Rabbi Professor David Golinkin
Throughout its long history, the Jewish people lived in many lands under many different rulers and government. As early as the sixth century BCE, Jews began to pray or offer sacrifices for the welfare of the king and/or government of the country in which they resided. The sources express different sentiments. Some pray for the government because without it people would swallow each other alive (Avot 3:2) i.e. there would be chaos and anarchy. Others pray for the government because it protects the Jews living in that country. Finally, one ancient source seems to view earthly kingdoms as a Heavenly Kingdom in miniature.
Much has been written about this topic (1) and it would take an entire volume to do it justice. In this article, we shall examine three aspects of this topic: the ancient sources which mention prayers or sacrifices for the king; medieval and modern prayers for the king/government; who wrote the Prayer for the State of Israel?
II) Prayers and Sacrifices for the King ca. 600 BCE 250 CE (2)
1) In 594 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah sent words of comfort to the elders, priests, prophets and people who had already been exiled to Babylon:
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters
And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
This is the earliest source which instructs Jews to pray for the government. The situation is ironic; Jeremiah is telling the Jews to pray for the enemies who exiled them to Babylonia. But the motive is self-interest: for in its prosperity, you shall prosper.
2) The book of Ezra (6:6-10) relates that Darius, King of Persia (520 BCE) instructed Tattenai and the other Persian officials in Eretz Yisrael to help the Jews rebuild the Temple:
They are to be given daily without fail, whatever they need of young bulls, rams or lambs as burnt offerings for the God of Heaven, and wheat, salt, wine, and oil
so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of Heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons.
This text assumes that the Jews will offer sacrifices for the non-Jewish king using animals provided by the kingdom. It is not clear if this was an existing custom or if it was imposed upon the Jews by Darius as a quid pro quo for helping them rebuild the Temple.
3) The First Book of Maccabees relates (7:33) that the Syrian general Nicanor entered Jerusalem in 161 BCE. Some of the priests came out of the sanctuary, and some of the elders of the people, to greet him peaceably and to show him the burnt offering that was being offered for the king. Nicanor was not placated because he was looking for Judah Maccabee, but this passage is further evidence that the Jews used to offer sacrifices for whichever king was in power.
4) The Letter of Aristeas was written in Greek ca. 130 BCE. It relates the story of the Septuagint: 72 Jewish elders were invited to Alexandria in order to translate the Torah into Greek, which they did within 72 days. In verse 185 (ed. M. Hadas, New York, 1973, p. 173), Dorotheus calls upon Elisha, the eldest of the Jewish priests, to offer a prayer:
He arose and spoke there memorable words: May Almighty God fill Your Majesty full of the good things which He has created, and grant uninterrupted and lifelong possession of them to you and your wife and children and those like-minded with you.
Though this prayer was uttered by a Priest from Jerusalem, it probably reflects the milieu of the Jews of Alexandria in the second century BCE.
5) The next ancient prayer is the most interesting because it is probably the only example from the past 2,500 years of a prayer by Jews for a Jewish King. It is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q448) and was first published by Esther and Hanan Eshel and Ada Yardeni in 1991:
The Holy City ( = Jerusalem):
On Yonatan the King
and the entire community of your people Israel
who are in the four corners of the heavens
May there be peace [for] all of them
and on your kingdom.
May Your name be blessed. (3)
The editors have proved that Yonatan the King was Alexander Yannai, a Jewish king who ruled in Judea from 103-76 BCE. Prof. Flusser subsequently dated this prayer to 80 BCE. (4) Unlike most of the other ancient prayers, there is no self-interest here. This is a simple and sincere prayer for King Yonatan, his kingdom, and the entire Jewish people, no strings attached.
The editors ask why the Jews at Qumran, who were opposed to the central government in Jerusalem, would have recited such a prayer. They reply that the prayer was probably brought to Qumran by someone who had joined the Dead Sea sect; that does not mean that it was actually recited at Qumran. (5)