Counting Your Blessings
I’m having trouble with the additional 19th “blessing” of the shemoneh esreh “silent prayer”. First, it hardly seems a blessing, but rather a curse against heretics. I’m surprised the rabbis would ask for the destruction of other fellow Jews. Second, how could one rabbi add to a prayer that was instituted much earlier by many rabbis?
To understand this blessing, its inclusion must be put into historical context. It was instituted in Yavneh during the tenure of Rabban Gamliel who was the Nassi, or leading rabbi of Israel, sometime after the destruction of the SecondTemple. It was a response to the threats and attacks of heretical sects against believing, practicing Jews. These sects were enamored and impressed more with a non-Jewish way of life than with Judaism and they had an agenda to lead other Jews away from the fold.
They executed their program not only through persuasion, but also through mobilizing their full financial and political power to align with the wicked, anti-Semitic Roman government’s persecution of the Jews. Their slander against their defenseless brethren, coupled with their advice to the Romans on how to uproot the Jews from Torah (based on their inside knowledge), exacerbated the persecution and led to much suffering and slaughter of their own people.
Regarding what you describe as a curse in disguise, it’s important to clarify that our calling the sections of the shemoneh esreh “blessings” in English is not entirely accurate. The middle sections of this prayer are actually requests to G-d to fulfill our needs, including guarding and protecting us from those who want to physically or spiritually harm and destroy us for no reason other than our being Jewish. It is in this vein that the blessing against the heretics should be understood. The following story from the Talmud will serve as an instructive example before examining the language of the blessing more closely.
In Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood, there was a gang of dangerous hoodlums who persecuted the populace. Over time, the situation became so unbearable that Rabbi Meir prayed to G-d to take their lives and save the innocent inhabitants from their oppression. When Rabbi Meir’s wife Beruria overheard her husband’s prayer she gently rebuked him by quoting a verse that says “and sins will be taken away from the Earth”. She noted, the verse doesn’t say ‘sinners’ will be removed, but rather ‘sins’. Instead of praying that they die, let’s pray that they repent. They prayed together and eventually the gang repented.
If you look closely at the language of the blessing, you’ll see that the emphasis is not on physically destroying these Jewish enemies of the Jews, but rather on asking G-d to foil their plans (“let them have no hope”), disempower them (“be cut down”, “uproot’, “smash”) and cause them to repent (“cast down”, “lower them”, “humble them”). Even the words “perish” and “destroy” in the prayer must be understood in this manner, otherwise what’s the point of asking that the heretics be humbled.
Accordingly, you see that as opposed to the heretics who aligned with the anti-Semites to physically and spiritually destroy the Jewish people, the rabbis “retaliated” by praying that they repent. Unfortunately, this phenomenon of Jewish anti-Semites is not particular to those times. Recent history is replete with examples of wealthy, influential Jewish “non-Jewish wannabees” aligning with anti-Semites in their agenda to uproot Jews from traditional, authentic Judaism.
Regarding the authority of Rabban Gamliel to add a 19th blessing to what was originally instituted as 18: As I mentioned above, he was the Nassi who headed the high court in Yavneh. Those sages were authoritative enough, and the times were trying enough, that it could be done. Another explanation is based on the number of the middle blessings of which this prayer against the heretics is one. The shemoneh esreh is comprised of 3 opening praise-blessings, 3 concluding thank-blessings and what were originally 12 request-blessings that became 13.
We find in Judaism that 12 and 13 are often interrelated as one: There were 12 tribes that became 13 when tribe status was given to Joseph’s two sons in his stead. Similarly, there are 12 Jewish months that become 13 when the month of Adar is doubled in a leap year. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for one, ‘echad’, is comprised of the letters ‘chet’ with the numerical equivalent of (8) and ‘dalet’ (4) equaling 12, which together with the ‘alef’ (1) is 13. In all of these cases, the 12 and 13 are really one. So too, the 12 intermediate blessings became 13 which are one.