Posted by: Emily | 30 August 2012

Crossing through a dangerous place

There is beautiful Jewish prayer called Tefilat Ha-Derech in Hebrew, usually “the Traveler’s Prayer” in English. Traditionally recited before going on a long and potentially perilous journey, it asks for divine protection from the dangers on the way. The origin of the prayer is in the page of Talmud studied today in the Daf Yomi cycle (one page per day, over seven and a half years):

רבי יהושע אומר המהלך במקום סכנה מתפלל תפלה קצרה וכו׳ בכל פרשת העבור מאי פרשת העבור אמר רב חסדא אמר מר עוקבא אפי׳ בשעה שאתה מתמלא עליהם עברה כאשה עוברה יהיו כל צרכיהם לפניך איכא דאמרי אמר רב חסדא אמר מר עוקבא אפילו בשעה שהם עוברים על דברי תורה יהיו כל צרכיהם לפניך

[The mishnah says:] Rabbi Joshua says: Someone who travels through a dangerous place should pray a short prayer … [which includes the words] “in every time of crisis [‘ibbur]”. [The gemara asks]: What is “a time of crisis”? Rav Hisda said in the name of Mar Ukba: Even at a time when You are filled with wrath [‘ebrah] against them, just like a pregnant woman [‘uberah], may You be mindful of all their needs. Others report that Rav Hisda said in the name of Mar Ukba: Even at a time when they transgress [‘oberim] the words of Torah, may You be mindful of all their needs. (b. Berachot 29b)

Let’s unpack this a bit. The mishnah (earlier rabbis) relates the tradition that since going on a journey, especially in the ancient world, meant traveling through a maqom sakanah, a place of danger, a traveler should pray for divine protection on the journey. The mishnah gives a specific prayer for this occasion, which asks for divine protection “in every time of crisis”. So the gemara (later rabbis) asks what exactly that means. The answer the gemara gives is that even if God is angry with the person, or even when the person is a sinner, or not the most religiously upstanding person, they are still worthy of divine protection, and God has an obligation to be mindful of their needs.

As they love to do, the rabbis are engaging in a bit of wordplay here. The root of the words “crisis”, “pregnant” (the misogyny is an unfortunate relic of its time), “wrath”, and “transgress” is the three-letter sequence ‘ayin-bet-resh. This root, at its most literal level, means something like “to cross over”. Actually, the word “Hebrew” comes from the same root: literally, “one who crosses over”. This Hebrew root is actually quite similar to the Latin root trans-, and in fact one of my favorite suggestions for a Hebrew word meaning “transgender” is ‘ivri, “one who crosses over”, or perhaps better, “one who transitions” (!).

So in this piece of Talmud, the rabbis are extending the notion of divine protection even to those who are imperfect. They ask God to remain mindful of the needs of those people who might need bit of extra help. When one is in a moment of crisis, one does not need to be a perfect individual in order to ask for help. And, continuing to play on the root ‘ayin-bet-resh, we can extend this notion even to those who cross over. When one is transgender, an ‘ivri, a person who crosses over, one has a right to ask for that help. And the community has the obligation to be mindful of the needs of its transgender members.

A transgender person is constantly traveling though a maqom sakanah, a place filled with perils and pitfalls, and the dangers can sometimes be overwhelming. The traditional Tefilat Ha-Derech asks for divine protection from such dangers as highwaymen and wild beasts—definitely perils on journeys in the ancient world, but perhaps a little less pressing today than they used to be. Tefilat Ha-Derech has been adapted for many different purposes by people today to suit different needs, and different perils associated with journeys, in the modern world. Perhaps a Tefilat Ha-Derech for transgender people ought to ask for protection from oppression, from transphobia, from hatred and bigotry. We might even extend the rabbis’ wordplay: even when we are those who transition, when we are ‘ivrim, a group whose needs have not always been recognized, we have the right to protection.

But it is not enough to ask for these protections from some divine source and hope that they will just magically appear: we can do better than that. We must call upon our allies to take a stand on our behalf. We must build communities that will be mindful of the needs of their members. We must innovate, and create new ways to affirm ourselves and our identities. We must advocate for fairness, tolerance, and justice, not just for ourselves, not just for those who are similar enough to us, but for all human beings.

This is what we must do in every time of crisis, on behalf of all of us who travel through a dangerous place. Ensuring safety on the journey must become everyone’s responsibility.



  1. Beautiful! Not where I thought you were going to go, though. I thought you were going to use the prayer as a prayer to be spoken during transition — even as an everyday blessing of the process of transition.

    • Ultimately I’d like to create something like that, yes. When I have something I will post it. I’m still trying to think of what should be in such a prayer, and how it could be phrased. “Ve-tatzileinu mi-kaf transphobia” isn’t really mellifluous as it could be, I don’t think. What would you want to see in such a paper?

  2. Wonderful.

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