Sunday 20 November 2016



In this article we will look at the fascinating view that it was none other than St. Peter (!) who may have composed the beloved Nishmat kol chai prayer which is recited every Shabbat morning and every Pesach Seder night.

Some may find this an interesting study while others may take umbrage to it. The intention is simply to analyse the body of Torah literature both for and against this seemingly outrageous and incongruent notion.


The Nishmat prayer is considered to be one of the most beautiful liturgical compositions of the siddur[1]. [Nishmat and Yistabach are technically one long prayer. On weekdays it is abridged to just Yishtabach for purposes of brevity.][2]

There is much debate as to who wrote this prayer and to when it was written.
Some maintain the Nishmat prayer was instituted during the early Amoraic era (200 – 500 CE) because the earliest reference to it is by R. Yochanan bar Nafcha (180-279) who suggests that it should be recited during the Pesach Seder after Hallel.[3]

Unfortunately this reference does not provide us with a date of its origins nor with an indication as to who its author was.

An early to reference to Nishmat occurring within the Shabbat morning service is in Seder Rav Amram Gaon (810-875).

We do know that by the time of Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) Nishmat had become a standard component of the liturgy.

Rambam (1135-1204) writes that the Sefardic practice was to include Nishmat in the Shabbat morning service ( - but this was not a unanimous Askenazic practice).


Some suggest that a certain (unknown) individual by the name of Yitzchak with a wife named Rivka, authored the prayer as their two names are to be found in a very prominent acrostic within the prayer.

Others suggest the writer was a Shimon (ben Shetach?[4]) whose acrostic also appears within the prayer.[5]

Then there is the view of Rashi’s grandson Rabbenu Tam that the author of Nishmat may have been Shimon Kipah otherwise known as St. Peter!



Who was this man who became known as St. Peter and what did he have to do with Judaism?
While Paul the Apostle was charged with Christian/Gentile relations, and James with leading the Jewish Christians, Peter (also known as the first Pope) was charged with being the apostle to the Jews.

The new Christians were faced with a theological question: Since Christianity had its roots in Judaism, did the new pagan converts to Christianity have to simultaneously convert to Judaism? And if they had to ‘convert’, how much Judaism did they have to observe?

Some believed they would have to fully convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, while others (like Paul) believed they did not have to be circumcised nor adhere to the dietary laws. Peter, on the other hand believed that certain Torah laws (including some of the Seven Noachide laws) would have to be observed.


There is a very old Jewish legend that was once very popular and widespread. It speaks about Peter as an observant Jew (hence the reason why even the New Testament records Peter as originally opposing Jesus[6]) who was subversively sent by the rabbis to infiltrate the early church.

It seems as if the rabbis were afraid that early Christianity resembled Judaism too much. This resemblance had the counter effect of making it more appealing for Jews to look towards Christianity as a viable alternative without being labelled as outcasts.

To remedy the situation, the rabbis devised a plan to send Shimon Kipah (Cephas) later to be known as St. Peter, to infiltrate the new movement. The plan was that he rise to an influential position in the church so that he could make some radical changes which would give Christianity an identity of its own, thereby severing many of its earlier similarities with Judaism. 

Shimon was successful in his mission and managed, among other innovations, to move the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and also instituted different holidays to the original Jewish ones.
Now with a distinctly different identity as a new religion, Jews would no longer regard Christianity as a theological option as it would have lost some of its ‘authenticity’. 

To maintain his secret connection with Judaism, Shimon/Peter composed the Nishmat prayer, the Etan Tehillah prayer we recite on the High Holidays as well as Ahava Rabbah.[7]


We know that Peter’s Yartzeit (anniversary of his death) is the 9th of Tevet.

The Tur and Shulchan Aruch mention this date in their list of fast days but add that no reason is given for this particular fast.[8]

It is only in a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch that it states:

I found in a manuscript that Shimon HaKalphus (Kipah) who saved Israel from distress at the time of the pritzim (violators of the Torah), died on the ninth of Teves, and the day of his death was established as a fast day in Jerusalem.[9]

It’s interesting to note that it is only in an obscure reference in a commentary to an unnamed manuscript, that the story which appears to have been hidden away, is finally corroborated.

RABBEINU TAM (1100-1171):

This amazing story (or legend) of St. Peter infiltrating Christianity appears to have been supported by a piece of writing by the Tosafist Rabbeinu Tam[10]:

“(Peter) was a devout and learned Jew who dedicated his life to guiding gentiles along the proper path (by incorporating Noachide Laws into Christianity).”

Rabbeinu Tam similarly concurred that Peter authored the Nishmat prayer and it appears as if this view was widely held by many of the Rishonim.

Supporting this view, there is an overriding universal theme appealing to the oneness of humankind that pervades throughout this prayer. This includes passages that refer to ‘every living being’, ‘spirit of all flesh’, ‘every knee shall bend’ and ‘G-d of all creatures’.[11] 


There is also an old Yemenite prayer book that similarly purports that St. Peter was the author of the prayer. This source, dated at around the 1500’s, is a handwritten note in Yehiya Bashiri’s Baladi-Rite Siddur.[12]


R. YEHUDAH HaCHASID (1150-1217):

R. Yehudah HaChasid wrote in his Sefer Chassidim that:

Shimon Kipah was a righteous man but the Christians…venerated him as one of their saints and gave him the surname Peter. Even though he was a righteous man, the Jews gave him the nickname ‘Peter’ as in ‘peter chamor’ (firstling donkey).”[13]

In this source, although not entirely complimentary, Peter is nevertheless referred to as a ‘righteous man’.



Not everyone agreed with this positive image of St Peter. Most strenuous among the objectors was R. Simcha of Vitry (d. 1105) a student of Rashi who wrote in his Machzor Vitry:[14]

There are those who say concerning...Peter...that he established this prayer...along with other prayers...But G-d forbid, no such thing should occur in Israel. And anyone who says this thing, when the Temple is built, he shall bring a sin offering.”

Instead of Peter, the Machzor Vitry suggested that it was (another Shimon) Shimon ben Shetach (120-40 BCE) who compiled the Nishmat prayer. This would have predated the Christian era by a number of years.

SHADAL (1800-1865):

Another objector was R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, who wrote in his Introduction to the Italian-Rite Prayer Book that:

“...the remarks of Rabbeinu Tam are based on a false rumour that spread among the Jews in days of old, in the time of the troubles and devastations, with good intention to strengthen the faith of the masses, for they would hear that the first Apostle wrote the liturgical hymns in praise of the Jewish faith, and that his intention when he founded the new faith was only for the sake of Heaven and for the welfare of the Jews.”

According to Shadal, the story of Peter infiltrating the Church was nonsense and was just part of the imaginative psyche of a persecuted people trying to diminish the historical pain of their Christian tormentors.


Whether factually accurate or not, we have established that there was indeed widespread acceptance of the notion that St. Peter had composed the Nishmat, Etan Tehillah and Ahavah Rabbah prayers. This appears to have been supported by Rabbeinu Tam and other Rishonim.

On the other hand this perception was vehemently challenged by Rashi, his student the Machzor Vitry and others who suggested the prayers may have predated the Common Era.

It is interesting to see that the brunt of the debate is played out between both Rashi’s grandson (Rabbeinu Tam) and his student (R. Simcha of Vitry).

In an attempt at reconciling the variant opinions, some suggest that there may have been two Shimons. One was Shimon ben Yona, the Apostle who was known as St. Peter who was viewed rather negatively by Rashi and the Machzor Vitry. The other was Shimon Kipah who was the righteous man who acted as the agent for the rabbis.

But that is just speculation.

In general the difficulty that confronts us is that;

Since the names of the first paytanim (composers of liturgical poems) have been lost to memory, it has happened that the liturgical poems have been attributed to people who never thought to write them.[15]

This means that we may never have any real resolution to our question as to who the mysterious author was who penned these prayers.

[1] According to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi it is replete with very deep mystical references.
[2] See Essays on Pesach and the Haggadah by R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchick.
[3] Pesachim 118a. 
[4] Or Shimom ben Yona, or Shimon Kipah? (See later on in article).
[5] Sochen ad, Mi yidmeh, Ad hena, Veilu pinu, Nishmat (in reverse order).
[6] See Mark 8:31 and Matthew 16:13
[7] See Otzar HaMidrashim, Eisenstein, p. 557 for more details.
[8] Orach Chaim 580 : בו לא כתבו רבותינו על מה הוא
[9] See Baruch Ta’am ibid. R. Baruch Frankel-Teomim (1760-1828) was the father-in-law of the Sanzer Rebbe (The Divrei Chaim) and great grandson of the great kabbalist R. Noson Nota Shapira (The Megaleh Amukot). Many regarded him as a Gadol HaDor of his time.
[10] As quoted in Machzor Vitry.
[11] There is also a reference to; ‘You redeemed us from Egypt’, which may or may not have relevance to this point (as the redemption from Egypt is recognized by Christianity  - and additionally  - many early Christians were Jews). On the other hand, Ahavah Rabah has continuous references to the uniqueness of Israel and appears to be a rallying cry in solidarity with the specific mission on the Jewish nation without any hint of universalism. Could these two prayers represent the alleged two sides of his persona?
[12] See Microfilm # 1219 Ben Tzvi Institute.
[13] A play on Shemot 13:13. See Sefer Chasidim 191.
[14] R. Simcha appears to be stating the view of his teacher Rashi, with whom he concurs.
[15] Shadal, in his Introduction to the Italian Rite Prayer Book (Mavo le’Machzor Bnei Roma)


  1. Wow thank you Rabbi. For your amazing research.

  2. St Peter is also known as Simon Peter. The Jews apparently referred to him as Simon Bar Jonah (note "bar" not "ben") while his Aramaic name was Shimon Keppa (supporting why he was referred to "bar Jonah"). The name Peter is a corruption of a word meaning rock (as in Petra, the city in Jordan) Cephas is a corruption of Keppa (rock Hebrew- Aramaic).

    With only a limited knowledge of Christianity, I had always understood that Peter was a full-time fisherman owing his own boat and working with his brother- both of whom became apostles. If this is so, he is unlikely to have been a rabbi. He is also supposed to have appeared before the Sanhedrin, there referred to as an unlearned man, because he was preaching apostacy

    1. The distinction "bar" and "ben" does not appear to me a significant one. Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiyah, Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai

  3. Its amazing how the early Christians influence was so strong to cause the Rabbis to make some changes and affirmations as counter measures many of which are still in force today. Maybe Peter could be derived from the term in halacha : Patur (פטור) ,"exempt" of liability to punishment but action is forbidden, for his heroic efforts.

  4. Great article. Where in the Machzor vitry can that Rabbeinu Tam be found?