As we will see in Mitzvah #433, there is an obligation for us to try to get closer to God through prayer. To help us fulfill this, our Sages established a prayer to be recited thrice-daily, corresponding to the prayers of our Forefathers. This prayer is called the Amidah (because it is recited standing); the weekday version is also called Shemoneh Esrei, the Eighteen Benedictions (although a nineteenth has since been added). Once a week for nineteen weeks, we will review the contents of the 19 blessings of “Shemoneh Esrei.”
The twelfth bracha, against heretics, is the one that was later inserted, with the result that there are nineteen blessings in the “Eighteen Benedictions.” According to the Talmud in Brachos (28b), this blessing was added in the days of Rabban Gamliel in response to an increase in heretics. According to Rashi there, “minim” (heretics) refers to those who deny the Divine origin of the Torah. The term minim is commonly, though not exclusively, used by the Talmud to refer to early Christian sects, who were more comparable to today’s “Messianic Jews” than to modern Christianity. (That is, they identified as Jews, albeit with ideas anathema to Jewish thought, rather than as a fully-independent religion.) Since this philosophy posed a threat to the nation, the bracha was instituted as an anti-missionary move. It refers, however, to any individual or group espousing heretical ideas within the community, such as the Sadducees. (In fact, it is the Sadducees who are mentioned by name in the Talmud where Rabban Gamliel requests that such a bracha be composed, though this may be a later edit.)
The blessing was written by Shmuel HaKatan in response to Rabban Gamliel’s request. Shmuel HaKatan is also cited in Pirkei Avos for quoting Proverbs 24:17, not to take joy in the downfall of one’s enemies. One can see the relevance of this sentiment to one charged with the unpleasant duty of composing a prayer against other Jews, even those who constitute an existential threat.
The prayer starts by requesting that “slanderers” have no hope. The heretical minim, being of Jewish background, would slander the mainstream Jews to the authorities. The bracha continues by asking that all evil disappear in an instant and that God’s enemies speedily be cut down. Next, we ask that God uproot, break, chop up and bring low all doers of evil, soon and in our lifetimes. We conclude the blessing praising God, Who breaks His enemies and humbles the wicked. However, due to centuries of censorship, many variations of this bracha exist.
Despite the addition of this nineteenth bracha, the prayer is still called “Shemoneh Esrei” from a desire that this blessing be rendered unnecessary and removed, restoring our daily prayers to the originally-intended eighteen.