Q. What is the origin of the prayer for the royal family recited in some synagogues on Shabbat?
A. Though the Queen has never been to a synagogue service, she presumably knows that there is a Jewish prayer for the royal family. Lord and Lady Jakobovits, when invited to Windsor Castle, gave her a framed copy of Anglo-Jewish orders of service on royal occasions from five generations of British kings and queens, and explained to her how faithfully the “royal prayer” continues to be said, though outside Britain it is adapted to local circumstances.
Prayers for sovereigns, Kaisers, czars and princes of many lands have been part of Jewish life for countless centuries. Prayers for Jewish kings derive from Prov. 24:21: “My son, fear God and the king”. Since this verse mentions God first, Rashi points out that kings as well as commoners must obey the Almighty. Prayers for non-Jewish kings derive from Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles (Jer.29:7). The Apocrypha records (I Macc.7:33,12:11) that on appropriate days the Jews remembered the ruler and sacrificed an offering for the king. In Ezra 6:10 the people are asked to pray for Cyrus. Philo and Josephus speak of prayers for the Roman emperor, though the Jews refused to give Divine honours to Caligula, who ordered that his image be placed in the Temple.
There are two reasons given for the prayers for the government – the positive, “Seek the well-being of the city… for in its peace shall you have peace” (Jer. 29:7) and the negative, “for were it not for government, people would eat each other alive” (Mishnah Avot 3:2).
The wording of the early prayers is not certain. The first version we have is from 11th century Worms. In about 1340, Abudarham reported that “after the reading of the Torah it is the custom to ask a blessing on the king and to pray to God to help him and give him victory over his enemies”. This appears to have been said even on Mondays and Thursdays and on Yom Kippur after Kol Nidrei. Many versions of the prayer ask that God may dispose the heart of the ruler to show compassion to the Jews, an understandable sentiment in the light of Jewish experience in many places, but this was altered when things improved for the Jews.
On the whole Jews have been well treated by British monarchs. William the Conqueror brought Jewish traders and artisans with him from France. His son befriended and protected the Jews. During the reign of Henry I, Jews were accorded increased privileges. Stephen helped to ensure that Jews would not suffer the worst excesses of the first Crusade, though his reign saw the Norwich blood libel in 1144. Henry II extended protection to Jews; Richard the Lionhearted disapproved of a pogrom in London and endorsed Jewish rights (it is said that he tried to get Maimonides to England as his personal physician). John confirmed Jewish rights and ordered that anti-Jewish rights be halted. Henry III, however, ordered Jews to wear a special badge, imposed new taxes, closed synagogues and sold the Jews to his brother. His son, Edward I, expelled the Jews from England in 1291.
Though England was now theoretically without Jews until the time of Cromwell, there were Jews there nonetheless and on the whole they were on good terms with the monarchs. Cromwell allowed the Jewish resettlement in 1656, not as a favour to the Jews but because it was in the interests of the Commonwealth. James I and William III confirmed the Jewish right to practise Judaism; Queen Anne gave a timber beam to Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1701 as a mark of favour.
The Hanoverians were positive towards the Jews. The royal dukes (Queen Victoria’s “wicked uncles”) attended a Friday evening service at the Duke’s Place Synagogue. Victoria had many Jewish associations, and during her long reign the final steps towards Jewish emancipation took place. Edward VII had a whole circle of Jewish friends, including Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler. Whilst Prince of Wales, Edward attended synagogue ceremonies on more than one occasion.
George V visited the Holy Land in his youth and attended Seder at the home of the Sephardi chief rabbi. During his reign the Balfour Declaration was issued. Edward VIII did not have a significant place in Anglo-Jewish history and had he remained king his pro-Nazi sympathies would have caused great concern. George VI was highly regarded by all his subjects, including the Jews; his first public statement was a Chanukah message to Jews in the British forces. He called Chief Rabbi JH Hertz “my Chief Rabbi”, and there is a (probably apocryphal) story that during the Second World War when he asked the Chief Rabbi if the allies would win, Dr Hertz replied, “Yes, Your Majesty – but you might like to put the colonies in your wife’s name for safe keeping!”.
The present Queen has attended a function to mark the centenary of the United Synagogue, the Duke of Edinburgh has been to synagogue services, and both have taken a kindly interest in the Jewish community. When Jews pray for the Queen they mean it, though they feel like adding, “May she have nachas“. If and when Australia becomes a republic, Australians, and Australian Jews, will naturally continue to feel affection for her.