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The Origin of Our Prayer for the Government (‘Ha-Noten Teshuah’)

Every Shabbat, after the haftarah, our custom is to recite a prayer for the government. The prayer begins “Ha-noten teshuah la-melachim..” (=He who gives salvation to kings…). Where did this prayer come from?

Before we address this, it is important to point out that there are many sources in Judaism for the idea of praying for the government. The most widely quoted source is Jer. 29:7, where Jeremiah instructs: “Seek the peace of the city where I caused you to be exiled and pray to the Lord for it…” Even before this, at Gen. 47:7, Jacob bestows a blessing on Pharaoh. There is also R. Chaninah’s statement at Avot 3:2 that we must pray for the welfare of the government since otherwise men would swallow each other alive. (This statement was made when the hated Romans were ruling Palestine. So even government by the hated Romans was viewed as preferable to a lack of government!)

Also, there is an interesting legend in Jewish tradition that the Jews told Alexander the Great that he should not listen to the Cutim and their request to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Our Temple, the Jews explained, was a place where the Jews prayed for Alexander’s kingdom. See the baraita to Megillat Taanit, day of Har Gerizim (21 Kislev).

(For additional sources about Jews praying for foreign governments in ancient times, see the 16th-century work Me’or Einayim, chap. 55.)

  1. R. David Abudarham, writing in Spain in 1340, mentions a custom of blessing the king in synagogue after the Torah reading on Monday and Thursday. But he does not provide any official text of the blessing and it does not seem that he was alluding to Ha-Noten Teshuah.

A custom of blessing the king on Shabbat is mentioned in the Orchot Chayyim of R. Aaron Ha-Kohen of Lunel (Provence), which is another source from around this time. See the section Seder Tefillat Shabbat Shacharit, sec. 8. (See also Kol Bo, section 20, a work perhaps by the same author.) A few other such sources in Spain and Provence, starting around 1300, with the text of their “mi she-berach” blessings, are collected by Aharon Arend, in chapter 10 of his Pirkei Mechkar Le-Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (1998), at p. 181.

But what is the earliest source for our Ha-Noten Teshuah prayer? The earliest is as a prayer for King Ferdinand V. This is the king who later expelled the Jews in 1492! See Arend, p. 182.

Was there a prayer for the king in the Ashkenazic community in the time of the Rishonim? Entziklopedia Le-Beit Yisrael (ed. R. Halperin, 1994), entry Ha-Noten Teshuah, includes a statement that this prayer is mentioned in a document from Worms, Germany, from the year 1096. But we do not have documents from Worms from the year 1096, so I decided to investigate this mysterious claim. It turns out that there is a manuscript that describes the rituals of Worms and includes a very short prayer for the king, but the prayer is not Ha-Noten Teshuah. A. Frumkin, in his edition of Seder Rav Amram Gaon (1910-12), vol. 2, p. 78, wrote that this manuscript was written at the time of the gezerot of 1096 and 1146. He came to this erroneous conclusion because the manuscript included some details from these times. But scholars today realize that the manuscript, Oxford 2205, was written several centuries later. Meanwhile, Frumkin’s statement assigning the above very early time period to this manuscript has been followed by many sources, including the above encyclopedia. The above encyclopedia also erroneously assumed that the prayer in the manuscript was Ha-Noten Teshuah, but it clearly was not, as Frumkin quotes the language of the prayer. So all we learn from this manuscript is that Worms and perhaps other parts of Ashkenaz had their own short prayer for the king, but we do not know how early this prayer arose.

Going back to Ha-Nanoten Teshuah, some claim that it is actually a subversive prayer with a hidden anti-government meaning. The prayer begins with quotes from Psalms 144:10: “He who gives salvation unto kings,” and “He who rescues his servant David from the hurtful sword.” But the subsequent verse in Psalms, not included in Ha-Nanoten Teshuah, is: “Rescue me and deliver me out of the hands of strangers, whose mouth speaks falsehood and their right hand is a hand of lying.” Perhaps the citation to 144:10 is meant to allude to the subsequent verse! Similarly, the sentence in the prayer, “ha-noten ba-yam derech…” is a quote from Isaiah 43:16. But just prior to that, at 43:14, the prophet describes the downfall of Babylon. Babylon may be a metaphor for governments of the Jews in exile.

I am not convinced that the author of the prayer intended these subversive hidden allusions. The material in the nearby verses can easily be just coincidence. (An interesting scenario would be if the prayer was written under government compulsion. Then perhaps the author did intend an allusion to the nearby verses, as a subtle form of protest!)

For more insights into Ha-Noten Teshuah, see the Jan. 2017 article by Jonathan Sarna at thelehrhaus.com. Sarna quotes a famous line from “Fiddler on the Roof”: “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar…far away from us!” See also the complete chapter 10 of Arend’s work.

* For material from the Cairo Genizah relevant to our topic, see S.D. Goitein, “Prayers from the Geniza for the Fatamid Caliphs…” in Studies in Judaica, Karaitica and Islamica, pp. 52-57. (These Caliphs ruled Egypt and its surrounding areas from the 10th to 12th centuries.)

* For a completely different interpretation of Jer. 29:7, see R. Margaliot, Ha-Mikra Ve-Ha-Mesorah, pp. 64-66.

* The Complete ArtScroll Siddur does not include the text of either Ha-Noten Teshuah or the prayer for the State of Israel. But there is a little box on the bottom of p. 450 with the following statement: “In many congregations, a prayer for the welfare of the State is recited by the rabbi, chazzan or gabbai at this point.” The texts of Ha-Noten Teshuah and the prayer for the State of Israel were added by ArtScroll to its special “Rabbinical Council of America Edition” siddur. But ArtScroll had to do some strange things to the page numbers of Yekum Purkan so that the added material would not change all the subsequent page numbers!

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. In light of recent events, it is clear we must treat our prayer for the U.S. government with utmost seriousness.

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