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Drash What is the Meaning of Avosaynu?

Drash, May 2000 by Mark Berch

Some months ago,  David Woodward spoke about the meaning of the term “avosaynu”, literally “our fathers”, which appears at the start of the Amidah and in other places such as “Ezras avosaynu” on page 350.   David argued, persuasively in my view, that in the context where the mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah are recited, that the word imasaynu, “our mothers” is not needed.  In this view, we don’t need to say, as many TI chanters do, “avosaynu v’imasanynu” because, in this context, avosaynu doesn’t mean  the literal “our fathers”, but rather the broader “our ancestors”.  And this is true even though there is another word for ancestors in Hebrew, horaynu.   The phenomenon of a word having both a narrow literal meaning and a broader meaning is common in languages.  The English word “forefathers” itself can be understood as narrowly gender specific or more broadly.  Similarly, the Hebrew “Ben” or “Bnai” can be used narrowly as specifically male, or more broadly as not gender specific,  e.g. “children”.

As it happens, this very question, namely, should avosaynu be understood just literally, or should it be given a broader meaning, was discussed by Jews for more than a thousand years before a resolution was reached.

The word avosaynu presents an immediate problem for a convert: Can she or he actually say that?  The stakes  are considerable.  If this cannot be recited, the convert cannot lead the congregation in prayer either.  Such a prohibition would be a rather public exception to the general obligation not to remind a convert of his past, and to treat him as a Jew in all respects.


The question is first taken up in the Mishna (around 200 CE).  Tractate Bikkurim says that the convert brings first fruits to the Temple but the convert does not recite the Deuteronomic incantation from Chapter 26, 3-ll because he can’t say, “ ... which ((land)) God has sworn to our  fathers to give us”.  When he prays by himself, he is to say, “God of the fathers of Israel”; in synagogue, he says, “God of your fathers.” The Mishna, thus, takes the narrow, literal view of the term.


The  Babylonian Talmud (“Bavli”) has no tractate (Gemara) on Bikkurim, but another tractate refers to the Deuteronomic declaration for support, and the Bavli offers no contrary reasoning.  In this view, conversion does not provide for any form of Jewish ancestry.  The convert cannot say avosaynu.


In the Jerusalem Talmud (“Yerushalmi”) however, R. Judah says that a convert does recite the declaration, in flat contradiction to the Mishna.  In Genesis 17:3, God says “ ... your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations”.  Thus, Abraham is a kind of father to converts (an idea found in some midrashim as well) and so a convert does have a kind of Jewish father.  A second Rabbi says the law follows R. Judah, and R. Abbahu rendered a decision according to R. Judah.  R. Abbahu lived long after the Temple was destroyed, so first fruits were no longer brought. Thus, one would assume that his ruling dealt with the question of whether the convert says “God of our fathers” instead of “... your  fathers.”  --- rather than the ruling referring to the first fruits blessing. A ninth century Babylonian collection of laws follows the Mishna --- the convert can’t say the blessing ---  in discussing the Temple procedure, but makes no mention of the prayer issue.  Of course, this tells us only what the law was, not what people actually did.  They aren’t always the same.


In the 12th century, Maimonides wrote from Egypt  a famous letter to “Obadiah the Convert”, saying that the convert most certainly can say avosaynu and also another passage from Grace After Meals, “who has chosen us”, and similar language. It would appear that Obadiah had been prohibited from a whole range of uses of this phrase, not just in the Amidah.  The Yerushalmi was cited by Maimonides as support.  A second report comes from Ravyah, again in the 12th century, saying that a convert had been prohibited from being a cantor in Wurtzburg.  Ravyah made known his view that Yerushalmi is to be followed, rather than the Mishna.  This is an abnormal priority: ordinarily, the Yerushalmi would not outweigh the Mishna endorsed by the Bavli.

A third report from that time comes from the Tosafists, Talmud commentators in France.  Rabbenu Tam ruled that a convert may not lead the Grace After Meals because of the phrase, “You have given to our fathers....”, citing the Mishna.  But R. Isaac, his nephew, disagrees, citing the Yerushalmi.


Maimonides’ towering authority resolved the issue among Sephardim.  But  some Ashkenazic authorities followed Ravyah who permitted the convert; others followed Rabbenu Tam who did not.  By the 16th century, however, the debate was ended.  Karo in the Shulkhan Arukh says that converts may always use the phrase, and Isserles, the leading Ashkenazic authority, does not disagree.  “Our Father” in these many prayers will not be taken in its narrow literal meaning, but in a broader, less specific sense.

Thus, when we accept the convert leading the service, we are already accepting a non-literal meaning of the word avosaynu.  So when a service leader includes the names of the mothers, that, in my opinion, provides a clear context for understanding avosaynu as not gender specific, but instead a word meaning ancestors.

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Given at Tifereth Israel, Washington DC on May 13, 2000