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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Ordering the Matriarchs in the Avot V'Imahot:
The Leah and Rachel (or Rachel and Leah) Debate

Adapted from the Listserv iWorship

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[NOTE: The section of the liturgy in which Rachel and Leah are named, the Avot v’Imahot, can be found in Mishkan T’filah on p. 76–77, p. 166–167, p. 244–245, p. 274, p. 324, p. 346 and p. 470–471.]

In Talmud and Midrash the order is more commonly found as Rachel and Leah. There is never an explanation why, though the speculations many have offered are reasonable. It strikes me that this verse is something of a Rorschach, drawing strong personal reactions. Nonetheless, there’s something significant to be said for following the tradition here, especially since there is nothing inherently negative in it.

A coincidence occurs as a result of changing the order of Rachel and Leah. After Leah, the next word is Ha-El (The God) which, of course, is Leah spelled backwards. It makes for good midrash and certainly downplays any sense that Leah was less significant than Rachel.

In balance, the argument for changing the most common traditional order and also being dissimilar from all other liberal movement prayer books was not strong enough. I appreciate that some may disagree. It’s important to know that the decision was thoughtfully studied and considered over many years of our work on the siddur.

{Rabbi Elyse Frishman}

In the classical and medieval Talmudic and Rabbinic literature both orders are included: Rachel v’Leah, Leah v’Rachel—the former in 72 instances and the later in 25. Nobody much worried about the order in the 1994 version of Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays until the Conservative Movement published their new siddur, Sim Shalom, using a different order. The order Rachel v’Leah derives less from the Talmudic literature than it does from the only Mi Shebeirach formula in the traditional siddur that uses the matriarchs’ names at all—this is when a husband or son donates money to the synagogue in honor of his wife or mother—otherwise the matriarchs’ names never appear. The formula there is Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, v’Leah. This was clearly the precedent drawn on by the Conservative Movement and the one Mishkan T’filah has chosen to follow at this juncture. This is ultimately a debate in which both sides have good reasons; it boils down to a matter of taste and/or tradition.

{Dr. Richard Sarason}

Other Changes to the Avot V’Imahot:

  1. When the prayer was first adapted in our Movement to include the Matriarchs, the language overall was not consistent. For example, while some used avot v’imahot (Fathers and Mothers) others used dorot (Generations). Some argued grammatically that in Hebrew, avot includes imahot and should be translated as the gender-neutral Ancestors. Others stressed that language can communicate gender dominance, and so even though avot may have been technically correct in its inclusivity, it paralleled “mankind” instead of “humanity.” We were seeking broader, more inclusive language.

    {Rabbi Elyse Frishman}

  2. The chatimah, or final line of the prayer, and how it came to read Ezrat Sarah: Other siddurim that have included the names of the Mothers use the phrase Po’keid Sarah (takes note of Sarah; Genesis 21:1) which parallels the sense of God as helper and sustainer in times of difficulty that we hear in the phrase Magein Avraham (shield of Abraham). We include that chatimah on the left side as an alternative.

Rachel Adler reminds us that prayers try not to introduce new language into the chatimah, and so when the chatimah for Avot V’Imahot was first considered, it was likely that term Ezrat Sarah was chosen for this reason (Ezer [Helper] appearing in the body of the text just before the chatimah, while Po’keid does not).

{Rabbi Elyse Frishman}

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