An edited version of the following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jerusalem Post online on 5 June, 2012.
Diaspora Jews always had a sense of patriotism. Loyalty to authority was basic to their ethics and to their practical advantage. No matter how hostile the regime was, its Jews preferred a degree of stability to constant expulsion and homelessness. Yet their prayers for the government were sometimes tongues in cheek: many added an Amen when the rabbi said in “Fiddler on the Roof”, “God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us”, and not all synagogues – in Soviet Russia or elsewhere – were serious when they placed the prayer for the government on the wall near the Ark.
There was genuine patriotism in British countries, but in some historic places the Royal Prayer that was inscribed on the walls – even decorated with gold leaf – is now crumbling and has not been updated since Edward VII. Everywhere one comes across tattered siddurim from many lands which pray for Kaisers, czars, princes and presidents, and indeed a history of government could be written around these Jewish prayer books.
This was in gentile regimes, but in times when there were Jewish kings, attitudes to monarchy varied. The Almighty was not impressed when the people, wanting to be like other nations, urged the appointment of a king (Deut. 17:14-20). Samuel warned that kings do not always bring benefits (I Sam. 8:5-22). King Solomon’s son threatened the people, “My father chastised you with whips: I will chastise you with scorpions” (I Kings 12:14), and there was constant friction between kings and prophets. Nonetheless the Book of Proverbs says, “My son, fear God and the king, and meddle not with those who are given to change” (Prov. 24:21). Rashi comments, “Fear the king: provided he does not turn you away from fearing the Lord; the fear of the Lord is always the priority”. Ibn Ezra says, “Fear God and the king: for the Lord appoints a king to carry out judgment”.
Prayers for gentile kings derived their authority from Jeremiah’s advice: “Pray for the welfare of the city where I have led you to be exiled” (Jer. 29:7). When Haman accused the Jews of disloyalty (Esther 3:8); he called them “people (with) different laws”, which Targum Sheni paraphrases, “They (the Jews) go to their synagogues, read their books… and curse our king”. What a liar – “they curse our king”! But antisemites always twist the truth.
It was hard for Jews to pray honestly and sincerely for a hostile enemy such as Nebuchadnezzar, even though the Apocryphal book of Baruch advises (1:11), “Pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and his son”.
However, when a gentile king was well-disposed, this was reflected in Jewish prayers. Ezra says (6:10) that the returned exiles “pray for the life of the king and his sons”. The Jews might even have introduced prayers for the government into their Temple; rabbinic sources record that when Alexander the Great threatened Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders asked, “Will you, O mighty king, destroy the Temple in which sacrifices and prayers are offered for you and your land?” (Megillat Ta’anit 3; Yoma 67a). The Apocryphal books of Maccabees (I Macc. 7:33, 12:11) report that there were sacrifices and prayers for the king of Sparta “on festivals and other appropriate days”.
Josephus, however, is probably exaggerating when he states (Jewish Wars 2:10, 4; 17:2-4; cf. Philo, Legat ad Cajum 33, 45) that the Jews “offered sacrifices twice daily for Caesar and the Roman people”. It depended on who was the Caesar; Jews refused to pray for Caligula, who demanded that his image be placed in the Temple and accorded Divine honours.
A defiant sentence was inserted in the Avinu Malkenu prayer: “Our Father, Our King: we have no King but You”. The Roman emperor had no credibility when measured against God. True, Paul in the New Testament urges prayers for the sovereign and all who hold high office (I Tim. 2:2; cf. Rom. 14:17; John 18:36), reflecting an accommodating policy towards the Romans, but the rabbis regarded Roman rule as illegitimate, temporary and destined to be overthrown: “When the kingdom of Rome has ripened enough to be destroyed, the kingdom of God will appear” (Cant. R. 2:12).
The Mishnah gave a cynical explanation for prayers for the government (Avot 3:2): “Pray for the welfare of the government since without fear of it, people would eat each other alive” (cf. AZ 3b). Shakespeare says likewise (Corialanus, I:1): “You cry against the noble Senate, who,/Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else/Would feed on one another?” (Soncino Avodah Zarah, 1935, page 12). Did Shakespeare know the rabbinic passage in Latin translation? Or did he (and the rabbis) simply echo a verse from Psalms (124:3)? In any case the underlying cynical thought is that a government is needed to protect society from itself.
The wording of the early prayers for sovereigns and governments had no fixed form. Not until 11th century Worms does a standard version appear. It used the Mi Sheberach formula: “May He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless our exalted Kaiser. May He bless and prosper his undertakings and establish his throne in justice, so that righteousness may rule in the land, and grant life and peace to him and his descendants.”
The Sephardi version commenced with the formula, “He who giveth salvation (i.e. victory) unto kings” (Psalm 144:10), which, later adopted by the Ashkenazim, eventually came into general use, with the first printed version found in the Amsterdam siddur of 1658. Early texts prayed for the ruler to defeat his enemies (later versions asked for him to be saved from all trouble and sorrow) and to treat his Jewish subjects kindly, a phrase that was rejected in Napoleonic France as anachronistic at a time of emancipation.
In Britain, where Jews generally fared well and constantly showed their sense of citizenship, the royal prayer was always taken very seriously and played a significant role in the history of the Jewish community. Thus Manasseh ben Israel’s version in his “Humble Addresses” of 1656 helped to promote the case for Jewish resettlement. Centuries later British Zionists derived pleasure from the phrase, “May the Redeemer come unto Zion” (Isa. 59:20). Today there is a strong case for re-introducing an abandoned prayer, “that Judah be saved and Israel dwell securely” (Jer. 23:6).
In 1895 Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler altered the words, “Put compassion into the Queen’s heart and into the hearts of her counsellors and nobles, that they may deal kindly with us and with all Israel”. Utilising several Biblical passages, the prayer now read, “Put a spirit of wisdom and understanding (Isa. 11:12) into her heart and into the hearts of all her counsellors… that they may deal kindly and truly (Gen. 24:49) with all Israel”.
A far cry from 1189 when there was a proclamation that Jews were not to be admitted to the coronation of Richard the Lion-Heart. Defying the edict, a few Jews slipped into Westminster Hall but were driven out and a pogrom left thirty of them dead. However, from the establishment of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 1760, the Jewish community has been one of the select group of Privileged Bodies permitted to offer a Loyal Address to the sovereign on important occasions.
Chief Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz made or sanctioned two major changes to the royal prayer. After World War I the jingoistic words, “May He subdue nations under his (the king’s) sway and make his enemies fall before him” (cf. Psalms 18:48, 47:4) were removed, and in 1935, after the death of George V, the prayer was further shortened and the final section altered to read, “In his days and in ours, may our Heavenly Father spread the protection of peace over all the dwellers on earth”. It is interesting to recall that George VI called Dr Hertz “my Chief Rabbi”; it is said that during World War II the king asked Hertz whether Britain would win the war and the chief rabbi replied, “Yes, Your Majesty, but all the same I should put some of the colonies in your wife’s name” (Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, edited by Robert Rhodes James, 1967; entry for 3 June, 1943).
Sephardim tended to read the prayer in Hebrew, and Ashkenazim in the vernacular. In England, where synagogues sometimes used a Hebrew version of the National Anthem, “God Save the King” (E-l sh’mor hamelech), the musical motif of the latter was occasionally attached to the final words of the prayer for the government (from “In his days and in ours” – b’yamav uv’yamenu). The wording of the prayer was automatically altered when a monarch died or there were changes to the list of the royal family, but problems arose when the Prince and Princess of Wales divorced.
When a rabbi was not a native English speaker, strange things happened to the prayer, such as the version that congregants heard from a certain minister who said, “Ee-oo give it salvation hunto kinks…” Outside Britain localised references were often inserted. In Australia changes made by leading rabbis on their own initiative were subsequently adopted more widely. Early mentions of colonial governors were altered after Federation in 1901 to refer to “the Governor General and Governors of the States”. The lead was often given by the Great Synagogue, Sydney, from which several amendments emanated during the incumbency of the present writer.
These included the abandonment of the archaic phrase “Our Sovereign Lady the Queen”, and its replacement by “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia”; the inclusion of “the legislators and leaders of Australia and its States and Territories”; and a reference to “the happiness and welfare of every citizen”. In 2004 a further amendment spoke of “all the peoples of this land” living “in amity and mutual respect”.
It became customary for the prayer for the government to be inserted in the Sabbath and festival service after the Torah reading (amongst Sephardim, also on Mondays and Thursdays and Erev Yom Kippur, though not in the Italian or Yemenite rite). In one or two Australian synagogues there was a debate about which prayer to put first – the prayer for the government or the prayer for Israel. My advice was to say both sincerely but to commence with the prayer for the government on the basis of the rule, aniyyei ir’cha kod’min (Bava Metzi’a 71a), that one starts with the local community but never neglects the needs of Israel.
The prayer for the State of Israel has one version by Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevy Herzog, referring to “the first flowering of our redemption”, and one by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie which makes no theological claims about the status of Israel. Lord Jakobovits told me that Brodie chose his words deliberately: though a passionate Zionist, he left it to history and the Almighty to decide whether the establishment of Israel was messianic.
When conditions were hard for Jews, they omitted all prayers for the government, as in Nazi Germany, or recited them perfunctorily, as in the Soviet Union. At the time of the Falklands War a number of leading clergy were exercised by the paradox that both sides (actually both of them Christian) were calling upon one and the same God to grant them victory.
A Jewish approach is suggested by a Midrash on a verse that formerly appeared in the royal prayer: “He maketh a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters” (Isa. 43:16). The passage alludes to the crossing of the Red Sea, but the sages gave it a wider significance. Asked why the verse says the same thing in two different ways, they explained that travellers who depart from both ends of the Mediterranean Sea pray to God to grant them favourable winds and bring them safely to port. Would not a wind from the east harm the man coming from the west? The verse therefore says, “He maketh a way in the sea” for the man coming from the east, and “a path in the mighty waters” for the one coming from the west. Applying the verse to today’s situation, though it is strange to pray for governments who are at odds with each other, the real need is for rulers and leaders to have the judgment and wisdom to work together to promote the well-being of all human beings.
What motivates prayers for the government – pragmatic expediency or theological principle? We have a rule, dina d’malchuta dina, “The law of the land is the law” (Bava Batra 55a etc.), with an alternative version, din hamelech din (Choshen Mishpat 369:11). Both refer to “the king’s law”, since in those days the laws were not enacted by a democratically elected legislature but by a king. Such enactments were religiously binding upon Jews; the medieval sages said it was God’s will that Jews obey their rulers.
Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (14th century; known as “the RaN”), said that the land belonged to the king and if Jews wished to live there they must comply with his conditions. If the king’s law contravened the principles of equity or if he acted arbitrarily to victimise the Jews they still had to comply with his requirements unless and until they could leave for elsewhere. They could join the forces of resistance and seek to change the law or bring the ruler down, though Solomon’s son (I Kings 12:14) had warned that a new king might be worse than the old one. In case of inequitable laws one could also protect himself by deceiving the authorities (Ned. 3:4). Prayer came into it also, with the hope that prayer would urge God to influence the hearts of the rulers towards the Jewish ethic of righteous dealing with other people.
If changes occur in the nature of the government, further changes will need to be made to the royal prayer. Nonetheless, we must recognise our good fortune in being part of a nation which is good for Jews, a nation to which Jews have always given their best, with a head of state whose personal qualities have enriched the monarchy over so many busy decades in office.