We definitely have enemies. If we Jews are paranoid, there’s a good reason for it. I could fill this whole column with a just list of all the Hamans and Hitlers we’ve endured over the past 4,000 years. However, the blessing in our Shmoneh Esrei which I’m going to discuss isn’t about those villains at all. Actually, we’ve already begged God to deliver us from oppressive bad guys in the request to save us from ‘our afflictions’ in the blessing about GEULA or physical redemption. Oh no, here we’re talking about the worst possible threat to our continued existence: enemies from within.
This BERACHA is an enormous anomaly. The most striking thing about this blessing is that it’s negative. All the other requests are ‘Please, give us this,’ or ‘Please, provide us that.’ Not, so here. We implore God to: uproot, crush, smash, cast down, obliterate. Pretty tough stuff. Like the screen-overs from a Batman fight.
What’s going on? Clearly, the Jews at the time of its writing were suffering horribly because of the machinations of these trouble makers. Let’s set the scene: It’s approximately 100 CE. The great Jewish court, Sanhedrin, has fled the destruction of Yerushalayim and is situated in Yavne, near the coast, not far from Ashdod. Rabban Gamliel II, head of the Court, sees Jewish malcontents stirring up the Roman Empire against the downtrodden Jews of Judea. These persistent attacks threaten the fragile existence of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael. What to do?
Rabban Gamliel asks who can compose a prayer against those fellow Jews who threaten our very ability to survive. The meekest of the Court, R. Shmuel HaKatan stepped forward to compose the original version of this BERACHA. Rav Kook explained that he was uniquely able to do this because he lived his whole existence based upon the principle: Never rejoice over the downfall of your enemy (Pirkei Avot 4:19).
We’re not sure what the original version of this prayer looked like. To this day, there are more variations on this BERACHA than any other in our Shmoneh Esrei prayer. There is still a debate about which term should headline our plea. Is it against the MINIM, sectarians or heretics, or MALSHINIM, slanderers or informers?
Let’s go with MINIM first. These are Jews tearing apart the fabric of our nation by claiming that they have the only, true concept of what Judaism stands for, and all others are not only wrong, but will never inherit the ultimate reward which God has in mind for the Chosen People. There were many such sects in the first two centuries of the Common Era. The most famous, of course, was the various guises of Christianity. Until they broke off, and went a separate way. But there were also Essenes, Boethesians, Sadducees and others
What about MALSHINIM? These are members of the Jewish community who collaborate with our enemies, and, thereby, endanger every other Jew, Quislings, if you will. These informers may really have believed that siding with the enemy will be for the ultimate good of us all. On the other hand, they may just be selfish and want to flourish personally at a time when the Jews are being oppressed and persecuted. In any case, they are very bad news, indeed.
Which threat is worse? I don’t know. But at various times and places in our history one threat would look more perilous, and the rabbis of that era would emphasize one over the other. The core idea, though, is that the greatest danger to the Jewish people are these internal factions. Judaism’s success depends on cooperation between Jews, the ability to accept every Jew, almost without exception.
The actual language of the blessing is very sharp and violent. We can feel the strong emotions of the authors. For these perpetrators of Jewish self-loathing ‘let there be no hope’. Then we ask that RISHA’A, evil itself must immediately perish. We still hope these people can survive if only the evil motivations are destroyed.
All of the enemies of our people must be cut off. This imprecation, Y’KAREITU, means to have no future. This threat must be eradicated, and never seen again.
Now, we introduce a new term to describe these bad guys: ZEIDIM. This term implies a willful intent to perform evil. This person is described as knowing that their actions are wrong, but are willing to do them anyways.
Then there appears a list of terms which might come from an ad for a wrecking company: T’AKER, uproot; T’SHABER, break or crush; T’MAGER, cast down; and TACHNI’A, bring low or humble. Wow, that’s a powerful list! It’s meant to intimidate any members of these groups who might still be present to participate in or spy on our religious services. Actually, this BERACHA acted as a litmus test, if someone had trouble enunciating these imprecations, we assumed the worst about them.
These requests are demanded to be fulfilled K’REGA, ‘this minute’ or MEHEIRA (2x), ‘speedily’. These internal threats were so dangerous that they must be eliminated as swiftly as possible. We can’t live very long with these efforts to destroy us.
This difficult blessing ends with a fascinating twist. We ask that ‘enemies be broken’, but ZEIDIM, those members of the Tribe who act brazenly to derail Jewish destiny, should be MACHNI’AH. This term means ‘brought low’ or ‘caused to submit’. We would prefer them to end their destructive ways and rejoin our community. Bring them home.
The urgency of this plea is in direct correlation to the magnitude of the threat to the well-being of the nation. These threats within our community constitute an immediate and dire threat to all other Jews. This BERACHA is in direct proportion to the risk level posed by these traitors.
It’s for this reason that our Sages added this petition to our Shmoneh Esrei. There is precedent for this emergency request. Besides this list of 12 requests for the well-being of our Jewish society in the Shmoneh Esrei prayer, there are other examples of the number 12 representing the norms of a well-ordered community, like the 12 Tribes or the 12 months. And each of these twelves can be augmented, in an emergency, with a thirteenth member. Like adding a thirteenth month to keep our lunar months in synch with a solar year, or after the sin of the Golden Calf, the tribe of Levi replaced the firstborns as spiritual leaders. From those precedents, we added this 13th BERACHA, different from all the rest.
There is a certain melancholy aspect to begging God to eradicate these bad apples, but it was seen as a necessary step for the safety of all. May the need for this request soon disappear.