A Prayer for the Welfare of the King

Posted by Elayne Grossbard on Wednesday September 2 2009

This is the third blog post about the Magnes ephemera collection.  The term ephemera describes all sorts of works printed or written on paper that had only a temporary usefulness and were never intended to last very long and they are among the fascinating pieces in the museum.  Some are examples of types that are well known mainly to scholars and collectors,  while others, like this page, are mysteries that are wonderfully rewarding to solve.

The text of our page is not part of the ordinary Jewish liturgy found in prayer books – it is a Hebrew poem titled ‘A Prayer for the Welfare of the King.’ There is no record of the donor or of how the piece entered our collection – interestingly, a tear has been patched with a different kind of paper and a photocopy of  hand-written, tentative, unsigned English  translation was found in our paper files, suggesting that whoever owned it valued it enough to attempt to read and repair it. (1)

A Prayer for the Welfare of the King - 2007.0.33

The poem is an ode to Prince Alexander Johann I who united the Danube principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1862 to form the Kingdom of Romania. It was composed by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel, Chief Rabbi of Bucharest, Romania, known as the MALBIM (2), to celebrate the Romanian national holiday on 24 January 1862, when it was read publicly by the chief rabbi and by the congregation. Besides being printed on paper at the time, the words were also printed in Hebrew and Romanian on a silk banner decorated with the national coat of arms. The MALBIM was a controversial figure because of his differences with the local community and he used this occasion to deliver a sermon bemoaning his ill treatment and appealing for support.

The ode was not published until 1969 when a researcher who had obtained permission to examine Jewish documents in the Bucharest municipal museum included it in a scholarly article – it was one of four poems on national themes composed by the MALBIM, only two of which were found there. The banner was preserved in the museum as well.

The Magnes copy is undated – it appears to be cut down around the edges since only a part of one frame line remains along one side, but in its present condition there is no national symbol visible at the top nor is any other writing evident. The script is block letters, imitating print, and not cursive, so the handwriting could not be positively identified as a MALBIM autograph by the Institute for Microfilmed Manuscripts of the Jewish National and University Library, which has a collection of his autograph manuscripts, nor by a scholar who has a similar private collection. (3)

Where does our piece come from, then? Until more information comes to light about earlier printings of the poem  we can only speculate that it may have been copied by a contemporary of the MALBIM on one of the occasions when it was read, (4) or else transmitted somehow to his or her descendant, although it is a mystery why someone in a later generation would have wanted to write it down.  Perhaps it was even transcribed by the author himself…

A very long and flowery poem, it begins:

A Prayer for the Life of our monarch the King and on behalf of the welfare of his state
On the day our king Alexander Johann I came to our city …
Let us pour out our words before You, O Lord
Open the gates of Your heavens and let Your light shine
Grant him long years of life
Shower him with majesty and glory…

And ends…

May the Lord’s bounty spread over its cities like the dawn
And envelop the country’s highest peaks
And may its fruited valleys ring with music

(click the More.. link for a longer translation and additional information)

(my translation):

A Prayer for the Life of our monarch the King and on behalf of the welfare of his state on the day our king Alexander Johann I came to our city
A day when the gates of our land were opened
May our chosen king enter through them
Let us pour out our words before You O Lord
Open the gates of Your heavens and let Your light shine
Grant him long years of life
Shower him with majesty and glory
And with him comes the statehood of Moldavia
We had not yet embraced our entire fair country
Our sister, may you receive the blessings recounted in the bible
And on the wings of eagles and on the mighty wild-ox
You will behold victory soaring like shining stars
Bringing blessings and love to our banner and flag
Lord you have always allowed Your face to shine
To firmly establish the royal throne for him who has been faithful to You
You proclaimed to him: I will build up your throne from generation to generation
From the time You established it within the in the community of nations
You have beheld him leading them as a shepherd his flock, to elevate a lowly people -
To break their bonds and proclaim freedom to the captives
And when joy breaks forth amid the music of harp and trumpet
On every highway and on each steep mountain
And every heart fills with joy and every mouth with praise
I, the son of Israel, my heart fills with hope
And my eyes look up towards heaven and my soul seeks grace
The king’s heart is in your hands and I pray -
Lord, protect, as you protect what is dearest to You,
Alexander Johann I, our lord the king
Protect him, our Lord, and his consort the Queen and all the ministers of his kingdom
And establish forever their heirs and their thrones
And may their welfare flow like a mighty river
Crush all their enemies before them and may their foes turn away
May the Lord’s bounty spread over its cities like the dawn
And envelop the country’s highest peaks
And may its fruited valleys ring with music
And the Twin Sisters together will be complete
Beneath the rule of a single righteous monarch, a ruler of nations
May goodness flow like benevolent rain and blessed dew
And peace and victory like the waves of the sea
May this righteous king flourish and may peace abound.

Meir Leibush Malbim, RAB”D (Chief Rabbi), of this city Bucharest

A real mystery was the spelling of the rabbi’s name. Rabbinic authorities from the Middle Ages on are often referred to by vocalized acronyms of their name and patronymic although it is unclear whether they ever referred to themselves that way or used these acronyms as author’s signatures.

On a Bar Ilan University website, Dr. Yaakov Geller, Chairman of the Department of History, wrote, “It is generally believed that the name Malbim is an abbreviation of ‘Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel.’ According to a different opinion the name Malbim is a translation of the original family name Weisser. In official Romanian documents he appears by the name Malbin (which means “whitener” in Hebrew).”

Personal communications, Benjamin Richler and Yaakov Geller. Just as the writing cannot be definitely identified as an autograph, neither can can this possibility be ruled out.

The paper appears to be of 20th century manufacture.  It would be extremely difficult to demonstrate that this kind of paper was in use in mid-19th century Romania, and of course, even if it did, the writing could have done later.

I am grateful to Benjamin Richler, Jewish National and University Library, and Yaakov Geller, Bar Ilan University, for their detailed notes on the manuscript; to Igael Gurin-Malous and Ronald Reissberg for searching rabbinic literature databases; to Margaret Holben Ellis, The Morgan Library, for her comments on scientific analysis of historic paper; and to Sylvie Grossbard for her assistance with correspondence.

Selected bibliography:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandru_Ioan_Cuza
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malbim
http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/vayikra/geller.html

Sources in Hebrew:
Yaakov Geller, The Malbim: Rabbi of Bucharest (1854-1864); His Struggle Against the Enlightenment and Reform (Based upon Unpublished Rare Documents and Manuscripts) (Institute of Research and Publication of Sephardic Rabbinic Writings, Lod, 2000)
David Moses Rosen, “A Chapter from the Story of the Malbim in Bucharest,” in Studies on Jewish Themes by Contemporary European Scholars, ed. M. Zohori, A. Tartakover, (Yavneh Press, Tel Aviv, 1969)

Epilogue
In his book “Jewish Icons,” Richard I. Cohen discusses the popularization, in the twentieth century, of reproductions of famous rabbis’ portraits. Among the best known forms are cards and broadsides featuring galleries of small photographs and painting reproductions. I remember seeing one of these broadsides in my grandparents’ apartment  and I inherited my grandfather’s booklet of the cards. After he retired he would copy the pictures he liked on canvas, gridding up the pictures on the cards so he could enlarge them accurately.

My grandfather was a sign painter who worked for Artkraft Strauss when he came to this country. Artkraft Strauss was one of the major producers of billboards in New York, and according to the family story my grandfather had worked on one of their famous mechanical ones in Times Square. When I was little he showed me his gilding tools: the book of gold leaves, the cushion, knife, and tip.

Here is the cover of the booklet, printed in 1948 – the handwriting is my mother’s – and I’ve copied the page on the Malbim. I’ve also included one of the cards he gridded up for enlargement –  a portrait of the 18th century rabbi Elijah of Vilna.

The Jewish Face: A Portrait Gallery, published by the Spero Foundation, New York, 1948

The Jewish Face: A Portrait Gallery, published by the Spero Foundation, New York, 1948

A portrait of Meir Leibush Malbim, from the booklet "The Jewish Face"

A portrait of Meir Leibush Malbim, from the booklet "The Jewish Face"

Postcard portrait of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, Copyright  by "Sinai" T.A. Printed in Israel

Postcard portrait of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, Copyright by "Sinai" T.A. Printed in Israel

A good introduction to the postcards used as Jewish New Year greetings is Past Perfect: The Jewish Experience in Early 20th Century Postcards, an exhibition catalog published by the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 1997.

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1 Comment for 'A Prayer for the Welfare of the King'

  1.  
    September 2, 2009 | 11:01 am
     

    New blog post: A Prayer for the Welfare of the King http://magnes.org/opensourceblog/?p=448

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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