This is a page from a siddur (prayer book) handwritten on parchment by Rabbi Avraham Farissol for an unknown wealthy Italian woman in 1471. According to one scholar, the siddur was written by a groom as a gift to his bride, but the woman’s name is unknown since it was erased from the book.
The section in the photograph is from page seven of the siddur, the beginning section of the morning service. The morning service begins with a series of blessings called Birchot Hashachar or the morning blessings. The opening words, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,” which are the formula for many blessings, are written as an acronym. This is followed by “who has made me a woman, not a man,” a unique and surprising wording for the women’s prayer which today reads, “who made me according to His will.” Indeed, in the siddur as we know it today men recite, controversially, a morning blessing thanking God “for not making me a woman.” This Italian siddur from more than 500 years ago solves our contemporary controversy by making the women’s prayer equivalent to the men’s. There is a range of opinions on the significance of this version: some believe that this is an early form of egalitarian prayer, while others feel that it does not represent a widespread custom of the time.
Another interesting aspect of this siddur is the blank space at the end of the second line. It is possible that the blessing thanking God for “not making me a non-Jew” was originally written there but was removed by a censor.
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Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol – Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol (1451–1525) was a well-known rabbi from northern Italy who was a scholar, cantor, and physician. He was the author of commentaries on several books of the Bible, the first Jewish work on geography, and a polemical work against Christianity and Islam.
Birchot Hashachar – Birchot Hashachar are the blessings recited at the beginning of the morning service. They are arranged in the order of the activities that a person does when waking up and starting the day. The blessings refer to many aspects of life and thank God for: a healthy and functioning body, the ability to see, our clothing and other material needs, our freedom, and not making us non-Jews, among others. Another blessing which is said by men in many communities thanks God for not being born a woman, while women thank God for being created according to God’s will. In some communities, the wording of the men’s blessing and the thanks for not being a non-Jew is considered controversial. Accordingly, some variations can be found in the siddurim of different denominations; for example, in the Conservative siddur the blessings have been rewritten in affirmative forms: “Blessed are You… that He has made me in his image/ that He has made me a Jew / that He made me a son/daughter of freedom.”
The Jews of Italy - The Italian Jewish community has ancient roots that can be traced back to the Roman era in the second century BCE. In ancient Rome the community was highly organized with several synagogues. With the introduction of Christianity to Italy the situation of Italian Jews generally declined, and anti-Jewish laws were passed. Similar to other European countries, the Middle Ages brought persecution and expulsions. However, this was also a flourishing period for Bible commentary, Talmud, Hebrew grammar, and halacha (Jewish law). Jews were also known as skilled medical practitioners, some serving as physicians to the kings, nobles, and clergy. The fifteenth century was a time of migration: many Spanish Jews arrived in Italy following the Spanish expulsion of 1492, and a few years later, more arrived from France. In the sixteenth century, when many Italian areas fell under Spanish rule, Jews fled the inquisition and moved to southern Italy and other European countries. This was also the period when the first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice and other prohibitions were issued against the Jews including a yellow badge, ghettos in additional cities, forced labour, and expulsions. This continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Influenced by liberal thought, French rule in Italy, and the decline of the Papal influence, the Jews slowly gained emancipation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1910, a Jew was prime minister of Italy, one of the first in the world. Another Jew served as mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913, and Jews also served as senators. Italian Jews fought in World War I, half of them as officers. The 1930s brought Mussolini, fascism, and, ultimately, anti-Semitism to Italy, influenced by Nazism and the racial ideologies of the time. Despite the fascist regime’s alliance with Germany, the Italians did not initially cooperate with the deportation of Jews to the camps. The deportation of Italian Jews only began in September 1943, when the Allies captured southern Italy. While many Jews were saved by local Italians and the Church, approximately 7,500 Jews were murdered. The Jewish community has declined since World War II due to immigration to Israel and other countries, assimilation, and low birth rates. It is estimated that 45,000 Jews live in Italy today.