Encyclopedia Judaica

BIRKAT HA-MINIM - "benediction concerning heretics", the 12th benediction of the weekday Amidah. This benediction, which varies in wording among the different rites, invokes divine wrath upon "slanderers," "wickedness," "Thine enemies," and the "kingdom of arrogance," and adores God, "who breakest the enemies and humblest the arrogant [sectarians]." Prevailing scholarly opinion, based upon Ecclesiasticus 36:7, holds that this prayer originated during the Syrian-Hellenistic oppression in the time of the Second Temple, and that it was directed against those Jews who collaborated with the enemy. At that time, the prayer was known as the "Benediction to Him Who humbles the arrogant." A century later the imprecation was directed against the Sadducees, and it was designated as the "Benediction concerning the Sadducees." Under Rabban Gamaliel II (first century C.E.) this prayer was invoked against the Judeo-Christian and Gnostic sects and other heretics who were called by the general term min (plural minim). To avoid any suspicion of heresy, the hazzan had to be certain to recite this prayer in public worship. If he omitted it by error, he had to return and recite it, although such a regulation does not apply to any other benediction (Tanh. B., Lev. 2a). Although some scholars hold that there were only 17 benedictions prior to the inclusion of this prayer into the Amidah, others contend that Birkat ha-Minim was the 19th.

The formulation of this prayer is ascribed to Samuel ha-Katan, who revised its text after it had fallen into oblivion (Ber. 28b). The many different historical situations in which this prayer was used are reflected in the variant readings still extant. The text has been further confused as a result of censorship during the Middle Ages. In geonic times, this prayer was invoked against poshe'im ("sinners") or, as Maimonides read it, against apikoresim ("heretics"), whereas in the Mahzor Salonika and in the Roman Mahzor it refers to meshummadim ("the apostates"). This term was further changed into ve-la-poshe'im, which later became ve-la-malshinim ("slanderers"). In some versions other expressions were substituted for the word minim: e.g., "all doers of iniquity," regardless of origin and nationality. The Sephardi ritual retained minim. Instead of the passage "and all the enemies of Thy people," as in older versions, the modified Ashkenazi and Roman rites read: "and they all." The phrase malkhut zadon ("kingdom of arrogance") by which the Roman Empire was meant, was changed by Amram b. Sheshna (Amram Gaon) into "the arrogant," as in most rites. The concluding phrase "who breakest the enemies and humblest the arrogant" (Siddur Amram Ga'on) was replaced in some versions, by: "who breakest the evildoers" (Siddur Sa'adyah Ga'on and Maimonides). From the historical evidence, it is clear that this prayer was never meant to be directed against non-Jews in general, but rather against Jewish heretics and gentile persecutors of the Jews. Nevertheless Jews were often accused of including a special imprecation against Christians in their statutory prayers. In modern times, the text has further been adjusted and many prayer books substitute the impersonal "slander" and "evil" for "slanderers" and "evil doers." In several Reform rites, the prayer has been modified or omitted.

[Meir Ydit]