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From Parsha to Halakha – Vayigash – Praying for a (corrupt) government?

Tevet 5784 | December 2023


Yaakov blesses Pharaoh

When Yaakov arrives in Egypt Yosef introduces him to Pharaoh; they have a brief and strange exchange, bookended by the phrase “Yaakov blessed Pharaoh.” Commentaries question the repeated phrase, as it is obvious that he would both greet and take leave of a king with a formal salutation or blessing. Rashi paraphrases a midrash to explain that, in addition to customary salutations, Yaakov blessed Pharaoh that the Nile should rise at his feet. Ramban counters that one does not greet a king with regular salutations, but rather with blessings for prosperity and honor, such as the one related by the midrash.

Origins of the prayer

Centuries of siddurim from Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish communities include a prayer for the shalom (peace or welfare) of the monarchy . The prayer does not appear in early siddurim such as that of Rav Amram Gaon, Rav Saadia Gaon, or Machzor Vitri. Historians surmise that the transition to “Hanoten teshuah l’melachim” – “Who grants salvation to kings” – that is standard today happened at the end of the 15th century in Spain. Before this time there are a few scattered and non-uniform prayers. Ironically, it is believed that this version was first recited on behalf of Ferdinand V, the King responsible for the Jews’ expulsion from Spain.

Rav Mordechai Fogelman, former rabbi of Kiryat Motzkin, traced the origins of the prayer. Explicit sources mentioning such a prayer only begin around the 16th century, yet there are several earlier allusions. Yirmiyahu relays a prophecy to the exiles residing in Babylon, telling them to settle in for the long haul – build houses, plant, raise families, multiply, “and seek the welfare of the city where I have exiled you, and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you will have peace.”

In a mishna in Avot Rabbi Chanina, the deputy of the Kohanim tells us: “Pray for the peace of the monarchy, for without fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” The gemara brings this statement to explain why the bible compares people to fish – in both species the large devour those smaller than them. Only fear of monarchy – the rule of law – suppresses these natural urges. 

Rashi notes that some Temple sacrifices were dedicated to the nations of the world – the 70 bulls offered throughout Sukkot and other voluntary offerings. Based on the verse in Yirmiyahu, he states that such a prayer should be recited “even among the nations of the world,” indicating that it may have originally been intended for Israelite leadership. Similarly, Rav Mordechai Fogelman proposes that the original prayer for the king did not concern foreign monarchies, but rather originated with the dedication of the First Temple, which coincided with Sukkot: “On the 8th day he (Shlomo HaMelekh) dismissed the people and they blessed the king.” 

Tosfot Yom Tov points out that Rabbi Chanina’s statement speaks of the monarchy, not the king. Therefore, it’s appropriate to pray for both the king and “his ministers and advisors and those that administer justice in the land.” In the 19th century Rav Yisrael Lifschitz noted that this would also apply to other forms of government – republics, local government and leadership – as their welfare enables them to properly oversee their region. 

These various explanations all indicate that one should pray for any government that enforces some reasonable form of law and order, Jewish or Gentile, in Israel or in exile. Indeed, many explain that Rav Herzog and Rav Uziel, the first Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel, established the Tefillah l’Shalom HaMedinah (Prayer for the State of Israel) in place of HaNoten Teshuah; the latter was no longer applicable and if we pray for a Gentile government of course we must pray for the miraculous State of Israel.

Minhag or mitzvah?

Many sources state that this prayer is a minhag (custom), like most of the prayers in our siddur. Abudraham in Andalusia brings the tradition to bless the king with strength after Torah reading on Shabbat, before blessing the congregation and continuing with Ashrei, citing many of the sources mentioned above. Kol Bo, which reflects customs of Ashkenaz and France, similarly relates that some congregations bless the king and then the community, and that each place should follow its tradition.  Rabbi Azaria de Rossi (Italy) brings a long list of historical sources that reflect the custom to pray for the king, beginning with the biblical sources cited above and moving through the Greek and Roman empires as reflected in Megillat Ta’anit, the Apocrypha, and Josephus. 

Minhag is a strong source of obligation. Nevertheless, some authorities maintain that there is an even stronger obligation. Based on the verse in Yirmiyahu, Rabbi Moshe ben Makhir (Tzfat) states that there is a prophetic positive commandment to pray for the king, as we are under his rule and in his peace we will have peace. In introductory disclaimers to many of his works Rav Yechezkel Landau uses the tradition to recite this prayer as a proof that the Jewish People have a favorable attitude towards their Gentile neighbors, writing that we are “obligated to pray for the  peace of the kings, the officers, and their soldiers, and to pray for the sake of the state and its inhabitants.” 

Maharam of Padua cites a famous story about a meeting between Alexander the Great and the High Priest, Shimon HaTzaddik, who tells the conqueror that the Temple is a house to pray for him and his empire. He explains that the widespread custom was instituted mipnei darkei shalom – to maintain peace – and mishum aiva – to avert hostility. 

Our original explanation of the Tannaitic imperative was a hopeful one – when in exile a stable and peaceful government prospers, as do the residents, including the Jews. Yet the idea that our peace is dependent on their peace can also be cynical. We know that Jewish populations were often persecuted in times of scarcity or unrest – such as plagues, revolutions, and wars. Prosperous rulers and citizens were more likely to leave the Jews alone. Jews also have a long history of being accused of conflicting loyalties; public declarations of allegiance may have aimed to ease tensions and preempt these anti-Semitic claims. 

“In every generation” the Jewish People’s fortunes are entwined with those of the nations of the world – whether we’re in the diaspora or our own state. It seems that no matter what we do anti-Semitism will adapt, at least until the ultimate redemption. A government can fan those flames or can fight them. 

Practically, Yaakov and Yosef show us how to navigate complex political climates, particularly when our motivations are questioned. They both pursue multiple avenues to ensure the safety and security of the People of Israel. They work together with the nations around them and their leaders to pursue mutual goals of prosperity and peace. At the same time they remain true to their faith. They acknowledge God as the source of all wisdom and success, and they pray the Holy One continues to bestow blessings of on us and those nations around us.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.