The Origin of the Three Identity Brachot
In Menachot 43b, Rabbi Meir says that we should say 100 brachot over the course of each day. He then says that one must recite these certain three brachot every day: shelo asani goy, “for not making me a non-Jew”; shelo asani isha, “for not making me a woman”; and shelo asani boor, “for not making me a boor.”
The Gemara then recounts that upon hearing his son say these three brachot, Rav Acha bar Yaakov objected to this last one, shelo asani boor. His son inquired as to what he should say in place of that bracha. He explained that he could not say shelo asani aved, “for not making me a slave,” since a slave is like a woman, and the brachot already include expressing gratitude for not being made a woman. Rav Acha bar Yaakov responded that a slave is lesser than a woman. Through this, he implied that women and slaves differ enough that one could justifiably give separate thanks for not being either. As a result, they replaced shelo asani boor with shelo asani aved. This bracha, along with shelo asani goy and shelo asani isha, became known as the identity brachot. We continue to say them in Birchot Hashachar each day.
The bracha shelo asani isha offends many people, since it appears to convey that men are superior to women. However, both the Tosefta in Berachot 6:23 and the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachot 9:1) claim that shelo asani isha actually relates to a difference in obligations between men and women. In Kiddushin 1:7, the Gemara teaches that women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot, leaving men with more obligations than women. The Tosefta and Talmud Yerushalmi state that shelo asani isha relates to this difference, not a difference in status or value. They say that the bracha expresses a man’s gratitude for more obligations, as they serve as additional opportunities to serve Hashem.
Just as the Tosefta and Talmud Yerushalmi say that shelo asani isha pertains to obligations in mitzvot, Rashi suggests that the conversation between Rav Acha and his son does as well. In one of his explanations, Rashi says that when Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s son compares a slave to a woman, he does not mean to liken their social status, but rather their limited obligations in mitzvot. In contrast, Rav Acha bar Yaakov believes that a slave has less obligations, which is why he states that a slave is lesser.
Rashi does offer another explanation of the conversation between Rav Acha bar Yaakov and his son. Here, he states that the conversation does revolve around discerning the difference in the social statuses of slaves and women. However, this explanation does not match as well with the reasoning of the earlier Tosefta and Talmud Yerushalmi.
Assuming that the identity brachot do relate to their subject’s level of obligation for mitzvot, it is unclear as to why the brachot do not convey this more directly. For instance, why not just say “thank you for giving me more obligations than a woman”?
The Bach (Orach Chaim 46:11) somewhat answers this question. In place of saying the three identity brachot, the Bach says that someone could hypothetically say “she’asani yisrael.” This bracha would encompasses thanks for being a Jew, a free person, and a man — negating the need to thank Hashem for being non-Jew, a slave, and a woman. However, the Bach notes that this alternative would replace three brachot with only one. This is not ideal, as the Bach states, “It is not our intention to shorten [the series of brachot,] but to prolong thanksgiving, and to recite a beracha independently on each and every kindness.”
Furthermore, the Gemara that introduces the three identity bachot also includes Rabbi Meir’s statement that one must recite 100 brachot a day. If someone said “she’asani yisrael” instead of the three identity brachot, they might not reach their daily quota of 100 brachot.
While the phrasing of the three identity brachot does facilitate “prolonging thanksgiving,” it clouds the meaning of the brachot. Referring to shelo asani isha, in Responsa Benei Banim, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin says, “Out-of-place thoughts have become intermingled with [men’s] intentionality [in reciting] the bracha.” Rather than focusing on his additional obligations, Rabbi Henkin says that too often “the man blesses over his superior social status.” As a result, even though some women believe that saying shelo asani isha is not inherently offensive due to the Tosefta and Talmud Yerushalmi’s interpretation of the bracha, they still take offense when men say it with “out-of-place thoughts” in mind. However, understanding the identity brachot’s origin can help expel the “out-of-place thoughts” and mitigate the offense that they cause.