Thoughts on Prayers for Our Country

In the midst of the opening production number, “Tradition,” in the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” we are introduced to the Rabbi. One of his students approaches him and asks a serious question: “Rabbi, is there a blessing for the Czar?” The rabbi is not stumped. After a brief pause, he answers: “Yes, my son, there is a blessing for the Czar: 'God bless and keep the Czar.....far away from us.” Everyone laughs and returns to the chorus of “Tradition.” However, it is not a joke. There is a blessing for the Czar or for any other ruler of a nation, a governor, or even a mayor. We are supposed to pray for those who govern us. This requirement goes back at least as far as the prophet Jeremiah who teaches the people heading off to Babylonian exile (29:7), “Seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its prosperity, you shall prosper.” In First Kings (8:66), as King Solomon dismisses the people following the dedication of the Temple, we read that “they blessed the king.” Even earlier, back in Genesis when Joseph presents his father to the Pharaoh, we read that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. From that encounter our sages derived the law that one is obligated to recite a bracha on seeing a ruler, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. They created separate blessings for either circumstance. For a Jewish king we praise God “who shares His glory with those who revere Him.” For a non-Jewish ruler we praise God “who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” You're not required to love the king (or president), but one is obligated to pray for his (or her) welfare. As Rabbi Hananiah teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive.”

In our prayerbook on Shabbat and in some traditions, whenever the Torah is read, we are to recite a prayer for the government. It is not clear when this custom took shape in a formal prayer, though there is mention of such prayers in many of the early law codes. In Sefer Abudraham, its 13th century author writes, “It is customary to bless the king, and to pray to God to help him and have him vanquish his enemies.” The anonymous Sefer Kol Bo, from around the 14th century likewise teaches, “At the end of the Sabbath Shacharit service it is the custom to say, after the haftarah, a prayer for a blessing, and there are places where they bless the king and afterwards the congregation, and all depends on the local custom.” The Machatzit HaShekel commentary on the Shulhan Aruch notes, “It is the Jewish custom that on each Shabbat the congregation prays for the welfare of the government.”

Some prayerbooks from the early modern period provide suggested texts for these prayers for the government. They vary from place to place. One sometimes comes across these 19th century prayers including the names of the rulers in the original or photo offset editions of these prayerbooks or commentaries. Thus it is not unusual to find a “blessing for the Czar” and also for the Czarina, his wife, and even for the heir apparent, the Czarevich. In his volume on “Prayers for the Welfare of the State,” Avraham Steinberg includes photos of some of these prayers, including a prayer for Czar Nicholas I, his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, as well as for Prince Alexander II and his wife Maria Alexandrovena, taken from an 1846 prayerbook printed in Warsaw. He also includes prayers for Ludwig I of Bavaria and his wife and son from an 1827 siddur. More recently, he includes a 1956 prayerbook from the Soviet Union which offers a prayer for “the government of the USSR.”

It seems that most Orthodox prayerbooks today have settled on a version that you can find in the current editions of the Artscroll siddur as well as the Koren Siddur with Rabbi Sacks's translation as follows: “HaNotein teshuah. May He who gives salvation to kings and dominion to princes, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, who delivers His servant David from the evil sword, who makes a way in the sea and a path through the mighty waters, bless and protect, guard and help, exalt, magnify and uplift the President, Vice President and all officials of this land. May the Supreme King of kings in His mercy put into their hearts and the hearts of all their counselors and officials, to deal kindly with us and all Israel. In their days and in ours, may Judah be saved and Israel dwell in safety, and may the Redeemer come to Zion. May this be His will and let us say: Amen.”

For many modern readers, the problem with this prayer is that it reads as if we are still living in Medieval times dependent on the good will of the King to keep us safe. We pray that God may make the rulers merciful so that they “deal kindly with us and all Israel.” In a modern democracy, supposedly the government is under the authority of “We the people.” So a contemporary prayer for our government should reflect the fact that we are an intrinsic part of the ruling authority and we should have some influence on the direction of government policy. Our prayers should reflect our aspirations for “our” country. We are not here by the sufferance of our elected officials. They are there because we have elected them to their positions. So the prayers for the government in Conservative and Reform prayerbooks are different from these remnants of medieval petitions. They express other concerns that we have for our nations as full partners in society.

The most recent Reform prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, begins with a paraphrase of the Isaiah passage we read on Yom Kippur: “Thus says Adonai, This is what I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, give clothing, and do not ignore your own kin.

“If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, the evil speech; if you offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature – then your light shall shine in darkness.”

Having set this agenda of social justice, the prayer continues: “O Guardian of life and liberty, may our nation always merit Your protection. Teach us to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with those who are in need. Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation, and alert to the care of the earth. May we never be lazy in the work of peace; may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals. Grant our leaders wisdom and compassion. Help us all to appreciate one another, and to respect the many ways that we may serve You. May our homes be safe from affliction and strife, and our country be sound in body and spirit. Amen.”

In Conservative prayerbooks, there is an emphasis on justice and equity, at least in the old Silverman prayerbook from 1945 and Siddur Sim Shalom of 1985. They both use basically the same prayer with some modifications and stress the need to appreciate the diversity of people in this land: This is the version in Sim Shalom which also provides a Hebrew translation or a paraphrase: “Our God and God of our ancestors, we ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and freedom may forever abide in our midst.

“Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May all citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.

“May this land under Your Providence be an influence for good throughout the world,uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: 'Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they experience war anymore. And let us say: Amen.”

So in these versions of the prayer, we express not only our personal concerns, but pray for harmony among the diverse communities within our country and for peace and freedom throughout the world. We no longer are asking simply for our leaders to show us mercy and compassion, but we want to teach them our Jewish values and direct them to work for world peace and national harmony.

In the current Conservative prayerbook, Lev Shalem, some of us have been able to read the prayers for our leaders, including even the ones we were most unhappy with, through a close reading of the new text and with emphasis on the words which I've put in bold. There we find this version of the prayer: “Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out Your blessing upon this land, its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers, and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public. Help them understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

The prayer goes on to state: “Adonai, God whose spirit is in all creatures, we pray that Your spirit be awakened within all the inhabitants of our land. Uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many peoples and faiths who dwell in our nation. Grant us the knowledge to judge justly, the wisdom to act with compassion, and the understanding and courage to root out poverty from our land.

“May it be Your will that our land be a blessing to all who dwell on earth, and may You cause all peoples to dwell in friendship and freedom. Speedily fulfill the vision of Your prophets: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” 'For all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know Me.' And let us say: Amen.”

Whether we are praying on our own behalf or seeking to direct our government into paths that are compatible with our values, we all pray for good government and hope that those who guide this country will adopt policies that reflect the fundamental values of our country. As the new administration is inaugurated this week, we pray for the success of President Biden and Vice President Harris and the officials they have chosen to work with them. May the Almighty bless them and keep them safe. May He give them wisdom to meet the many challenges that confront our nation at this time. May He help us to become a more unified nation, caring for those in need, appreciating the rich diversity of our population, and respecting the differing views of the people with whom we share this land. May we work together to set aside strife and advance the common good of the entire nation. Yes, we need compassion today as well, not only from our leaders but from all of us also. In a free society, when we pray for the government, we are praying for ourselves and thus our prayers should reflect the highest values we cherish and our determination to live by them.

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