“Rabbi, may I ask you a question?”
“Is there a proper blessing… for the czar?”
“A blessing for the czar? Of course! May G-d bless and keep the czar… far away from us!”
We all know that little exchange from Fiddler on the Roof- one of the more memorable lines. It speaks to something fundamental about the experience of the Jewish nation; it is the fate of the Jewish people in exile throughout history that we have had to exist under a whole collection of non-Jewish rulers, some wise, and some wicked. Some have been great protectors of the Jews, some our worst enemies.
To return to the fictitious Rabbi of Anatevka;
“Rabbi, is there a blessing for the Czar?”
He could have responded as follows;
“He Who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers, Whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternity,
Who releases David, his servant, from the evil sword,
Who places a road in the sea and a path in the mighty waters –
May He bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards
Our master CZAR NIKOLAI ALEXANDROVICH,
With his wife, the honorable CZARINA ALEXANDRA FEODOROVNA
Their son, the crown prince ALEXI NIKOLAIOVICH
And his mother, the honorable CZARINA MARIA FEODORAVNA
And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.
May the King of kings in His mercy give him life, and protect him,
And save him from every trouble, woe and injury.
May nations submit under his feet, and may his enemies fall before him,
And may he succeed in whatever he endeavors.
May the King of kings, in His mercy, grant compassion in his heart
and the heart of all his advisors
To do favors for us and for all Israel, our brethren.
In his days and in ours, may Judah be saved, and may Israel dwell securely,
And may the Redeemer come to Zion.
So may it be His will – and let us say: Amen.”
Indeed- there was a prayer for the czar, and not just any czar, but Czar Nicholas II himself! The man who expressed support and admiration for the mobs of anti-Semites who murdered Jews during the great pogroms of 1903, and whose brutal autocracy was so unpopular that it inspired the Russian Revolution and all the excesses that came with it.
But as we know Nicholas was the last of the czars- soon he and his house ended up at the wrong end of a firing squad and a new government arose in Russia. What were the Jews of the now-Soviet Union to do then?
“Rabbi, is there a blessing for the General Secretary?”
“May the One who blessed our ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya`akov, who places a road in the sea and a path in mighty waters, may He bless, protect, guard, aid, exalt, enlarge and raise up the government of the U.S.S.R. May the Holy One, blessed be He, grant it life and protect it from every suffering, trouble, sorrow and injury, and may he rescue it and cause its enemies to fall before it, and may it be successful in everything it does.”
One prayer I’m rather glad G-d never answered.
This one dates from the rule of Stalin- I should hope I won’t have to go into detail how the Soviet Union was bad for the Jews.
As you can tell, there are superficial differences between the two blessings, but it’s easy to see that the prayer for the welfare of Czar Nicholas II and the prayer for the welfare of General Secretary Iosef Stalin came from the same root, the same origin. These blessings trace a common origin with the prayer that traditional Jews still recite every Shabbat after the reading of the haftarah- HaNoten Teshua- “He Who Grants Salvation.”
Orthodox siddurim in the United States contain the following blessing, which is adapted to the form of government in this country:
“He who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers, whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternity, who releases David his servant from the evil sword, who places a road in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, may he bless The President, the Vice President, and all the Constituted Officers of Government of this Land. The King who reigns over Kings in his mercy may he protect them from every trouble, woe, and injury, may he rescue them and put into their hearts and into the hearts of all their councilors compassion to do good with us and with all Israel, our brethren. In their days and in ours, may Judah be saved and may Israel dwell securely, and may the Redeemer come to Zion. So may it be his will, and let us say: Amen.”
To a bored pre-teen a dozen years ago sitting in a Modern Orthodox synagogue, this one prayer that we recited in English out of the whole liturgy caught my attention. I always assumed that it was a recent addition- we said something somewhat different at the Conservative synagogue that we also attended, also in English.
In fact, the origin of the prayer for the welfare of the government is biblical. It was following the first exile, as we sat by the waters of Babylon that the Prophet Jeremiah conveyed to us the following:
“So said the L-rd of Hosts… seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to Hashem on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
This was after 586 BCE. Not 200 years later Ezra recorded that in the rebuilt Second Temple it was the practice to offer sacrifices and prayers for the lives of Emperor Darius I of Persia and his children. Some six hundred years after that the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) touches on the subject in Chapter 3, Part 2:
“Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Kohen Gadol says: ‘Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive.”
What makes this Talmudic reference all the more remarkable is that Chanina lived in the days of Nero- a ruler whose name has become synonymous with tyranny- and he heralded a long tradition of Jews praying for rulers for whom they didn’t particularly care.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, archeologists found the oldest known prayer for the welfare of the government, this one by the community of Qumran praying in 130~ BCE for the Hasmonean King Yonatan, the nephew of Judah Maccabee.
While working his way through the Cairo Geniza in 1898, Rabbi Solomon Schecter found the following prayer:
“In Your Name oh Merciful, And we pray for the life of our lord, the great king, the prince of the sons of Kedar, our master and lord, the Imam, the Commander of the Faithful, and for his sons, the royal family, and all persons of his entourage who serve the king out of love and wage war for him against his enemies. May G-d- may he be praised- help them and help us; may he subdue their foes and ours; and may he fill their hearts kindness towards us and towards all his people, the house of Israel, and let us say; Amen.”
Dating from the early 11th century, this prayer would have been used to bless the Fatimid Caliph and ruler of Egypt, Abū ʿAlī Manṣūr- the 16th Imam of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, and a major figure in that religion. Another surviving prayer from Worms, Germany from the same time period blesses the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II.
But we were talking about HaNoten Teshua, the blessing for the czar, the blessing for the General Secretary, the blessing for the Soviet Union, the blessing for the President of the United States.
It first appears in a Sephardic siddur printed in 1490, to bless a very specific figure:
“He who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers, whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternity may he strengthen, bless, and uplift higher and higher our Lord King Fernando. May the King of Kings redeem his soul from death and in war from the sword. And may He incline his heart to do good to Israel and to speak good of them wherever they are and let us say Amen.”
It has likely occurred to you that the King of Spain in 1490 was King Ferdinand- husband to Queen Isabella- who only two years later expelled the Jews of Spain.
As you can see, the 1490 version of the blessing forms the basis of what we say today. Despite the fact that the blessing did not apparently incline the heart of King Ferdinand to “do good to Israel”, the Sepharadim made it a permanent part of their liturgy and it soon saw universal adoption by Ashkenazim as well.
Why? What made HaNoten Teshua so popular that it was recited from Baghdad to Vilnius and from Marrakech to Paris? The answer can be found about half-way through Psalm 144.
“He who grants salvation to kings … who releases David his servant from the evil sword … release me and rescue me from the hand of the strangers, whose mouth speaks vanity and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”
Note that the last part of the psalm “release me and rescue me …” does not appear in the national blessing. While the czars never recognized the double meaning of the quotation, apparently the Soviets knew enough to require that it be taken out of the prayer for the USSR. They left in the line from Isaiah “who places a road in the sea and a path in the mighty waters” however, it seems the commissars were unfamiliar with a related excerpt from Isaiah, specifically Chapter 43, which states:
“So said the Lord, who made a road in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters. Who drew out chariots and horses, army and power; they lay together, they did not rise; they were extinguished, like a flaxen wick they were quenched.”
One is rather glad that Stalin never noticed that one- the prophet recalling the destruction of Pharaoh and his army during the Exodus.
Every line of HaNoten Teshua fairly thrums with tones of spiritual resistance. If you truly love the king ruling over you, then, by all means, the literal surface meaning of the prayer is perfectly appropriate to bless a wise and skilled ruler. And if the king, czar, or the general secretary is an anti-Semitic tyrant, then one simply keeps in mind the hidden meaning of the prayer- the acid tongue of some long-ago Sephardic rabbi composing a blessing for King Ferdinand of Aragon that he could say with a clean conscience.
And so this prayer survived the centuries, blessing kings, queens, popes, presidents, madmen, and dictators. It was first recited in English to bless Oliver Cromwell- who allowed the Jews back into England solely on the condition that they pledge to always bless their rulers. After Cromwell they blessed Charles II. In 1760 the Jews of New York blessed King George III, in 1782 the Jews of Philadelphia blessed “His Excellency the president, and Honorable Delegates of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the Federal Army of these States.”
After the French captured the Italian town of Asti in 1797 a siddur from there has a version of HaNoten Teshua asking that G-d cause the enemies of “Napoleon Primo the Great, Cesar of the French and HaMelech of Italy” to fall before him. This particular wording persisted in Eastern Europe even when calling for the enemies of the government to fall before it fell out of favor in the west- although some American Jews resurrected the line during World War II. During the American Civil War, synagogues in the north added “may our union be preserved and its defenders shielded from danger” to HaNoten teshua while Congregation Beth Ahava of Richmond Virginia wrote an entirely new prayer for the Confederacy that was distributed to southern synagogues and Jews in the armies of the south.
To this day traditional Jews in every country still recite HaNoten Teshua, each nation with its own little variant. In the UK one blesses Queen Elizabeth II by name… and her counselors and nobles afterwards to be sure (one hopes that is some consolation to Theresa May). In Canada they also bless Queen Elizabeth… Queen of Canada. In Australia the Prime Minister of Australia is blessed first, and Her Majesty mentioned only second. In France one does not bless the President or Prime Minister, but rather the Republic as a whole. I am reliably informed that in Japanese synagogues the prayer blesses the Prime Minister of Japan with no mention given to the Emperor at all. The German HaNoten Teshua is effectively the same as ours- only substituting Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor for President and Vice-President, and said of course in German.
And in the meantime the Conservative and Reform Movements have introduced their own prayers. The great Conservative Rabbi Louis Ginzberg introduced a replacement for HaNoten Teshua in 1927 that is still in use today in the Conservative movement. Rabbi Ginzberg eliminated the elements of spiritual resistance- feeling as he did that they were unnecessary for American Jews in the 20th century- but retained much of the character of the earlier prayer. It begins by asking a blessing for America’s leaders:
“Our God and God of our ancestors:
Accept with mercy our prayer for our land and its government.
Pour out your blessing on this land,
on its President, judges, officers and officials, who work faithfully for the public good.”
It then goes on to ask for blessings for the land and its inhabitants- something that HaNoten Teshua has long lacked. Reform Judaism has used a series of different prayers for the welfare of the government, these have changed over time and vary depending on the country. The prayer currently in use by Reform congregations in America first quotes from Isaiah- recalling instructions to “unlock the fetters of wickedness… share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home… [and] banish the yoke, the menacing hand, the evil speech” before starting the prayer directly.
Let us now delve into the world of contemporary American politics. As we swing from one controversial President to another, there are those who may decline to recite HaNoten Teshua or the version of it displayed in your synagogue’s siddur. In consideration of this potential controversy, it is worth further reading in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2, section 2, quoting from Rabban Gamliel:
“Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need.”
I have observed that the subject of reciting HaNoten Teshua arouses strong opinions in both directions. And I know that there are people who are so deeply committed to opposing President-elect Trump and his administration that they have suggested refusing to recite the prayer for the welfare of the government for the next four or eight years, depending.
Sure Jews have blessed Napoleon, Hasmonean usurpers, Darius I of Persia, and Ferdinand III of Aragon. We have even blessed popes, Holy Roman Emperors, Caliphs, and the Georgian bank robber himself, Joseph Stalin. HaNoten Teshua is the blessing for both George Washington and George III, for Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, Kaiser Wilhelm and Jefferson Davis. It is the blessing for the czar, but for the current President-elect…
In responding to this issue, I personally do not feel that there is any need there for a present-day exclusion. The Prophet Jeremiah stated: “so said the L-rd of Hosts… seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to Hashem on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”When Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, renowned Rosh Yeshiva and Talmudist, founder of the Musar Movement found himself in a shul that did not recite the blessing for the czar- and as he lived in Russia, it was indeed for the czar. So, he turned to the wall and recited the prayer to himself in order to fulfil the obligation- his word, obligation, to pray for the welfare of the government. Rabbi Menachem Meiri, the great Spanish rabbi and Maimonedian wrote that the prayer for the government is not a recommendation, but is mandatory, and many commentators agree.
Whatever your views of the President-elect Trump’s platform, his politics, or the popular vote versus the Electoral College, the next legal President of the United States is Donald J. Trump. And it is not for us to judge whether or not a leader is worthy of our prayers (although it is for us to judge whether or not they are worthy of our vote)- and, indeed, if we feel they are unworthy, then it is for us to pray all the harder.
I am not a rabbi and am not in a position to tell my fellow Jews what prayers to say or what mitzvot to follow. But I can tell you what I will do.
Come January 20th (actually Shabbat of January 21st) I will recite HaNoten Teshua, the prayer for the welfare of the government, asking G-d to bless President Donald Trump and Vice-President Michael Pence. I will pray that G-d bless them, because if anyone needs a blessing it’s the man in the Oval Office with the weight of the world’s only superpower on his shoulders.
I will pray that G-d protect them from every trouble, woe, and injury, because I cannot think of a single reason why, as an American citizen I would wish injury or death upon a sitting American President. I will pray that G-d put into their hearts and into the hearts of all their counselors to do good with us and with all Israel our brethren, because I cannot think of a single reason why, as a Jew, I would wish for the President, his advisors and his chief strategist to not be positively inclined toward the Jewish people.
And I will pray that in their days and in ours Judah may be saved, Israel may dwell securely, and the Redeemer may come to Zion. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with those sentiments.
Shalom aleichem and may G-d bless America.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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