One Sunday a synagogue in western Sydney hosted an afternoon tea for my wife and me. The tea and the company were pleasant, but the highlight was the chance to wander through the shule and pick up old siddurim that prayed for kings and kaisers, potentates and presidents, and I decided that someone should write a history of government on the basis of Jewish prayer books.
Patriotic prayers have been part of Judaism since the time of Jeremiah, who wrote, “Pray for the welfare of the city where I have led you to be exiled” (Jer. 29:7). Even Haman admitted, according to Targum Sheni, that Jews mention the king in their prayers – though, being an antisemite, he accused them of cursing the king and not praying for him. Jewish views of gentile kings were sometimes cynical (the rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” says, “God bless and keep the czar… far away from us!”) and sometimes highly respectful, especially in British lands where Jews had good reason to be grateful for friendly rulers.
Josephus was exaggerating when he said that the Jews “offered sacrifices twice daily for Caesar and the Roman people”. It depended on who was Caesar; the sages felt that no emperor had credibility compared to God and said, “When Rome is ripe for destruction, the kingdom of God will appear”.
The medieval sages said that it was God’s will that Jews obey their rulers; Rabbi Nissim Gerondi said that the land belonged to the king and whoever lived there had to obey his conditions. The Mishnah was more pragmatic: “Pray for the welfare of the government, since without fear of authority people would eat each other alive” (Avot 3:2). Shakespeare, who knew rabbinic teachings, said similarly, “The noble Senate… keep you in awe, which else would feed on one another” (Coriolanus 1:1).
At first the prayers for the government were ad-hoc. 11th century Worms used this text: “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 current version begins, “He who gives salvation (i.e. victory) to kings” (Psalm 144:10). Some officiants found the words difficult. In a Melbourne synagogue I heard, “Ee-oo give it starvation hunto kinks…” In another synagogue the minister spoke of “our suffering lady the Queen”.
In Britain the chief rabbis amended the prayer from time to time. I drafted an Australianised version.
Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles did not of course take account of a Jewish State. In 1948 Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog formulated the prayer for the State which is in wide use in Israel and the Diaspora. It majestically refers to the safety and well-being of Israel, the Jewish people and the inhabitants of the world. As an oleh I still feel a thrill when I hear it. My Amen is heartfelt.