Regular worshipers at Shelter Rock know that we routinely recite a prayer for our nation as part of our Shabbat morning service, but I'm not sure that everybody realizes that I myself wrote that prayer as part of the effort to publish Siddur Tzur Yisrael back in 2006. It was a product of its time, too: written just a few years after 9/11, the sense of America as a nation under siege was audible throughout. (When a synagogue in Boston years later wrote to ask permission to use my prayer in their service and specifically asked me for permission to delete the line “May the wicked plots of whose would destroy us ever come to naught,” I acquiesced, suggesting—only mostly in jest—that we could compromise by shortening it to just “May the wicked plotz.” Either they didn’t think that was as funny as I did or else they didn’t feel the shortened line sufficiently undid what they clearly considered the line’s untoward bellicosity, but they didn’t go for it. I decided not to mind and so it entered their worship service as published in Tzur Yisrael, but without that single line.)
At the time, it felt uncontroversial to include such a prayer in our prayerbook. Later on, however, I began to get regular queries about it, some sincere and others merely serving as a means for the asker to express his or her negative feelings about the president on whom the prayer invokes God’s blessings. My stock response was (and is) to note wryly the illogic of not wishing to pray that God grant wisdom and insight to someone the asker clearly considers in dire need of both, and so the prayer remained (and remains) part of worship at Shelter Rock.
The idea itself of praying on behalf of the government and its officials is ancient. Shelter Rockers all know the words “Pray for the peace of your city for in its peace shall you too have peace,” but not all know how old they are. And they are very old indeed: the prophet Jeremiah spoke them in the first decade of the sixth century BCE after the Babylonians exiled large numbers of ruling-class Judahites in the day of King Jehoiachin to punish them for their unwillingness to acquiesce to foreign domination and for their rebelliousness. Nor was this just the prophet’s personal take on things, but an actual divine oracle. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, to all whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon,” the prophet reports in God’s name, “‘build houses and dwell in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit…Seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to be carried away as captives and pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace shall you too have peace.’” It’s true, I suppose, that the prophet doesn’t specifically tell the people to pray for the government, but praying for the peace of the city to which their captors had brought them comes to the same thing: the idea behind both efforts is to feel justified in praying to God for the city, for the nation, for its leadership…and all who exercise just and rightful authority in its governance. This is not presented as mere altruism either, for the prophet could not be clearer: the people’s security rests in the security of the larger place in which they live and in the success of its leadership in establishing that security.
The earliest reference to praying for the government per se, however, is probably in Pirkei Avot, where we hear that Rabbi Ḥananiah the Deputy High Priest, liked to tell people to “pray for the peace of the government, since were it not for the fear of the government people would swallow each other up alive.” He was in interesting personality in his own right, Rabbi Ḥananiah, serving as one of the few Temple officials to seek and attain rabbinic ordination, and thus serving as an unofficial link between the vanished world of pre-destroyed Jerusalem and the ongoing work of the rabbinic effort to create a version of Judaism that could survive the absence of the Temple. And this interesting personality makes an interesting point: that it behooves law-abiding citizens to pray for their government officials because it is the latter who are responsible for maintaining an orderly, peaceful society in which citizens specifically are not free to cannibalize each other’s work or property.
There were many attempts to formulate prayers for the secular governments of the countries in which Jewish worshipers lived, but the best known, called Ha-notein Teshu∙ah after its first words, was in very wide use by the middle of the seventeenth century. (For an interesting survey by Nathan E. Weisberg of earlier efforts to compose such prayers, click here.) The great Portuguese/Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657), for example, cited it in English translation in a book he wrote to promote the idea that Jews should be allowed to re-enter and settle in England, declaring it to have be the universal custom of Jews everywhere “on the Sabbath Day or other solemn feast,” to bless “the Prince of the country under whom they live, that all Jews may hear it and say, Amen.”
On American soil, the very first published Jewish prayer published in the New World, called a “form of prayer” and published by Congregation Shearith Israel in New York in 1760, contained the Ha-notein Teshu∙ah and specifically called upon congregants to invoke God’s blessings on “our most gracious Sovereign Lord, King GEORGE the Second, His Royal Highness, George Prince of Wales, the Princess Dowager of Wales, the Duke, the Princesses, and all the Royal Family,” and also “the Honourable President, and the Council of this Province, likewise the Magistrates of New York.” That suited the moment well enough, I suppose, but by the time the prayer was published for public recitation at the founding of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia in 1782, the royals were gone and in their place was a reference to “His Excellency the President, and Honourable Delegates of the United States in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander of Chief of the Federal Army of these States.” So we’ve been at this for a long time, praying for our national leaders sincerely and, I feel sure, without any sort of ironic overtone.
Over the years, I’ve noticed versions of the prayer that mention—to cite only nineteenth century personalities—Kaiser Wilhelm I, Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria. I’m sure there must be dozens of other examples—I’ve hardly conducted serious research into the matter and am only mentioning those names I’ve personally come across here and there in my literary travels. Nor was this a feature solely of Orthodox worship—by the time the Reform and Conservative movements started publishing their own prayerbooks, alternate versions of the prayer were routinely composed and used in place of the older version. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, for example, more or less all Conservative prayerbooks used some version the prayer originally written by Professor Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) that asked worshipers to pray that God “pour out His blessings on this land, on its President, judges, officers and officials, who work faithfully for the public good.”
We all know the joke from Fiddler: “Rabbi, may I ask you a question?” “Certainly.” “Is there are proper blessing for the czar?” “A blessing for the czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!” Hah! But behind the joke is a piece of reality: prayerbooks from nineteenth and early twentieth century prayerbooks published in Russia absolutely did include a passage in which God is asked “to bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards our master Czar Nikolai Alexandrovich, 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.”
To ask whether we should or shouldn’t pray for the welfare of our president based on whether we do or don’t approve of his policies, his politics, or his personal bearing is to miss the point almost entirely.
We live in an age of extreme uncertainty. Even those who voted for President Trump are uncertain what specific campaign promises he will fulfill, or at least attempt to fulfill, and which he will jettison as undoable or unworkable. (He surely would not be the first president to do that.) Nor is it clear, even to his most ardent supporters, what the priorities of this administration are going to be and how vigorously or rigorously those priorities are going to be pursued. Indeed, by electing a president with no prior experience in government, our nation has opted for a national leader who in many ways is himself a tabula rasa, and whose policies and political stances are clearly still works in progress. Like all Americans, I am hoping for the best. But when people ask me if I think we should continue to pray that God bless our President with “wisdom and with a profound and unyielding devotion to justice, equity, and righteousness,” I can only answer robustly in the affirmative. Why wouldn’t we pray for something we all—regardless of our politics and specifically regardless of how we cast our ballot in November—for something we all fervently want and which our country unquestionably needs?