Asher Yatzar: The Prayer for the Body

Anatomy 03 (Quain)

Anatomy 03 (Quain) (Photo credit: alvaro tapia hidalgo)

So far, July has been a month for studying the Torah of the body. I have twice had accidents that hurt my back, and I am just now progressing to crackers and water after a bout of a mysterious virus.

I have been sustained over this time by a prayer that I have come to love. It’s the blessing Asher Yatzar that observant Jews say every morning, either as part of private morning prayers or as part of the morning service:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

After a fortnight when standing is sometimes excruciatingly painful, and my “openings and organs” have been in an uproar, this prayer reminds me that I am not alone. I am one among a whole tribe of human beings made of flesh and blood, and sometimes our fragile, complex bodies are overcome by misfortune or tiny viruses.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this prayer. When we said it every morning in rabbinical school, I would sometimes get angry, because my body is often rather frustrating. I’ve had a very full life, and part of that fullness has included some adventures that left me with old injuries that never healed quite right. I was not always able to “stand before” God, in the words of the prayer. I was so frustrated that I wrote a new version that I felt I could say with a whole heart:

Thank God it all works!

No.

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery:
Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully
That we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Age, illness, and injuries take their toll: bodies are fragile and complicated, and things don’t work sometimes. This takes a toll on the spirit, whether the illness is minor and miserable or major and life-changing. This is part of the human condition. Paradoxically, that is also where the spiritual element enters: it is the human condition. We are finite and fragile. This is what we are.

Nowadays I say the prayer sometimes in the traditional language, and sometimes in my rewritten form. It reminds me that my problems are not unique.  It reminds me that even a creaky, cranky fifty-something body is quite a miracle.

In the meantime, around us, the world continues to be full of wonders: the wonder of a friend calling on us, a spouse fixing the pillow, the beauty of sunshine. The world goes on: I hope to rejoin it soon.

Is there a prayer that doesn’t work for you? Have you ever rewritten a prayer to fit your need?

7 Responses to Asher Yatzar: The Prayer for the Body

  1. ChazIng says:

    Splendid post rabbi

    Like

  2. Hi CoffeeShop Rabbi: In the process of research for a new book I am writing /illustrating, I came across your post on the Asher Yatzar blessing and liked your personal rendition of it very much. But I have a question for you: Do you happen to know the history of this blessing? I know it is found in Talmud Berachot 60B, but cannot find reference to any rabbi or scholar who might have written it. Any ideas?

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Ilene, I will do some research on this and get back to you. Great question!

      Like

      • Thanks , Rabbi Adar! BTW, I also found a reference to Abraham Ibn Ezra (10th c.)who commented on bodily processes and Creation in the notes to Bereshit in Etz Hayim chumash on P. 12. So maybe he was referring to Abaye’s comment?

        I should tell you that I am working on a new illustrated version of the Meah Berakhot and
        hoping to verify the asher yatzar author for a key element in that blessing illustration.

        I greatly appreciate your help!

        Ilene

        Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      In Berachot 60b, the prayer is attributed to Abaye, a Babylonian rabbi. (for more info, see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/120-abaye). He was teaching in the beginning of the 4th century CE. The prayer is older than that, therefore, but we don’t know precisely how old. He cites it as a blessing said after a successful trip to the toilet. As Rabbi David Hartman z”l taught in a Rabbinic Seminar I attended in 2002, “You don’t understand the blessing for good health–about the openings and closings that should be closed when they should be open or opened and are closed until you experience it.”

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  3. […] is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and […]

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