Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Jewish Prayers for the Government

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Jewish Prayers for the Government

Article excerpt


Loyalty to authority was always basic to Jewish ethics, which maintained that rulers and leaders were essential to human society. Without them, there would be anarchy: in the words of the Mishnah Pirkei Avoth (3:2) "people would eat each other alive". The same thought is echoed when Shakespeare, who--as Hermann Gollancz points out, knew rabbinic sayings in Latin translation (Gollancz 1924:294)--says in Coriolanus 1:1 "You cry against the noble Senate, who, under the gods, keep you in awe, which else would feed on one another".

Leaders protect society from itself. The standard work on the commandments, Aaron Halevi's Sefer HaHinukh (Mitzvot 71: 497) says that every nation needs a leader, even a bad one, so that the nation will not disintegrate into conflict. Leaders offer a sense of purpose and harness the people to a task: Philo Judaeus, the Alexandrian-Jewish philosopher, says in his Virtues (chapter 54) "The pilot of a ship is worth as much as all the crew". Respect for leaders is both important in itself and a counsel of prudence and self-protection: Jews in unfriendly lands preferred a degree of stability to fragility and expulsion.

Monarchy as the Norm

In ancient times, few people ever saw their ruler in person, heard his voice or witnessed his glory. The Talmud (TB Berakhot 58a) reported that the people were agog to see the king, Jew or gentile, and even a blind person sensed his advent. A benediction was required by halakhah (Jewish law): On seeing a Jewish king and his court, it was Barukh.shenathan mik'vodo levasar vedam, "Blessed be He ... who gave some of His glory to flesh and blood"; on seeing a gentile king, Barukh...... shenathan mik'vdo liv'ru'av, "who gave some of His glory to His creatures". Jewish kings, though criticised for their lapses, were presumed--in theory at least--to exemplify Divine standards; the Talmud (TB Berakhot 58a) considers that earthly royalty echoes that of Heaven. The Book of Proverbs 21:30 states "There is no wisdom, understanding or counsel against the Lord". However, Jewish teaching and experience had its doubts about gentile kings and deemed them lacking in ethics. Some authorities, reflected in Artscroll 1984:228, limit the benediction for a monarch to "a gentile king who rules lawfully".

Monarchy was the norm, but the title "king" does not necessarily denote the supreme ruler of a whole nation or land. The modern notion of nation states had not yet arisen. The word "king"--melekh--had a wide compass and could equally refer to the Pharaohs of Egypt or the chieftain of a smallish tribe. In Psalm 2:2, "kings of the earth" might mean monarchs of other lands or local princes; in Ecclesiastes 1:1, melekh might even be a rich man or land-owner. The word could be applied to a prince, judge, general or counsellor or all of them at once. Maimonides says "Moses our Teacher was a king" (MT Bet haBehirah 6:11). How a man became a king is not defined: Exodus 1:8 merely says "A new king arose over Egypt". A king might inherit the crown. Another king (such as Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther) might lead a coup. The appointment would be by God in the case of a Jewish king. The people did not vote. Republics only became a subject of serious debate in the Middle Ages. However, absolutist monarchism is echoed in a note in the Artscroll Siddur: "Regarding modern-day elected rulers, opinions differ. Most authorities suggest that the blessing be recited with the phrase Attah HaShem E-lohenu Melekh Ha olam omitted" (Artscroll 1983:228), a halakhic device that reduces the status of the benediction.

Jewish and Gentile Kings

Whatever "king" means, there is a distinction between Jewish and gentile kings, but both had to be obeyed. In the Diaspora, there is a halakhic principle of dina demalkhutha dina, "the law of the land is the law" (TB Nedarim 28a; Gittin 10b: Bava Kamma 113a/b; Bava Batra 44b/45a. Also see Kirschenbaum and Trafimow 1991:925; Frank 1995; and Shilo 1974) (1). …

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