Praying for the Government

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by N. Daniel Korobkin

Recent criminal scandals within the Orthodox world have been devastating. How did we get to this point? To be sure, there are undoubtedly multiple factors that contributed to this new phenomenon, but there’s one probable culprit that can be easily identified and redressed.

Growing up in the yeshiva day school system of the 70’s, I remember starting our day every morning with davening, and later when we got to English class, we faced the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We also sang songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “America the Beautiful.”

But then I grew up and went off to yeshiva. Something changed within me. The change was so gradual and subtle that I can’t even tell you how it happened. I don’t remember any rebbe or rosh yeshiva giving a whole mussar shmuz about the evils of America, but still, there was something in the air. There may have been a comment like the famous vort, “America stands for ‘Am Reika’ – an Empty Nation.” Or, perhaps it was just the emphasis on the tum’a (spiritual impurity) of the secular world that left me with a negative attitude toward my gentile countrymen and America in general.

Whatever it was, it had a profound effect. When returning home from yeshiva, I recall that I and others like me would mock the provincial and “modernishe” practices of our parents’ synagogue. Things like the Prayer for the Welfare of the Government, recited in many shuls before Mussaf on Shabbos, evoked smirks and winks from the more “sophisticated” yeshiva boys.

And so, we decided to daven in the “frummer” shuls, the ones that omitted those newfangled prayers that had nothing to do with Yiddishkeit, and that were therefore not printed in the “authentic” siddurim. Pledge of Allegiance? Ha! That’s for the goyim. No child of mine will start his day pledging fealty to a country whose values are morally corrupt!

This is where we got it wrong, and this is where our rabbis strayed, whether through acts of commission or omission.

In fact, the Prayer for the Welfare of the Government is a tradition that goes back many centuries. The first halachic work that mentions it is the 14th century Siddur commentary by Rabbi David Avudraham,[1] who writes that by his time it was customary for communities to pray for the king and to ask Hashem to give him dominion over his enemies. The Avudraham bases this custom on a verse in Jeremiah. After the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, the prophet sent a message to his brethren (29:9): “Seek out the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray on its behalf, for its welfare will become your welfare.” This, continues the Avudraham, is the Biblical basis for the Mishnah’s mandate to “Pray for the welfare of the government” (Avos 3:4).

Other halachic works have echoed this practice: The Kol Bo, Magen Avraham, and Aruch HaShulchan all cite the custom to pray for the government.[2] The great 19th century rabbinic leader, Chasam Sofer, using unusually forceful language for a halacha responsum, states emphatically that a Jew has an even greater obligation to show respect for the government than his non-Jewish counterparts. He goes so far as to say that someone who does not honor the king is like someone who doesn’t don tefillin![3]

And then there’s the story about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great 19th century Mussarist, who abhorred dishonesty, regardless of whether it was religious dishonesty or dishonesty with the laws of the land. Once the cantor in the Kriniki synagogue omitted the standard prayer for the government, “HaNosen Teshua LaMelachim…” (“May He who gives salvation unto kings…”) when Reb Yisrael was present. Reb Yisrael turned his head to the wall and recited the prayer himself.[4]

So what happened? If the Prayer for the Government is such an old institution and has been recited by Gedolim for centuries, how is it that it has fallen out of style? Why isn’t there a Prayer for the Government in so many standard siddurim printed in the 20th century? Why do so many fine, deeply committed shuls and yeshivos omit the prayer?

There may be many reasons for this: World War I – where Jewish brethren were pitted against each other – or the Shoah may be causes for resentment against secular authorities. But regardless of the historical reasons, one thing is clear: We are reaping the bitter fruits of some Jews’ utter disregard for the secular government. For American Jews this is doubly tragic, for not only have we not been persecuted as Jews in this country, we have also been granted opportunities of religious freedom unprecedented in all of our 2,000-year Diaspora history. To snub America in this way is simply wrong and it has brought out the worst in us.

So here is my challenge and my call to action: If you daven in a shul where the Tefilla LiShlom HaMedina – the Prayer for the Welfare of the Government is not recited, respectfully approach your rabbi. Ask him: What is the basis for our not reciting it, if the Avudraham, the Magen Avraham, Rav Yisrael Salanter, et al, all did? If you don’t get an answer that definitively rules out its recital, suggest that it be instituted as one way for the Orthodox world to regain its moral footing in this country. If your child attends a yeshiva where there is no American flag on display or where the Pledge of Allegiance is not recited, approach the school leadership and ask the same question.

To be sure, there is a place for warning our children about the temptations and negative values within American society. But that message should not come at the expense of simple patriotism and the hakaras hatov (gratitude) that we owe to America. The potential detriments of teaching our children patriotic ideas pale by comparison to the actual detriments that we have witnessed on the front pages of our newspapers and web sites.

Maybe, just maybe, a child that is brought up on the Pledge of Allegiance will think a second time before committing tax fraud when he grows up.

May G-d bless America and may He continue to grant it proper leaders. May Klal Yisrael appreciate the blessing that living in America truly is, and proudly and publicly proclaim it.

[1] Avurdraham, end of Dinei Krias HaTorah.
[2] See Orach Chaim, end of ch. 248. I am grateful to Rabbi Elchanan Adler of Yeshiva University for providing the source material. For his handout and audio shiur on this subject, go to yutorah.org.
[3] Shu”t Chasam Sofer 5:190 (hashmatos).
[4] Quoted in HaMeoros HaGedolim.

[Rabbi Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh in Los Angeles, director of synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region, and a community mohel.This article first appeared in slightly different form in the current issue of City Spirit Magazine]

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61 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    L Oberstein,

    I agree that people have to do what they can. Under the current circumstances, prayer is essential—even to achieve success in our work on the ground.

    It’s clear to me that the Jews who now have Obama’s ear are solely those on the far political left. If there is a strategy to change that, I’d love to see it and help it along.

  2. Yitz Turner says:

    Orthodox Jews are just as affected by culture as any group living in the Unitized States. Since the 1960’s there has been a general decrease in patriotism but this is not the reason we stopped saying the tefilo for the government. For whatever reason the yeshivas have stopped or never started the “minhag beis hakneset” such as making kiddush, havdalah etc. The majority of frum Jews have a stronger connection to their yeshivas than to the shuls they where raised in. Therefore when they leave yeshiva they wish to continue the atmosphere which formed and strengthened their yiddishkite.
    There is definitely a culture of bitul re: American pop culture which unfortunatly spills into individual non-Jews and the government which needs to be addressed.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “The haircut thing has spread , due to people not realizing the problematic roots of the custom”

    – what do you mean by “problematic roots”?

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    Orthodox Jews who support Israel clearly have little direct influence or leverage on our current President, so prayer is the one effective method now to protect ourselves from him.

    If you start with that assumption, you wont have influence on anyone. Smart people have worked to influence the leaders of various governments and ,over the centuries, have had some successes and some not. Don’t give up too soon. Have more emunah and bitchon that the One Above influences the leaders.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    If the underlying idea of the public prayer is Divine protection from harmful government actions and Divine encouragement of helpful ones, who could oppose it?

    Orthodox Jews who support Israel clearly have little direct influence or leverage on our current President, so prayer is the one effective method now to protect ourselves from him.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear about “Ama Reika”. I am pretty sure that I heard it from talmidim of RZYK and I heard it decades ago. At the time I associated it with extreme Zionism rather than a hareidi point of view. I’ll try to track it down bl”n.

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The “Ama Reika” thing, claiming that the US is an empty nation, as far as I know was said by Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook zt”l. He refused to call the US “Artzot Habrit” saying that only we have the Brit. He said America, and he may have said the thing about Ama Reika, but I don’t know. He also used non-Hebrew words in place of other modern Hebrew vocabulary which he considered inappropriate.
    RZYK also had a vort about the Tfila L’Shlom Malchut in Chutz La’aretz (Hanoten Teshua Lamalelachim). He pointed out that the prayer uses selected parts of verses from Psalm 144, which in its entirety deprecates the kings of the goyim and looks forward to the kingdom of Mashiach ben David. The prayer praises the king or government while expunging the derogatory parts. In other words, when Jews say that prayer they are sort of winking. My understanding is that in this last generation before the Geula people have trouble being subtle anymore.

  8. Yossie Abramson says:

    The usual prayer, includes “all officials in the land” so that should include your Governor.

  9. Moe says:

    The Agudah in Baltimore, under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Heinemann Shlit”a, recites a Tefilah for the government, out loud, from the Bima (and I believe holding the Sefer Torah) every Shabbos and mentions the US President and Vice-President by name in the Tefilah. If there’s any Shul representative of the bastion of Yeshivish culture in Baltimore, it’s this Agudah. Maybe Baltimore is considered somewhat out of town, and the Baltiore/Ner Yisroel mentality of balancing the ideal with the sensible have much to do with this, but I’d say that’s a strong precedent for all Shuls who hesitate to institute this Tefilah. I’ll also mention that I witnessed *Satmar* Shuls in New York reciting this Tefilah immediately after 9/11, although that didn’t last very long.

  10. Tzurah says:

    To Z. — September 17, 2009 @ 2:54 pm (comment #47)

    Congratulations. The fact that the rabbi got worked up probably means that you had a good point.

  11. Elliot Pasik says:

    I daven in shuls where the tfila for the government is not said, and based on R Korobkin’s article, I will do something about it, bli neder. Those of us in the US actually live under two sovereigns, the US, and our State. Should the standard text be revised to include both the President and Governor?