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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

4. Once the Jews were exiled in the times of the evil Nevu-khadnezzar, they assimilated in Persia and Greece and other nations, had children in those countries and those children spoke confusing languages, as each one was a mixture of several languages. Due to this, people couldn’t express themselves fully in one language, rather it would be a mish-mash of language, as it says: And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples (Nehemiah 13:24); and when one of them would pray, he would find it difficult to request or praise haKadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One, Who is Blessed) in Lashon haKodesh (the holy language) without other languages mixing in.

Once Ezra (c. 450 BCE) and his court saw this, they established 18 B’rakhot in order:

The first three praising Hashem;
The last three thanking Hashem; and
The middle B’rakhot which contain requests for all of the things which are general categories for all people’s desires and for the needs of the community.

This was done so that they [the B’rakhot] would be set in everyone’s mouth (‘arukhot b’fi hakol) and they would learn them; and the T’fillah of these stutterers would be as complete a T’fillah as the T’fillah of those who are erudite. Because of this matter, they established all of the B’rakhot and T’fillot in the mouth of all of Yisra’el (m’sudarot b’fi kol Yisra’el) so that the theme of each B’rakhah would be set in the mouth of the stutterer (‘arukh b’fi ha’ileg).

The Order of Bakashot – Part I

by Yitzchak Etshalom



The Gemara in Megillah (17b-18a) provides the following explanation for the sequence of all 19 B’rakhot of the T’fillah. For purposes of this shiur, here is the section dealing with the middle 13 B’rakhot (starting with #4) – known as Bakashot (requests):
[In a parallel sugya, the Yerushalmi (JT Berakhot 2:4) adopts an almost similar approach to the rationale behind the sequence – a presentation which is beset by the same challenges I will address to this Bavli sugya]

4) Why did they see fit to say Binah (understanding) after Kedushah (the last of the “praise” blessings which precede the Bakashot)? Since it says: “They will sanctify the Holy One of Ya’akov and they will exalt the God of Yisra’el” (Yeshayah [Isaiah] 29:23) and immediately, the verse says: “And those who are lost will gain understanding” (ibid v. 24).
[In other words, the verse in Yeshaya describes the people’s return to God, beginning with their declaration of His sanctity, followed by their new understanding – thus creating a sequence of Sanctity–>Knowledge]

5) And why did they see fit to say T’shuvah (lit. “return” – meaning repentance) after Binah? Since it says: “…and his heart will understand, he will return [to God] and will be healed” (Yeshaya 6:10).
[From this verse, we see that T’shuvah is the consequence of Binah; hence the Binah –> T’shuvah sequence.]

6) If that is the case, why not say R’fuah (health) immediately after Teshuvah (it is said two B’rakhot later)? Do not think so, since it says “…he will return to YHVH, Who will have compassion over him, and to our God, for He will grant much forgiveness” (ibid 55:7) – [the implication is that T’shuvah leads to S’lichah – divine forgiveness]. Why rely on this verse (55:7 – placing S’lichah immediately after T’shuvah) as opposed to the other verse (6:10 – placing R’fuah immediately after T’shuvah)? Because there is another verse: “[God,] Who forgives all of your sins, Who heals all of your afflictions. Who redeems your life from despair…” (T’hillim [Psalms] 103:3-4) – does this mean that G’ulah (redemption) and R’fuah come after S’lichah? After all, it says: “… he will return [to God] and will be healed” (Yeshaya 6:10)! That is not healing from affliction, rather the healing of forgiveness [i.e. not physical health as much as spiritual cleansing]
. [At this point, the sequence of Binah–>T’shuvah—>S’lichah has been clarified and justified. The one difficult verse which posits R’fuah as the direct and immediate result of T’shuvah is explained to refer to spiritual health as opposed to physical health, which is the focus of the later R’fuah request.]

7) Why did they decide to put G’ulah in the seventh [B’rakhah]? Because they are destined to be redeemed in the seventh year…
[the Gemara goes on to cite a tradition indicating that the Messianic era will be ushered in through a seven year process]

8) Why did they decide to say R’fuah in the eighth [B’rakhah]? R. Aha said: Since circumcision – which requires healing – was given on the eighth day, therefore they established it in the eighth [B’rakhah].

9) Why did they decide to say Birkat haShanim (lit. “the blessing of the year” – the request for rain and sustenance) in the ninth [B’rakhah]? R. Alexandri said: Corresponding to those who gouge the market, as it says: “Destroy the arm of the wicked…” (T’hillim 10:15) – and David [the author of T’hillim] said this in the ninth [chapter of T’hillim].
[In reference to the citation of a verse from Ch. 10 being considered as from the ninth chapter, see BT Berakhot 9b, where is seems that in the times of the Gemara, the first two chapters of T’hillim were considered one].

10) Why did they decide to say Kibbutz Galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles) after Birkat haShanim? As it says: “And you, O mountains of Yisra’el, give forth your branches and bear your fruit for My nation, Yisra’el, because they are coming soon.” (Yehezqe’el [Ezekiel] 36:8)
[See BT Sanhedrin 98a – based on this verse, the Rabbis state that the clearest indication of the coming of Mashiach is when the Land of Israel begins to bear fruit. Food for thought.]

11) …and once the exiles are gathered in, the wicked are judged, as it says: “And I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross…” (Yeshaya 1:25) and it says: “And I will restore your judges as at the first…”(ibid. v. 26)
[The “smelting of the dross” in this prophecy likely refers to a selective ingathering – which is immediately followed with the restoration of proper judges – hence the sequence.]

12) …and once judgement is rendered against the wicked, the non-believers (Posh’im – following Rashi’s explanation) are destroyed – and the rebellious ones along with them, as it says: “But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together…” (ibid. v.28)
[The sequencing of judgement, followed by the destruction of sinners in the passage in Yeshaya serves as the model for the sequence of B’rakhot; we will discuss the “addition” of this B’rakhah when we get to the beginning of Chapter 2 in Hilkhot T’fillah]

13) …and once the wicked are destroyed, the glory of the righteous is exalted, as it says: “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted” (T’hillim 75:11). The righteous converts are included among the righteous, as it says: “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old (=righteous)” (Vayyikra [Leviticus] 19:32) – and juxtaposed to that, it says: “When a stranger (=convert) resides with you…” (ibid. v. 33)
[The Gemara here takes two steps; first explaining that the exaltation of the righteous can only happen once the wicked are destroyed – then including the protection of the converts among the request for God’s protection over the righteous]

14) …and where is the horn of the righteous exalted? In Yerushalayim, as it says: “Pray for the peace of Yerushalayim, may they prosper who love you.” (T’hillim 122:6)
[The Gemara utilizes this verse in T’hillim to demonstrate that those who love Yerushalayim are considered righteous – and their prosperity is linked to the peace of the city. Here, the Gemara states “in Yerushalayim” – but seems to mean “with the building of – and realization of peace within – Yerushalayim.]

15) …and once Yerushalayim is (re)built, David comes, as it says: “Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek YHVH their God, and David their king…” (Hoshea 3:5)
[The Davidic reference here is Messianic – the son of David. The inference from the verse is built upon the association of “seeking God” and coming to Yerushalayim, either to help build her up or to celebrate her being built.]

16)…and once David comes, T’fillah comes, as it says: “These I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer…” (Yeshaya 56:7)
[The phrase “T’fillah comes” is awkward and hard to decipher. It may mean “T’fillah is heard”, or it may mean “proper T’fillah (in God’s house – the Beit haMikdash) finally takes place]



There are four problems with this explanation of the sequence:

a) Whereas some of the connections are sequence-oriented (e.g. destroying the wicked and then exalting the righteous), others (e.g. G’ulah, R’fuah) depend solely on their numeric placement within the scheme of the T’fillah – which does nothing to explain their sequential placement.

b) Why are all of the justifications based on the T’nakh? We can explain the sequence of anticipated redemption as being rooted in prophecy – but why are common things which we have already experienced (e.g. forgiveness and health) grounded in Scripture?

c) Besides the cited references which suggest alternate sequences (e.g. healing following T’shuvah), there are other scenarios found in the T’nakh which follow other sequences. For instance, the Messianic visions in Zefanyah (3:9) and Michah (4:1-2) imply a universal move to worship of God – without judging and destroying the wicked.

d) The sequential connections (e.g. Binah —> T’shuvah) are based on the notion that the fulfillment of one will lead to the next – what does that have to do with T’fillah? We aren’t describing an already realized sequence – rather, we are asking for our basic needs.



Before presenting a step-by-step explanation of the order of B’rakhot – which I believe is consistent with the intent of the sugya above – let’s first respond to the four challenges above. In order to do so, we’ll have to clarify two fundamental principles about T’fillah which should provide us with a “defense” against these questions.


Even though there are almost assuredly more integral reasons for the order of the Bakashot than the “verse-connections” cited in the sugya, maintaining a T’nakh connection within T’fillah is critical. We have already seen (the shiur on Hilkhot T’fillah 1:02, Part II)that our Rabbis were hesitant to introduce any praises for God that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible. The evident reason for this is that any description of God leaves us on very thin ice; for who can claim to understand the nature of God enough to accurately describe Him? Therefore, we rely on those descriptions which are canonized prophecy and have the stamp of Truth to them.

When we step away from descriptions of God, however, this argument is no longer relevant. So why do we insist on maintaining the T’nakh connection here?

There are several explanations, each of which is grounded in the same idea: That our T’fillah is not only an opportunity to connect with God, with the rest of Am Yisra’el (spatially – the Jewish people alive today) and with the rest of Am Yisra’el (historically – the Jewish people throughout time); it is also a “weak sister” of N’vuah (prophecy) [We will discuss the Am Yisra’el connection of T’fillah in a later shiur]. T’fillah is, after all, the first step in a relationship with God – a relationship which is ultimately founded on – and defined by – prophecy.

One version of this is that it is appropriate that our T’fillah be patterned after those ideas and associations which are canonized in the T’nakh. Another angle on this is that T’fillah should be “guided by God” (akin to the sentiment in the opening verse of T’fillah – “My Lord, open my lips that I may speak Your praises”).

This answers the first three questions, as follows:

a) The numeric association is the only one that is explicitly found in a verse; even though it is not the original reason for the placement of that particular B’rakhah, it is a peg to hang our hat on within the T’nakh context.

b) Even though many of the issues included in Bakashot are commonly experienced (e.g. health, sustenance) and should not need any T’nakh grounding, we still desire to have our T’fillah be “larger than ourselves” and ultimately anchored in canonized text.

c) Again, the sequence is not _based_ on the T’nakh (which provides many alternative possible sequences and scenarios), rather, we anchor the order which has been established in a T’nakh context.


In addressing the fourth question, we have to return to an issue we discussed in an earlier shiur (Hilkhot T’fillah 1:01). T’fillah is a reflexive action, in which we are judging ourselves. In other words, when we say T’fillah, we are making certain (quiet) declarations about ourselves (vis-a-vis our relationship with God, our needs, our vulnerability) which should help shape our consciousness and attitudes. T’fillah is not only an act of calling out to God – it is also an act of self-definition and clarification.

For example, by having us ask for knowledge before anything else, our Rabbis are guiding us in the establishment of priorities (“P”) in three ways, besides the explicitly obvious (“O”):

O) Knowledge is a gift of God – that should be acknowledged and appreciated.
P1) Knowledge is important.
P2) Knowledge is of primary importance – for without it, we can do nothing else.
P3) Knowledge must be used for self-improvement (as it is followed by T’shuvah).

Returning to the fourth question – we are, indeed, describing an “ideal” self and world. One of the goals of T’fillah is to reaffirm those things which hold central significance in our lives, to stress their place in the scheme of things and their constant association with God’s blessing – and to internalize those priorities so that they affect the rest of our working day.



With these ideas in mind, we can return to the order of Bakashot and explain the sequence. I will offer a thumbnail sketch of the significance of the sequence; I suggest that you read the next section with an open Siddur, to follow the connections within the text of the liturgy. This is, of course, just one man’s perspective on T’fillah. There are many wonderful explanations offered as to the signficance of the Bakashot and their order. The goal here is, hopefully, to add another perspective.
[note that the Bakashot are arranged in two groups: I. – VI. are generally understood as personal requests, whereas VII. – XIII are global. This presentation will attempt to tie these two together. Please forgive me is this section is more “drashadik” (preachy) than the usual presentation; given the subject matter, it is nearly unavoidable]

As explained above, knowledge is the sine qua non of a religious life. Without our ability to discern right from wrong, pure from impure, liable from innocent, we have no possibility of fulfilling God’s commands. On a deeper level, without the ability to study and understand God’s Torah and God’s world (see MT Yesodei haTorah, Ch. 1-4, especially the end of Ch. 4), there is no foundation for our relationship with God.

Not only is T’shuvah impossible without knowledge – but it must be the immediate response to knowledge. On a cognitive level, when learning some new information, we should always be conscious of how to internalize that information and have it enhance our own spiritual growth. This is usually easier when studying Torah – although the natural defenses against authority often go up in such a case. When studying other forms of wisdom (e.g. science, literature) – we should also be aware of the moral obligation to utilize knowledge for growth and holiness.

Although this seems easy – once we return to God, He will forgive us; there is another powerful message here. Imagine standing in front of God and sincerely asking His forgiveness for some terrible wrong (and we all know our own secrets) – and then holding a grudge against a neighbor. The impact of our asking God for S’lichah should also be our willingness to forgive each other. (This is one way to explain the enigmatic Gemara in Rosh haShanah referring to the 13 attributes of compassion – but that belongs to another shiur.)

Although G’ulah is generally seen as a global theme, there is certainly personal “salvation” – on several levels. An individual may be caught in a terrible situation – brought on by others – from which he or she needs to be extricated. Alternatively, an individual may be suffering from depression or some other internal problem which is impeding his or her ability to live, learn, grow and achieve full potential. Being pulled out of either of these types of difficulties is rightfully considered G’ulah – and is the natural outgrowth of S’lichah. Once God forgives us – and we begin to forgive others (as per above) – we are empowered and again become masters of our own situations. As is the case in most situations where the individual needs redemption – the problem is often solvable within his or her own awareness and attitude. The awareness of a fresh start (implied in God’s forgiveness) and of our own power over the situation (our forgiving others) is usually enough to put us back on top of the situation.

This one is easy – the mind-body connection, finally being discovered by doctors, was always obvious to our Sages. Someone who has self-esteem, the respect of his fellows and a sense of mission in his life is a lot more likely to overcome physical challenges (whether they are disabilities or disease). Once we have experienced G’ulah – where we are “on top of” our lives, the result is R’fulah – health.

Here we have either a very simplistic notion – that once we are healthy, we can do that which is necessary to ensure sustenance – (i.e. work); or something a bit more sublime. It is possible that the Rabbis are suggesting that there is a connection between our own health and well-being and the success of our endeavors. On another level, once we are asking for our own health – we increase that request to include the economic community. This is the beginning of the expansion of T’fillah, moving from self (and, by implication, family) to community.

Here is where Bakashot make a dramatic shift. From here on, the scheme is one which is totally out of our control – but which helps remind us of our visions – and what we must do to help realize them. Once the Land is blessed (implicit in the previous blessing), we should see that as God’s call to us and as the preparation for the return to Israel. We understand and remind ourselves that the ultimate return and redemption cannot happen with one group of Jews – it takes all of us, from all four corners of the earth coming together – to realize that vision and to be able to begin to make it happen.

When we envision redemption, we often think about it in dreamy, fantasy terms. The sequence of Bakashot reminds us that the goal of the ingathering of the exiles is to create the just, ethical society – where not everyone will automatically be “good” – and that demands proper justice. This is a subtle return to the themes of knowledge and T’shuvah which begin the Bakashot. On a “doing” level, we are constantly reminded of the centrality of proper justice and its indispensability in any utopian vision.


These two work in tandem – but the order is significant. The righteous can only operate, be impactful and lead the society where the wicked have been judged and put in their proper place. (Ideally, of course, this is rehabilitative and the wicked are brought back to the proper path – but, in the end, the societal result is the same – no more wicked people.) The inclusion of the converts here is telling (so significant, it was mentioned in the sugya above); historically, the convert was the least protected member of society, as he or she had no family or roots within the community. Our recognition of that great sacrifice requires that we ask God’s blessing of protection for them along with the righteous – and, again, we envision that in the future, their stock will rise along with the righteous when their great ardor for Truth is recognized. Again, on a “here-and-now” level, saying this Bakashah should remind us of who we should be exalting – and who we should be shunning. The temporary success or fame of people who are, from our perspective, wicked, should not be cause for our raising their banners and attempting to emulate them. We should be praising, learning from – and supporting – the righteous.


This is, fundamentally, the end of the series. As we will discuss at the beginning of Ch. 2, it is likely that these two Bakashot were originally one. Our vision for the future, while universal in scope and (possibly) universal in impact, includes a definite focus. Yerushalayim, the city of justice (see Yeshaya 1), ruled by (a descendant of) the righteous king David is the picture we paint of our own ideal future. It is easy to be impacted by this Bakashah in our own day (we must do what we can to help rebuild Yerushalayim); but, in meta-historic sense, this Berakhah may have done more to keep the Zionist dream alive for two-thousand years of exile than anything else. Our daily declaration of what is important to us keeps those things at the forefront of our awareness and concerns – and whenever an opportunity to act on them arises, we jump at the chance.

Although the sugya includes this in the sequence, it seems that this Bakashah is a generic-type summation of all of the Bakashot. We can see this from the signature (“Shomea’ T’fillah”) which is common to many other B’rakhot (e.g. T’fillat haDerekh, T’fillah K’tzara, Havineinu).

now, to the questions:

– Q1: Why is the ability to express oneself in one single language necessarily a reflection of erudition?
JHJoseph Harrar ([email protected]):
Somebody who expresses himself in a single language has a wide vocabulary and is aware of all its subtleties. He understands the meaning of the Tefilla. Is he erudite?

YE Yitz Etshalom ([email protected]):
A closer look at the Rambam’s ruling indicates that the problem was not mixing languages so much as the inability to fully praise and request in Lashon haKodesh. Although T’fillah may be said in any language (Mishnah Sotah 7:1), it is clearly preferable to speak God’s praises in Hebrew. One possible reason for this preference is that we generally limit our praises of God to those phrases and expressions which already exist in Scripture – and since any translation deviates in some way from the original, if we stick to the Hebrew phrasing as found in the Bible (e.g. ha’El haGadol haGibbor v’haNora), we will be assured of capturing the sense of that expression right on.

Besides this, there is a communal aspect to T’fillah which should never be overlooked. By maintaining the Jewishnature (if you will) of T’fillah, the experience builds on the individual communion with God and creates and sustains communal and global Jewish connectivity.

– Q2: Was the number 18 preselected and the B’rakhot formulated around that – or did the number of necessary B’rakhot just play out that way?
JH: 18 is the Gematria of ‘Hay (‘Het-Yod), ‘alive’. Perhaps this number was pre-selected, and perhaps it is why the name of the Tefilla is still Sh’mone Esre although the number of berakhot was increased to 19.

YE: It seems fairly clear from the content of the B’rakhot – where some themes are “stretched” over several B’rakhot and others are compacted into one (see the upcoming shiurim) that there was a predisposition to selecting 18. The Gemara (BT Berakhot 28b) cites three opinions as to why 18 B’rakhot were selected (either representative of the 18 mentions of God’s Name in T’hillim [Psalms] 29, 18 mentions of God’s Name in K’riat Sh’ma or 18 verterbra in the back [which is bowed during T’fillah]). This Gemara seems to support the “predisposition” approach.

– Q3: Why does Rambam state that the B’rakhot were established “in order”?
JH : The blessings of the Sh’mone Esre follow a set order that is derived from Scriptural source. This is explained and proved in the Gemarah (Megillah 17b-18a). The blesings were established by the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe K’nesset haG’dolah) and later re-arranged by Shim’on haPakuli before Rabban Gamliel in Yavne because the order had been lost.

YE: See above shiur – and next week’s posting.

– Q4: Why does Rambam list the first three B’rakhot – then the last three B’rakhot, before presenting the middle requests?
JH: Because we find these berakhot in all of the Tefillote (Shabbat, Rosh ‘Hodesh, Mo’adim, Yamim Noraim). The middle part changes.

YE: As indicated in an earlier shiur (Hilkhot T’fillah 1:03), the praise and thanks play a formalistic role, surrounding the focal point of T’fillah (request) on both sides. Rambam mentions them together because they essentially fulfill the same objective. See the Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4 “R. Aha b’shem R. Yeshoua b. Levi…shel b’riyot”, where the first and last three and seen as one piece, with the requests in the middle.

– Q5: How much of liturgy was truly “fixed” during Ezra’s time – and how much was seen as malleable?
JH : I think the first three and last three berakhot were fixed during Ezra’s time. Each three of them are treated as a single unit.

YE: It is clear from the Gemara (e.g. Berakhot 33b) that, at least in the case of the public T’fillah (Hazarat haSha”tz), there was broad flexibility even in the first and last three B’rakhot. It may be that Ezra and his court established the order of B’rakhot, the basic theme of each and certain minimal liturgical formulations – such as the Hatima (signature form) of each B’rakhah.

– Q6: Based on this Halakhah, it would seem that someone who is capable of personalized T’fillah should extemporize. If someone is erudite, must they follow the established liturgy?
JH: I think that somebody, even if he is erudite, has to follow the established liturgy based on the principle : “..Lo tasur min hadavar asher yaggidu l’kha, yamin us’mol. ” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 17:11), “Don’t deviate from the thing they will tell you either to the right or to the left. “
What the ‘Anshe K’neset haG’dolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, have established cannot be modified since all the people who followed them were of less stature and only people of same or greater stature could bring any modification.

YE: Agreed – with one caveat. In many of the B’rakhot (certainly all of the requests), it is laudable to add in individualized and personal requests. There are two conditions here:

a) That the request be consistent with the theme of the B’rakhah (e.g. requesting a healthy recovery for someone who is sick during the B’rakhah of health);

b) That the necessary form of the B’rakhah be maintained (e.g. that the personalized piece be added not at the very beginning or end of the B’rakhah).