The History Behind the Prayer for the Royals

The prayer we recite every Shabbat morning can help children understand their past.

by Nic Abery

On recording his visit to a synagogue on Simchat Torah on October 13 1663, Samuel Pepys made two observations. Firstly the decorum was terrible and secondly a special prayer was recited in Hebrew for the King. How true are both today!

Yet such historic visits illustrate how the prayer for the sovereign has been a long-term part of our institutional synagogue services. According to tradition, a prayer for the welfare of the ruling party, government or monarch has been in practice since Jeremiah, from where the original source comes: “And find the protection in the city where you have been exiled to, and pray to God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall succeed” (29:7).

Further references to reciting a prayer for the ruler and state are also found in a classic rabbinical work, Megillat Ta’anit, with reference to Alexander the Great as well as pre-expulsion siddurim. By the mid 14th-century, the particular timing for the prayer had already been fixed even if the exact wording was still fluid.

“It is the custom to ask for a blessing on the King,” expressed Abudarham in his work on Jewish liturgy. While he links it to Jeremiah’s advice to pray for the peace of the city, he also relates it to a request that “God enables the King to vanquish one’s enemies”.

Perhaps one of the earliest witnessed recitations of a specific prayer for the English royal household took place in 1642 at the Amsterdam Synagogue, when Jews still remain officially barred from England, and was preceded by a prayer for the Dutch rulers.

The History of the Rites, Customs and Manner of Life of the Present Jews throughout the World, printed in 1650 by Leon Modena, records the appearance of the first English version of the prayer, whose wording is similar to today’s prayer. “They pray to God that He would preserve him in peace and quietness, and that He would prosper him and make him great and powerful and that He would also make him favourable and kind to their nation.”

In 1655, Manasseh ben Israel issued The Humble Addresses to his Highnesses, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, which made the case for the re-admission of the Jews to Britain by arguing that they would be both profitable and faithful. He describes how “the Jews from all places come together to the synagogue, after the benediction of the Holy Law, before the minister of the synagogue blesses the people of the Jews; with a loud voice, he blesses the prince of the country under who they live, that all the Jews may hear is and say Amen.”

Later on in 1801, when the printing of siddurim for the newly arrived German and Polish populations had been established, the current version was finally set. In the same year as King George III’s Jubilee and in the presence of the Dukes of Cambridge, Cumberland and Sussex at their visit at the Great Synagogue, a newly published edition of the siddur called for the “blessing, preserving, guarding, assisting, exalting and highly aggrandising of King George the Third, Queen Charlotte and their children”.

Since this time, as well as our standard prayer, supplementary prayers to commemorate jubilees and celebrations have been issued by the Chief Rabbi. From the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria of 1887, Rabbi Moses Gaster’s prayer states: “Thou has prolonged her life… saved her from the hands of assassins and Thou hast been her shield so that she might spend her days in pleasantness until she reached this Jubilee Day of her reign.”

More recently, members of the royal family have been witness to the recitation of our standard and special prayers for the monarchy and at the dinner celebrating 250 years of the Board of Deputies, Prince Charles himself remarked on its importance within our established liturgy.

The Prayer for the Royal Family on Shabbat morning is certainly one of the few English prayers that is widely known across the community. It is not, however, part of any formalised teaching of tefillah in Jewish studies or national citizenship education.

Within the classroom, charting the changing monarchs mentioned in the prayer and appreciating the historic events surrounding the British Jewish community can highlight our history and heritage. As we all throw street parties and don walls with Union flag bunting, reflecting on this patriotic tradition and the history of our community could be an important addition to a wider Jewish citizenship curriculum.

Nic Abery is founder of Look to Learn, which uses art as a vehicle for Jewish education.