Jewish Prayers for

the Government

by David Conway

In the opening scene of “Fiddler on the Roof” the cast breaks into song singing “Tradition” on the streets of Anatevka. The Rabbi’s son asks “Is there a proper blessing for the Csar?” The Rabbi responds: “A blessing for the Czar?” There is a moment’s drawn-out silence whilst he ponders tugging at his long grey beard and then pronounces with great authority with that expected Hollywood Yiddish style drawl, “Of course....... may God bless and keep the Czar.........far away from us!”

What was the actual blessing for this anti-Semitic autocrat? It was difficult to find a sufficiently old Machzor but I came across a report of an old Rosh Hashanah Prayer Book published in 1895 in Petrokov today in Poland but until 1919, was part of the Russian Empire. This part of the Torah service included a prayer for the Czar, beautifully composed,

“May the One who gives power to Kings and sovereignty to Princes; may the blessed One who is the Ruler of rulers bless and keep, guard and raise, exalt and raise the Czar Nicolas Alexanderovich and his widowed mother Czarina Marie and his wife the Royal Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna and their heir, Grigory.... May God save them all harm and pain, and may all their enemies fall before them. And may the Merciful One put in the heart of the Czar compassion and good deeds to the People of Israel”.

What about Soviet Russia? Did this “tradition” of blessing an autocratic leader continue into the days of Joseph Stalin? Having tried to find the actual wording of the “loyal Prayer” from those times I found reference to a “prayer for peace on earth” and a prayer for the health of Joseph Stalin composed by Rabbi Shloime Mikhelevich Shleifer who in 1943 had been appointed to lead the largest synagogue, the Choral Synagogue in Moscow. Its previous Rabbi Shmarya Yehuda Leib Medalia was arrested and executed for alleged disloyalty in 1938 at which time the synagogue was suspected of being a meeting place for Zionists.

To demonstrate loyalty to the government Rabbi Shleifer composed a prayer for the Russian autocrat and in 1946 removed the words “From Zion shall come forth Torah” from above the Ark, the NKVD, the precursor of the KGB, having judged the words to be too Zionist, and he replaced them with a verse from the Prophets about social justice. Nevertheless, when thousands crowded the synagogue on the visit to it by Golda Meir on 2 September 1948 he was the Rabbi in situ. This led to suspicions of Zionism by the authorities on his part. He escaped arrest whereas others in the disbanded Jewish antifascist committee were exiled, imprisoned or executed by his writing a personal appeal to Stalin. But he sustained the synagogue during the worst years of Stalinist repression. As a government appointee he demonstrated loyalty to Stalin denying anti-Semitism in the USSR. Looking at history with the benefit of hindsight are we right to criticise him for what might have actually contributed to the revival of Jewish identity, the subsequent exodus of so many Jews to Israel. He did campaign to note the participation of Jews in the war effort. So from our perspective in 2016 his loyalty to the Communist state and the apparent adulation of its government exemplified by the loyal prayer was perhaps a favour to future generations, preserving for many their Jewish identity.

Self imposed censorship or having an eye out for the consequences of prayer is not unknown in Orthodox Judaism. In the Aleinu prayer the sentence, “For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a God who cannot save” was omitted in some older printed Ashkenazi siddurim. In some editions a blank line was left in the printing so it could be filled in handwriting. In some modern versions the line has been restored. The green Authorised Daily Prayer Book edited by Rabbi Sacks omits the line although it is included in the Koren version. Interestingly there is no commentary. We can only speculate as to why not.

In an essay by Rabbi Apple of Australia on the subject of Prayers for the government, he did not specifically mention the Soviet Union but he felt that prayers for the government raised ethical issues. He referred to Jews in recent times in the Arab nations praying for their rulers. He also referred to those living and serving on both sides during World War I having their respective Jewish chaplains offering entreaties for victory. He justifies this by his comment that, “whatever is said is dictated by the need for self preservation”.

Rabbi Apple asks whether prayer is the only or best thing one can do for the rulers and leaders of the country? Many other contributions can be made by civic duty following Jeremiahs dictate not only to “pray for the city” but also “to seek its good” applying insights from their tradition to the national ethos and engaging with wider society.

In 2014 Chief Rabbi Mirvis updated the Prayer for the Royal Family to include “May He bless and protect Her Majesties Armed forces”. He explained this in an article in the “Jewish News” saying that, and I quote, “the prayer itself expresses a central tenet of our identity, namely our appreciation of the importance of authority, secular law and of our duties as citizens”. He also quoted Rabbi Chananya’s dictum as a source of an halachic obligation to “pray for the peace of the realm”. He felt that servicemen and women in theatres of conflict preserve our security and freedom’s and so that as we enjoy the peace of Shabbat and festivals we should reflect on the blessings and privileges that we enjoy. He went on to say that whilst we have recited prayers for the Armed Forces at times of war it should be a regular feature because nowadays powerful threats need to be counted and faced down daily. Conversely, there are as Rabbi Apple says other types of contribution to the well-being of society. Should we not therefore be praying in more specific terms expressing gratitude for the Social Security that a modern welfare state offers as well as thanking those in the health and public services?

Loyalty to the government in the Diaspora has strong roots. In Proverbs 24:21 we read “My son fear thou the Lord and the king, and meddle not with them that are given to change” and quoting Jeremiah again (29:7), “Seek you the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its welfare shall be your peace”. A century later when Alexander the Great was bent on destroying Jerusalem he was met by the High Priest and elders who pleaded “will you, O mighty King destroy the Temple in which sacrifices and prayers are offered for you and your land?”

In his monumental work “Jewish Wars” Josephus reported that in Roman times Jews “offer sacrifices twice daily for Caesar and the Roman people”. But Rabbi Raymond Apple says, “it depended on who the Caesar was”. Jews refused to pray for Caligula who demanded that his image be placed in the Temple and given divine honours. A defiant sentence was inserted in the Avinu Malkenu prayer: “Our Father, Our King: we have no King but you”, implying that no Roman emperor was on a par with God. The Rabbis regarded Roman rule as illegitimate, temporary and destined to be overthrown: They wrote, “When the kingdom of Rome has ripened enough to be destroyed, the kingdom of God will appear” (Midrash Shir haShirim Rabba 2:12). Conversely on the brink of war against Rome Rabbi Chananya taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government since but for the fear thereof men would swallow each other alive”.

The exact wording of some of these original ancient prayers for governments have not come down to us but we know that there was an 11th century prayer at Worms namely “May he who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob bless our exalted Kaiser. May He prosper his undertakings; establish his throne in justice, so that righteousness rules in the land; and grant life and peace to him and his seed after him”.

Interestingly, the opening sentence for many of our loyal prayers namely “He who gives salvation to Kings” was used by Spanish Jews which it is thought they brought with them when they settled in Holland and notwithstanding the painful expulsion they had just experienced and which followed a long period of discrimination long after the golden age of Spain had come to an end. But the opening passage for most governmental prayers contrast the “salvation to Kings and Dominion to Princes” with “Whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom”. So we have here a contrast between the eternal nature of the kingship of the Almighty and the transient government of humankind. Some governments are more transient than others and I would like to think of this as something of a political opening statement.

The Royal Prayer was at one-time much longer than as it currently appears. A shortened form of the prayer, now used by us was introduced by Chief Rabbi Hertz at the Royal Jubilee Service in 1935. Its concluding sentences sound a universalist note. In his commentary on the Royal Prayer Rabbi Hertz quotes, (describing him as a Jewish humanist), Azariah de Rossi (1513-1578) who maintained that, like the High Priest of old, Jews are to pray for the whole of mankind: And I quote from him “We, who are scattered to the 4 winds of heaven should supplicate Almighty God for the peace of all the inhabitants of the world; that no nation lift up sword against nation; and that He remove from their hearts all strife and hatred: for in their peace we too have peace”.

Some things never change. Pepys in his famous diary made an entry about his visit to a Synagogue. Listen to what he says about the King’s Prayer:

“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”

To conclude, a Prayer for the Government by congregations in the Diaspora makes one think about one’s place in general society and the ethical issues raised by a number of Rabbonim. 

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