The Benediction against the Minim

Masada Synagogue, Birkat Haminim

Masada Synagogue, courtesy of Kat Sniffen, Wikimedia Commons

A new set of circumstances confronted the tannaitic leadership when it reassembled at Yavneh after the war with Rome was lost. By this time, the need to close ranks and to face the future as a united community was greater than ever. We shall see, though, that the Rabbis still did not elect to see the Jewish Christians as a separate religion. After all, they still met the halakhic criteria for Jewish status. Instead, action would be taken to bar them from officiating as precentors in the synagogue in order to make them feel unwanted there and to exclude their books from sanctified status. Other restrictions would attempt to separate the Jewish Christians from the mainstream Jewish community. Tannaitic law would eventually have to face the Gentile Christians, but the Rabbis as yet had little opportunity for contact with them.

While our sources show no attempt on the part of the tannaim to read anyone out of the Jewish people on account of heretical beliefs, the Rabbis did impose certain restrictions on those whom they regarded as standing outside the accepted system of Jewish belief. Such heretics who were subjected to legal restrictions are termed minim.

While this term itself has constituted a major scholarly problem, it is now agreed that it was a general term for heretics, applied at various times in the Rabbinic period to different groups which presented doctrinal challenges to Rabbinic Judaism while remaining, from a halakhic point of view, within the fold.  A number of tannaitic restrictions directed against minim clearly refer to the early Jewish Christians, as can be shown from their content and date. These regulations show how the Rabbis attempted to combat those beliefs which they regarded as outside the Jewish pale while never rejecting the Jewishness of those who held them.

The primary area in which the tannaim imposed restrictions on the Jewish Christians was in regard to the synagogue. The birkat haminim, the benediction against heretics, was adapted from an older benediction, the purpose of which was to ask divine punishment on the paroshim, those who had separated themselves from the community. This benediction was now reformulated to include explicit mention of the minim, here primarily Jewish Christians. In this way, the birkat haminim functioned to exclude such people from serving as precentors in the synagogue.  Indeed, this benediction probably went a long way toward making the Jewish Christians feel unwelcome in the synagogue and causing them to worship separately.

A baraita’ in B. Berakhot 28bf. states:

Our Rabbis taught: Simeon HaPaqoli ordered the Eighteen Benedictions before Rabban Gamliel at Yavneh.  Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: Is there no one who knows how to compose a benediction against the minim?  Samuel HaQa‹an stood up and composed it.  Another year (while serving as precentor), he (Samuel Ha-Qa‹an) forgot it and tried to recall it for two or three hours, yet they did not remove him.

Despite some ingenious claims to the contrary, the Gamliel of our baraita’ is Rabban Gamliel II of Yavneh in the postdestruction period.  Simeon HaPaqoli set the Eighteen Benedictions in order before Rabban Gamliel as part of the general effort at Yavneh to fix and standardize halakhah.  Rabban Gamliel (II) asked for a volunteer to compose the benediction against the minim.  Samuel HaQa‹an stood up and adapted the previously existing benediction to include the minim.  In a later year, he was called upon to serve as precentor.  In the course of the service, he was unable to recite the benediction against the minim.   Nonetheless, even after several hours of trying to recall it, the Rabbis did not remove him as precentor.

B. Berakhot 29a asks why he was not removed.  After all, it was the purpose of this blessing to ensure that the precentor was not one of those heretics cursed in the benediction.  The Talmud answers that since Samuel HaQa‹an had himself composed it, it could be assumed that he was not a min.

Since the term min can refer at different times to various forms of heresy that threatened Rabbinic Judaism in Talmudic times, it is essential to clarify who the minim of this benediction are. Palestinian texts of the Eighteen Benedictions from the Cairo Genizah present us with a text of the benediction which elucidates the identification of the minim:

For the apostates may there be no hope unless they return to Your Torah. As for the no§rim and the minim, may they perish immediately. Speedily may they be erased from the Book of Life, and may they not be registered among the righteous.  Blessed are You, O Lord, Who subdues the wicked.

While other specimens of the Palestinian liturgy show slight variation, the no§rim, (usually translated “Christians”) and minim are included in the best texts of this benediction.  Some may wish to debate whether the no§rim and minim here mentioned are to be taken as one group or two. Yet the fact remains that the no§rim were included with apostates and heretics in the Genizah documents.

May we assume that this version of the benediction represents the text as it was recited by Samuel HaQatan before the sages of Yavneh?  On the one hand, the Palestinian liturgical material found in the Cairo Genizah generally preserves the traditions of Palestinian Jewry in the amoraic (Byzantine) period. On the other hand, there may be external evidence that this benediction was recited during the tannaitic period, and that it included explicit reference to no§rim.

Three passages in the Gospel of John (9:22, 12:42, 16:2) mention the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue. The Gospel of John was most probably not composed until at least the last decade of the first century. The actual setting of the Gospel is not known, although some would place it in a Syrian or Palestinian milieu.  The most we can conclude from John is that the community to which it was directed may have already been subject to the benediction against the minim when this book was composed.

Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century C.E., in his Dialogue with Tryphon referred several times to the cursing of Christians in the synagogue.  Justin castigates his interlocutor Trypho as follows (XVI):

For you slew the just one (Jesus) and his prophets before him, and now you . . . dishonour those that set their hope on him, and God Almighty and Maker of the Universe that sent him, cursing in your synagogues them that believe in Christ.

In XLVII, he writes:

I declare that they of the seed of Abraham who live according to the Law . . . will not be saved, and especially they who in the synagogues have anathematized, and still anathematize, those who believe in that very Christ….

In XCIII, Justin accuses the Jews first of the murder of Jesus and then of

cursing even them who prove that he who was crucified by you is the Christ.

In CVIII, Justin accuses the Jews of cursing both Jesus and those who believe in him.  Finally he appeals to the Jews in CXXXVII not to revile Jesus :

As the rulers of your synagogues teach you, after the prayer.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these passages are a polemical and confused reflection of the recitation of the birkat haminim in the synagogues of Palestine (Justin grew up in Samaria). These passages present evidence that some version of the benediction was already recited in the midsecond century C.E. and that it included explicit reference to the Christians.

Similar testimony comes from Origen (c. 185C. 254 C.E.), who accuses Jews of blaspheming and cursing Jesus and in another passage says:

Enter the synagogue of the Jews and see Jesus flagellated by those with the language of blasphemy.

It has been rightly observed, however, that this passage makes no explicit mention of the cursing of the Christians or of the role of such cursing in Jewish liturgy.

Explicit reference, however, comes from Epiphanius and Jerome. Epiphanius (c. 315403 C.E.), speaking of the Nazoraeans, a Judaizing Christian sect, says:

. . . the people also stand up in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, three times a day and they pronounce curses and maledictions over them when they say their prayers in the synagogues. Three times a day they say: “May God curse the Nazoraeans.”

Whereas Epiphanius took the prayer in question to refer to members of the Judaizing Christian sect of the Nazoraeans, Jerome (342420 C.E.) understood it to refer to Christians in general (called Nazarenes). Jerome states:

. . . until today in their synagogues they [the Jews] blaspheme the Christian people under the name Nazarenes.

In another passage he says:

. . . up to the present day they [the Jews] persevere in blasphemy and three times a day in all the synagogues they anathematize the Christian name under the name of Nazarenes.

Elsewhere, speaking of Jesus, Jerome writes :

. . . for they [the Jews] curse him in their synagogues three times every day under the name of Nazarenes.

and finally:

. . . in your synagogues, who night and day blaspheme the Saviour, they utter curses against the Christians three times a day, as I have said, under the name of Nazarenes.

R. Kimelman has maintained that Epiphanius correctly interpreted the text of the benediction as referring to the Nazoraean sect, but that Jerome took it as referring to Christians in general.  In fact, it is certain that Epiphanius erred. Careful examination of the Latin text of Jerome indicates that he distinguished between the Nazarenes, Christians in general, and the Nazoraeans, the Judaizing Christians of whom he speaks at length.  In fact, the malediction delivered in the synagogue is said by him to refer to the Nazarenes or Christians. It was Epiphanius or his source that confused the two terms and mistook the Hebrew no§rim as a reference to the Nazoraean sect of his day.

In seeking to claim that Jerome is actually referring to a curse of the Nazoraeans, Kimelman quotes a passage from Jerome. The passage, properly understood, however, indicates that to Jerome the Christians were cursed along with the minim in the synagogues of his time. The passage is as follows:

Until now a heresy is to be found in all parts of the East where Jews have their synagogues; it is called “of the Minaeans (Manaeorum)” and cursed by the Pharisees up to now. Usually they are called Nazoraeans (Nazaraeos). They believe in Christ, son of God, born of Mary the virgin, and they say about him that he suffered and rose again under Pontius Pilate, which we also believe, but since they want to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians.

Now this passage explicitly states that “Nazoraeans” are the usual designation for the group which the Jews have called minim. In other words, the term minim, already found in the Yavnean version of the birkat haminim, was taken by Jerome to refer to the Nazoraeans of his day. The designation “Nazarenes,” whom Jerome elsewhere says were also cursed in this benediction, must therefore have referred to the Gentile Christians. We must conclude that there indeed was a benediction against Christians in general in the time of Jerome and Epiphanius, and Jerome bears certain witness to it.

To further buttress his argument, Kimelman maintains that Hebrew no§rim, which he vocalizes na§rim, likewise refers to the Nazoraeans, rather than to the Nazarenes.  This is extremely doubtful. Throughout uncensored Rabbinic texts the term no§ri appears as a description of Jesus.  Without attempting to determine here whether this word is to be derived from the placename Nazareth or from the Hebrew verb n§r, “to watch, guard,” it will be noted that no§ri came into prominence in Hebrew as a description of early Christianity. To the Rabbis, this term continued to describe the everchanging Christian community in Palestine, so that in amoraic texts it refers to Christians in general.  By this time, the vast majority of Christians were Gentile, and it is to them that this term must have referred.  It is extremely forced to maintain that the term in Rabbinic texts could refer to the Nazoraeans, a group for which we have evidence of neither Rabbinic contact nor knowledge. Indeed, the Nazoraean sect was a curiosity even to the church fathers.  lt may have always been numerically insignificant, especially if we judge from comparison with accounts of the Ebionites to whom much greater prominence is given.

Hebrew no§rim, as reflected in the Nazarenes of Jerome, can only refer to Christians in general. It cannot be maintained that it refers to the sect of the Nazoraeans. Hence, it is certain that in the fourth century the benediction against the minim included explicit mention of the Christians.

This curse could only be found in the Eighteen Benedictions since it would be the only thricedaily recitation in the synagogue services. If Justin Martyr were referring to this benediction, then we would have confirmation from the midsecond century that the Christians were specifically mentioned in this prayer. Further, while the version before us differentiates minim from Christians, it should be remembered that many Rabbinic texts speak of the minim and clearly designate believers in Jesus.  It is most likely, however, that our benediction meant to distinguish Jewish Christians from Gentile Christians and that the minim were Jewish Christians while the no§rim (like the Nazarenes) were Gentile Christians.

If this last interpretation is correct, it is possible to trace the development of this benediction. The original threat to Judaism was from Jewish Christianity, and so a reference against the minim (a general term here referring to Jewish Christians) was introduced into a previously existing benediction. At some later date, perhaps by 150 C.E. but definitely by 350 C.E., as the fate of Christianity as a Gentile religion was sealed, the mention of Gentile Christians was added to the prayer as well.

The specific effect of the benediction was to insure that those who were minim would not serve as precentors in the synagogue. After all, no one would be willing to pray for his own destruction. It was assumed that the institution of such a benediction would lead ultimately to the exclusion of the minim from the synagogue. Such a benediction in its original form can have been directed only against Jews who, despite their heretical beliefs, were likely to be found in the synagogue. Gentile Christians would not have been in the synagogue nor would they have been called upon to serve as precentors. When the separation of the Jewish Christians from the synagogue was accomplished, the prayer was retained as a general malediction and prayer for the destruction of the enemies of Israel. Therefore, the no§rim were also added.

That such a development actually took place in the benediction is clear from the church fathers.  Only in Epiphanius (c. 315403 C.E.) and Jerome (342420 C.E.) do we find explicit reference to the no§rim in the birkat haminim. This is because the no§rim were added to the benediction after the time of Justin and Origen, whose allusions to the benediction make no mention of this specific term. By the time of Epiphanius and Jerome, the Roman Empire, now Christian, had imposed various antiJewish measures. It was only natural to add explicit mention of the Gentile Christians to this prayer.

It cannot be overemphasized that while the benediction against the minim sought to exclude Jewish Christians from active participation in the synagogue service, it in no way implied expulsion from the Jewish people. In fact, heresy, no matter how great, was never seen as cutting the heretic’s tie to Judaism. Not even outright apostasy could overpower the halakhic criteria for Jewish identification which were outlined above. When the method of excommunication was used to separate heretics from the Jewish community in the Middle Ages, even this measure, which was to a great extent a medieval halakhic development, did not in any way cancel the Jewish status of the excommunicant. Indeed, regardless of the transgressions of a Jew, he was a Jew under any and all circumstances, even though his rights within halakhah might be limited as a result of his actions.

12 Responses to The Benediction against the Minim

  • jim says:

    This is the best explanation of the sequence of events i’ve yet seen. brilliant.

  • Joe Zias says:

    Very interesting and clears up a lot of misconceptions, however here in Israel the group that refers to itself as ‘jews for Jesus’ stands up to a lot of ridicule for their beliefs and largely remain underground and are highly secretive. As for the Reform, Conservative Jews, Secular Humanistic Judaism, they/we too suffer a lot of ridicule from the orthodox here in Jerusalem.

  • avi Weizmann says:

    Many thanks.

    I knew the paper by Kimmelman and now your post enlightens it.

    Only a naive question: which is the remnant place today in the amida of the sidurim, to the birkat ha minim?

    shabat shalom and again toda because it is possible to learn through your post and your website.


  • lEN mOSKOWITZ says:

    > Indeed, regardless of the transgressions of a Jew, he was a Jew under any and all circumstances, even though his rights within halakhah might be limited as a result of his actions.

    Beit Din removed Jewish status in the cases of the samaritans and the descendants of the lost ten tribes.

  • admin says:

    I discussed this question with detailed footnotes in my book, Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic Perspectives on the Jewish Christian Schism, published by Ktav Publishing. That would also be helpful to you.

    The benediction that remains in our prayer books is lamalshinim.

  • David Zarmi says:

    Why you call it a “Palestinian milieu” when there was no Palestine until 132? When do you start to call Judea Palestine?

  • David Zarmi says:

    And to Mr. Moskowitz: whatever you think of the historical reality, rabbinic Judaism never believed that the Samaritans and the lost tribes, whoever it is you’re referring too, were actually halachic descendants of Jews. To the extent some Jews remained following the exile to bavel, they apparently lost their Jewish identity and intermarried with the new people brought in by Nebuchadnezzar.

  • Samuel Fistel says:

    The origin of the term “Notsrim”: It does not come from notsair (guardians). Rather it comes from “netser” (Strong’s H5342), which means “offshoot” and is a messianic term referring to the “offshoot of the branch of King David”. It appears in the prophecies of both Isaiah (11:1) and Daniel (11:7). The original Jewish messianic followers of Jesus thus took the nickname “notsrim”. Since there is no “ts” sound in Greek, Jesus the “notsri” was transliterated into Greek as Jesus the “nozri”, which appears in the New Testament as “nazarenos” and “nazaraios”. Since the Greeks who wrote the gospels did not know Hebrew, and were limited to the Greek Septuagint (which translates “netser” as “flower” (anthos), they did not know what to make of the designation Jesus the “notsri”. The best they could determine was that it was the same as the Hebrew “nazir” (a nazirite). So they wrote that “Jesus lived in Nazareth” to fulfill the prophecy that “he shall be called a nazarene”. Of course, there is no such messianic prophecy in the Bible. Moreover, there is no historical reference to any city in Galilee called Nazareth until 300 years after Jesus, when the land of Israel was christianized.

  • Littlejohn S says:


    «..The origin of the term “Notsrim”: It does not come from notsair (guardians). Rather it comes from “netser” (Strong’s H5342), which means “offshoot” and is a messianic term referring to the “offshoot of the branch of King David”..»


    Sorry, but I do not believe that …. The Hebrew word Notsri or Notseri (from which the Notsrim plural) does not have anything to do with ‘netser’ (offshoot), because it is derived from the Hebrew/Aramaic NATZARA or Natsara, whose meaning is ‘watching’, to guard, caretaking, etc. The Notsrim were thus the watching, guardians, custodians. The term Notsrim or Notzrim, from which our Nazarenes, is all that remains of the hebraic locution “Notzrim ha-B’rith”, literally ‘guardians or custodians of the Alliance’, that is the law that Moses would give to his people. With time and with daily use, this expression you has been reduced to the single term ‘Notzrim’. The latter were indicated (perhaps ironically) by Orthodox Jews ‘those of the truth’, because they, the Nazarenes, claimed to keep and observe the REAL Law of Moses, as they considered the Law taught by the priests of the temple a corrupt law (see Epiphanius of Salamis).

  • Would you agree that the intent of this malediction contradicts the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies?

    Luke 6:27-31 New International Version (NIV)
    Love for Enemies
    27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

  • Do you think there’s a pun in the word MIN, since this acronym is the same as the Hebrew word for sex, suggesting the claimed sexual immorality of Christians and of Jesus’ mother found in the Talmud?

  • Alexander Zamorano says:

    Dr. Schiffman: Who agrees with you that Chrsitians were Minim?
    Many thanks
    Alexander Z.

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