Praying for the government

Jews have uttered prayers in support of kings, queens and presidents throughout history.

Settlers gather for prayer in Ramat Gilad_300 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Settlers gather for prayer in Ramat Gilad_300
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Loyalty to the government was always central to Jewish ethics. It was also a course of prudence: even in a hostile land Jews preferred a degree of stability to expulsion and homelessness.
Yet Jews' prayers for the government were at times tongue-in-cheek. In "Fiddler on the Roof," when the rabbi says “God bless and keep the Czar — far away from us”, many Jews say "Amen." And in Soviet Russia and elsewhere, not all synagogues were serious when they placed a prayer for the government on the wall near the Ark. 
In British countries, patriotism was more genuine, but in some historic synagogues, the Royal Prayer that is inscribed on walls and decorated with gold leaf has not been updated for a century. There are siddurim (prayer books) from many lands containing prayers for kaisers, czars, princes and presidents, and a history of government could be written around them.
When the Israelites wanted a king like other nations (Deut. 17:14-20), God was incensed. Samuel warned that kings do not always bring benefits (I Sam. 8:5-22). Solomon’s son said, “My father chastised you with whips: I will chastise you with scorpions” (I Kings 12:14).  The Book of Proverbs is cautious and practical, stating “My son, fear God and the king, and meddle not with those who are given to change” (Prov. 24:21). Rashi commented, “Fear the king: provided he does not turn you away from fearing the Lord; the fear of the Lord is always the priority”. Ibn Ezra said, “Fear God and the king: for the Lord appoints a king to carry out judgment."
Prayers for gentile kings derived from Jeremiah’s advice: “Pray for the welfare of the city where I have led you to be exiled” (Jer. 29:7).  The Jews did not deserve Haman’s accusation of disloyalty (Esther 3:8); he called them “people (with) different laws," which Targum Sheni — an elaboration on the Book of Esther — paraphrases, “They (the Jews) go to their synagogues, read their books…and curse our king." Anti- Semites always twist the truth.
It was hard to pray for an enemy like Nebuchadnezzar, though the Apocryphal book of Baruch says (1:11), “Pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and his son."
However, when a gentile king was well-disposed, this was reflected in Jewish prayers. Ezra says (6:10) that the returned exiles “pray for the life of the king and his sons”. Rabbinic sources record that when Alexander the Great threatened Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders asked, “Will you, O mighty king, destroy the Temple in which sacrifices and prayers are offered for you and your land?” (Megillat Ta'anit 3; Yoma 67a). The apocryphal books of Maccabees (I Macc. 7:33, 12:11) report that there were sacrifices and prayers for the king of Sparta “on festivals and other appropriate days."
Josephus is probably exaggerating when he states (Jewish Wars 2:10, 4; 17:2-4; cf. Philo, Legat ad Cajum 33, 45) that the Jews “offer sacrifices twice daily for Caesar and the Roman people." It must have depended on the Caesar; 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 could ever compare with God.
True, Paul in the New Testament urges prayers for the sovereign and all who hold high office (I Tim. 2:2; cf. Rom. 14:17; John 18:36), reflecting an accommodating policy towards the Romans. But rabbis regarded Roman rule as illegitimate, temporary and destined to be overthrown: “When the kingdom of Rome has ripened enough to be destroyed, the kingdom of God will appear” (Cant. R. 2:12).
The Mishnah is cynical when it states (Avot 3:2): “Pray for the government, since without fear of it, people would eat each other alive” (cf. A.Z. 3b).  Shakespeare, who may have known the rabbinic passage in Latin, expressed a similar belief, stating (Corialanus, I:1): “You cry against the noble Senate, who,/Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else/Would feed on one another?” A government was needed to protect society from itself.
Early prayers for sovereigns and governments had no fixed form. Not until the 11th-century, at the rabbinical college of Worms, does a standard version appear, in Mi Sheberach form: “He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, may He bless our exalted Kaiser. May He 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 Sephardi version used the formula, “He who giveth salvation (i.e. victory) unto kings” (Psalm 144:10), which, later adopted by the Ashkenazim, eventually came into general use. The first printed version is in the Amsterdam siddur of 1658.  Early texts prayed for the ruler to defeat his enemies (later versions asked for him to be saved from all trouble and sorrow) and to treat his Jewish subjects kindly, a phrase rejected in Napoleonic France as anachronistic.
In Britain, where Jews generally fared well, the royal prayer was always taken seriously and had a heightened role in synagogue services.  Manasseh ben Israel’s version in his “Humble Addresses” of 1656 helped to plead the case for Jewish resettlement. Centuries later British Zionists derived pleasure from the phrase, “May the Redeemer come unto Zion” (Isa. 59:20). Maybe today we should re-introduce an abandoned prayer, “that Judah be saved and Israel dwell securely” (Jer. 23:6).  In 1895 Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler altered the words, “Put compassion into the Queen’s heart and into the hearts of her counselors and nobles that they may deal kindly with us and with all Israel.” His new prayer read, “Put a spirit of wisdom and understanding (Isa. 11:12) into her heart and into the hearts of all her counselors... that they may deal kindly and truly (Gen. 24:49) with all Israel." A far cry from the 1189 ban on Jews attending the coronation of Richard Lion-Heart. A few Jews did slip into Westminster Hall but were driven out and a pogrom left 30 of them dead.  The status of Jews in Britain began to change, however, after the resettlement. From the establishment of the Board of Deputies in 1760, Anglo-Jewry has been one of the Privileged Bodies who offer a Loyal Address to the sovereign on important occasions.
Chief Rabbi Hertz made or sanctioned two major changes to the royal prayer.  After World War I the jingoistic words, “May He subdue nations under his (the king’s) sway and make his enemies fall before him,” (cf. Psalms 18:48, 47:4) were removed; in 1935, after the death of George V, the prayer was further shortened and the final section altered to read, “In his days and in ours, may our Heavenly Father spread the protection of peace over all the dwellers on earth”.  It is interesting to recall that George VI called Dr. Hertz “my Chief Rabbi." It is said that during World War II, the king asked Hertz whether Britain would win the war and the chief rabbi replied, “Yes, Your Majesty, but all the same I should put some of the colonies in your wife’s name,” (Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, edited by Robert Rhodes James, 1967; entry for 3 June, 1943).
The Sephardim tended to read the prayer in Hebrew; the Ashkenazim did so in English. Whenever “God Save the King” (E-l sh’mor hamelech), was sung in Hebrew, the musical motif of the anthem was occasionally attached to the final words of the royal prayer (from “In his days and in ours – b’yamav uv’yamenu”).
When a rabbi or a cantor was not a native English speaker, strange things happened to the prayer. One minister used to mangle the prayer so that, "He who giveth salvation unto kings and dominion unto princes" became "Ee-oo give it salvation hunto kinks and dominion hunto printers." Outside Britain localised references were often inserted. In Australia, mention of the colonial governors was replaced with “the Governor General and Governors of the States," after the Federation of Australia in 1901. The lead was often given by the Great Synagogue, Sydney, from which several amendments emanated during my time as senior rabbi. These included replacing the archaic phrase “Our Sovereign Lady the Queen” with “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia”, and adding “the legislators and leaders of Australia and its States and Territories” and “the happiness and welfare of every citizen." A 2004 amendment spoke of “all the peoples of this land” living “in amity and mutual respect." 
It became customary for the prayer for government to be inserted in the Sabbath and festival service after the Torah reading (the Sephardim also said it on Mondays and Thursdays and Erev Yom Kippur, though not in the Italian or Yemenite rite).
One Australian synagogue asked me which prayer to put first: the prayer for the government or the prayer for Israel. My advice was to say both but to commence with the prayer for the government on the basis of the rule, aniyyei ir’cha kod’min (Bava Metzi’a 71a), that we start with local needs but never neglect the needs of Israel.
During the First World War, Jews on both sides of the conflict were exercised by the paradox of opposing sides calling upon one and the same God to grant them victory.
There is a Midrash on a verse that formerly appeared in the royal prayer: “He maketh a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters” (Isa. 43:16). The sages asked why the verse says the same thing in two different ways.   They explained that travelers who depart from each end of the Mediterranean Sea pray to God to grant favorable winds and bring them safely to port.  Would not a wind from the east harm the man coming from the west?   The verse therefore says, “He maketh a way in the sea” for the man coming from the east, and “a path in the mighty waters” for the one from the west.  In today’s situation, though it seems strange to pray for governments who are at odds with one another, the real need is for rulers and leaders to have the judgment and wisdom to work together to promote the well-being of all human beings.
What motivates prayers for the government – pragmatic expediency or theological principle?  There is a rule, dina d’malkhuta dina, “The law of the land is the law” (Bava Batra 55a etc.), with an alternative version, din hamelekh din ("the king's law is the law" - Hoshen Mishpat 369:11). Both refer to “the king’s law," since the laws were not enacted by a democratically elected legislature but by a king.  Such enactments were religiously binding upon Jews; medieval rabbis said it was God’s will that Jews obey their rulers: according to Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, because the land belongs to the king.
If the king’s law contravened the principles of equity or if he acted arbitrarily to victimize the Jews, unless they had the option of leaving, they still had to obey him.  They could join the forces of resistance and seek to change the law or the ruler, though Solomon’s son (I Kings 12:14) warned that a new king might be worse than the old one. Prayer also played a factor, with the hope that God would influence the hearts of rulers.
British Jews have the good fortune to be part of a nation where Jewish loyalty has always been axiomatic, with a head of state who has enriched the monarchy for so long.
The writer is the emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.