Calling God “Our Father” in Prayer
In many prayers, we call God “אבינו - our Father.” What biblical allusions are we drawing on when we say this, and what are we trying to express when we call God “our Father” in prayer?
In Parashat Re’eih, Moshe tells Israel:
בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַֽיקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹקֵיכֶם
“You are the children of YHVH your God…”
Here, as well as other passages in the Bible, God relates to Israel as God’s children.1 In the present form of our Amidah, based largely on the tradition from Bavel, we call God “Father” in a number of blessings.2 But there is only one blessing in the Amidah which uses the word “Father” in all traditions, not just that of Bavel: the sixth blessing about forgiveness:3
מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ.
כִּי מוחֵל וְסולֵחַ אָתָּה.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלחַ
Pardon us, our King, although we have committed a crime
For pardoning and forgiving are You
Blessed are You, YHVH, Gracious, Who is5 abundant in forgiving.
If God is our Parent, how are we meant to understand this relationship? It is possible that calling God “Father” is meant to conjure up an authority figure to whom respect is due, such as in the following verse:
בֵּן יְכַבֵּד אָב
וְאִם־אָב אָנִי אַיֵּה כְבוֹדִי
וְאִם־אֲדוֹנִים אָנִי אַיֵּה מוֹרָאִי
אָמַר ׀ יְקֹוָ֣ק צְבָאוֹת
A son honors his father,
And a slave his master.
But if I am a Father, where is My honor?
And if I am a Master, where is the fear of Me?
Said YHVH Tzeva’ot.
If God is our Father, then God must be respected.6 Indeed, this verse connects “father” with “master”—both figures demand kavod (honor).7 Reading this biblical context back into our blessing, by calling God “Father” in this blessing about forgiveness, we are noting how we have failed to offer the proper respect due to God.
But this is not the only understanding of the image of a father. Although many figures demand respect, the father is someone whose bond is unbreakable. By calling God “Father” in asking for forgiveness, we appeal to God’s eternal connection to us.
The nature of this fatherly connection was debated by two early rabbis, interpreting our verse from Parashat Re’eih:
"בנים אתם לה' אלקיכם",
רבי יהודה אומר: אם נוהגים אתם מנהג בנים הרי אתם בנים ואם לאו אי אתם בני.
רבי מאיר אומר: בין כך ובין כך בנים אתם לה' אלקיכם ...
“You are children of YHVH your God.”
R. Yehudah says: If you behave as children, you are called “children”; but if you do not behave as children, you are not called “children.”
R. Meir says: In either instance you are called “children…”
In this midrash, R. Yehudah claims that the metaphor describing Israel as the children of God is limited. It is entirely conditional on Israel’s behavior. If we are acting in accordance with the role of God’s children, then we are considered God’s children. But if we sin and behave badly, then the relationship is broken; we are no longer God’s children.9
R. Meir, by contrast, says that no matter what, the people of Israel are always God’s children.10 We call upon God as a Father to forgive us, as a Parent who is bound to us forever. It is exactly in the moment of our failure that this metaphor is needed. We are not behaving in the ways we should, and yet we still can call God, “Father.” Our blessing (following the opinion of R. Meir) emphasizes a relationship that, while attenuated by our sinning actions, is not completely destroyed, because it never can be terminated; God’s love is unbreakable.11
Indeed, one of the terms associated with God as Father in the Siddur is the root “רחם- mercy.”12 R. Akiva uses this in one of the first recorded liturgical appeals to God as Father:
Our Father, our King
have mercy on us.”13
R. Akiva calls God “our Father” intending to appeal to God’s merciful aspects. As Stefan Reif notes: “Referring to God as the worshipper’s father implies a close, warm and intense relationship…”14
In the following midrash, the metaphor of merciful parent extends not only to God as Father, but also to God as Mother:
א"ר שמואל דרכו של אב לרחם, "כרחם אב על בנים" (תהלים קג:יג). ודרכה של אם לנחם, "כאיש אשר אמו תנחמנו" (ישעיה סו: יג). א' הקדוש ברוך הוא אנא עביד דידאב אנא עבד דידאם. אנא עביד דידאב, "כרחם אב על בנים." אנא עביד דידאם, "כאיש אשר אמו תנחמנו." א' הק' "אנכי אנכי הוא מנחמכם" (ישעיה נא:יב).
R. Shmuel said: It is the way for a father to have mercy (לרחם) “like a father who has mercy on children” (Psalm 103:13). And it is the way for a mother to show comfort (לנחם) “like a man for whom his mother shows comfort” (Isaiah 66:13).
The Holy Blessed One said, “I act like a father, and I act like a mother.” I act like a father: “like a father who has mercy on children.” I act like a mother: “like a man for whom his mother shows comfort.” God said, “I, I am the one who comforts you” (Isaiah 51:12).
God is likened in this midrash to both a father and a mother. Reading the doubling of the “אנכי - I” in Isaiah 66:13 as significant, God is not only one parental figure or the other, but both.16 Indeed, this midrash does not seek to contrast the traits of a father and mother, but rather elide them. God encompasses both mercy (רחם) and comfort (נחם), terms that are both associated with God’s love and forgiveness.17 The image of God as loving father is similar to the image of God as comforting mother.
Not only is God’s mercy associated with the term father, but God sees our calling God “Father” as a path to deepen our relationship. In other words, God wants us to call God “Father,” so we may draw closer to God:
כל הנסים והגבורות שעשיתי לכם לא שתתנו שכרי אלא שתהיו מכבדים אותי כבנים וקוראים אותי אביכם "ואומר אבי תקראי לי" (ירמיה ג:יט).
All the miracles and wonders that I did for you were not so that you would pay Me a reward, but rather for you to honor Me like children, and call me your Father: “and I say, call me Father” (Jeremiah 3:19).
This midrash offers the view that the primary purpose of God’s behavior is to establish a relationship with the children of Israel in which we call God “Father.” When we reach out to God as a father while admitting our sins, we are invoking this unbreakable relationship, a relationship that God wants as much as we do.
When I call God “Father” in this blessing, I try to access the aspect of that metaphor that R. Meir claims is always present: the mercy that a parent has for a child that never goes away, no matter how badly the child acts. I love that our sacred texts—including the Amidah—offer this metaphor of connection to God. To me, God is not a vague idea or set of principles, but a Being who wants to draw close to us through relationship. The image of God as a father helps me access this vision of the relationship, and draws me closer to God.
1 See, for instance, the positive examples in Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 3:19, 31:19; Hosea 11:1. For critical examples, see Deuteronomy 8:5, Isaiah 1:2. One midrash (Devarim Rabbah 5:7) notes how God is also called the father of other nations, although God favors Israel as the youngest—and most beloved—child.
2 “Avinu (our Father)” appears in versions of other blessings in the Amidah, as noted in Uri Ehrlich, Tefillat ha-Amidah Shel Yemot ha-Hol (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2013). This includes Blessing 5, השיבנו אבינו (but only in Bavel traditions); Blessing 9, ברכנו אבינו בכל מעשה ידינו, Ehrlich, p. 126 (this is only one strand of the Bavel tradition); Blessing 16, אב הרחמן, Ehrlich, p. 214 (only in some Bavel versions); and blessing 19, וברכינו אבינו, Ehrlich, p. 261 (only in some Bavel versions). In the Eretz Yisrael tradition, there is a version of Blessing 4 which reads: חננו אבינו, Ehrlich, p. 79, but this does not appear in Bavel traditions.
3 For the use of God as father more broadly in the liturgy, see Marc Brettler, “Biblical Precursors: Father, King, Potter,” in Naming God, ed. Lawrence Hoffman (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2015), p. 79; Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity: Transformed Background or Common Ground?” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 38 (2001), pp. 470-504, here p. 490; Stefan Reif, “The Fathership of God in Early Rabbinic Liturgy,” in Family and Kinship in the Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature, ed. Angel Passaro (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 510ff.
4 This could also be translated: “because.” For the ambiguity in this term, see Stefan Reif, “The Amidah Benediction on Forgiveness: Links Between its Theology and its Textual Evolution,” in Seeking the Favor of God Volume 3: The Impact of Penitential Prayer beyond Second Temple Judaism, eds. Mark Boda, Daniel Falk, and Rodney Werline (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), pp. 92, 96-97. Reuven Kimelman, “The Penitential Part of the Amidah and Personal Redemption,” in Boda et al., p. 75.
5 In most older versions of this blessing, it is “ומרבה - and abundant,” not “המרבה - is abundant.” See Siddur R. Saadia Gaon, p. 18; Siddur Rashba”n, p. 14; Siddur Rambam, ed. Goldschmidt (Mehkerei Tefilah), p. 199, and most of the Bavel versions found in the Genizah (see Ehrlich, Tefillat ha-Amidah, p. 99 and 100).
7 See Peirushei Siddur ha-Tefillah la-Rokei’ah, ed. Hershler, p. 333. See also II Kings 16:7, where King Ahaz tells the king of Assyria, “עַבְדְּךָ וּבִנְךָ אָנִי - I am your servant and your son,” a way of expressing fealty. See also II Kings 5:13.
9 The Rambam applies R. Yehudah’s approach to our blessing, by claiming that when our sins reach a certain level of severity (פשעים), we can no longer call God father, but must address God as King. See Mordechai Akiva Friedman, “Reshimot Talmid be-Veit Midrash ha-Rambam be-Emunot ve-Dei'ot u-ve-Halakhah,” Tarbiz 62 (1993), p. 547.
10 In a further exposition of his position in a different midrash, R. Meir brings a number of prooftexts that demonstrate that the people of Israel remain God’s children even while sinning. See Sifrei Devarim #308, ed. Finkelstein, p. 347, Bavli Kiddushin 36a; Bavli Bava Batra 10a.
12 See, for instance, certain versions of the blessing before Shema, the blessing introducing Peseukei de-Zimra, and one of the additions to the first blessing of the Amidah in the Ten Days of Repentance. See Reif, “Fathership,” p. 510, 515, 516, and n. 40. See also Ehrlich, Tefillat ha-Amidah, p. 214.
13 The phrase “for Your sake,” appearing in the printed editions of the Talmud, is missing in most manuscripts. For more on this prayer, see my essay, “Prayer and Character: The Story Behind Avinu Malkeinu.”
16 See Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, eds. William Braude and Israel Kapstein (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1975), p. 326: “And because He meant to be father and mother to Israel, the Holy One used ‘I’ twice in the verse.”
17 The terms רחם and נחם are interchangeable in versions of the prayer recited on Tisha B’Av, asking for God to have mercy on the mourners of Zion. See Saul Philip Wachs, “Birkat Nahem: The Politics of Liturgy in Modern Israel,” in Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue, eds. Ruth Langer and Steven Fine (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), pp. 248-249.