Israel@70Was it S.Y. Agnon? Or chief rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog?

Mystery of who wrote the ‘Prayer for the State of Israel’ is finally solved

New research deciphers historical whodunnit over who penned one of the country’s most important founding texts in 1948

In question over who wrote the 'Prayer for peace in Israel,' Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog is discovered as the true author after decades-long dispute. (National Library of Israel)
In question over who wrote the 'Prayer for peace in Israel,' Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog is discovered as the true author after decades-long dispute. (National Library of Israel)

In ceremonies marking Israel’s 70th Independence Day around the Jewish world, the “Prayer for Peace in the State of Israel” will be recited in strong, solemn tones. It begins with the following line:

“Our Divine Guardian, Rock and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, the beginning of our redemption.”  

Unbeknownst to most worshippers is the decades-long debate over who back in 1948 authored the prayer, which was then and remains today an important addition to Jewish and Israeli liturgy. Until now, theories have split academics into two camps — those who attribute the prayer to Israeli author S.Y. Agnon, and those who believe Israel’s first chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Isaac Halevi Herzog penned the poem.

But recent findings discovered by Dr. Yoel Rappel, an Israeli scholar of Jewish history, confirm that Herzog, the grandfather of current opposition leader in the Knesset, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, was the true author of the symbolic prayer, which was then edited by his friend and Nobel Prize winner, Agnon.

S.Y. Agnon, the only Israeli author who has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, published his first novella a century ago. (photo credit: Courtesy Agnon House/JTA)
Israeli author and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon. (Courtesy Agnon House/JTA)

Rappel’s findings were corroborated by Israel’s National Library. The evidence and discourse between Agnon and Herzog surrounding the prayer are a part of the Library’s S.Y. Agnon Archive.

Resolving the question of who wrote the prayer — Agnon or Herzog — isn’t simply a matter of properly assigning credit, Rappel told The Times of Israel in an interview.

“For many people — for many religious people — the ‘Prayer for the State of Israel’ is more important than Israel’s Declaration of Independence,” Rappel said.

“So, of course, it is important who wrote it. It is also important because if a writer wrote the prayer, there is no [religious] holiness to the prayer. If a rabbi wrote it, that means that it becomes a requirement in religious liturgy,” he said.

As such, the confirmation of Herzog as the prayer’s rightful author denotes the prayer as one of great religious significance, according to Rappel. Its message calls for all Jews to return to Israel and marks the State’s founding as the beginning of redemption.

The first page of a letter written from Rabbi Herzog to S.Y. Agnon in 1948 which confirms that Herzog wrote the prayer and asked Agnon to review it. (S.Y. Agnon Archive, The National Library of Israel)

A historical whodunnit

The confusion over authorship began almost immediately with the initial publication of the prayer in the Haaretz newspaper on September 20, 1948.

While the article states that Israel’s Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbis — along with other leading rabbis — intended for the prayer to be read in synagogues, no one author is clearly delineated.

At the bottom of the text, it reads, “We are told that according to Chief Rabbi Herzog, the author S.Y. Agnon also participated in the formulation of the prayer.”

The contemporary prayer for Israel was first published in Haaretz newspaper on September 20, 1948 (From the S.Y. Agnon Archive, The National Library of Israel)

While not explicitly stated at the time, Herzog was considered the main author of the text until 1983 when an article published in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv by Dr. David Tamar first raised the opinion that Agnon penned the prayer. This assertion was based on a copy of the text he found in Agnon’s writing.

“The foundation of [Tamar’s] article was a photograph [not a source] of Agnon’s manuscript of the Prayer for the Peace of the State, which he found in the Agnon archives in the National Library,” commented Rappel in a recent blog post he wrote for the National Library.

While Rappel points out that Tamar’s logic was less than sound and disputed by many close to Agnon, Tamar so frequently wrote about his theory in the press that it became widely accepted as the years went on.

Dr. David Tamar used the finding of S.Y. Agnon’s copy of the prayer written in his own handwriting as unequivocal proof of authorship. (S.Y. Agnon Archive, The National Library of Israel)

In 1998, Rappel began looking deeper into the question of authorship. It started when Rappel met with Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen, a prominent rabbi at the time, who presented Rappel with an envelope from Herzog’s office of the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Written on the envelope were the words, “The prayer of the state as copied and corrected by Mr. Agnon in his handwriting.”

Inside the envelope was the original manuscript, but the note on the envelope was significant in indicating that Agnon only copied and edited the prayer, rather than penning it himself.

An envelope Dr. Yoel Rappel received in 1998 with the original and complete manuscript of the prayer that Agnon had copied. (S.Y. Agnon Archive, The National Library of Israel)

Still, Rappel needed more concrete evidence to prove without any doubt that Herzog was the true author.

He 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 well-being of the state and its leaders. 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 from your days as a young man, and you are a most worthy person to amend the prayer.”

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 10th 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.”

A mutual admiration

It makes sense, Rappel said, that Herzog wrote the prayer and then asked Agnon to review his work.

“Agnon and Herzog were very good friends, very close. Rabbi Herzog liked Shai Agnon very much and appreciated him a lot as a writer, though not as a man of Judaism and Jewish law. He did not see him as an arbitrator of Jewish law. He saw a person that knew [about Judaism] through his writing,” he said.

“In the end, there are five words that Shai Agnon wrote that entered into the [final version] of the prayer,” Rappel said.

On why Agnon copied the original prayer, Rappel explained, “The copying was done for halachic [the code of Jewish law] reasons on the basis of the prohibition to erase or delete words on a sacred text.”

The now-established fact that the prayer was written by a rabbi is what gives the prayer its religious significance, Rappel said.

Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog in 1945. As chief rabbi upon Israel’s foundation, Herzog grappled with how a secular state can operate Jewishly. (public domain)

“By knowing who wrote [the prayer], you can start to understand what was the author’s intent and there is much significance to that,” Rappel said.

This is particularly true when it comes to understanding the implications of the three most important words in the prayer, Rappel said, found in the opening line, that the establishment of the State of Israel is, “reyshit tz’mikhat g’ulateynu,”  “the beginning of the rise of our redemption.”

If a writer wrote this line, it means very little, Rappel said, but, “if a rabbi wrote that the State of Israel is the start of the redemption, then that means that the [establishment of] the State of Israel was an act of God. That’s very important.”

“For religious Jews in Israel until today, this prayer is more important than the Declaration of Independence — much more important. High school students in Israel don’t know every word of the Declaration of Independence — they know it exists,” he said.

“But if you go to a religious high school and ask them who knows the ‘Prayer for Peace in Israel,’ they will know it by heart,” Rappel said.

Herzog’s prayer, according to Rappel, is religious Zionism’s stated connection to the State of Israel.

The issue today, Rappel said, is that both in Israel and abroad, political disputes concerning the State of Israel have prompted certain religious groups to alter or take out certain verses of the prayer.

“Politics has entered into the prayer book with this prayer because there is political significance to this prayer,” he said. “For example, during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, many Jews made changes because they thought that the state betrayed them by pulling out of Gaza,” he said.

The politicization of Herzog’s prayer was not the author’s intent, Rappel said.

“That was not the intention of Rabbi Herzog — his only intention was to create a religious Declaration of Independence for the State of Israel,” said Rappel.

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