Sunday 2 December 2018


R. Avraham Farissol 1451- 1525


R. Avraham ben Mordechai Farissol[1] (1451-1525[2]) was a French-born Italian rabbi who worked in Ferrara and Mantua, and was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus. He was fascinated by Jewish customs in different parts of the world; considered an expert in comparative religion; and champion of a women’s sense of self-worth and dignity, in Renaissance Italy.


He was a manuscript copyist who also authored his own manuscripts, including a commentary on the Torah called Pirchai Shoshinim[3] or Flower of Lilies.

His commentary on the Book of Iyov (Job) was printed in one of the first publications of the Torah with commentaries, known as Mikraot Gedolot by Daniel Bomberg in 1517.

His most well-known writing was Iggeret Orchot Olam (Treatise on the Ways of the World) published in 1524 and later translated into Latin[4].

Iggeret Orhot Olam, Venice edition 1586
This was one of the first Hebrew books on geography and was welcomed by a large audience.
In its thirty chapters, R. Farissol deals with various different countries and describes the Jewish inhabitants of those places. He was fascinated by the ten lost Tribes of Israel and believed some were to be found amongst the Bnei Yisrael tribe of India.

Translation of Iggeret Orchot Olam into Latin
His fascination with travel may have been enhanced by the appearance of a kabbalistic traveller and explorer with messianic undertones, David Reuveni, who arrived in Rome in 1523 riding upon a white horse and who was welcomed by the Pope.

The book recounts some adventurous stories from such explorers. He amassed as much information as he could, regarding Jewish settlement and customs in various locations around the globe. He loved geography and even located and placed the Garden of Eden somewhere in the mountains of Nubia, a region along the Nile between Egypt and Sudan.[5]

Heinrich Graetz writing in German about R. Avraham Farissol in his History of the Jews.

R. Farissol also translated Aristotle’s Logic into Hebrew.

Much of his correspondence with his colleagues is extant.

His book also included the first Hebrew reference to, and a crude schematic ‘map’ of, the newly discovered America in 1492:

This is how R. Avraham Farissol describes the discovery of the New World, the ‘forth’ area of human habitation outside of Africa, Asia and Europe:

“It is now an established fact that the Spanish ships which were sent on an expedition by the King of Spain ... almost gave up hope of ever returning .... But divine providence had decreed for them a kinder fate than death amid sea .... Those at the topmost mast discerned a strip of land ... When they had sailed along its shores ... and saw its exceeding large size, they called it because of its great length and breadth, "The New World." The land is rich in natural resources. They have an abundance of fish ... large forests ... teeming with large and small beasts of prey, and serpents as large as beams. The sand along the shores of the rivers, contain pure gold ... precious stones ... and mother of pearl.” [6]


As was fairly common in those times, a debate or disputation was called for between Jews and Christians - and the Jewish community of Ferrara chose R. Avraham Farissol to represent them before the Duke of Ferrara.

The reason why he was considered qualified for such an ominous task was that he had already authored a three-part polemical work called Magen Avraham (also known as Vikuach ha Dat). The first section defends Judaism, the second challenges Islam and the third, Christianity. 

The Duke, Ercole d’Este, ordered him to summarise the work in Italian so that two Dominican monks could peruse it before the debate.

It has been suggested that R. Farissol’s polemical work was largely based on an earlier work by R. Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, entitled Keshet uMagen which was an anti-Christian and Moslem polemic, written in the 1400s in Algiers.


Polemics and disputations dealt with issues of comparative religion and tried to determine which religion was more superior than the other. This was quite a common practice to which Jews were often subjected and forced to participate in.

For an example of what would be discussed in such debates, the participants would consider the issue of the length of pregnancy for a prophet – and then try to ascertain which explanation made more sense:


There is a Yemenite tradition from their Midrash haGadol which states that “All prophets were born after only seven months of pregnancy.”


Keshet uMagen quotes Christian sources asserting that the reason why a child born after eight months of pregnancy cannot live is that Jesus, who was born after eight months of pregnancy, decreed that no other child born after this period should survive.


A Moslem tradition suggests that:

 “The scholars differ as to the period of Mary’s pregnancy and the time of her giving birth to Jesus. Some say that the measure was the same as other women, namely nine months. Others say it was eight months, and that that was an added miracle, since no eight month has ever lived save Jesus. Others say it was six months, others three hours, and others that it was a single hour.”[7]

These were some of the matters that were debated in such disputations and the results for the losers (usually the Jews) were often catastrophic.

However, this may not have been the case in this instance, as according to David Ruderman[8] this would have been a time of mutual tolerance and tranquillity between Italian Christians and Jews, and Jews were able to freely participate in Renaissance culture without the need for assimilation.


Of great interest are some prayer-books R. Farissol was commissioned to copy.  We know of two such siddurim which he - being a scribe and a copyist - wrote for women, one in 1471 and the other in 1480. The names of these women have been erased over time.

The presentation is rather feminine with what appears to be adornments in pink ink, compared to other typical and more bland Hebrew manuscripts:

Prayer book for a woman, 1471 

In this siddur, which followed the Italian rite, he dramatically changed one of the morning blessings which specifically related to women:

Men would traditionally recite the daily morning blessing thanking G-d; “for not making me a woman”.

And women would usually substitute that with a corresponding but more benign blessing; “for making me according to Your will.”  

This is how the Artscroll Siddur presents the choice of blessings for both men and women:

This is how the (new English edition of the) Tehillat Hashem Siddur presents the blessings – with no printed option for any blessing for women to recite[9].

Historically, the wording for the woman’s blessing is not found in the Talmud, but rather in the 14th-century halachic work – the Arba’ah Turim - of R. Yaakov ben Asher[10] (1269-1343), son of the Rosh.
This work was to become a foundation source for all later Halacha:

R. Yaakov ben Asher writes:

“Women have the custom to say the blessing ‘...for making me according to Your will’. It is possible that this custom was established as a form of justification after a negative judgement."

This being the case, 150 years after the Baal haTurim, R. Farissol’s innovation was indeed very bold:

R. Farissol simply and skilfully reflected the men’s blessing, and suggested that women proudly and assertively thank G-d for “for making me a woman and not a man”!

There was no mincing of words here and now women threw it right back at the men with a corresponding blessing that not only mimicked the men’s blessing, but was even more forthright in that it added thanks ‘for making me a woman[11] as opposed to the almost apologetic ‘for making me according to Your will’.


It is not my intention to debate the wording of the morning Berachot or to suggest any changes as that is way beyond the scope of this article. What we do see though is a very gallant acknowledgement of femininity from a Renaissance rabbi who clearly was some six hundred years ahead of his time.

[1] Or Abrahamo Peritsol.
[2] Some say 1526 and some accounts say 1528.
[3] The title appears to be shoshinim not shoshanim.
[4] Under the title Tractatus Itinerum Mundi, Oxford 1691.
[5] Chapters 18 and 30.
[6] Chapter 29.
[7]Kisas al-Anbia, p. 265.

[8] The World of a Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol, By David B Ruderman.  

[9] Although in Chabad girls schools they are taught to say she’asani kirtzono even from nursery school.
[10] Also known as the Baal haTurim.
[11] Some versions of the siddur do prescribe the blessing for males as “who made me a man and not a woman”. 


  1. I doubt that this rabbi worded this bracha on his own imitative ,most likely that this was the minhag in that area He was a Scribe
    The tur was only 150 years then still relatively new!

  2. Also the kabbalistic reason for the bracha for men is to detach any dybbuk type entity neshama that may have attached to him over nite when asleep , This holds true for woman also and actually a good wording!

  3. You have a shtikel tuis
    He didn't give them a brucha to say "shaloi usane ish" he came up with a smart way to be matzdik the din

    Shausanee Ishu can mean thanking directly for it yet it can also mean kirtzoinoi as tzidik hadin
    Viloi ish that makes the double positive a negative
    Meaning we accept that you made us a womem and not a man (and we thank you anyway like the reciting of shausanee kirtzoinoi we say too thank you)
    This is abundantly clear

  4. All said and done, the Sages did NOT coin a parallel blessing to be said by women, so apart from the fact we are not allowed to create blessings not ordained by the Sages, the real question is: WHY did the Sages not find it necessary? In other words, what is a man supposed to mean when he reminds himself (!) he is not made a woman?!!!