My surreal Shabbat at the Palace: Inside the Chief Rabbi's royal sleepover

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis made headlines across the world for his Shabbat observance at the coronation


LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 06: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis walks due to the Sabbath during the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla on May 06, 2023 in London, England. The Coronation of Charles III and his wife, Camilla, as King and Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the other Commonwealth realms takes place at Westminster Abbey today. Charles acceded to the throne on 8 September 2022, upon the death of his mother, Elizabeth II. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has praised the royal household for studying Jewish law while making the preparations for his “regal” yet “surreal” Friday night dinner at St James’ Palace the night before the coronation.

“Our every need was taken care of,” he told the JC. “The palace staff had studied the laws of Shabbat and made sure that everything we needed was provided for. 

“If there was an automatic light that turned on somewhere in the palace, there was always someone who happened to walk ahead of us.

“They really took care of everything. They had really learnt all the rules of their own accord.”

After the service concluded, the King was greeted at the Great West Door by faith leaders and representatives including the Chief Rabbi, who committed to memory the formula they declared in unison.

“Let me see if I can still remember it today,” Rabbi Mirvis laughed, before perfectly reciting the phrase: “Our Majesty, as neighbours in faith, we acknowledge the value of public service. We unite with people of all faiths and beliefs in thanksgiving, and in service with you for the common good.”

Though Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler had walked on Shabbat from the Western Synagogue to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, Rabbi Mirvis wondered if his royal Kabbalat Shabbat the night before might have been a first.

“My wife and I had been wondering, was this the very first time that Shabbat candles were being lit within such a regal context and surroundings?

“Kiddush being made, Havdalah being recited, Zemirot being sung, the Shabbat table together with traditional Shabbat food specially prepared and kept hot in a traditional Shabbat way?” he said.

“Certainly, it was quite surreal, and for us it was a great privilege, but we were mindful of the fact that this was not for us ourselves at a personal level, but it was recognition being given to Jews and to Judaism, which we are the representatives of, and I’m sharing these details because our community should know the deep respect that is shown towards us.”

He added: “Valerie and I were honoured to be able to stay in a royal palace over Shabbat so we could attend the coronation.”

Commenting on a viral photograph in which he is seen waving in the procession with other faith leaders, Rabbi Mirvis said: “Everybody has been asking me who that was I gestured to. It was actually Sir Lloyd Dorfman, who said ‘Chief Rabbi,’ as I walked past. So I was acknowledging him.”

The Chief Rabbi was not the only Jewish religious leader honoured to attend the coronation and take part in the ceremonies.

As the Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, Britain’s oldest Jewish community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck was present. He described the mood there as “buoyant and joyful”.

He told the JC: “There was just great majesty. The choir was beautiful, the music was beautiful, and there was a feeling of renewal and excitement.”

Rabbi Dweck was seated with other faith leaders in the North Transept. “I sat next to the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church and we spoke in Aramaic with each other,” he said. 

“He was asking me more about Orthodox Judaism, which was interesting. And I was sitting in front of Rowan Williams, so we spoke about him studying Biblical Hebrew.”

The timing of the coronation presented Rabbi Dweck and Rabbi Mirvis with the challenge of representing their communities in a deeply Christian context whilst also respecting the sanctity of Shabbat. 

“I was grateful to be able to say Shabbat Shalom to the Chief Rabbi there,” Rabbi Dweck said.

“We were the only two rabbis at the event to represent the Jewish communities, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.”

But Rabbi Mirvis said that he regretted that there had not been more opportunity to schmooze with other Jewish attendees that Shabbat morning.

“We weren’t able to walk about and talk with one another. This wasn’t like an El Al flight,” he remarked.

Aside from the rabbis, a number of other Jewish dignitaries and public figures were present in the 2,000-strong crowd, including Lord Rothschild and President of the Board of Deputies Marie van der Zyl.

The former Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies, Baroness Merron, played a key part in the service, presenting the King with the Robe Royal.

Actor Stephen Fry and playwright Tom Stoppard were in attendance, as well as historian and friend of the royal family Simon Sebag Montefiore.

“It was momentous, magical and successful, both traditional and modern – and such an honour to be there for [wife] Santa and I,” Montefiore said.

“As a Jewish person and a historian, it says a lot about modern Britain that so many Jews were there and I was very proud to be one of them.

“I think probably like every Jew there, I was thinking: ‘If only my mother had been alive to see this’.”

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Lloyd Dorfman, who worked alongside the King on his Prince’s Trust charity, was also in the Abbey. He said: “The King has been very concerned about the increase in hate crimes affecting different communities.

“I became involved in those discussions which culminated in an amazing morning last December when the King came to visit CST’s offices in Hendon.

“Straight from there, he went on to tour the JW3 community centre which included the memorable moment of him dancing with Holocaust survivors. He has a wider concern for and sensitivity to all minority and faith communities.

Sir Lloyd added: “Having seen him at close quarters, I have no doubt that the British Jewish community could have no greater friend.”

If the country’s grandest church is an unusual place to find two of its most senior Rabbis on a Saturday morning, the Church of England service itself was even more unlikely for them to witness in person. However, there were moments of recognition.

Rabbi Dweck said: “The anointing itself comes directly from the Bible, from Torah. The Archbishop blessed the King with the Birkat Kohanim after he crowned him. 

“Zadok the priest, you know, comes from the crowning of King Solomon. So that was very interesting to me.”

Both the Chief Rabbi and Rabbi Dweck expressed their gratitude for having been invited to represent the Jewish community, and for the King’s commitment to preserving and respecting the Jewish community and other faith groups in Britain.

“It was an extraordinary Shabbat,” Rabbi Mirvis said. “It was an enormous privilege for me to be able to be in attendance at the coronation of the King and Queen.”

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