to two different kinds of people.  This is made quite clear by the compound "chatima."  Generally speaking, there is a rule against a compound chatima, one having two verbs ("ein chotmim be-shenayim").  In this case, it is acceptable since the two parts are apparently close enough in meaning that it is considered one theme.  Nonetheless, the compound form indicates that there are two different, if closely related, themes here - "Who SHATTERS ENEMIES and SUBDUES THE INIQUITOUS."  In other words, there are "enemies," and there are "the iniquitous" ("zeidim").  This is borne out by a statement of the Talmud Yerushalmi concerning this blessing.  "One includes (the blessing) of heretics and of sinners in 'subdues the iniquitous'" (Ber. 4,3).  It is quite clear that there are two distinct themes, which the Talmud is stating should be joined - the birkat ha-minim and "Who subdues the iniquitous."


            The "iniquitous" (zeidim) in the chatima is a reference to "the kingdom of iniquity" (malkhut zadon) in the text of the blessing.  (Again, many versions of the blessing have the phrase "the iniquitous speedily uproot" in place of "the kingdom of iniquity speedily uproot."  This is undoubtedly an emendation of the censor, who correctly identified the "kingdom of iniquity" with the powers he represented.)  In the Talmud, the phrase, "the kingdom of iniquity" refers to the Roman empire, which was seen by the Sages as the embodiment of tyranny, enslavement, enmity and evil.  The Roman empire was understood to be the "fourth (and final) kingdom" of exile, which continues to our day.  So this phrase refers not to individual sinners, or even enemies, but to the principle of political oppression, the center of enmity to God's rule in the world, the principle we often call "Amalek."  (Rav Soloveitchik zt"l once mentioned to us that the principle of Amalek exists in every generation and need not be descended from the ancient Amalekites genetically.  A few years before, he said, Amalek lived in Berlin; now - this was in the early 70's - he had moved to Moscow.)


            We now understand the military terms used in our blessing.  This is not a request for JUSTICE OR JUDGMENT - that was already included, in much less violent terms, in the previous blessing.  This is a request for VICTORY, for victory of God Himself over the forces of evil, over those who would banish His name from the world.  This indeed is a basic need of Man.  The world as it is, appears to the man of religious faith to be an affront to the kingdom of God, as he envisions it.  If, in the previous blessing, we prayed that "You should rule over us, HaShem, alone, with kindness and mercy," we immediately understand that this kingdom of God, even if based on Jewish society, is impossible as long as the world is in the clutches of forces dedicated to erasing His holy Name.  Since, as I pointed out last time, we are now in a series of blessings which express our yearning for redemption, for the ascendancy of God on His throne, this is a necessary and crucial step in that direction.


            The language of this part of the blessing closely resembles the first part of the special additions of Rosh HaShana.  There we ask God to bring the entire world to His worship, and then, "all the evil shall disappear in smoke, when you cause the iniquitous kingdom to pass from the world."  This is immediately followed by its natural conclusion: "And You shall rule, HaShem our God on all your creation... as is written, 'And HaShem shall rule, your God, Zion, for ever and ever." We are not concerned with revenge here, or even primarily with personal deliverance, as with redemption, redemption of the entire world, politically and spiritually. 


C.        Heretics


            But this is only the original framework of the blessing.  To this, the Sages added the "birkat ha-minim," the blessing on heretics.  This clearly refers to Jews, like the ancient Judeo-Christian sects.  By including them together with "the evil empire," the Sages are indicating that we are no longer hoping for their repentance, but for their destruction.  They are no longer seen as sinners but as representatives of sin, of evil.  And this, I imagine, leaves all of us feeling more than a little uncomfortable.


            R. Yehuda b. Yakar, in his commentary to this blessing, refers us to the famous section in the Talmud (Ber. 10a):


There were some ruffians in the neighborhood of R. Meir who greatly oppressed him.  R. Meir prayed that they might die.  Beruria his wife said to him: On what do you base yourself, on what is written "Sins shall disappear from the earth" (Psalms 104, 35)? Does it say "SINNERS shall disappear"? It says "SINS shall disappear"! And furthermore, keep reading to the end of the verse - "and the evil will be no more." When sins will cease, there will be no more sinners.  What you should do is pray that they will repent, and then there will be no more sinners.  He prayed for them and they repented.


            Here we see that the Sages were opposed to praying for the personal destruction of sinners.  The prayer on Rosh HaShana as well refers to "evil" going up in smoke, not evildoers.  But that is clearly not the aim of our blessing.  Here we explicitly ask God to bring about the destruction of the informers, heretics, and enemies.  How are we to understand this?


            (R. Yehuda b. Yakar answers that we recite this blessing only after having previously prayed for the repentance of all Jews.  We are now only praying for destruction on the assumption that repentance is no longer an option).


            There is no simple answer to this question, but I believe that the answer is found in the decision of the Sages to include the "heretics" within the framework of the "kingdom of iniquity." Theoretically, the Sages will not pray for the death of sinners.  This is not a matter of being "politically correct," or merely a matter of morality; rather it indicates the true target to which we are opposed.  Beruria, the wife of R. Meir, correctly identified the enemy as EVIL, and not evildoers; SIN, and not sinners.  While it is people who oppress R. Meir, the root cause is sin, evil.  If that is removed, the people, today's enemies, can be rehabilitated.  On the other hand, there exists a concept of "the kingdom of iniquity." The forces of evil organize and create an evil organization.  Here, the individual people become secondary.  It is a matter of principle that we fight and oppose these forces and not hide behind the abstraction "evil." Judaism has never favored pacifism or quietism.  Acceptance of the existence of evil in the world is collaboration with it, and is itself an offense to the kingdom of God and the sanctification of His name in the world.  Hence, the martial and bellicose language of this blessing, for indeed we conceive the world as a field of battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil - "God is at war with Amalek, for all generations" (Exodus 18,16).


            At some point in history, long after the original formulation of the basic needs of Man in prayer, the Sages felt the need to pray for the destruction of the enemies from within.  This can only be possible if these enemies are now identified with evil itself, with a war on God.  They are not merely practitioners of sin, but have joined the forces which oppose the sanctification of God's name in the world.  In other words, they have, perhaps unknowingly, joined the "kingdom of iniquity." This is not an easy decision for the Sages to reach - and in fact, they cannot find anyone who is able to simply compose such a prayer.  Why is this so difficult? Simply because these words DO NOT COME NATURALLY TO ONE WHO HAS BEEN TRAINED TO PLEAD WITH GOD FOR THE VICTORY OF THE GOOD.  Destruction can never naturally be part of the victory of good.  In fact, in a pointed indication of his own sense of reservation with the prayer he has composed, Shmuel HaKatan himself "forgets" the text of the prayer and remains silent for "two or three hours" trying to say it.  Can there be any clearer indication of the ambiguous attitude that the Sages held for this blessing?!


            Shmuel HaKatan (Shmuel the Little) is the author of the comment in Pirkei Avot, "Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemies." Undoubtedly, that is why he was chosen to compose this prayer, for he can be counted upon not to allow the war with evil to become a personal vendetta.  This is the paradox - here he is called upon to indeed aim the imprecation against evil personally, not merely against abstract evil, or against the organized forces of evil, but against particular individuals as well.  At the same time, he is qualified to do that precisely because even as he prays for the elimination of such people, he is not truly fighting them personally, on the level of the individual, but only because their identification with evil has become so great that we cannot remain silent, lest our identification with good be impugned.  And yet, one year later, he cannot remember the text.  The words remain foreign, even when they are necessary.


            To put it another way, the principle that our opposition to evil per se is absolute and unforgiving is a basic necessity - an unfortunate necessity - of life.  To imagine that it is possible to maintain this attitude while holding only benign opinions concerning all individual Jews is naive, and perhaps even contradictory.  That is, refusing to EVER condemn personally a Jew casts a doubt on the necessary degree of true opposition to evil itself.  This does contradict another principle of Jewish life, the Beruria principle.  Somehow, we live, uncomfortably, with that contradiction, as Shmuel HaKatan did.  Personally, I do not think that you have to have any particular Jews in mind when reciting this berakha (I do not).  But I do think that you have to be ready to do so, or else you are undermining your own commitment to the forces of good, the kingdom of God, and the sanctification of His name in this world.



            Next shiur, we come to a more pleasant topic - the opposite of this week's.  From the bad guys, we move on to the good guys - "al ha-tzadikim."