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Thoughts on Prayers for the State of Israel

In the wake of the recent unprovoked attack on the State of Israel and its citizens by the terrorist group Hamas, resulting in the murder of some 1400 Israelis, young and old, babies and grandparents, non-combatants mostly, but many soldiers as well, we continue to mourn the loss of their lives, the destruction of their homes, and the enormous loss they represent to their families, to the State of Israel, and to the Jewish peoplethroughout the world.  This brutal attack was the greatest massacre of Jews in one day since the Shoah.  Everyone in Israel has been impacted and traumatized by this murderous act. We Jews outside of Israel join in mourning the victims whether or not we knew any of them personally.  We extend our consolation and our support to the grieving families in the Jewish State. One of my Orthodox colleagues urges us not simply to voice such support but to attempt to go beyond that, to actually seek out bereaved families and personally reach out to them and let them know we share their grief. He mentions the mother of a victim of a terrorist attack from nearly a decade ago who spoke of how comforting it is, when a stranger comes up to her in the supermarket or elsewhere even now and tells her, “You do not know me, but I know who you are and I wanted to let you know how terrible I feel for your loss.”


In the early hours of this war, on Shemini Atzeret, when we received the first news of the slaughter of innocents, when we recited Yizkor, we emphasized the prayer in our siddur for those who had fallen in the establishment of the state, those who died defending the country, as well as others who were murdered in acts of terrorism. Their numbers have increased dramatically since then. Yizkor means “may He remember.” God does not forget, yet we remind Him at Yizkor of our loved ones and the difference they made in this world, in our world, for having touched our lives.


We offer prayers as well for the 200 individuals held as hostages by Hamas and pray for their safe return to their homes and families.  Their fate is currently unknown, but we harbor hope that they may survive this ordeal and be released soon. We pray for their family members as they go through this terrible ordeal, not knowing what the outcome may be. Pidyon shvuyim, redemption of captives, our sages called mitzvah rabbah, a great mitzvah, since the suffering of the captive, the hostage,they tell us is greater than any other.


The siddur does provide several appropriate prayers that we might offer in response to the current situation.  While Siddur Lev Shalem contains a shortened version of the prayer authorized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for the State of Israel and its government as well as a prayer for peace based in part on a prayer of the Bratzlaver Hasidim, some Orthodox prayer books have additional prayers while others seem to be lacking in this area.  The Koren Siddur provides the full text of the prayer for Israel and its government that is recited in Israel and elsewheresince the beginning of the new state.  It also has a prayer on behalf of Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, as well as a prayer for Shevuyim, captives or hostages, most appropriate for the current situation.


Dr. Yoel Rafel in an appendix to a Machzor for Yom HaAtzmautpublished by Koren, shares an article tracing the history of the prayer we recite for the State of Israel back 76 years, to the night on which the United Nations passed the Partition Plan, establishing a state for the Jews and one for the Arabs in the British Mandate for Palestine.  I’m sure many of you have heard the recording of the UN vote many times over the years.  That night, November 29, 1947, Rafel writes Jews danced joyfully in the streets until the wee hours of the night. The Arabs, on the other hand, rejected the plan and by the next day had already launched attacks on transportation and Israeli settlements.


That very night, according to Rafel, the Rabbi of Petach Tikvah, Rabbi Reuven Katz, was sitting in his study composing the first liturgical expression of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel.  He hastened to complete it and send it off to then Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Isaac Halevi Herzog, father of former IsraeliPresident Chaim Herzog and grandfather of the current president of Israel, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog. This first attempt was basically a rewriting and reformulating of the traditional prayer for the government of any country in which Jews lived, a prayer formulated in Spain, shortly before the expulsion of the Jewish community from that country.  You can find it in mosr Orthodox siddurim. Jews are enjoined by the prophet Jeremiah, from the time of the Babylonian Exile to pray for the well-being of the sovereign authority of the country in which they live. That concept, however, did not really capture the unique situation of a new country being born under Jewish sovereignty, revived as promised in scripture, brought back to their homeland from theDiaspora.  Katz wrote a lovely prayer, but it did not win over therabbinate and today it is offered only in one synagogue in Israel, in Petach Tikvah.


On the day when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel, the 14th of May, 1948, and read the Declaration of Israeli independence, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv (later chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel) Rabbi Isser Yehudah Unterman, sat in his study to compose an appropriate prayer, in the traditional form of a Mi Sheberach: “May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, bless all the members of the governing authority and council of the State of Israel because this entire holy congregation prays for their well-being.  May the Holy Blessed One guard them and save them from every trouble and affliction (mikol tzarah v’tzukah) and put in their hearts wisdom and understanding to conduct the business of the nation in justice and uprightness. Cause peace to dwell in the state and protect her from all enemies and foes. In their days and in ours may He gather all the dispersed of Israel into our land and reign over us in Zion and Jerusalem.  And let us say:  Amen.” Rav Unterman had this prayer chanted by the Hazan in the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv.  It was recited only once however and never again.


With the departure of that first Shabbat, Professor Dov Sadan, sat down to write a prayer for the peace of Israel, that was not recited even once in a congregation and, in fact, Sadan kept ithidden away in a file and didn’t even mention it until 20 years later, on Israel’s 20th anniversary in 1968.  A fourth, anonymous,prayer appeared one month after the establishment of the State.  It was based like Rabbi Katz’s prayer on the diaspora prayer for the government, but clearly mentioned the President of Israel, his ministers and their hosts “tzivotav.”  The prayer was recited once on Shavuot 5708 in the great synagogue Yeshurun in Jerusalem, but it too faded away and was not repeated.


It was clear that there was a great desire to come up with a fitting expression of the religious significance of the establishment of the state, the opening of a new era for the Jewish people, the transition from Shoah to Hakamah, the establishment of the state, but the right prayer had not yet appeared.


The formulation of the prayer for Israel in its present form first appeared in the Israeli newspaper “HaTzofeh” and later in “HaAretz” over the summer of 1948. In the newspapers, the public was quietly informed that Rabbi Herzog and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Uzziel, with the concurrence of the Rabbinic Council of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Petach Tikvah, called on rabbis and cantors in synagogues both within Israel and in the Diaspora to recite this prayer each Shabbat after the Torah reading. As the prayer appeared in other publications, its text was attributed to the two chief rabbis who promulgated it and apparently did not deny authorship.


However, there was speculation that the actual author may have been, Shmuel Yosef “Shai” Agnon, later to become Israel’s Nobel Prize winning author.  Dr. David Tamar wrote that at the invitation of Chief Rabbi Herzog, Agnon was asked to contribute to this effort.  Rabbi Herzog never clarified the matter, but Tamar produced a text in Agnon’s handwriting of the prayer as “proof” that he was involved in the writing of this text.  Agnon’s daughter, Emunah, also seemed to confirm this hypothesis by identifying her father’s handwriting.  In spite ofthese assertions, questions still remained on the actualauthorship of the prayer.  Dr. Rafel tells of a late evening visit to Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hakohen, who surprised him by taking out an envelope with text in the handwriting of Chief Rabbi Herzog containing the present text of the prayer.  The writing on the envelope stated that this was the text of the prayer as it was “copied and corrected by the hand of Mr. Agnon.”  But who wrote the text that Agnon copied and corrected?  Rafel asked where is the original prayer and why did Agnon copy it? The first question was answered when the text was found in the office of the chief rabbi in the Heichal Shlomo synagogue and has been displayed in their museum.  


The actual story of the origins of this prayer is told by RabbiYakov Goldman, longtime secretary to Rav Herzog.  Herzogwas asked to compose the prayer for a national celebration that was scheduled to take place in just a few days’ time and the rabbi was greatly distressed.  He admitted that he was not accustomed to this type of work, writing prayers, and certainly not on a deadline. Goldman tried to relieve his distress by suggesting that he just write down his thoughts for the prayer the best he could and then they would take the prayer to Agnon who would look it over, make his notes, and refine it.  Herzog was pleased with the idea and sat down to write his prayer.  Goldmantook it to Agnon who told him he would look it over, make his corrections and the finished prayer could be picked up the next day.  In truth, Agnon made few changes, just shortened it a bit and improved on it here and there and then made a clean copy of the final draft.


Our author cites two reasons for Agnon’s copy of Herzog’s prayer.  First, there is a halacha prohibiting the erasure of words of prayer, particularly divine names and secondly,  Herzog’shandwriting was so cramped and difficult to read, Agnon could not make corrections directly on the original, so he copied it outin his own hand  thus misleading scholars who thought he was the actual author until Rav Herzog’s manuscript was found. There have been many folks who believed that it was Agnon who had added the expression, “reishit tzmichat gelateinu,” the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.  With the discovery of Rav Herzog’s manuscript, it became clear that this expression was already part of Rav Herzog’s genius.


Rafel concludes by telling an anecdote about one of his lectures on this prayer at a public gathering.  Following the talk, a young man approached him and told him, “I am the son of Shai Agnon and finally someone is telling the truth and refuting the rumor that my father wrote this prayer.”  Agnon was a great writer, butRav Herzog managed to convey in the words of this prayer, our feelings for the new born state. Though some have questioned it, at that moment of birth, following nearly two millennia of exile, the feeling of the miraculous led Herzog to use that expression of the first flowering of our redemption.  Some more recent siddurim in the Conservative Movement, insert in parenthesesthe optional addition of the word “she-tihyeh” that one may choose to use, implying that this designation is still aspirational, thus we say, “that she may become the first flowering of our redemption.”  Others may choose to stick to the original, ‘that she is the first flowering of the redemption.”


Our prayerbook shortens the prayer, but Rav Herzog’s originalreaches out to the Diaspora.  He asks God to “remember them in all the lands of their dispersion and swiftly lead us upright to Zion Your city and Jerusalem Your dwelling-place.”  He concludes with a heartfelt plea to swiftly send “Your righteous anointed one of the house of David to redeem those who long for Your salvation,” speaking of the promised Messiah.  Ultimately, he envisions a time when the redemption will be complete and God will reign over us all. It is this faith that the time is coming when the world will be fully redeemed and peace and security will be firmly established.  It is this vision of redemption that continues to be a source of strength to a nation devastated by loss at this juncture. Od lo avdah tikvateinu, we have not yet lost our hope.  ​


We pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for all Israel.  May God who makes peace on high grant peace to us and all Israel and let us say:  Amen


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