The Language and Scope of Asher Yatzar

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

 

Although the blessing of "Asher Yatzar" is one of the most frequently recited berakhot, it is perhaps the one which evokes the least interest.  This is probably due to the fact that this berakha is recited subsequent to releasing bodily waste.  In this shiur, we will explore the structural function of this pervasive berakha in order to better understand its significance in our liturgy. 

 

The Gemara in Berakhot (60b) states, in very concise language, the obligation to recite this berakha after excretion.  In fact, it mentions a formula to be recited prior to the experience as well, which is no longer part of normative halakhic practice.  The Gemara provides little indication about the purpose of the berakha of Asher Yatzar.

 

Perhaps inspecting the actual text of the berakha may yield a sharper sense of its function.  Were the berakha to be directed primarily at the experience of personal hygiene, we would expect a more streamlined berakha, addressing the specifics of this experience.  Instead, the berakha seems very broad in scope, discussing wisdom with which Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu created man and the delicate nature of various organs and their proper operation.  Is the sweeping language of the berakha indicative of a more expansive message and a more all-encompassing function?

 

The Rishonim in Berakhot seem to be divided over this issue.  When describing the organs which God created and which must remain either open or closed, Rashi speaks of several organs related to the digestive process but also mentions certain unrelated parts of the body (chest cavity and nose, for example).  Evidently, the berakha addresses bodily functions, in general, and not merely excretion.  Tosafot's comments are even more dramatic: the wisdom we refer to in describing God's creation of man alludes to the sequence of creation.  First God created food and only subsequently man, assuring that this newly fashioned creature would have ample nutrition available.  The organs which we state "must remain either unclogged or sealed" allude to a more general feature of human existence: that our orifice-laden bodies do not leak the souls which they contain (a provocative and interesting subject matter for praising the Creator). 

 

An interesting comment of the Kol Bo further highlights the sweeping scope of the berakha.  Many versions of the berakha include a phrase that if organs designed to remain open were jammed or vice versa—EVEN FOR AN INSTANT ("afilu sha'a echat")—we would not survive.  The Maharam of Rotenberg strongly opposes the recitation of this line, since a person can close his or her mouth momentarily without causing damage or harm.  The Maharam assumes that the berakha primarily discusses the mouth, and therefore finds this language erroneous.  The Avudraham disagrees and claims that this phrase refers to the fragile first moments of life, when jammed orifices would be debilitating.  By reciting this berakha we thank God, not for our current digestive situation, but for general health and for attendance to our precarious condition at birth.  It is quite clear that this view casts the berakha as a more general description of life and health.  Interestingly enough, the Bet Yosef (OC 6:1) refutes this option because this element is UNRELATED TO WASTE REMOVEAL.  Evidently, he views the berakha as more narrowly oriented toward the physiological process of waste removal.  He cannot tolerate a language of which veers beyond this theme.

 

A third definitional question surrounds the phrase "Healer of all flesh" ("rofei khol basar").  This phrase certainly implies broader physical wellbeing provided by Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, and both Rashi and Tosafot adopt this understanding.  Yet the Avudraham (ironically enough) asserts that the "healing" refers to the salutary effect of relieving waste.  If bodily refuse were not to be eliminated, it would cause illness; its excretion is therefore regarded as a quasi-medical procedure.  This indicates that Asher Yatzar is a berakha which revolves primarily around the experience of waste disposal.  It is intriguing that the Avudraham is willing to stretch the phrase referring to "jammed passages" well beyond the narrow context of defecation, yet is unwilling to allow the same expansion regarding the conclusion of the berakha, which alludes to God's "healing powers." 

 

A final element of the berakha which may indicate its design is the opening phrase "Who created humanity with wisdom" ("asher yatzar et ha-adam be-chokhma").  Which particular judiciousness is this phrase evoking?  Rashi references the aforementioned aspect, that the human body is full of orifices, yet a person's soul does not escape; this mystery reflects God's wisdom.  This would seem to be a general image, unrelated to the digestive process.  Tosafot cite a Midrash Tanchuma which praises God for first producing food and only afterwards creating man; as such, humans were able to receive nutrition immediately after their creation.  It is this "wisdom" of Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu which we address in the berakha.  On the one hand, the phrase references events which stretches well beyond the limited context of the digestive process; alternatively, the phrase still does elaborate an event related to nutrition. 

 

The Bet Yosef questions why the Tur does not elaborate the question of which 'wisdom' was evident at the time of our creation.  He concludes that the Tur believes that it obviously refers to the great wisdom contained in the human body and therefore did not bother to elaborate.  It seems that the Bet Yosef believes that the Tur deems the berakha a general one, even though the Bet Yosef himself may not view it in a similar fashion. 

 

Having established two very different trends toward understanding Asher Yatzar, the next shiur will explore halakhic consequences of the function of this berakha.