Praying for the Government in the UK and Elsewhere

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prayerbookby Rabbi Dr Barry Freundel

The London Beth Din, United Synagogue and Maggid Books are publishing Morash Kehillat Yaakov, a two-volume collection of essays in honor Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. This two-part essay appears in the English book and is republished here with permission.

More years ago than I care to remember, I spent some eleven months as a student in Israel. Given the vagaries of airplane travel, it was less expensive in those days for me to spend some time in England than to fly directly from the US to Tel Aviv. As a result, I spent Shabbat in London. In shul that Shabbat morning, I heard the British version of the prayer for the government for the first time in my life. I was used to such a prayer from the synagogue of my childhood but was surprised to hear the listing of the members of the royal family as part of that prayer. I did not know then, but do now, that this is part of a special halakhic reality that makes the prayer for the government different in the UK than in other countries. Discussing that difference will be the final point in this essay. To get to that point and to adequately explain it, we first need to explore the history of the prayer and the changing status of its recitation in halakha.

Biblical Attestations

It is hard to say where the earliest reference to the prayer for the government appears. Many point to the famous verses from Jeremiah 29, where the prophet gives instruction to the Jews who, after the Babylonian conquest, find themselves in exile for the first time since the Exodus from Egypt. He famously says to them:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat their fruit; take wives, and father sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace shall you have peace. [1]Jer. 29:4–7.

Often cited along with this verse is the Mishna in Avot 3:2: “Rabbi Hanina the assistant high priest said: ‘Pray for the sake of the government for if not for the fear of it each person would swallow his neighbour alive.’” Despite the fact that this mishna does not make reference to the verses in Jeremiah and does not speak of the city and its well-being, it does seem to recommend a similar liturgical requirement – to pray for the government. Since the well-being of the city depends in large measure on the functioning of the government, these two calls for prayer seem to be related. That is certainly how a number of halakhic authorities understood these texts, as we shall see below.

There is, of course, a conceptual difference between Jeremiah, who seems to speak only in purely pragmatic terms about Jewish self-interest, and R. Hanina, who makes his appeal using a Hobbesian political formulation that takes all who live in the area controlled by the government into consideration. [2]Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Baltimore: 1968). Nonetheless the desired result seems to be the same: pray for the government because its continued well-being prevents bad things from happening and brings good things to fruition. As a result, it would seem that we should all be praying in this way. However, as we shall see shortly, things are not quite that simple.

Let us compound the problem. In point of fact, these two texts seem not to be the earliest references that we have to such a prayer, whether we look in traditional or in non-traditional sources. While many of the texts that we will now explore appear in the period of time between Jeremiah and the Mishna, at least one may be quite a bit earlier.

In I Kings 8:66, as King Solomon concludes the dedication of the First Temple, the verse reads: “On the eighth day he sent the people away; and they blessed the king, and went to their tents joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had done for David His servant, and for Israel His people.” The Tosefta (Sukka 4:17) quotes this verse as an indicator that one of the differences between Shemini Atzeret and the other days of Sukkot is berakha le’atzma (its own blessing): “And the last holy day of Sukkot has a lot for itself, a time for itself, a pilgrimage festival for itself, a sacrifice for itself, a song for itself, a blessing for itself, as it says: On the eighth day he sent the people away; and they blessed the king.”

Notice that the wording in Kings is “they blessed the king”. Rashi understands the Tosefta to mean that not only in King Solomon’s time but every year, on Shemini Atzeret, a special blessing was said for the king in commemoration of what occurred at the Temple’s dedication: “They would bless the king in memory of the dedication of the Temple, as it says: ‘On the eighth day he sent the people away; and they blessed the king.’ So it is explained in Tosefta Sukka.” [3]Rosh Hashana 4b, s.v. berakha le’atzma, and Yoma 3a, s.v. berakha le’atzmo; see also Malbim on I Kings 8:66. That would make this the earliest prayer for the government recited at regular intervals that we can find.

On the other hand, Tosafot and many others understand this text to mean that we refer to Shemini Atzeret and not Sukkot in the Grace after Meals and the Amida on this day. [4]Tosafot, Rosh Hashana 4b, s.v. p-z-r k-sh-v; Yoma 3a, s.v. p-z-r k-sh-v; Sukka 48a, s.v. regel bifnei atzma; Hagiga 17a, s.v. p-z-r k-sh-v; Rabbenu Behaya, Bamidbar 29:35; Hidushei HaRamban, Sukka … Continue reading That is, of course, our current practice, and for these commentators that is the separate blessing referred to by the Tosefta. Finally, Meiri and others mention both practices [5]Meiri, Beit HaBehira, Sukka 47a; Hiddushei HaRashba, Rosh Hashana 4b. (as does Rashi himself in one place in which he discusses this issue [6]Sukka 48a, s.v. berakha le’atzmo. ). Meiri also says that this blessing for the king was recited on all holidays, not just Shemini Atzeret.

The Tosefta’s prayer for the government would seem to have affinities with the contemporary Israeli prayer for the government, [7]Rabbi Mordecahi Fogelman (1899–1984), Responsa Beit Mordecai 1:18, speaks eloquently of the need for such a prayer given the founding of the state after the tragic experiences of Jewish history. as it expresses pride in Jewish sovereignty and not the types of insecurity reflected in the iterations of the prayer for the government recited in the Diaspora or under foreign domination in the Holy Land that I will be discussing in the rest of this essay. Interestingly, Tosafot in one location says that “now we do not recite this blessing” (meaning the prayer described by Rashi), implying that under different circumstances to those in twelfth- or thirteenth-century Franco-Germany such a prayer might be said. [8]Yoma 3a, s.v. P-Z-R K-SH-V. Perhaps the contemporary State of Israel represents such a case.

As we move past Kings and Jeremiah in biblical history, we find these verses in Ezra 6:8–10:

Moreover, I make a decree regarding what you shall do for the elders of these Jews for the building of this House of God; that from the king’s goods, from the tribute beyond the river, expenses be given to these men, so that they should not be delayed. And that which they need, young bulls, and rams, and lambs, for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the requirements of the priests who are at Jerusalem, let it be given to them day by day without fail; that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king, and of his sons.

These lines are described as being part of a scroll containing the decree of Darius, which allowed the Jews to finish rebuilding the Second Temple in Jerusalem so that the offerings for the king mentioned here could be brought to the altar. [9]Ezra 6:1. This part of the scroll actually cites the royal proclamation of Darius’ ancestor Cyrus, who, using these words, had permitted the Jews to start this rebuilding only to have the project stopped. [10]Ibid. vv. 2–3. That work stoppage occurred because the Samaritans, who had come to occupy Judaea while the Jews were out of the land enduring the Babylonian exile, had hired counsellors and lobbyists who slandered the Jews to the government. This slander succeeded in bringing the work to a screeching halt, as described earlier in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. [11]Ibid. 4:5–24, and cf. Neh. 1–3. With this decree issues by Darius, the work could be finished and the sacrifices for the king would become a reality.

Extra-Biblical Witnesses

Intriguingly, a version of Cyrus’ decree that ended the Babylonian exile and began the second Jewish commonwealth and the building of the Second Temple seems to have been discovered in what is known in archaeological circles as the Cyrus Cylinder. It reads in part:

Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti – the sanctuaries across the river Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant [?] days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace. [12]Irving Finkel, translation of the text on the Cyrus Cylinder, on the website of the British Museum at aspx, … Continue reading

All of this tells us, in both biblical and non-biblical texts, that, at least for Cyrus and Darius, the idea of having their subject populations praying for the government was important and that this was a practice that the Jews accepted, if not embraced.

This also appears to be true with other rulers, as reflected in various sources from antiquity. Barukh son of Neriah was Jeremiah’s scribe, who wrote down the words of God that Jeremiah prophesied, [13]Jer. 32, 36, 43, and 45. including, presumably, the letter to the exiles that speaks of praying for the peace of the city in which these exiles live, as mentioned above. After the close of Tanakh, the apocryphal book of I Barukh from the second century BCE, anachronistically ascribed to Jeremiah’s scribe, tells of the beginnings of the Babylonian exile. [14]P. J. Berlyn, “Baruch ben-Neriah: The Man Who Was Not a Prophet,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 25(3) (1997) 150–61; Kenneth M. Craig, Jr., “Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah,” in Mercer … Continue reading In words that parallel Jeremiah, the text says (1:9-12):

After Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon had carried away Jeconiah, and the princes, and the captives, and the mighty men, and the people of the land, from Jerusalem, and brought them unto Babylon. And they said, “Behold, we have sent you money to buy you burnt offerings, and sin offerings, and incense, and prepare you the shew bread, and offer upon the altar of the Lord our God; and pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon, and for the life of Belshazzar his son, that their days may be upon earth as the days of heaven: And the Lord will give us strength, and lighten our eyes, and we shall live under the shadow of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon, and under the shadow of Belshazzar his son, and we shall serve them many days, and find favour in their sight.” [15]Translation from, modified by me.

Again, ancient kings (this time Nebuchadnezzar), expect and appreciate prayers by Jews and other subject peoples on their behalf, and the Jews would seem to be well advised to comply with this expectation.

I Maccabees may be an eyewitness account of the Hasmonean victory against the forces of Hellenism in the second century BCE, written by a soldier in Judah Maccabee’s army who was a traditional Jew. It was certainly authored by a pious Jew with first-hand knowledge of the events and who lived at the time they occurred or perhaps shortly thereafter. [16]Jonathan A. Goldstein, I Maccabees (NY: 1976). The Talmud, quoting from Megillat Taanit, tells us of Yom Nicanor, which commemorated the defeat of a Greek general of that name who had been sent by Antiochus to end the Maccabean insurrection. [17]Taanit 18b, Y. Taanit 2:12 (66a), Y. Megilla 1:4 (70c). I Maccabees fills in the details and includes the following description in 7:26–33:

Then the king sent Nicanor, one of his honourable princes, a man that bore deadly hate to Israel, with the commandment to destroy the people. So Nicanor came to Jerusalem with a great force; and sent to Judah and his brethren deceitfully with friendly words, saying, “Let there be no battle between me and you; I will come with a few men, that I may see you in peace.” He came therefore to Judah, and they saluted one another peaceably. Howbeit the enemies were prepared to take away Judah by violence. Which thing after it was known to Judah, to wit, that he came to him with deceit, he was afraid of him, and would see his face no more. Nicanor also, when he saw that his counsel was discovered, went out to fight against Judah beside Kephar Salama: Where there were slain of Nicanor’s side about five thousand men and the rest fled into the city of David. After this Nicanor went up to Mount Zion, and there came out of the sanctuary certain of the priests and certain of the elders of the people, to salute him peaceably, and to show him the burnt sacrifice that was offered for the king. But he mocked them, and laughed at them, and abused them shamefully, and spoke proudly. [18] with modification.

I Maccabees tells us a little bit more about these prayers, or in this case sacrifices, for the government. Here we have not just the theoretical statement that this type of worship should occur but an indication that it did occur.

A further example of this type of literature, Josephus in War of the Jews (Book 2, ch. 10) describes a confrontation between the Romans and the Jews in Jerusalem concerning an issue of great sensitivity to the Jewish people:

Now Caius [or Caligula] Caesar [19]See also Philo of Alexandria, On the Embassy to Gaius XXX 201–3. did so grossly abuse the fortune he had arrived at, as to take himself to be a god, and to desire to be so called also, and to cut off those of the greatest nobility out of his country. He also extended his impiety as far as the Jews. Accordingly, he sent Petronius with an army to Jerusalem, to place his statues in the Temple, and commanded him that, in case the Jews would not admit of them, he should slay those that opposed it, and carry all the rest of the nation into captivity. But God concerned Himself with these his commands. However, Petronius marched out of Antioch into Judaea, with three legions, and many Syrian auxiliaries. Now as to the Jews, some of them could not believe the stories that spoke of a war; but those that did believe them were in the utmost distress how to defend themselves, and the terror diffused itself presently through them all; for the army was already come to Ptolemais…. But now the Jews got together in great numbers with their wives and children into that plain that was by Ptolemais, and made supplication to Petronius, first for their laws, and, in the next place, for themselves. So he was prevailed upon by the multitude of the supplicants, and by their supplications, and left his army and the statues at Ptolemais, and then went forward into Galilee, and called together the multitude and all the men of note to Tiberias, and showed them the power of the Romans, and the threatenings of Caesar; and, besides this, proved that their petition was unreasonable, because while all the nations in subjection to them had placed the images of Caesar in their several cities, among the rest of their gods, for them alone to oppose it, was almost like the behaviour of rebels, and was injurious to Caesar. And when they insisted on their law, and the custom of their country, and how it was not only not permitted them to make either an image of God, or indeed of a man, and to put it in any despicable part of their country, much less in the Temple itself, Petronius replied, “And am not I also,” said he, “bound to keep the law of my own lord? For if I transgress it, and spare you, it is but just that I perish; while he that sent me, and not I, will commence a war against you; for I am under command as well as you.” Hereupon the whole multitude cried out that they were ready to suffer for their law. Petronius then quieted them, and said to them, “Will you then make war against Caesar?” The Jews said, “We offer sacrifices twice every day for Caesar, and for the Roman people”; but that if he would place the images among them, he must first sacrifice the whole Jewish nation; and that they were ready to expose themselves, together with their children and wives, to be slain. At this Petronius was astonished, and pitied them, on account of the inexpressible sense of religion the men were under, and that courage of theirs which made them ready to die for it; so they were dismissed without success. [20] with modification.

It seems clear from all the above textual witnesses that the custom of praying (or offering sacrifices) for the government began very early in Jewish history, was taken quite seriously by the Jews and by the rulers they served, and, at least as custom if not as full-fledged Jewish law, it has been an integral part of Jewish liturgy from time immemorial.

To cite a final source for our review of the ancient history of this practice, a similar story from antiquity to those we have seen above appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69a. The text reads:

For we have learned: The twenty-fifth of Tevet is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. [21]This too derives from Megillat Taanit. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands. They walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them [the Samaritans]: Who are these? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles. He said to them: What have you come for? They said: Is it possible that star-worshippers should mislead you to destroy the House wherein prayers are said for you and your kingdom that it be never destroyed! He said to them: Who are these? They said to him: These are Cutheans who stand before you. He said: They are delivered into your hand. At once they perforated their heels, tied them to the tails of their horses and dragged them over thorns and thistles, until they came to Mount Gerizim, which they ploughed and planted with vetch, even as they had planned to do with the House of God. And that day they made a festive day.

Again, the pattern of the prayer for the government being well established and strongly approved by the king appears here. We also get a sense from many of these sources that the prayer itself was a witness to a great deal of Jewish insecurity and was frequently used to placate various rulers as to Jewish loyalty and concern for those in power.

The second part of this essay will appear tomorrow



1Jer. 29:4–7.
2Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Baltimore: 1968).
3Rosh Hashana 4b, s.v. berakha le’atzma, and Yoma 3a, s.v. berakha le’atzmo; see also Malbim on I Kings 8:66.
4Tosafot, Rosh Hashana 4b, s.v. p-z-r k-sh-v; Yoma 3a, s.v. p-z-r k-sh-v; Sukka 48a, s.v. regel bifnei atzma; Hagiga 17a, s.v. p-z-r k-sh-v; Rabbenu Behaya, Bamidbar 29:35; Hidushei HaRamban, Sukka 48a; Hidushei HaRitva, Yoma 3a; Rif, Sukka 23a; Rosh, Sukka 4:5.
5Meiri, Beit HaBehira, Sukka 47a; Hiddushei HaRashba, Rosh Hashana 4b.
6Sukka 48a, s.v. berakha le’atzmo.
7Rabbi Mordecahi Fogelman (1899–1984), Responsa Beit Mordecai 1:18, speaks eloquently of the need for such a prayer given the founding of the state after the tragic experiences of Jewish history.
8Yoma 3a, s.v. P-Z-R K-SH-V.
9Ezra 6:1.
10Ibid. vv. 2–3.
11Ibid. 4:5–24, and cf. Neh. 1–3.
12Irving Finkel, translation of the text on the Cyrus Cylinder, on the website of the British Museum at aspx, vv. 31–6.
13Jer. 32, 36, 43, and 45.
14P. J. Berlyn, “Baruch ben-Neriah: The Man Who Was Not a Prophet,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 25(3) (1997) 150–61; Kenneth M. Craig, Jr., “Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah,” in Mercer Commentary on the Bible (1994) 853–8; Jonathan A. Goldstein, “The Apocryphal Book of I Baruch,” in Proceedings: American Academy for Jewish Research 46–47(1) (1978–9), 179–99.
15Translation from, modified by me.
16Jonathan A. Goldstein, I Maccabees (NY: 1976).
17Taanit 18b, Y. Taanit 2:12 (66a), Y. Megilla 1:4 (70c).
18 with modification.
19See also Philo of Alexandria, On the Embassy to Gaius XXX 201–3.
20 with modification.
21This too derives from Megillat Taanit.

About Barry Freundel

Rabbi Barry Freundel is the rabbi of Kesher Israel congregation in Washington, DC, Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at Towson University, Vice President of the Vaad of Washington and head of the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His books include Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of a Jewish Prayer and Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response To Modernity.

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