February 9, 2012


Do Jews Curse the Christians?: A New Book Analyzes Famed Birkat Haminim Prayer (Raphael Magarik, February 09, 2012, Forward)

"Cursing the Christians? A History of Birkat Haminim" is the product of Langer's efforts. The book traces birkat haminim from its murky origins in late antiquity -- just how late remains contentious -- through a long period of censorship and revision by both Jews and Christians, and up to the present. But it is tricky to say what a history of birkat haminim is a history of. About all one can say for sure is that the prayer invokes the speedy end of someone, or something, bad.

The earliest surviving complete versions of birkat haminim were found in the Cairo Geniza and date from the 10th century or later. But since the prayer appears in Talmudic and Christian discussions from 500 years earlier, we know at least half a millennium of the text's history is missing. Earlier Jewish scholars viewed rabbinic stories -- that describe the fixing of birkat haminim at the council of Yavneh in the first century -- as sources of history and dated the prayer to the late first century.

After the Holocaust, Christian theologians and scholars became newly interested in Christian-Jewish relations, in the history of anti-Semitism and in exploring the parting of the ways through which the two religions originally split. Birkat haminim seemed to resonate with John 9:22 ("for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue"). But Langer rejects the speculative reconstructions that, drawing upon Talmudic stories, connect birkat haminim to John and place its origins in the first century. The passages in the New Testament aren't very specific (and some other early Christian references don't fit birkat haminim at all), and Talmudic origin stories may just be legends. Jerome (347-420 CE), a church father best known for translating the Bible into Latin, discusses the prayer, so it existed in some form by the 4th century. But that's about all we know.

If we know too little about birkat haminim before the Cairo Geniza, afterward we know too much. The Geniza, famously discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1896, contains many versions of the prayer. Though Langer's count has six original types (from roughly 1000 CE), this textual fecundity persisted; much of "Cursing the Christians?" involves cataloguing and analyzing the innumerable later variants. The Geniza texts disagree on important points. For instance, most versions ask that nozerim -- a fairly clear reference to Christians -- immediately perish, but some don't.

The word "nozerim" shows up in hardly any contemporary versions of the prayer; neither does the phrase "malchut zadon" ("empire of insolence"). After Christian authorities learned about birkat haminim in the 13th and 14th centuries, they censored the prayer. Censorship intensified when the printing press made books more common, uniform and universal. Some of the most interesting parts of Langer's book document the give and take of censorship: Christian polemics complain of anti-Christian language long after those words had been censored, for instance, which proves that Jews did not always follow the censored text of their siddurim.

But over time, censorship prevailed, and in the modern era, liberal movements have, of their own initiative, softened the prayer, replacing concrete nouns ("enemies of your people") with abstractions ("wickedness"). In the 18th and 19th centuries, Hasidim and others tried to retrieve the "original" text of the prayer, comparing the available siddur texts and different local traditions, but these "retrievals" usually just resulted in more changes. There isn't any one text of birkat haminim; there are many.

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Posted by at February 9, 2012 6:24 AM

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