Including the Imahot: Two Approaches

by Rabbi David Golinkin

There is no doubt that some Conservative Jews feel that there is something missing in the Avot (Fathers) blessing recited three times daily at the beginning of the Amidah. This is legitimate, for many changes in Jewish practice have resulted from the way that people feel. To address this feeling, there is a custom today to add the Imahot – the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah – at the beginning of the Avot blessing and to add Sarah again at the end.

However, in order to change the wording of the Amidah, which is the central prayer of the siddur and of the Jewish people, it is not enough simply to want such a change. It also must be permissible halachically and appropriate liturgically and theologically. The applicable principle is hamotzi meihavero alav har’ayah (the person who demands something from another bears the burden of proof). Authentic liturgical and halachic changes are made on the basis of halachic sources and historical precedents. A change made on the basis of desire alone is not authentic.

Proponents of this specific change make three central claims with which I respectfully disagree. First, they claim that some versions of some blessings of the Amidah from the post-talmudic era differ from our version, which was accepted at the conclusion of the Geonic period (ca. 1000 CE). But the question is not whether it is permissible to change a word or an expression in the Amidah but whether it is permissible to change the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing.

Proponents further assert that the Rabbinical Assembly already has changed certain expressions in the siddur. Those changes include omitting the words v’ishei yisrael (and the fire offerings of Israel) in the Amidah, replacing “we will make and offer [sacrifices]” with “they made and offered [sacrifices]” in the Musaf Amidah, and changing the early morning blessings referring to gentiles, slaves, and women from the negative to the positive. Therefore, they contend, it is permissible to change the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing. Indeed, it is permissible to change the three prayers mentioned on the basis of halachic and liturgical precedents, but such changes do not teach us anything about changing the Avot blessing, which must be examined on its own merits.

The third claim of the proponents is halachic. They argue that the proposed change is permitted by Maimonides, who wrote in Laws Concerning Blessings 1:6, “And if one altered the wording [of any blessing], as long as he mentioned God’s name and sovereignty and the theme of the blessing, even if not in Hebrew, he has fulfilled his obligation.” But in the previous law (1:5), Maimonides ruled that “the wording of all the blessings, Ezra and his court enacted them, and it is not appropriate to change them nor to add to one of them nor to detract from one of them, and anyone who changes the wording coined by the sages in the blessings is simply erring.” Furthermore, in the Laws Concerning the Shema (1:7), Maimonides expressed an even more adamant position against changes in the wording: “The basic principle is: Anyone who changes the wording coined by the sages in the blessings is mistaken and he must go back and bless [the blessing] as coined.”

In any case, it is clear from the language used by Rabbi Meir and Rav in the Talmud (Berakhot 40b), by Rav Hai Gaon (Otzar Hageonim to Berakhot, Peirushim, p. 56), by Maimonides himself, and by the Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 167:10 and 187:1) that someone who changes the wording fulfills his obligation only after the fact, but those in our movement who add the Imahot to the Amidah do so ab initio, before the fact, on a regular basis.

Furthermore, in Laws Concerning Prayer 1:9, Maimonides wrote, “And the three initial [blessings of the Amidah] and the three concluding [blessings of the Amidah], one may not add to them nor detract from them, nor make any change in them at all.”

In summary, there are no halachic precedents at all for changing the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing.

Adding the names of the matriarchs in the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing is also without liturgical precedent. Changing the beginning of the blessing contradicts biblical theology as well as biblical Hebrew and it also attempts to rewrite biblical history. The blessing is called Avot in five places in rabbinic literature (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5; Yerushalmi Berakhot, Chapter 4; Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 4, fol. 59d; Rosh Hashanah 32a; Megillah 17b). Indeed, its name reflects the blessing’s content and purpose.

As already explained in the Mekhilta (ca. 200 CE), the first sentence of Avot is actually taken from Exodus 3:15, “Our Lord, the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The first sentence reflects the fundamental biblical belief that God made a covenant with the patriarchs. And so we declare every morning in the Hodu prayer taken from I Chronicles 16:16-17: “Who made a covenant with Abraham and an oath with Isaac, and He established it for Jacob as a statute, for Israel as an eternal covenant.” The sages who wrote the Amidah chose the opening from Exodus 3:15 in order to declare the founding fathers of our nation and their covenant with God at the beginning of the prayer par excellence, the Amidah.

Indeed, according to the Bible, God did not make a covenant with the matriarchs. The expressions “Imahot,” which appears 76 times in rabbinic literature, and “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah,” which appears 15 times, mostly in late midrashim, do not appear in the Bible at all. The sages did not include the matriarchs in the Amidah – a concept that they themselves had created – because they did not want to rewrite history.

If we add Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah to Avot, why not add Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David as we do when we invite the ushpizin into the sukkah? Or Moses, Aaron, David, and Solomon, as we do in the Me Sheberach for the sick? Or why not add Bilha and Zilpa, for there are midrashim that say that there were six matriarchs? The answer is simple: Avot does not deal with midrash but rather with the plain meaning of the biblical text, where there were three and only three founding fathers of the Jewish people.

Advocates of the Imahot also add “Upoked Sarah” at the end of Avot after Magen Avraham. Once again, changing the closing formula of the Avot blessing is unprecedented in the 2,000-year history of the Amidah. Magen Avraham appears in all Jewish prayer rites and in all manuscripts and genizah fragments examined to date. It is based on the verse “Do not fear Avram, I am a magen [shield] for you; your reward is very great” (Genesis 15:1). The Amora Resh Lakish, who lived in Israel in the middle of the third century, already knew and expounded on this formulation (Pesahim 117b). Finally, the phrase Upoked Sarah is quite surprising. The word poked appears in the Bible 10 times, and in every case it means “visits the sins” or “visits the guilt,” as in “who visits the sins of the parents on the children” (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9).

Champions of the Imahot wish to convert the language of our tradition into egalitarian language, but this type of language impoverishes our tradition. According to this logic, we will have to change the “Sabbath Queen” to the “Sabbath King,” “Come O Bride, Come O Bride” found in Lecha Dodi to “Come O Groom, Come O Groom,” “Avinu Malkeinu” to “Imeinu Malkateinu,” and the Me Sheberach for the sick from the matronymic to the patronymic. Such changes water down the tradition and make the liturgy homogenous and parve. On the contrary, the Jewish tradition is enriched by the diversity of expressions, some in the masculine and some in the feminine.

There is an enormous difference between liturgy and prayer. Liturgy is a more or less uniform text that expresses a nation’s or a religion’s classical ideas. It is intended to connect us to the past. Prayer, on the other hand, is a personal expression that is supposed to change and the sages set fixed places for such prayers: in the middle of the Shome’a Tefillah blessing, just before the conclusion of each of the middle blessings of the Amidah, at the end of the Amidah, and in Tahanun.

Most of the important national events of the last 2,000 years have not been added to the daily Amidah. There is no hint of the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49, or the Shoah. These things found their way into other parts of the liturgy but not into the Amidah. The Crusades are recalled in Av Harachamim, other tragedies were memorialized in piyyutim (liturgical poems), the Babylonian yeshivot were immortalized in Yekum Purkan, and the state of Israel in the Prayer for the State and in the Me Sheberach for IDF soldiers. These central events in our people’s history are not found in the daily Amidah because it is liturgy, which expresses biblical and rabbinic theology, and not prayer, which expresses personal needs.

I am impressed by the sincere desire to make the Amidah more relevant. The problem is not the goal but rather the method. Changing the opening and closing formulae of the Avot blessing is contrary to halachah, contrary to our liturgy, and contrary to classical theology. But there is an authentic way to insert changes into the Amidah and that is through the use of piyyutim. From the talmudic period onward, liturgical poets continually composed piyyutim in which they expounded on the weekly portion and even related to contemporary events. This approach was especially popular in Eretz Yisrael until the end of the Geonic period. The authentic and traditional way to add the Imahot to the Amidah is to compose a short piyyut or several short liturgical poems to be recited in the middle of Avot or other blessings of the Amidah. In this way, the Imahot can be added without changing the ancient wording of the Amidah itself.

Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, the dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, has composed such a piyyut. I hope that it or a similar piyyut will be adopted by those who wish to incorporate the Imahot into the Amidah in a halachic and authentic way.

Rabbi Professor David Golinkin is the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. This article is abbreviated from a lengthier responsum, which can be found at under Responsa in a Moment for February, 2007.

by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond

Generally speaking I am conservative in matters of liturgical change. Nonetheless, I have begun including the Imahot, the matriarchs, in the Amidah. I would like to explain the basis for my decision and respond to those who find this practice objectionable from a halachic perspective.

Students of halachah know that at times larger goals – what the jurisprudential scholar Ronald Dworkin calls principles, as opposed to rules – are a factor in shaping the direction that halachah takes. The decisions of our movement validating women as constituent members of a minyan, shelichot zibbur, Torah readers, and recipients of aliyot reflect the broader principle that they are an integral part of the praying community. This is reflected in a liturgical change adopted by the editors of Siddur Sim Shalom. In the Me shebeirach prayer following the Torah reading on Shabbat, we ask, according to Sim Shalom, that God bless “this entire holy congregation and their children” rather than following the prayer’s original formulation, which requests divine blessing for “this holy congregation, their wives, and their children.” This latter version assumes that since women are not part of the minyan they are not members of the kahal, or congregation, which consists only of those who make possible the recitation of the prayers that require a minyan.

Of course, as Dworkin notes, principles sometimes must yield either to opposing principles or to the force of the rules that already are in place. Thus, if there is no basis in the halachah for justifying the inclusion of the Imahot in the Amidah, as some have argued, the principle must yield to the rule. However, in my view, an examination of the halachic arguments of those who oppose inclusion yields the conclusion that there is indeed halachic warrant for the inclusion of the Imahot.

One claim is that halachah forbids any changes in the first or last three berachot of the Amidah. However, this statement appears in neither the Talmud nor most standard codes of halachah; see, for example Shulchan Aruch 112:1. Rather, this is Maimonides’ view, based on R. Judah’s ruling in Berachot 33b forbidding the addition of petitionary prayers to the first and last three berachot of the Amidah. Note that the Talmud itself forbids only the addition of petitions, because the function of the first three berachot is praise and the last three have thanksgiving as their subject.

Moreover, historically this prohibition has been honored more in the breach than in the practice. Both the first and the third of the final three blessings of the Amidah include petitions. The first begins, “May Your people Israel and their prayers find favor before You”; the second, “Grant peace, goodness, and blessing to us and to all of Israel Your people.” Additionally, it became the practice in the early medieval period to add petitionary requests in both the first and last three blessings of the Amidah during the Ten Days of Repentance. These additions were incorporated into public prayer, despite objections, because of public sentiment. After the fact, these formulations and additions were justified by arguing that the passage in Berachot forbade only the incorporation of personal petition into the first and last three blessings; petitions on behalf of the entire community, it was said, may be inserted. What we see from this, I would argue, is that sometimes halachah has acceded to the popular perception of what the shape of the liturgy should be. At times this was undoubtedly a case of the rabbinic leadership bowing to the inevitable. However, perhaps the rabbis were also acknowledging tacitly that on occasion amcha, the people, has a better sense than the rabbinic elite of what prayers are meaningful and effective for them. As the Talmud says, “If [the people of Israel] are not prophets they are nonetheless the descendants of prophets” (Yerushalmi Pesahim 6:1, 33a; Pesahim 66a, and elsewhere).

There is also a certain irony in the fact that some of the opponents of the insertion of the Imahot in the Avot blessing propose instead inserting a piyyut or liturgical poem referring to the Imahot. While I regard this proposal as well intentioned and I truly admire the beauty of some of the piyyutim, I cannot help noting that for the most part piyyutim were an early medieval creation of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael and were opposed by a number of the scholars heading the Babylonian academies.

Another objection to the insertion of the Imahot is that to do so is to do violence to the intent of the berachah. The theme of the berachah, it is claimed, is the covenant that God made with the patriarchs; therefore it is inappropriate to include the matriarchs, who were not explicitly included in the covenantal process. In order to evaluate this objection we must turn first to an examination of some of the Genesis narratives, and then to an analysis of the structure and themes of the Avot blessing.

It is incontrovertible that the language of covenant appears exclusively in connection with the patriarchs. However, let us reflect on the content of the covenant. The patriarchs promise exclusive fealty to God and to walk in God’s ways. In return, God promises that Abraham’s progeny will become a great nation, inheriting the land of Canaan. For this covenant to be fulfilled Abraham’s descendants must be worthy of answering God’s call. Both Sarah and Rebecca play important roles in determining which of their or their spouses’ two children is fit to be a partner to the covenant. Indeed, Genesis emphasizes that Sarah and Rebecca have greater insight than their husbands. God explicitly endorses Sarah’s view that Ishmael must be sent away, in part, it would seem, so that he not be a threat to Isaac. Contrary to Isaac’s preference, Rebecca favors Jacob and engineers his receiving the blessing intended by Isaac for Esau. Ultimately, at least according to rabbinic midrash, Isaac confirms the legitimacy of the blessing he has given Jacob. “R. Eleazar said: It is only through its signatories that a document can be validated. In order that one not say that had not Jacob deceived Isaac he would not have received the blessings Scripture teaches us [that Isaac confirmed these blessings, saying [in Genesis 27:33] ‘and he [Jacob] will remain blessed’” (Genesis Rabbah ch. 67). Finally, Rachel and Leah, by offering their maidservants to Jacob as concubines – and Leah, by exchanging some mandrakes for the opportunity to spend a night with Jacob – play an important role in bringing the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel into being.

Let us now consider the content of the Avot blessing. An oft-noted peculiarity of this blessing is that unlike all other berachot, its opening formula portrays God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” rather than “our God, the Sovereign of the Universe” (Eloheinu melech ha’olam). There are thus two differences between the Amidah’s formulation and the usual berachah formula: God is described as having a relationship with individual people rather than with the world; and that the relationship is not with the person reciting the blessing (as in “our God”) but with his or her ancestors.

Why the difference? Two explanations come to mind. The first is that our liturgy is establishing that God’s love for us and His willingness to hear our prayers are due not to our own merits but rather to the merits of our ancestors, the patriarchs. Second, the liturgy may be alluding to the rabbinic tradition that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the first to pray, respectively, the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers (Yerushalmi Berakhot 3:6, 7a; Berakhot 26b). Thus, in offering our prayers to God we are following the path blazed by our ancestors.

Rabbinic tradition provides us with a basis for making a connection between these themes and the Imahot. Alongside the concept of zechut avot, the merit of the patriarchs, rabbinic literature contains references – only a few, to be sure – to zechut imahot, the merit of the matriarchs (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1, 27d; Rosh Hashanah 11a). According to a late midrashic collection it was in part because of the merit of the matriarchs that God passed over the houses of the Israelites during the plague of the firstborn (Sekhel Tov Genesis ch. 49).

As for the origins of prayer, while it may be true that rabbinic tradition attributes the origin of our prayers to the patriarchs, some rabbinic sources attribute prayer to the matriarchs despite Genesis’ silence on this matter. A late midrash depicts God acceding to Sarah’s prayer that the length of her future descendants’ enslavement be shortened (Midrash Aggadah on Genesis 21:1). Genesis 25:21 is interpreted to mean that Rebecca prayed opposite her husband that she be granted a child, and Rachel is said to have criticized Jacob for not following his father’s example and praying together with her that she bear children (Tanhuma Va- Yetze ch.19). Finally, while Hannah is not one of the matriarchs, it is noteworthy that rabbinic tradition regards her manner of praying as a model of how a person ought to pray (Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1, 7a; Berakhot 31a).

Until this point I have examined the case made by those who do not favor the inclusion of the Imahot. A word should be said about a counterargument sometimes made by those favoring the inclusion of the Imahot and the response of their opponents. The inclusionists point out that those who oppose the inclusion of the Imahot are inconsistent in that they approve of other liturgical changes instituted by the Conservative movement, in particular the shift in the Shabbat and festival musaf from language expressing a hope that the sacrificial system be restored to a formulation that describes sacrifices as a thing of the past. The response of those opposing the inclusion of Imahot is that this change is relatively minor because it does not occur at the beginning of a blessing.

To me this seems to be a case of missing the forest for the trees. There is no question that the consensus of rabbinic thought was that prayer was meant to be a temporary substitute for the sacrificial system until it could be restored; this conviction is expressed many times, both implicitly and explicitly, in the traditional liturgy. To move away from this doctrine involves a paradigm shift of major proportions, one of much greater import, it seems to me, than the shift implied by the inclusion of the Imahot. Indeed, to the extent that an ideological shift is implicit in this latter liturgical emendation, it is merely a reflection and continuation of a shift that began the moment men and women began praying together with no mehitzah cordoning off women from the formal tzibbur constituted by the men.

Let me conclude by saying that men and women of good will and fervent commitment to Torah and the Jewish people can and should be able to disagree while respecting the integrity of other positions and those who champion them. I hope this will be a useful contribution to what is, I believe, an argument for the sake of heaven.

Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Diamond is Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has lectured widely on the challenges of prayer and is writing a book on this subject.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016