A question of blessing Israel

The wording over the prayer for the state of Israel continues to be a matter of dispute. A new book looks at the halachic sources behind it


The prayer for the state of Israel has become so much a regular part of the Shabbat morning service in most synagogues that it is easy to forget that its wording is still a source of controversy.

I was once in a shteibl where after the Torah reading, the congregation split into two over the prayer: one group wanted to bless the “state of Israel”, but the other, refusing any concession to Zionism, went to another room and instead prayed for “the residents of the land of Israel”.

This is not the only dispute. The common form of the prayer in Israel describes the state as “the first flowering of our redemption”: but others — including the Singer’s siddur, for instance — omit this messianic reference. It is a dispute not just about halachic technicalities but about political and religious ideology, and it can be so fraught that, as Avraham Steinberg observes in his short volume, it “has sometimes even been attended by verbal — and even physical — violence”

His book is essentially a compilation of rabbinic sources from the Talmud to the 20th century, which inform the arguments used by the different protagonists, Zionist and anti-Zionist. It looks beyond the narrow question of the terminology of the prayer to divergent views of the coming of the Messiah: does it happen as part of a natural order of events or by miraculous intervention? And, if so, is the birth of Israel to be recognised as a miracle in our times which beckons towards the ultimate redemption?

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