World of the Sages: In the presence of the king

Which leaders qualify for a blessing, only kings and queens or perhaps other heads of state?

King solomon  (photo credit: Courtesy)
King solomon
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Sholom Aleichem's Leibish asks the rabbi of the Russian shtetl Anatevka: "Is there a proper blessing... for the tsar?" The rabbi could have quoted the talmudic passage which gives the wording for this very benediction: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who gave of His glory to His creations" (B. Brachot 58a). Which leaders qualify for this blessing, only kings and queens or perhaps other heads of state? Some sovereigns are figureheads who exercise no real power over the people; should the blessing be recited upon seeing them? What about local rulers or judges? Over the ages commentators and halachic authorities have discussed the parameters for the blessing over gentile sovereigns: Perhaps the blessing should be said only over leaders who have the authority to mete out capital punishment. This definition would include judges in some localities, but would exclude many monarchs and rulers today. Perhaps the blessing should only be recited over leaders whose edicts cannot be altered by a higher instance. This too may qualify judges in the highest court of the land, but would perhaps leave out the heads of many states whose edicts are subject to judicial review. While serving as rabbi of the Carpathian town of Munkatch, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro (1871-1937) considered the conditions for the blessing over sovereigns. It appears that the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - presumably Archduke Franz Ferdinand - traveled to the region and a rabbinic delegation pronounced the full text of the prescribed blessing, invoking the Almighty's name. Rabbi Shapiro, however, wondered whether this was the appropriate course: Perhaps the Almighty's name should not have been used since Franz Ferdinand's uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was still the ruling monarch. As long as the emperor lived, the archduke did not have the authority to sentence a subject to death nor to pardon the condemned. Indeed, the heir presumptive would one day fill this role; that is, assuming he would outlive the emperor. Rabbi Shapiro merely expressed his doubts without ruling on the matter. As we now know, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, and never became ruler; that role fell to Charles, the last monarch of the Habsburg dynasty. Beyond the halachic parameters of when the blessing should be said, the Talmud adds further counsel: A person should always make the effort to run to meet kings of Israel, and not only kings of Israel but even kings of other nations. This suggestion is codified as a mitzva, a legal recommendation (Shulhan Aruch OH 224:9). The Talmud explains the utility in seeing gentile rulers: For if the person merits, he will be able to contrast the glory of the messianic king in the end of days with the glory of gentile kings in our day. The talmudic passage continues with the story of the blind sage Rav Sheishet, who joined everyone in going to greet the king. A certain troublemaker saw Rav Sheishet and sneered: "Whole pitchers go to the river; where do broken ones go?" A broken pitcher is of no use when water is to be drawn - taunted the troublemaker - what use is there in those who cannot see the glory of the king's retinue attending a royal procession. Rav Sheishet was not perturbed: "Come and see that I know more about the king's procession than you do." As Rav Sheishet stood next to his opponent, a troop marched past and the crowd cheered. "The king has come," declared the agitator. "Not yet," replied Rav Sheishet calmly. A second regiment passed by and again the troublemaker suggested to Rav Sheishet that the monarch was present. Rav Sheishet was unmoved, "The king has still not come." A third troop arrived and the crowd grew silent. This was the cue Rav Sheishet had been waiting for: "Now the king is certainly coming." The troublemaker was impressed with Rav Sheishet's perception: "How did you know this?" "The earthly royalty is a reflection of heavenly royalty," began Rav Sheishet, "and about heavenly royalty it is written: And behold God was passing and a great powerful wind, smashing mountains and breaking rocks went before God, yet God was not in the wind. And after the wind came an earthquake, yet God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake came a fire, yet God was not in the fire. After the fire came a silent, thin sound" (I Kings 19:11-12). It was in the silence that the prophet Elijah perceived the Almighty's presence and that was how Rav Sheishet knew that the king had arrived. Rav Sheishet proceeded to pronounce the mandated blessing, at which the troublemaker was surprised: "You recite a blessing over someone you cannot even see!?" In this sense indeed the blessing over a sovereign is unique among blessings pronounced upon seeing phenomena: Only the blessing over sovereigns may be recited even when the object - in this case the sovereign - is hidden from view. The blessing over sovereigns is pronounced over the intangible splendor and glory of the royal retinue; perception of this phenomenon therefore suffices (Rabbi Haim Mordechai Margoliot, 18th-19th centuries, Dubno). From Rav Sheishet's story we can suggest a further reason to take advantage of opportunities to see rulers: Since temporal sovereigns reflect the heavenly king, by observing earthly kings we can begin to perceive how one must act in the presence of the king of kings. When a visiting head of state arrives roads are blocked off, traffic is stopped and the flow of life may be disrupted. The leader's entourage is given priority. A temporal ruler's reign is perforce limited, either by human frailty or by those who have the power to appoint and dismiss. If a temporary leader is accorded so much respect, we can extrapolate as to how we should act in the presence of the everlasting ruler of rulers. We can begin to fathom what type of priority we should give to the sovereign of sovereigns. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.