Throughout its long history, the Jewish people lived in many lands under many different rulers and government. As early as the sixth century BCE, Jews began to pray or offer sacrifices for the welfare of the king and/or government of the country in which they resided. The sources express different sentiments. Some pray for the government because without it “people would swallow each other alive” (Avot 3:2) i.e. there would be chaos and anarchy. Others pray for the government because it protects the Jews living in that country. Finally, one ancient source seems to view earthly kingdoms as a Heavenly Kingdom in miniature.
Much has been written about this topicand it would take an entire volume to do it justice. In this article, we shall examine three aspects of this topic: the ancient sources which mention prayers or sacrifices for the king; medieval and modern prayers for the king/government; who wrote the Prayer for the State of Israel?
II) Prayers and Sacrifices for the King ca. 600 BCE – 250 CE
1) In 594 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah sent words of comfort to the elders, priests, prophets and people who had already been exiled to Babylon:
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
This is the earliest source which instructs Jews to pray for the government. The situation is ironic; Jeremiah is telling the Jews to pray for the enemies who exiled them to Babylonia. But the motive is self-interest: “for in its prosperity, you shall prosper”.
2) The book of Ezra (6:6-10) relates that Darius, King of Persia (520 BCE) instructed Tattenai and the other Persian officials in Eretz Yisrael to help the Jews rebuild the Temple:
They are to be given daily without fail, whatever they need of young bulls, rams or lambs as burnt offerings for the God of Heaven, and wheat, salt, wine, and oil.so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of Heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons.
This text assumes that the Jews will offer sacrifices for the non-Jewish king using animals provided by the kingdom. It is not clear if this was an existing custom or if it was imposed upon the Jews by Darius as a quid pro quo for helping them rebuild the Temple.
3) The First Book of Maccabees relates (7:33) that the Syrian general Nicanor entered Jerusalem in 161 BCE. “Some of the priests came out of the sanctuary, and some of the elders of the people, to greet him peaceably and to show him the burnt offering that was being offered for the king” . Nicanor was not placated because he was looking for Judah Maccabee, but this passage is further evidence that the Jews used to offer sacrifices for whichever king was in power.
4) The Letter of Aristeas was written in Greek ca. 130 BCE. It relates the story of the Septuagint: 72 Jewish elders were invited to Alexandria in order to translate the Torah into Greek, which they did within 72 days. In verse 185 (ed. M. Hadas, New York, 1973, p. 173), Dorotheus calls upon Elisha, the eldest of the Jewish priests, to offer a prayer:
He arose and spoke there memorable words: “May Almighty God fill Your Majesty full of the good things which He has created, and grant uninterrupted and lifelong possession of them to you and your wife and children and those like-minded with you”.
Though this prayer was uttered by a Priest from Jerusalem, it probably reflects the milieu of the Jews of Alexandria in the second century BCE.
5) The next ancient prayer is the most interesting because it is probably the only example from the past 2,500 years of a prayer by Jews for a Jewish King. It is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q448) and was first published by Esther and Hanan Eshel and Ada Yardeni in 1991:
The Holy City ( = Jerusalem):
On Yonatan the King
and the entire community of your people Israel
who are in the four corners of the heavens
May there be peace [for] all of them
and on your kingdom.
May Your name be blessed.
The editors have proved that Yonatan the King was Alexander Yannai, a Jewish king who ruled in Judea from 103-76 BCE. Prof. Flusser subsequently dated this prayer to 80 BCE.Unlike most of the other ancient prayers, there is no self-interest here. This is a simple and sincere prayer for King Yonatan, his kingdom, and the entire Jewish people, no strings attached.
The editors ask why the Jews at Qumran, who were opposed to the central government in Jerusalem, would have recited such a prayer. They reply that the prayer was probably brought to Qumran by someone who had joined the Dead Sea sect; that does not mean that it was actually recited at Qumran.
6) The next episode took place in 39 CE. The emperor Gaius Caligula (37-41CE), who thought he was a god, ordered the Jews to place a golden statue in the Temple. They refused, since it was a clear violation of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-5). According to Josephus (Wars, II, 10, 4, ed. Simhoni, p. 146) Caligula sent Petronius to get the job done. The Jews engaged in civil disobedience and refused to let him proceed to Jerusalem.They told him “that they sacrifice twice a day sacrifices for the welfare of the Emperor and the Roman people”.
Philo reports another aspect of the same story. He headed a delegation to Rome to meet with Caligula as a result of the tensions between the Jews and the Greeks in Alexandria. Isidorus, an enemy of the Jews at court, said that, unlike all other peoples who offer thanksgiving sacrifices to Caligula, the Jews do not. Philo and his companions exclaimed that his was untrue. The Jews had even offered a hecatomb – a sacrifice of 100 animals – for the Emperor, and they had burnt the entire animals rather than eating them.
And we did this not once but three times. First, when you became Emperor; second, when you were saved from the same dread disease which afflicted the entire world; and third, when we hoped for your victory over the Germans. “This is true,” said [Gaius Caligula] in reply, “but in the name of another god!” ( The Delegation to Gaius, parag. 356-357)
Without deciding which report is more accurate, we see here that the Jews offered sacrifices in the Temple for the Roman emperor in 39 CE just as they had for the Syrian and Persian kings before him.
7) In I Timothy (2:1-2), which is ascribed to St. Paul ,we find the following passage:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.
This passage sounds very much like Jeremiah’s message to the Jews of Babylon: pray for the rulers, for your prosperity depends upon their prosperity.
8) The most famous passage related to our topic is found in the Mishnah (Avot 3:2; and cf. Avodah Zarah 4a):
Rabbi Hananya the Deputy High Priest says: Pray for the welfare of the Kingdom (=Rome), for were it not for the fear of it, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.
Rabbi Hananya lived at the end of the Second Temple period. He is saying that the Jews should pray for the Roman government for, if not for them, there would be chaos and anarchy in society.
9) The Book of Baruch is an apocryphal book written sometime during the middle or end of the Second Temple period. It purports to contain a letter from the Jews exiled in Babylon to those still living in Jerusalem. The Jews of Babylon send money to Jerusalem
to buy burnt offerings and sin offerings and incense . and offer them upon the altar of the Lord our God. And pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and for the life of Belshazzar his son . and may God give us strength and enlighten our eyes and may we live in the shadow [=protection] of Nebuchadnezzar.and Belshazzar his son and may we serve them for many years and find favor before them . (Baruch 1:10-12).
Regardless of the exact date, Baruch also believes that Jews must offer sacrifices for the welfare of the non-Jewish kings who rule them.
10) Yoma 69a contains a famous story about Shimon Hazaddik and Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE). The Samaritans, whose Temple was on Mt. Gerizim, asked Alexander to give them our Temple in Jerusalem. Shimon leads a delegation to see Alexander. When they meet, he says: ” Is it possible that a House in which we pray for you and your kingdom that it should not be destroyed, idol worshippers should deceive you to destroy it?!” This story appears in an anonymous baraita , so it probably dates from the tannaitic period (before 220 CE).It too assumes that during the Second Temple period the Jews prayed or offered sacrifices for the welfare of the Emperor.
11) The last ancient passage we shall quote is from Babylon ca. 250 CE. It appears in a fascinating story about Rav Shela who ran into trouble with the authorities (Berakhot 58a). He says to the policemen in Aramaic:
Blessed be the All-Merciful who made the earthy kingdom like the Heavenly Kingdom and he gave you authority and merciful judgment.
In context, Rav Shela may have been saying this tongue-in-cheek.But if he was sincere, Rav Shela’s prayer is different than the others we have seen. He is not praying for the government because it’s good for the Jews or to prevent chaos. He is thanking God for giving some of His authority to earthly rulers. A well-run earthly kingdom is modeled on the Heavenly Kingdom.
III) Medieval and Modern Prayers for the Government
Recent studies have shown that in the medieval period, Jews in Islamic countries prayed for their rulers.
In the fourteenth century, two important codes of Jewish law mention a prayer for the king. The Kol Bo (Provence, early 14 th century) says that on Shabbat, after the Haftarah “there are places where they bless the king and then the congregation, all according to custom” (ed. Lvov, 1860, parag. 20, fol. 10c at bottom). Rabbi David Abudraham reports in his liturgical work Sefer Abudraham Hashalem (Spain, 1340, ed. Jerusalem, 1963, p. 136) that after reading the Torah on weekdays “it is customary to bless the king, and to pray to God that He help him and strengthen him against his enemies”. He then quotes both Jeremiah and Avot quoted above.
In 1998, Aharon Arend published a series of Mee Sheberakhprayers for the King found in Sefardic siddur manuscripts beginning ca. 1300.Here is one example from a 15 th century manuscript of the rite of the Jews of Aragon:
He who blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.May He bless, guard, protect and help our Lord King Don Ferando.May the King of Kings put in his heart and in the heart of all his advisors mercy, to do good to us and to the entire House of Israel.and let us say Amen.
Don Ferando is apparently none other than King Ferdinand who together with Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492!
The next step was the Hanoten Teshua prayer which became the most popular prayer for the government until the twentieth century. Schwartz dated this prayer to the 16 th century, but Arend found it in an Aragonese Mahzor from the 15 th century, which reads:
He who gives salvation to kings and whose kingdom is everlasting. may He strengthen, bless, and uplift higher and higher our Lord King Ferando. May the King of Kings redeem his soul from death and in war from the sword.and may He incline his heart to do good to Israel and to speak good of them wherever they are .and let us say Amen.
Once again, the subject of this prayer is King Ferdinand, who later expelled the Jews from Spain!
With the invention of printing in the late 15 th century, Hanoten Teshua spread rapidly to many countries, including Italy, Poland, Yemen and France.Singer devoted an entire study to the use of this prayer in 17 th century England. It was translated in full by Manasseh ben Israel in 1655 as part of his efforts to secure the readmission of the Jews into England. Samuel Pepys heard this prayer at a synagogue in London in October, 1663 and recorded his favorable impression in his diary.
Sarna devoted two studies to the history of Jewish prayers for the U.S. government. Hanoten Teshua was first published in English in New York in 1760; that version prays for King George the Second as well as for American rulers and officials. By 1782, after independence, the prayer used in Philadelphia prayed for the President and the Congress.The version of Hanoten Teshuapublished in New York in 1826 blesses the President and the Vice President, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Governor, the Lt. Governor and the Magistrates of New York City.
In 1927, when the Conservative movement published its first prayer book for festivals, Prof. Louis Ginzberg composed the prayer for the government. This version is no longer based on Hanoten Teshua which was intended for a monarchy. It is a brand new prayer expressly written for a democracy.This prayer was reprinted in the many popular prayer books edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman and in the Reconstructionist prayer book as recently as 1994.
IV) Who Wrote the Prayer for the State of Israel?
In Elul 5708, September 1948, the Prayer for the State of Israel was printed in Jerusalem. At the end of the first edition it says: “Founded and established by our rabbis in Eretz Yisrael, the Chief Rabbis Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel .”Since then, other prayers for the State of Israel have been composed by Rabbis Isser Yehudah Unterman, Israel Brodie, Moshe Greenberg and Simchah Roth. Nonetheless, the Chief Rabbis’ version has always been the most popular. It has been reprinted enumerable times in popular prayer books such as Birnbaum, Rinat Yisrael, Artscroll (in the RCA version) and Sim Shalom .
Despite the attribution at the end of the first edition, rumors and testimonies persisted that it was written by Shai Agnon, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature. For example, Prof. Dov Sadan related in 1986 that
when I came before Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and I mentioned.that I tried to compose.a sort of prayer for the welfare of the State, he smiled at me and said: “R. Shai Agnon beat you to it”.
Similarly, Agnon himself frequently hinted or stated that he had a hand in writing the Prayer for the State of Israel.
In 1999, the mystery was cleared up by Yoel Rappel as a result of research he did while studying with me at the Schechter Institute.The testimony of Dov Sadan does not jive with a letter which Rabbi Uziel sent to New York in 1949. He enclosed there “the prayer for the State of Israel which I edited together with my friend the Chief Rabbi [=Herzog]”.
In 1975, Yaakov Goldman, Rabbi Herzog’s former secretary, wrote to Emunah Yaron, Agnon’s daughter, that Herzog was upset one day because they had asked him to quickly compose a prayer for the State for an important ceremony. Goldman told him not to worry; “I will bring your version to Mr. Agnon who will take a look at it and write his comments.” Goldman took it to Agnon who told him to come back the next day. Agnon did not change much. He improved the style here and there and he added the phrase “reishit zemihat geulateinu ” [=the beginning of the flowering of our redemption].
According to Akiva Eldar’s article, “a well-known public figure” called up Yoel Rappel and gave him a xerox of an official envelope upon which is printed “The office of the Chief Rabbi of Israel”. Underneath that heading, someone wrote: “The Prayer for the State as it was copied and corrected by Mr. Agnon in his handwriting”. This note was written in the handwriting of Rabbi Herzog. In other words, Agnon copied the version which Herzog had sent him and then added his own corrections, but it was composed by Rabbis Herzog and Uziel. Yoel Rappel has informed me that the “well-known public figure” was Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen who served as Rabbi Herzog’s secretary for a number of years.
For thousands of years, Jews prayed or offered sacrifices for the king or the government primarily because they were afraid of them. In the nineteenth century, Jews in democracies such as the United States began to compose new prayers which expressed their true love and identification with their country. In 1948, the Jewish people for the first time since the days of King Alexander Yannai, entered a new phase of its history when it could pray to God to preserve and protect the State of Israel, “the beginning of our redemption”. As we celebrate Israel’s 58 th birthday, we hope and pray to God: “Bless the State of Israel.protect her under the wings of Your grace and spread over her a Sukkah of peace”.
Arend, Aharon, Pirkey Mehkar L’yom Ha’atzmaut , Ramat Gan, 1998, pp. 176-200
Campaniano, Reuven, ” Tefilla Lishlom Hamedina “, Amudim 698 (Tishrei-Heshvan 5766), pp. 12-13
Cohen, Ya’akov, “The Prayer for the State of Israel”, Misafra L’sayfa 43 (5753), pp. 99-114 (Hebrew)
Eldar, Akiva, “Who Wrote the Prayer for the State of Israel?”Ha’aretz , April 20, 1999 (Hebrew)
Eshel, Hanan et al. , Tarbitz 60 (5751), pp. 295-324
Feldberg, Michael et al. , eds., Three Hundred Fifty Years: An Album of American Jewish Memory , New York, 2005, pp. 42-43
Flusser, David, Tarbitz 61 (5752), pp. 297-300 (a reaction to Eshelet al .)
Goitein, S.D., “Prayers from the Geniza for the Fatamid Caliphs”,Studies in Judaica, Karaitica and Islamica Presented to Leon Nemoy on his Eightieth Birthday , Ramat Gan, 1982, pp. 47-57
Golinkin, David, ed., The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg , New York and Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 54-55
Rappel, Yoel, Hanoten Teshua: Tefillah L’shlom Hamalkhut” , Seminar Paper, Schechter Institute, 1996, 49 pages (unpublished)
Sadan, Dov, in: Zvi Malachi, ed., B’orah Mada , Lod, 1986, p. 551
Sarna, Jonathan, “Jewish Prayers for the U.S. Government” in: Ruth Langer and Steven Fine, eds., Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue: Studies in the History of Jewish Prayer , Winona Lake, Indiana, 2005, pp. 205-224 = Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, eds., Moral Problems in American Life , Ithaca and London, 1998, pp. 201-221 (I refer to the latter version.)
Sarna, Jonathan, “A Forgotten 19 th Century Prayer for the United States Government” in: Jodi Magness and Seymour Gitin, eds.,Hesed Ve-emet: Studies in Honor of Ernest S. Frerichs , Atlanta, 1998, pp. 431-440
Schurer, Emil, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ , new revised edition, Volume I, Edinburgh, 1973, pp. 379-380; Volume II, Edinburgh, 1979, pp. 311-312
Schwartz, Barry, ” Hanoten Teshua: The Origin of the Traditional Jewish Prayer for the Government”, HUCA 57 (1986), pp. 113-120
Sicker, Martin “A Political Metaphor in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature”, Judaism 40/2 (Spring 1991), pp. 208-214
Singer, Simeon, “The Earliest Jewish Prayers for the Sovereign”,Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England Vol. 4 (1903), pp. 102-109
Strauss, Gilad, “The Sources for the Prayer for the State of Israel”,Shma’atin 28 (104-105), pp. 83-88 (Hebrew)
Tabory, Joseph, “The Piety of Politics: Jewish Prayers for the State of Israel” in: Langer and Fine, pp. 225-246
Yinon (Fanton), Yosef, Mimizrah U’mima’arav 4 (5744), pp. 7-12
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.