Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
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-Melakhim... (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 Jeremiah 29:7. Here 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. Haninah’s statement at Avot 3:2 that we must pray for the welfare of the government since, without fear of the government, 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.
Going back to the Ha-Noten Teshuah prayer, the earliest manuscript that includes the prayer has the name “Selim” inserted in a later hand. It is a Sefardic siddur manuscript. The reference could be to Selim I or to Selim II. The first was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire between 1512-20. The second was its ruler between 1566-74. So we know at least that Ha-Noten Teshuah had already been composed in the 16th century, and was being recited in an area that was part of the Ottoman empire.
Earlier than that, Abudarham, writing in Spain in the early 14th century, mentions a custom of blessing the king in shul after the Torah reading. It would seem that he was referring to a custom on Mondays and Thursdays as well as on Shabbat. But he does not provide any official text of a blessing. Moreover, from his brief comments, it does not seem that he was alluding to Ha-Noten Teshuah. Also, around this same time, the Orchot Hayyim of R. Aaron HaKohen briefly mentions a custom in Spain of blessing the king after the Haftarah reading. (See also Kol Bo, section 20, a work perhaps by the same author.)
Could Ha-Noten Teshuah have been composed in Spain prior to the 1492 expulsion? No one really knows. But Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who wrote an article about Ha-Noten Teshuah (see HUCA , vol. 57), believes that this is unlikely. On the other hand, he is able to track the spreading of the prayer thereafter. For example, by the mid-17th century, it is found in Italy. It is also cited in the mid- 17th century by Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, leader of the Amsterdam Jewish community, as part of his effort to have the Jews readmitted into England. Rabbi Menashe cited the prayer because it supported his argument that the Jews would be loyal citizens.
Was there a prayer for the king in the Ashkenazic community in the time of the Rishonim? The Encyclopedia Le-Beit Yisrael, 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 which describes the rituals of Worms and which includes a very short prayer for the king, but the prayer is not Ha-Noten Teshuah. Aryeh Frumkin, in his commentary on the Seder R. Amram Gaon, at vol. 2, p. 78 (published in 1910-12), 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. (Frumkin is an interesting figure. He was one of the residents of Petach Tikvah in its early, very difficult stages in the 1880’s, but eventually had to abandon living there. He moved to England where he was able to view manuscripts in the library at Oxford. He eventually was able to return to Petach Tikvah.)
Going back to Ha-Nanoten Teshuah, many 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 is: “Rescue me and deliver me out of the hands of strangers, whose mouth speak 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 derekh...” 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. Whether these interesting nearby verses are just coincidence or are of significance, I leave for you to decide. (My friend Sam Borodach suggested to me that if we knew whether or not the prayer was composed under government compulsion or composed voluntarily, that might be the deciding factor. Another friend suggested to me that we should perhaps abandon this prayer entirely and compose a new one, so as to distance ourselves from this controversial allegation!)
For more insights into Ha-Noten Teshuah, see the Jan. 2017 article by Professor Jonathan Sarna at the Lehrhaus.com. (Sarna also 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!”)
Additional notes: 1) For material from the Cairo Geniza relevant to our topic, see S.D. Gotein, “Prayers from the Geniza for the Fatamid Caliphs…” in Studies in Judaica, Karaitica and Islamica, pp. 52-57. (The Fatamid Caliphs ruled Egypt and its surrounding areas from the 10th to 12th centuries.) 2) For a completely different interpretation of Jer. 29:7, see R. Reuven Margalit, Ha-Mikra ve-Ha-Mesorah, pp. 64-66. 3) The standard 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…at this point.”) The texts of Ha-Noten Teshuah and the prayer for the State of Israel were added by ArtScroll for its special Rabbinical Council of America edition (with some strange things done to the page numbers of Yekum Purkan, so that the addition would not change all the subsequent page numbers!)
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.comWhen he prays for the government, he also has in mind government agencies, like the NJ Transit Authority and the MTA, which enable him to get to work.