NYP no. 5763.6



Matriarchs In The Tefilah



I have two questions concerning the wording of the liturgy we use in our Reform synagogues.

  1. The Reform movement has sought to include the Matriarchs in the Avot. Which order is appropriate: should the names of the three Patriarchs be stated first followed by the Matriarchs, or should the wives be paired with their husbands (Avraham veSarah), etc? In my opinion the goal of reducing gender bias is best achieved with the latter approach and therefore is preferable.
  2. Of the four woman who bore the sons of Jacob, we mention Leah and Rachael in the Avot. Should Bilhah and Zilpah be included as Matriarchs? By leaving these women out, the Reform movement gives tacit approval to the idea that woman is property. Indeed after Rachael and Leah die, Israel refers to Bilhah and Zilpah as his wives. In my opinion, it is essential to the concept of equality to add these two unsung mothers in the Matriarch listing.As the new Reform prayer book its reaches conclusion, these two issues need immediate attention. I look forward to your responses. (Cantor Jerome Krasnow, South Windsor, CT)


  1. The Matriarchs in the Tefilah.[1] It has become the widespread minhag (custom) in our congregations to add the names of the imahot, the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, to the names of the Patriarchs in the first benediction of the tefilah.[2] The motive for this change in the traditional prayer text was to express our understanding that all Jews, both male and female, participate equally in Israel’s covenant with God and to give voice to the role of our Matriarchs in the transmission of that covenant to their descendants. This innovation is consistent with the liturgical tradition of the Reform movement, which from its inception has embraced the notion that the formal, public prayer recited in our synagogues should reflect our people’s most deeply-held values and commitments.[3]Our innovation is also consistent with the much older liturgical tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, the foundation of our own worship service. We say this in terms of both the history and the theory of that tradition. The history of Jewish prayer is a story of ongoing change and development, not only during the Talmudic period, a time when the formal rules of liturgical practice had not yet been established,[4] but also during subsequent centuries, when the halakhah of Jewish liturgy had supposedly been set in stone.[5] In adjusting the words of the tefilah to the needs of our time, therefore, we are simply doing what Jews have always done with the text of their prayer. Moreover, the halakhah itself, the “rules” and theory of traditional Jewish liturgy, does not prohibit liturgical innovation. On the contrary: change, fluidity, and pluralism are the essence of prayer as that term is understood in the sources of Jewish law. The Talmud defines “prayer” as rachamei, a heartfelt supplication to God, rather than the recitation of a fixed text; therefore, “one may pray in whatever way one wishes to pray.”[6] Indeed, as Maimonides recounts the story, in its original form the Torah’s mitzvah of prayer imposed no fixed text upon the worshiper: one may approach God with words of one’s own choosing that reflect the content of one’s mind and heart.[7] Over time, of course, the Jewish community adopted a fixed text for the tefilah, the “Eighteen Benedictions.”[8] This text was taken quite seriously. The Talmud goes so far as to declare that “one who alters the form (matbe`a) of a benediction (berakhah) that the Sages ordained has not fulfilled his obligation.”[9] Yet even this rule does not forbid us from making appropriate adjustments in the text of the liturgy: a berakhah may depart from its accepted wording provided that its content and theme of the new text correspond to those of the traditional form (inyan haberakhah).[10] Our version of the tefilah’s first benediction does retain its traditional content and theme: that our God is also the God of our ancestors, the Biblical progenitors of the Jewish people. Our text surely does not please those Jews who are temperamentally opposed to all liturgical innovation.[11] Nonetheless, it is in accord with the history of Jewish prayer and with the demands of liturgical halakhah.
  1. The Order of the Names. Let us turn now to our sho’el’s specific queries. Is it better, as he suggests, to recite the names of the Imahot along with the names of their husbands or to recite them separately, as is our custom? There is no one obviously correct answer to this question. Our sho’el may be right when he says that his version–“the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebecca,” and so on – is the more egalitarian one.[12] Yet it can be argued that his text would have the opposite effect, presenting the Matriarchs primarily as wives rather than as individuals, each with her own personal relationship with God. Indeed, our “female” parallel to that formulation –“the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Leah, and the God of Rachel”[13]– expresses the idea that the Matriarchs are equivalent to the Patriarchs as a group as well as individually. Moreover, the current formulation – “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”– is taken verbatim from the Torah’s narrative of God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:15 and 4:5). The tefilah is replete with Biblical quotations, and preserving these expressions in our prayer can be said to reinforce the link between our present-day community and our origins as a covenant people. In short, each of these two wordings has its advantages, and we see no compelling reason to demand that one version be given preeminence over the other.
  2. The Maidservants. Should the names of Bilhah and Zilpah, the maidservants of Rachel and Leah, be included in the tefilah? Again, one can argue in favor of this departure from our Reform minhag. As our sho’el indicates, the Torah does refer to these two women as the “wives” of Jacob (Genesis 30:4, 9; Genesis 37:2), even though elsewhere it calls them his concubines (Genesis 35:22).[14] Moreover, there is a midrashic text that numbers Bilhah and Zilpah among the “six matriarchs” of Israel.[15] Finally, it can be argued that to include the maidservants in our prayer is to make a strong statement against social elitism and in favor of an affirming attitude toward diverse family structures.[16]Yet much can also be said in defense of our current custom. We single out the names Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, not because of their legal status, but because each of them plays a pivotal role in the Biblical narrative: in their relationship to their families, husbands, and children and in their influence upon the events that shaped the course of Israelite history. Each of these four women, in other words, appears to us as a personality in her own right, not simply as the wife of a patriarch. The agadic tradition, in fact, regards them as prophets,[17] recipients of divine revelation. This suggests that it is possible to view Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel as partners with their husbands in the establishment of the covenant. By including their names in the first benediction of the tefilah, we simply take this traditional Jewish conception and make it explicit. By contrast, none of these characteristics apply to Bilhah and Zilpah, who simply do not occupy such an exalted position in the Biblical narrative and in the religious memory of the Jewish people.[18]

    Thus, in this case as well, while Reform Jews are certainly entitled to include the names of Bilhah and Zilpah in the first benediction of the tefilah, we find no compelling reason to recommend that change from our current practice.



  1. It is not the function of this Committee to determine the text, structure, or wording of the new prayer book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Those tasks belong to the prayer book’s editors, as overseen by the CCAR Liturgy Committee. (As of this writing, the new prayer book of the CCAR, Mishkan Tefilah, is still in preparation.) We therefore venture no opinion here as to the appropriate text of the new siddur. We consider this she’elah rather because it touches upon a matter of Reform Jewish religious observance and, as such, does pertain to the function of this Committee.
  2. This innovation appears in recent liturgical publications of the Conference, including Gates of Prayer for Shabbat (New York: CCAR, 1992). Our current “official” siddur, Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book (New York: CCAR, 1975), does not include the imahot in the Hebrew texts of the tefilah, but it does mention them in several English renditions of those texts (e.g., at pp. 229 and 356).
  3. For the historical record of liturgical innovation within our movement, see Jakob J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe: The Liturgy of European Liberal and Reform Judaism (New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1968), and Eric L. Friedland, Were Our Mouths Filled With Song: Studies in Liberal Jewish Liturgy (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1997).
  4. Space does not permit us to cite the long list of scholarly works in the history of Jewish liturgy that argue this point. We content ourselves with mentioning two of them: Stefan C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), and Joseph Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud (New York: de Gruyter, 1977).
  5. Two of our CCAR colleagues have produced groundbreaking research in this area: Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Canonization of the Synagogue Service (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), and Ruth Langer, To Worship God Properly: Tensions Between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1998).
  6. BT Berakhot 20b and Sotah 33a.
  7. Yad, Tefilah 1:1-3. Rambam derives that prayer is a Toraitic mitzvah from a midrash on Deuteronomy 11:13, which requires that one “serve God with all your heart”: “what is this ‘service of the heart’? It is prayer” (BT Ta`anit 2a). Not all halakhists accept this narrative. Nachmanides, for example, holds that Jewish prayer originated not as a Toraitic commandment but as a popular practice, reflecting the need and desire of human beings to communicate with God. See his hasagah to Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment no. 5. Importantly, though, both authorities agree that tefilah was originally an utterance that had no fixed, defined text or structure.
  8. Yad, Tefilah 1:4. Rambam holds that this text was instituted by “Ezra and his beit din (rabbinical court).” This is his version of the Talmudic tradition that ascribes the text of the tefilah to the “120 elders, including the latter prophets” (BT Megilah 17b) or to “the members of the Great Assembly” (BT Berakhot 33a). Historians of Jewish liturgy do not take these statements literally, although some are of the opinion that the tefilah was in fact the product of a formal enactment by a religio-legal institution. Rambam’s narrative affirms the traditional conception that the specific forms of the prayer we recite are miderabanan, established by Rabbinic ordinance (takanah).
  9. BT Berakhot 40b, following the opinion of Rabbi Yose.
  10. Rambam, Yad, Berakhot 1:5-6. If this is the case, then what in Rambam’s view does constitute an “unacceptable” change in the matbe`a of a benediction? The answer can be found in Yad, Keri’at Shema 1:7. There, Rambam writes that because Ezra and his beit din instituted the forms of the blessings, “one is not entitled to detract from them or to add to them. In a place where (the Sages) require that one conclude with a chatimah (i.e., to recite a “barukh atta” formula at the end of a paragraph), one is not permitted to do otherwise. In a place where they require that one not conclude with a chatimah, one is not entitled to do otherwise… The general rule is this: one who alters the form (matbe`a) of a berakhah that the Sages established is in error and must repeat the berakhah correctly.” In other words, an unacceptable change in the form of a berakhah is defined as an alteration of its formulaic structure. A change in the wording of a benediction, including the wording of its chatimah, is not defined as an improper alteration of its form and is therefore halakhicly acceptable, so long as the new form retains the content and theme (inyan) of the traditional matbe`a. This is the plain sense of Rambam’s rulings in these passages, and it is the way that R. Yosef Karo understands him as well; see the latter’s Kesef Mishneh, Berakhot 1:5-6.
  11. For example, we imagine that Rambam himself would not have been delighted with our insertion of the names of the Imahot. In Yad, Berakhot 1:5, he writes that “it is not proper (ve’ein ra’ui) to alter the texts of the berakhot, to add to them or to detract from them.” Yet as Karo notes (Kesef Mishneh ad loc.), Rambam pointedly does not say that one who changes the traditional wording of a berakhah does not fulfill his ritual obligation thereby. In Rambam’s view, so long as one retains the theme and content of the traditional berakhah, “it is not an error (ta`ut)” to recite the benediction according to its altered wording, even though he would prefer that the individual not make that linguistic change. In other words, opposition to liturgical innovation per se is a matter of style and temperament rather than of liturgical law.
  12. It also reflects the historical and developmental nature of our understanding of God: the covenant is handed down from generation to generation, and each generation arrives at its own appreciation of its terms.
  13. Our current siddur texts mention Leah before Rachel. Yet it is perfectly acceptable to alter that order, following the verse in Ruth 4:11.
  14. See Ramban to Gen. 37:2, end: perhaps Jacob made Bilhah and Zilpah his wives following the deaths of Rachel and Leah. This elevation in their legal status can be seen as an effort to insure that the sons they bore to Jacob (and the tribes who descended from them) are considered equal to his other sons. Rashi hints at this possibility, while R. David Kimchi states it explicitly; see their commentaries to Gen. 37:2.
  15. The text in Bamidbar Rabah 12:17 (Vilna ed.) is paralleled in Shir Hashirim Rabah 6:2 Esther Rabah 1:12.
  16. Rabbi Richard Rheins, a corresponding member of this Committee, states: “I believe that it is our duty to raise awareness of the blessed role Bilhah and Zilpah played as mothers and nurturers of our people. Questions about their social status or even their ethnic origin are irrelevant. The Torah does not give us minute details about their lives. Accordingly, the text’s ambivalence permits us the interpretive freedom to see Bilhah and Zilpah in roles that seem modern and familiar. In the modern era, interfaith families, new spouses, single parents, and stepchildren are not uncommon. And yet the quality of a family cannot be judged by its composition. The essence of a family is in the commitment made by each of its members to love and nurture. Those who fulfill that commitment deserve our honor, respect and appreciation regardless of their ethnicity or social status. An inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah would be an effective role model for those of blended families.”
  17. Bereshit Rabah (Vilna ed.) 67:9 and 72.6. Sarah is a special case: her gift of prophecy is said to have exceeded that of her husband (BT Megilah 14a; Shemot Rabah 1:1; Rashi to Gen. 21:12).
  18. We would add that we disagree with the sho’el’s assertion that by omitting the names of these maidservants “the Reform movement gives tacit approval to the idea that woman is property.” By this logic, one might as well say that by mentioning the names of Leah and Rachel we give our tacit approval to the idea of polygamy. That conclusion, of course, would be absurd.