Shiur #02: Asher Yatzar

  • Rav Ezra Bick

Having examined the concept of birkot ha-shachar, we now turn to analyzing some of the individual blessings.


Asher Yatzar – Part of the Seder Tefilla?


Our first stop is asher yatzar. Some of you may object: Based on the discussion in the previous shiur, this blessing seems like a classic “response” blessing, rather than part of the seder tefilla, the daily order of prayer. After all, it is recited every time one relieves oneself, at any time of the day, unlike the birkot ha-shachar, which, even according to the Rambam, are recited only once a day. In fact, a reading of the Gemara in Berakhot 60b supports this conclusion, as asher yatzar appears there before the list of birkot ha-shachar, even before the blessing before sleep, which surely seems to remove it from the morning order of prayer.


However, I think this is not correct. First of all, if we invoke once more the Rambam’s system of organizing halakhot, we see that this blessing, like all birkot ha-shachar, is found in Hilkhot Tefilla and not in Hilkhot Berakhot, where the other birkot ha-re'iya (response blessings) are found. The Rambam's introduction to birkot ha-shachar states: “When the Sages instituted these prayers, they instituted other blessings to recite daily, which are these…” The introduction goes on to include asher yatzar, thereby placing it in the framework of daily prayer. What is more, the Rambam changes the order found in the Gemara, moving asher yatzar to the middle of the list, between zokef kefufim and ozer Yisrael bi-gevura.[1] It is true that the Rambam conditions the recitation of asher yatzar with the words “every time one… exits the bathroom,” reflecting the halakhic fact that it is recited throughout the day and not only in the morning. However, his decision to place it in the list of morning activities clearly indicates that he thinks the prayer has a dual role: It is not only a response blessing, but part of the seder tefilla as well. Finally, there are Rishonim who mandate the recitation of asher yatzar in the morning even if one has not used the bathroom, which clearly puts it into the context of birkot ha-shachar. In fact, the Rama’s ruling follows this position as well (Orach Chayyim 4:1). Hence, we are justified in analyzing this blessing in the framework of this course, as it is a blessing of the morning, of waking up and beginning a new day.


God as a Healer


            There is a dispute in the Gemara concerning the text of asher yatzar:


What is the conclusion [chatima]? Rav said: “Rofei cholim [who heals the sick].” Shmuel said: “Abba [Rav’s actual name] has rendered the entire world ill! Rather, say rofei khol basar [who heals all flesh].” Rav Sheshet said: “Mafli la'asot [who does wonders].” Rav Papa said: “Therefore, we should say both of them – rofei khol basar u-mafli la'asot.” (Berakhot 60b)


It is clear from Shmuel's comment on Rav's formulation that the blessing is meant for “the entire world;” that is, it is not a blessing recited solely by people whom God has helped recover from a recent illness. By substituting “all flesh” for “the sick,” Shmuel ensures that the blessing can indeed be part of the universal seder tefilla. In some way, it refers to a universal human condition. In fact, it is even broader than humanity, as it applies to the entire animal kingdom as well. Our question then is to identify what that condition is, and what halakhic response is being mandated by the Sages.


            It is important to note that although Shmuel objected to and removed the phrase “the sick,” he did not change the verb “heals.” This is the real difference between his opinion and that of Rav Sheshet. Apparently, mafli la'asot refers to creation – God has done wonders by making the human organism function wonderfully. This conclusion reflects the theme of the opening line of the blessing – “who has created man with wisdom.” Rav Sheshet bases the blessing on the perfection of creation, whereas Shmuel (and Rav as well) sees the blessing as celebrating the fact that God maintains human well-being. “Healing” does not only refer to undoing a state of illness, but to what we would call preventive medicine as well.


The most famous reference to God as a healer is found in the Torah after the Splitting of the Sea and the Song, when God promises that if the Jewish people observe all His commandments, “all the disease which I have set on Egypt I shall not set on you, for I am God, your healer [rofe’ekha].” God states explicitly that since He is your rofei, you will not fall ill. And yet, it does seem strange to speak of “healing” if there is no existent condition of sickness.


            Before we proceed to answer this question, it is worth mentioning three points that will shed light on the nature of asher yatzar. First, Rav Papa concludes that since Shmuel and Rav Sheshet disagree on which conclusion to use for the blessing, we should say them both: “Rofei khol basar u-mafli la'asot.” There is a rule concerning the conclusion of a blessing that “ein chotemin bi-shtayim,” we do not combine two themes in a conclusion. This serves as the basis, for instance, for the discussion among the posekim of the conclusion of boneh Yerushalayim on Tish’a Be-av, which reads, “menachem Tzion u-voneh Yerushalayim.” The reason we allow two verbs in one conclusion in this case is that they are sufficiently similar as to be considered one theme.[2] Comforting Zion is accomplished practically by building Jerusalem. However, in our case, as we have seen, the two formulations of the conclusion are quite different, and are even, to a certain extent, opposed. One phrase speaks of God as fixing problems, while the other phrase speaks of God as having created such a perfect world that there are no problems at all. Combining the two into one conclusion seems to violate the principle of ein chotemin bi-shtayim, as well as common sense.[3]


Second, the Shulchan Arukh quotes the conclusion as “rofei choli khol basar u-mafli la'asot.” This formulation, while rejected by many Ashkenazi authorities, is accepted by the Levush and the Magen Avraham, and explicitly defended by Rav Ya’akov Emden (Ya’avetz). It appears to be reintroducing the formulation of Rav through the back door. Ya’avetz explains that while, as Shmuel pointed out in the Gemara, using the noun “cholim” is ill-advised, as it is not correct to refer to the entire human race as ill, the term “choli[4] is acceptable, as it refers to the “frailties of all flesh,” rather than a specific illness. I point this out in order to emphasize once again that the conclusion does refer to “healing” and is not about the miracle of creation, which includes health as a given.


Finally, let us examine the phrase “galui ve-yadua lifnei khisei khevodekha.” We declare that it is clear and known before the throne of God that if even one organ of the human body would malfunction in some way, we would not survive (even one hour, in nusach sefarad). The phrase “galui ve-yadua lefanekha,” in one form or another, appears over 150 times in rabbinic literature. Most, if not all of these instances refer to a case where someone is arguing before God by appealing to the fact that God knows the inner thoughts and intentions of man, even when his outer conduct may not reflect those thoughts. For instance, the Midrash records that Avraham spoke to God after the akeida, saying “galui ve-yadua lefanekha” – that I could have argued with You logically when You told me to sacrifice Yitzchak, but I did not do so (Bereishit Rabba 56:15). Avraham had certain thoughts before the akeida that he repressed, and only God, who knows the secret recesses of the human soul, could have known of these thoughts. But our case is not like that at all. The fact that the human body requires an exact balance of its operations is known to anyone who has studied it – that is in fact the reason that the Sages are aware of this fact. Why are we emphasizing that God knows that we are in danger of extinction? It is either a fact or not, but God’s knowledge of that fact does not seem to be a relevant point.


Recognizing God’s Role in an Unstable Life


So, what is asher yatzar really about? It seems clear to me that it expresses our recognition of the inherent precariousness of life, and our acknowledgement that God's intervening and ever-present hand is what keeps the whole mechanism working. In other words, there are two possible models for creating something. One is to make your creation perfect, so that it never breaks down and never needs servicing or repair. The other is to realize that for whatever reason, things may go wrong, but to provide a repair service where your creation can be fixed. The first model would have been, on first glance, the better way for God to have created the world – to have made it so perfect that it would run in perpetual motion. In fact, this is the way that the ancient world, and at times Chazal as well, viewed the heavenly sphere, the revolutions of the sun, moon and stars. The second model is probably the way most of us see Creation – for whatever reason (sin, for instance), things sometimes break down, but when this happens we can call on God to fix them. “Barukh rofei cholim” – God heals the sick.


Asher yatzar presents a third model, at least as concerns life. Life is not a stable condition, able to run on its own. It is inherently precarious; its very mode of operation is the source of its instability. This is what the blessing calls “nekavim nekavim, chalulim chalulim,” which the commentators explain refers to the opening and closing of orifices, in order to eat, to void and even to breathe. Life is, by definition, living on the edge. What makes this possible is that God is “rofei khol basar,” or better yet, “rofei choli khol basar” – He heals continuously the frailties of all flesh, the dynamic instability that we call life. Life is inherently different from other natural objects; its existence is not static but consists of a dynamic balance of forces, of “openings and closings,” which are dependent on the healing power of God. God’s “preventive medicine” is not about providing vitamins, but about maintaining a continuous stream of life, of balance, of change and renewal. This, I think, is the meaning of “be-chokhma” in this blessing: God made the whole world with wisdom, but He made man with wisdom in a different sense – he created him with orifices and voids, and if even one opens or closes at the wrong time, life would be extinguished. This is not a failure, but in fact, the height of wisdom. Obviously we would be upset if we bought a watch that came with a trained operator who was constantly needed to keep the hands moving at the right tempo. But that is what you get when you acquire life. In fact, that is the very meaning of life – the operator is God.


Because of this, we may use the double formulation of “rofei khol basar u-mafli la'asot.” When juxtaposed with rofei khol basar, mafli la'asot does not mean “who created everything perfectly, without need for correction,” but the opposite: Who wondrously made man as a delicately balanced dynamic process, which requires the constant presence of God's finger to keep it running smoothly. Indeed, the inclusion of the word “choli” in the conclusion, while not necessary, does emphasize this meaning – human wellbeing is a permanent state of “healing infirmity.”[5]


Galui ve-yadua lifnei khisei khevodekha” (rather than the usual “lefanekha” or “lifnei mi she-amar ve-haya ha-olam”) here means that it is clear and present before God’s operational arm, His power, not so much as a reference to God's intellectual knowledge, but to the fact that He is active. It is clear and evident because You are doing what needs to be done so that the process of life will not extinguish itself, for otherwise it is impossible to exist and stand before You even one second.


Asher yatzar has two loci. One is when a person has gone to the bathroom and become aware of how imperfect his body is, from the usual point of view of a machine, how the process of feeding life produces the poisons of life which must be voided. The second locus is upon awakening, like all birkot ha-shachar, when experiencing the stirrings of life anew. The self-awareness of the precariousness of life and its total and continual dependence on the intervention of God, who is rofei khol basar, is a necessary component of going out to face the world and be active in God's service, lehitkayem ve-la'amod lefanekha. To stand before God as His servant requires one to be cognizant of the special relationship inherent in human existence to God the rofei, who is continually mafli la'asot.[6]


In most contemporary siddurim, asher yatzar is followed immediately by the blessing of elokai neshama. We will address the latter next week, including the connection, if any, between the two blessings.


[1]The Rambam reorders other blessings as well, so that in actuality the order is zokef kefufim, al netilat yadayim, ha-ma’avir chevlei sheina, asher yatzar and ozer Yisrael bi-gevura. Each blessing is preceded by the condition of action – when one does x, one recites the blessing y –  with the order of blessings reflecting the Rambam’s position on the normal order of morning activities.

[2]The Tur (Orach Chayyim 188, referring to the blessing on Yerushalayim in birkat ha-mazon on Shabbat)prefers the formulation “menachem Tzion be-vinyan Yerushalayim” precisely in order to prevent the problem of ein chotemin bi-shtayim.

[3]There are a number of cases where, facing rival formulations of a berakha, the Gemara suggests combining them. We find this, aside from in our case, in the formulation of borei nefashot and modim de-rabbanan, and, in a somewhat different manner, in birkat ha-Torah. Each case demands a different explanation for this unusual phenomenon.

[4]And not “cholei;” i.e., the ills of all flesh rather than the sick of all flesh.

[5]This is now the best way to translate “choli.”

[6]Many different explanations have been advanced for the exact meaning of some of the phrases of the blessing, such as “be-chokhma,”“nekavim” and “chalulim,” and mafli. A good concentrated summary of some of these explanations can be found in the Arukh Ha-shulchan 6:1-5.(A copy can be seen at