Sometimes defined as “the bathroom blessing”, the Asher Yatzar (The One Who Forms) is a blessing of thankfulness that one’s body works to sustain life through being able to void the bladder and bowels when necessary. Being mindful of the body’s ability to sustain life through what are for most people routine - often unnoticed - actions is important to me as a disabled Jew. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic I began chanting the Elohai Neshama blessing:
Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah
God, the soul you have placed within me is pure
I would say this whenever I used my steroid inhaler to open my lungs fully. This felt fitting to me because the word neshama means both soul and breath, so I could understand this blessing to say “God, the breath you have placed within me is pure” – it made my use of medical assistance a holy act, assisting God in the task of keeping me alive and well during a time when being able to breathe was truly a privilege and a blessing.
So utilising prayer to ritualise my disabled body and life is no strange thing to me. In a world that often doesn’t accommodate disabled people’s experiences or needs, it is a necessity to chart our own course, and prayer is no exception.
With the Asher Yatzar, the blessing troubled me from the moment that I began attempting to incorporate it into my daily routine. Like so much of the world around us, both religious and secular, it wasn’t made with a body like me in mind. To say the words:
“if one [of the body’s openings] were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence”
felt like lying to God, because that’s not how my disabled body works, and my understanding of divinity is that God knows that.
Confused about how to ethically say a prayer that didn’t match my lived experience, I took to many online Jewish sources where I was repeatedly reassured that I didn’t have to say this blessing. I wasn’t obligated due to my disabilities. This may be a comfort to some disabled people in a similar position — we all have experiences where the permission to stop trying to force a routine to fit is a relief and a blessing.
However, when we are asking “How can I make this work?” being told to stop trying altogether is disheartening in the extreme. My frustration grew as the assumption across different fields of observance, movement and genders seemed to be that I, as a disabled person, would be happy for my practice to be less full than my non-disabled contemporaries, while I was requesting assistance with the opposite mission.
Instead of accepting the status quo, I did what many others disabled and Jewish ancestors before me have done and I changed the script to put myself back in the picture. While I had used existing prayers in novel ways before, this was the first time I had adapted a prayer from scratch.
I looked at the existing prayer and journaled asking the following questions, which may be a useful tool kit for creating or adapting prayers for your own practice:
As I journaled, this framework made me realise that I wasn’t just upset for myself — I know dozens of other disabled Jewish people working and struggling to make their observance authentic to their whole selves, whether that’s choosing not to fast to manage medication side effects, praying while seated, lighting Shabbat candles with a caregiver’s hand striking the match, or learning to pray in a sign language. Changing the prayer to accommodate my body but not others felt like passing the problem down the line rather than solving it. So, I broadened my scope and attempted to write something that would honour the variety of ways life is sustained so we are able to be alive and present.
This adaptive framework could easily be applied to any marginalised life experience that isn’t recognised by standard prayer forms. While it would be easy to feel alone in doing this, Judaism actually has a powerful history of prayer creation beyond the siddur (formal prayer book), particularly in the form of thkines.
Thkines are prayers created mostly by women in Yiddish, a language which was accessible as they spoke it day-to-day, rather than Hebrew which most had not been taught. These prayers were designed to fit the rhythms of their lives, to address the routines and rituals that formal prayer did not, to talk to God in a way that was authentic to their whole selves.
I view my prayer writing practices as a form of accessible, adaptive work in the legacy of thkines practitioners. As the world becomes wider and more of us can acknowledge our full selves, our prayer and meditative practices must be able to expand accordingly, even if that means creating or recreating them ourselves.
“Asher Yatzar (The One Who Forms) for Disabled Liberation”
by Jaime S. K. Starr
Blessed are you, our God/Divine Presence/Holy One/Shekhinah, who in Your infinite wisdom formed the universe and within it each unique human body.
You created each of us B'tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Divine – and crafted in our bodies openings and cavities, pathways and connections.
The bodies You created for each of us sustain us through both the mysteries of their creation, and the inspired work of medical assistance which supports Your works, and these bodies have brought us to this moment.
Whether that sustenance comes from the air around us or oxygen tanks, food grown in the earth and eaten with the mouth, or brought to our digestive system through a port, and bodies voiding through openings or catheters, we are sustained, alive, and able to be present here before you.
May we still honour and nurture our bodies if they cease to work in the ways society expects them to, for we know that even disability is still a part of a body made in Your image.
May we hold to the knowledge that our uniqueness and survival are two of Your many miracles which You have made us a partner in creating.
May the day come when each of our unique, beautiful bodies is valued and supported equally in Your world, when our disabled bodies are recognised as B'tzelem Elohim, and when this knowledge allows the creation of a truly liberated world where all Your creation may thrive joyfully before You.
Blessed are You, source of all life, who created the abundance of our means for survival and thriving.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.