The Changes to the Amidah Blessings during the Ten Days of Penitence

During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur two concluding blessing formulas are switched to refer to God as a judge What is the meaning of this change? What can talmudic manuscripts teach us about this liturgical practice?

The Munich Talmud: The only complete manuscript of the Talmud. Dates from 1342. Snapshot of b. Berakhot 12b

The Centrality of Blessings

Blessings are a major component of Jewish prayer. The shema, with its attendant blessings, and the amidah, which consists entirely of blessings, are Judaism’s earliest and most central liturgical texts.

The text of our present day blessings descends from the Babylonian tradition, and has been relatively fixed since close to the beginning of the gaonic period, in the eighth or ninth century. Only relatively minor differences in the Eretz Israel tradition, as known from the Cairo Geniza and other sources, are reflected in the body of the blessing. The final sentence of each blessing, beginning with the “blessed art thou…” (ברוך אתה) formula which is traditionally known as the חתימה (“signature” or “concluding formula”) – is almost identical in both traditions.[1]

Changing the חתימה of Two Blessings during the Ten Days of Repentance

It is thus remarkable that Rav, one of the earliest amoraim, stated that the concluding formula of two blessings should be changed during the ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom ha-Kippurim:

בבלי ברכות יב ע”ב ואמר רבה בר חיננא סבא משמיה דרב: כל השנה כולה אדם מתפלל האל הקדוש, מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט, חוץ מעשרה ימים שבין ראש השנה ויום הכפורים שמתפלל המלך הקדוש והמלך המשפט.
b. Berakhot 12b And Rabba bar Hinna Saba said in the name of Rav: throughout the year one prays “the Holy God” [the concluding formula of the third blessing of the amidah], “King Who loves righteousness and justice” [the concluding formula of the eleventh blessing], except for the ten days between the New Year and Yom ha-kippurim when one prays “the Holy King” and “the King of justice.”
ורבי אלעזר אמר: אפילו אמר האל הקדוש – יצא, שנאמר: ‘ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט והאל הקדוש נקדש בצדקה’ (ישעיהו ה:טז). אימתי ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט – אלו עשרה ימים שמראש השנה ועד יום הכפורים, וקאמר האל הקדוש
And R. Elazar said that even if one said “the Holy God” – one has fulfilled his duty as it says “And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, The Holy God proved holy by righteousness” (Isa 5:16).   When is “the Lord of Hosts exalted by judgment?” These are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur; and it says “the Holy God” (and not the Holy King)!

This passage clearly assumes that during the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, commonly referred to today as עשרת ימי תשובה “the ten days of penitence,”[2] one should stress the idea that God is King. However, the reason and significance of changing these particular blessings is not immediately apparent.

המלך הקדוש 

Why Change Specifically האל הקדוש?

The decision to alter the חתימה of the third blessing so that it – rather than another blessing – mentions the kingdom of God seems appropriate for at least two reasons:

  1. This blessing had already been chosen by the tanna, R. Yoḥanan ben Nuri, as the appropriate place to include the additional blessing of malchiyot (kingdom [of God]) in the New Year liturgy (m. Rosh Hashanah 4:5). Since this part of the amidah had previously been altered during the High Holidays to emphasize God’s kingship, if the sages wanted to make additional liturgical changes in this direction during the Ten Days of Penitence, this would be a good place to do so.
  1. All the other blessings of the amidah conclude with an adjective or participle describing God: רופא חולים (“heals the sick”); מברך את השנים (“blesses the years”); שומע תפילה (“hears prayer”) and so on. The blessing of האל הקדוש is the only one that concludes with one of the Divine Names of God: El. Thus, it would be appropriate to replace this Divine Name with another noun referring to God’s kingship.

R. Elazar’s Disagreement

R. Elazar rules that this substitution is not absolutely required since the Divine Name El could also be understood as relating to God’s judging the world.

Commentators differ as to the exact intent of R. Elazar:

  • Some say that he does not actually advocate the use of האל הקדוש; rather, he simply does not require someone who mistakenly used this closing formula instead of the preferred one for the Ten Days of Penitence – המלך הקדוש.
  • Others maintain that R. Elazar permits someone to say whichever version he prefers.
  • A third explanation is that R. Elazar entirely objected to the change to “the king,” and thought that the standard formula should be retained.

In support of the last explanation, it is noteworthy that the Erez Israel versions of the amidah conclude האל הקרוש even between the New Year and Yom Kippur.[3]

Reasons not to Change האל הקדוש

Indeed, there are several possible reasons for not changing the everyday version of the blessing:

  • There is a widespread hesitancy towards unnecessarily changing the liturgy.
  • It seems inappropriate to replace a fully Divine Name (El) with a noun that could be used to describe humans (“king”).
  • The concluding formula האל הקדוש should be retained in accordance with the principle that the final sentence of the body of the blessing reflect the concluding formula.[4] Since the third blessing is dedicated to God’s Holiness, it does not make much sense to suddenly refer to his majesty.

The Widespread Adoption of המלך הקדוש

Regardless of R. Elazar’s objections, the change of המלך הקדוש during the Ten Days of Penitence has been adopted by all communities today. This may have been facilitated by the regular use, in some communities, of the conclusion המלך הקדוש throughout the year, rendering the phrase more generally familiar.[5] Thus Rav was not creating a new version of the conclusion, rather he was granting legitimacy to two existing versions.

Perhaps Rav was prescribing that those who said האל הקדוש throughout the year should say המלך הקדוש during the ten days while those who said המלך הקדוש throughout the year should change their custom to normally say האל הקדוש, while still retaining המלך הקדוש for those ten days. This would have had the result of legitimizing different customs while striving to create some level of unity.[6]

Why Change המלך המשפט?

The change required in the other blessing, המלך המשפט rather than מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט, presents another problem. Why is “King of justice”[7] more appropriate than the standard blessing: “King who loves righteousness and justice?”

A medieval Provencal scholar, Rabeinu Manoach,[8] suggested two answers to this problem. His first answer is that throughout the year God is described as One who loves that His people act with righteousness and justice, but during these days He himself judges. Perhaps Rabeinu Manoach himself was not totally satisfied with this explanation, for he offers a second one: The expression המלך המשפט should be understood to mean that God Himself can be equated with Justice, just as some sources describe Him as Wisdom itself.

An Alternative Manuscript Version of Berakhot 12b

A better resolution of this problem may be found in the version of the text found in some talmudic manuscripts. In the Munich manuscript (see image above or here for a PDF ), for example, we read that the standard everyday version of this blessing was “God of justice” (האל המשפט). This was to be changed, during these ten days, to “King of justice” (המלך המשפט):

בבלי ברכות יב ע”ב (כי”מ 95) ואמ’ רבא בר חנינא סבא משמיה דרב כל השנה כולה מתפלל אדם האל הקדוש והאל המשפט חוץ מעשרת ימים שבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים שמתפלל אדם המלך הקדוש והמלך המשפט
b. Berakhot 12b (MS Munich 95) And Rabba bar Hanina Saba said in the name of Rav: throughout the year one prays “the Holy God” blessing of the amidah], “The God of justice” [the concluding formula of the eleventh blessing], except for the ten days between the New Year and Yom ha-kippurim when one prays “the Holy King” and “the King of justice”.
ר’ אליעזר או’ אפי’ [9] בעשרה ימים שבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים  אם אמ’ האל הקדוש [והאל המשפט]  יצא מאי טעמ’ שנ’ (נ) ויגבה יי צבאות במשפט והאל הקדוש [נקדש בצדקה] אימתי ויגבה יי צבאות במשפט אילו עשרת ימים שבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים וכתי’ והאל הקדוש
And R. Elazar says that even during the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom haKippurim if one said “the Holy God” [and the God of justice][10] one has fulfilled his duty as it says “And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, The Holy God [proved holy by righteousness]”(Isa 5:16) – when is “the Lord of Hosts exalted by judgment?” These are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur; and it is written “the Holy God” (and not the Holy King)!

According to these manuscripts, Rav’s statement presents a consistent approach. In the concluding blessings of the amidah, during these ten days we change every mention of “Lord” to “King” – האל הקדוש becomes המלך הקדוש, and האל המשפט becomes המלך המשפט.  Nevertheless, it striking that this version of the liturgical blessing preserved in the talmudic manuscripts has not survived in any prayerbook manuscript.[11]

R. Elazar’s Comment according to Talmud Manuscripts

These manuscripts also clear up the difficulty of correctly interpreting R. Elazar’s statement. According to the standard printed text quoted previously, R. Elazar disagrees only with reference to the המלך הקדוש conclusion.[12] He did not explicitly relate to the חתימה of המלך המשפט, and indeed the biblical verse he cited does not seem to have any relevance to the choice between המלך המשפט and מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט. However, according to the version preserved in manuscripts, the question R. Elazar is addressing is about the use of המלך in place of האל for both blessing conclusions. The biblical verse he cites is therefore relevant to this choice because it shows that the term אל is consistent with the description of God as judge. Thus, according to R. Elazar one could continue saying האל הקדוש and האל המשפט.

The Meaning of the Different Versions

Contrasting the manuscript text with the printed editions gives us an alternative understanding of why we make these changes in the liturgy. According to the manuscript tradition, the liturgy stresses the kingship of God between Rosh Hashana and Yom haKippurim. Both instances of אל in the amidah are changed to King (מלך). The printed text distinguishes between the changes. Only the first change is meant to stress God’s kingship. The second change is meant to stress the idea that God personally judges the world during these ten days.



Prof. Joseph Tabory is a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University where he taught for several decades in the Talmud department, serving for a time as chairperson of the department and as Dean of Libraries. He taught many courses in Aggada and in 2014 he published, together with Arnon Atzmon, a critical edition of Midrash Rabbah on Esther. His main specialization is in the history of Jewish festivals and liturgy. His main works in these fields are “Jewish Festivals in the Time of the Mishna and Talmud” (Hebrew), published by Magnes in (third edition in 2000) and Pesach Dorot (Hakibbutz Hameuchad 1996), which portrays the history of the main rituals of the Passover seder from Second Temple times until modern times. In 2008 JPS published a Haggadah with his introduction, translation and commentary in the JPS Commentary series. He has recently published an article on the influence of the Ari on the Oriental siddur and has an article forthcoming on the history of saying Shefoch Chamatcha at the Passover Seder.