This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Praying for the Government*

There is nothing quite like an election campaign to bring home to us the complex responsibilities that are imposed upon us by the democratic system. In earlier times government was a simpler business. There was a king who did as he pleased, and the common people had little say in choosing either the sovereign or his policies.

Some echoes of the transition from absolutism to democracy are preserved in the Jewish prayer-book. Since medieval times it has been customary to include in the Sabbath services an official prayer for the king. The earliest mention of this custom is found in the Rabbi David Abudraham's commentary on the liturgy, composed in fourteenth-century Spain. He describes the custom of including a blessing, a mi shebberakh attached to the Torah-reading, in which the congregation expressed its hope that the monarch be victorious in battle and merciful in his treatment of the Jews. The standard "Prayer for the King" which is recited in most Ashkenazic communities continued to develop those themes, always referring to the local monarch.

With the decline of monarchy in the western world, the printers of prayer-books generally left the traditional text intact, merely substituting the name of the highest officer of government for the "king" in the original. Thus, many American siddurim direct the blessing (whether in English, Hebrew or Yiddish) to the President and perhaps the Vice President. One author who lived under less stable administrations advised the printers of the prayer-books to avoid mentioning their rulers by name, lest the next coup d'étât result in the banning of the book.

All in all, those of us who do not have contact with royalty and nobility will not appreciate the full significance of the "Prayer for the King." I was made aware of this fact while I was living in Oxford, England in 1977-8. It was customary there for the benediction to be recited by the local noble, the late Lord Samuel Segal of Wytham (no relation). Lord Segal would make a point of entering the sanctuary after the reading of the Torah, so that the gabba'im would not feel obligated to call him to an aliyyah as a Levi. To his otherwise traditional recitation of the text he would introduce one change: Instead of the phrase "and Israel shall dwell in security" at the end of the passage, he would invoke the blessing upon "Israel and Esau." It is the kind of liberty that a lord can take.

My own synagogue uses a precisely formulated version of the prayer which appears to have been composed by a team of experts in constitutional law. It meticulously itemizes the levels of "original and delegated authority" to which the blessing is intended to apply. In recent months some subtle alterations have been introduced into the prayer. I have not been able to fully appreciate the significance of these changes, but I suspect that they emanate from a desire to exclude certain elements of the government, such as bureaucrats or appointed senators.

This phenomenon raises some intriguing questions about the wisdom of our praying for just any government. Should we not be more discerning about which legislators really deserve divine favours? To put it another way: How corrupt does a regime have to be before we stop including it in the congregational prayers?

Some interesting conclusions can be drawn a study of the ancient sources from which the "Prayer for the King" was derived. The prophet Jeremiah urged his fellow Jews to seek the welfare of the Babylonian empire to which they were being exiled, in spite of the fact that this very empire had destroyed their homeland and Temple. A similar sentiment was expressed in the Mishnah by R. Hanina the Deputy Priest: "Pray for the welfare of the government, since were it not for the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive." Rabbi Hanina was presumably referring to the same Roman government which, during his own lifetime, destroyed the second Temple in which he himself officiated. Any government, he seems to be saying, is better than none at all.

These views were not shared by all the Jewish sages. Rabbinic literature is replete with condemnations of the Roman "kingdom of wickedness," the antithesis of the "Kingdom of Heaven" to which we must give our exclusive allegiance. The sources reflect a continuing controversy over the relative merits of resisting or cooperating with tyranny.

Fortunately, we do not have to worry about such issues. In our free and democratic society our prayers should ultimately be for ourselves, that we be granted the intelligence to cast our votes wisely.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Oct. 28 1993.

Bibliography:

  • F. Talmage, ed., The Book of the Covenant of R. Joseph Kimhi, Toronto 1972.