Coronation lessons from my Tsarist Russian prayerbook

It always takes people aback to see the prayer for ‘our Sovereign Lord Nikolai Alexandrovich’

May 04, 2023 13:17

I have many different prayer books at home — Hebrew, English, even French. But there is one that always provokes fascination. It is 126 years old and comes from St Petersburg. This siddur, lovingly bound and cared for by an unknown former owner, contains everything — the full prayers for the High Holydays and festivals, even the Haggadah text, complete with ancient wine stains. One remarkable prayer stands out, however. There in black and white, before the additional service for Shabbat, is a prayer for the last Tsar.

Entitled A Prayer for the Welfare of Our Sovereign Lord, the Tsar, it always makes those who see it catch their breath. We wonder what was going through the minds of those who recited the words, “May He bless, protect and exalt our Sovereign Lord Nikolai Alexandrovich, together with his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna and their son and heir, Alexei Nikolaevich.” The text is strikingly similar to the British Prayer for the Royal Family, although fittingly for the Tsar, it includes an invocation to “cast nations beneath his feet”. Did our Russian Jewish ancestors mumble these words under their breath, Fiddler on the Roof style, secretly hoping to “keep the Tsar far away from us”? Or did they recite them confidently, sincerely hoping that their prayers for Tsarist benevolence would enable them to live and prosper as Jews? Regardless of which perspective they took, one thing this rare siddur undoubtedly teaches us is the fact that for generations, Jews have looked directly towards the ruler of the country as the personification of the state itself.

Whatever the circumstances, it is to the head of state that Jews have turned, as his or her loyal subjects. Week after week, they have invited the names of emperors, kings or queens into the heart of their sanctuaries, at the high point of their prayers. These are no mere words, for we have inherited from our ancestors more than just a text. The prayers were always recited with utmost sincerity, because at the back of their minds was the knowledge that the political winds could change at any moment, leaving their ongoing safety at the mercy of the very ruler they had offered up those weekly prayers for.

As we join with the rest of the country in celebrating the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III this Shabbat, it is worth reflecting on the historic significance of this occasion for our community. As exemplified by the Prayer for the Royal Family, there has always been a particular connection we have felt with the monarch as an individual, beyond that of our relationship with the state as a whole. When Menasseh Ben Israel wrote his famous petition asking for the readmission of the Jews to the British Isles in March 1655, it was addressed directly to “His Highness, Oliver, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland”. Ever since that day, the British Jewish community has considered it a duty to serve as loyal subjects of the sovereign ruler, grateful for the privilege of living in peace, when for so much of our history, the opposite was the case.

Perhaps one unique aspect of this coronation, however, is the degree to which our new monarch has reciprocated that connection, through his evident familiarity and genuine friendship with our community. Few could fail to be moved by the pictures of him celebrating with Holocaust survivors or hurrying to tell the Chief Rabbi to get home for Shabbat at the reception he hosted for faith leaders, just a few days after the death of the Queen. Few, too, could fail to be moved when listening to the King’s moving, personal words of tribute to the late Rabbi Lord Sacks, of blessed memory. Charles understands us as a community, he knows what makes us tick and above all, he recognises the immense contribution that we as a people have made to this country, in enduring gratitude for the island nation that gave us a place we could call home.

We will never know for sure the thoughts going through the minds of our ancestors as they recited that prayer in Tsarist Russia. But one thing we do know is that up and down this land, on this special Shabbat, Jewish voices will proudly ring out in concert with those of other faiths and none, as we pledge allegiance once again to our new King. May his reign be long and prosperous and may we, in this land, know only continued tranquillity and peace.

Yoni Birnbaum is Rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim, Hendon

May 04, 2023 13:17

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