Laying to Rest the Question of Who Wrote the Prayer for Israel’s Government

April 24, 2018 | Tracy Frydberg
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Jewish congregations the world over recite a standardized prayer for the wellbeing of the state of Israel, the text of which was promulgated by the country’s chief rabbinate and first published in the newspaper Haaretz in 1948. For years, it was generally assumed that the Ashkenazi chief rabbi at the time, Yitzḥak Halevi Herzog, was the prayer’s author, until, in 1983, an Israeli scholar produced evidence suggesting that the prayer was written by the great Israeli novelist S.Y. Agnon, with Herzog’s imprimatur. A recent discovery by the historian Yoel Rappel has now set the record straight, as Tracy Frydberg writes:

[Rappel] found his “smoking gun” only a few months ago upon the discovery of a 1948 letter from Herzog to Agnon. The letter reads: “People from various communities in the diaspora are asking me to amend the prayer for the wellbeing of the state and its leaders [said by Jews living under Gentile rule so as to include a prayer for Israel]. Our brothers in the diaspora trust me, and I trust you, because you have the proper poetry and style and you are a God-fearing person . . . ”

This letter further clarified Agnon’s role as editor but didn’t solidify Herzog as the writer. But this letter combined with the earlier discovery of an article Herzog wrote on Israel’s tenth anniversary was the final piece of the puzzle. In this piece, Herzog referred to “the prayer that I established” with quotes from certain portions of the prayer for the state of Israel [as we know it today]. . . .

“In the end, there are five words that S.Y. Agnon wrote that entered into the [final version] of the prayer,” Rappel said. . . . The now-established fact that the prayer was written by a rabbi is what gives the prayer its religious significance, Rappel added.

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