Praying For—or Against—Our Enemies

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Parashat Bo

How do we relate to our enemies through prayer? Can we pray for their failure? Might we ever pray for their welfare?

After God strikes down the firstborn sons of Egypt, Pharaoh sends away the children of Israel. But Pharaoh adds, as a final statement to Moshe and Aharon, a request:

שמות יב:לב

...וּבֵרַכְתֶּם גַּם־אֹתִי

 

Exodus 12:32

…also bless me.

 

What is Pharaoh asking for? Perhaps, as Rashi suggests, he is afraid that, as a firstborn male, he might yet die and he is asking for immediate relief from this plague.1 Or perhaps, as Ramban suggests, he is afraid of further punishment beyond this plague, and wants Moshe and Aharon to pray for his general safety.2 But either way, Pharaoh is asking Moshe and Aharon to pray for his welfare.3

Strikingly, some view Pharaoh’s request for prayer from Moshe and Aharon as unconnected to the immediate moment of the final plague. Instead, Pharaoh wants them to pray for him at the high-point of the Jewish people’s encounter with God: at Mount Sinai.4

But why would Pharaoh need a prayer at the revelation at Sinai, since he had already drowned in the sea?! There is a midrashic tradition that Pharaoh, in fact, did not drown in the sea, but rather survived, and became the King of Nineveh. The prophet Yonah comes to foretell the city’s imminent doom because of their sinning ways. But instead of rejecting God’s warning, Pharaoh leads his people in public repentance, modeling for the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur (when we read the Book of Yonah) how teshuvah is meant to be done.5

Pharaoh, as king of Nineveh, not only asks for forgiveness, but musters his nation to do the same. Quite an about-face for our worst enemy, who previously led his nation to enslave and then attack the Jewish people! How did Pharaoh achieve this personal transformation? The Netziv, noting that Pharaoh survived the sea, goes so far as to say that Moshe and Aharon did pray for Pharaoh at Sinai.6 Perhaps Moshe and Aharon’s prayer for Pharaoh at Sinai helped him begin a journey toward repentance.

In fact, praying for our enemies to return to the right path is an important—if oft-forgotten— part of our liturgical tradition. In the daily Amidah, we find a specific blessing focused on our enemies. On its face, we are asking for their destruction:

וְלַמַּלְשִׁינִים אַל תְּהִי תִקְוָה,
וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה (נ"א: הרשעים) כְּרֶֽגַע תֹּאבֵד, 
וְכָל אוֹיְבֶֽיךָ מְהֵרָה יִכָּרֵֽתוּ, 
ומלכות זדון מְהֵרָה תְעַקֵּר וּתְשַׁבֵּר וּתְמַגֵּר וְתַכְנִֽיעַ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵֽינוּ.  
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, שֹׁבֵר אֹיְבִים וּמַכְנִֽיעַ זֵדִים.

 

And for the slanderers let there be no hope,
And may all evil (or: evildoers) perish in an instant.  
And may all Your enemies speedily be cut off.  
And the insolent kingdom: speedily uproot, smash, cast down, and subdue [it]—speedily in our days.
Blessed are you, YHVH, who breaks enemies and subdues willful sinners.

 

The textual history of this blessing is colorful, and there are many different versions of the words in the prayer.7 But the overall approach is clear: we are asking God to destroy our enemies. The instinct to pray against enemies is an ancient one, and perhaps one of the oldest aspects of the Amidah itself.8 In a world where evil is rampant, I do believe it is appropriate to recognize evil forces and pray that they not harm us.9

And yet, there is another approach to praying for the neutralizing of evildoers: praying for them to do teshuvah. Indeed, this is clear in an alternative version to the above blessing, from the ancient Land of Israel tradition of the Amidah. It reads:

למשמדים אל תהי תקוה אם לא ישובו לתורתך

 

For the destroyed ones may there be no hope, if they do not return to Your Torah…10

 

This version of the blessing makes explicit this important caveat: our prayers for destruction only apply in a case where the evildoer is not engaged in a process of repentance and return.

Our current prayer against enemies does not state this exception explicitly. But R. David Abudraham11, one of the foremost commentators on the Siddur, understands this as the implied context of our blessing:

אבודרהם עמוד רכו-ז

וכל המינים כרגע יאבדו… ודוקא אם [לא] ירצו לשוב, 
שאם ירצה לשוב מקבלים אותם בתשובה שאין דבר העומד בפני התשובה 

 

R. David Abudraham, ed. Braun, pp. 226-712

“May all the minim13 be destroyed in an instant…” This is only in a case where they didn’t want to do teshuvah.  
For if they want to do teshuvah, we receive them. For there is nothing that stands in the way of teshuvah.

 

In his commentary to this blessing of the Amidah, R. David Abudraham limits the applicability of the prayer for the destruction of evildoers to cases when they refuse to repent. But if they do repent, as the above midrashic tradition about Pharaoh suggests, we accept them, because teshuvah is more powerful than anything.

In the course of my own prayer life, I have sometimes felt uncomfortable about praying against enemies.14 But in the last few years, my resolve to ask God to intervene to root out evildoers has increased. We live in a world where evil is present, people want to do physical harm to the Jewish people, and we cannot ignore that threat in our prayers. 

At the same time, I also think about the courage that it took for Moshe and Aharon to pray on behalf of Pharaoh, even after all he had done to them and their people. I ask myself: can I imagine a world in which our enemies truly repent, and could I pray for that world to come soon? After all, Pharaoh’s second act as the king of Nineveh is a model not just for personal repentance, but for the power of such repentance to impact entire nations. Perhaps that is the ultimate vision of our hope for our enemies: that they transform into models of righteousness that even we—the original object of their evil ways—can learn from. And even though that is very difficult to imagine, that is the power of prayer: to imagine an almost unattainable world, and ask God to help bring it to fruition.


1 Indeed, Pharaoh has asked Moshe and Aharon previously to pray on his behalf, using the word העתירו, but only to remove the current plague. See Exodus 8:4 (frogs), 24 (wild beasts), 9:28 (hail), 10:17 (locusts). 

2 See also Mekhilta de-R. Yishmael Bo 13, ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 45, and R. Eliyahu Mizrahi to Rashi on Exodus 12:32.

3 Targum Onkelos makes this clear, translating the word וברכתם as “pray - צלו” and not “bless - ברך.” The Mekhilta (cited in the previous note) also uses the term “pray for me - התפללו עלי,” as a comment on the word וברכתם. Some later commentators reject the idea that Pharaoh asks for a prayer or a blessing from Moshe and Aharon. They believe Pharaoh is simply stating: when you leave Egypt, it will be a blessing for me. See Samson Raphael Hirsch and Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg (Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah) on this verse. R. Eliezer Ashkenazi (Ma’asei Hashem 3:19) states that Pharaoh sinned by saying “bless me”: he compared himself to God, and was asking: “Bless me when you bless God, for we are equals.”

4 See Ibn Ezra and Shada”l to Exodus 12:32. Compare David Zvi Hoffmann to Exodus 8:24.

5 Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 43. This midrash comes to offer a narrative background to the 5th blessing of the daily Amidah, which concludes with the blessing of God who desires repentance (הרוצה בתשובה).

6 Ha’amek Davar to Exodus 12:30: “ודאי התפללו עליו בשעה שהגיעו לעבוד את ה' שהיה בהגיעם להר סיני אחר קריעת ים סוף, וידוע דפרעה עצמו ניצל, ועליו התפללו וברכוהו… / Certainly they prayed for Pharaoh at the moment they arrived to worship God, at Mt. Sinai after the splitting of the sea. And it is known that Pharaoh himself was saved, and they prayed for him and blessed him…”

7 For a full analysis see: Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians? A History of Birkat HaMinim (London: Oxford University Press, 2011).    

8 This, despite the Bavli’s understanding of this blessing as the added 19th blessing. See Bavli Berakhot 28b. Contrast this with Tosefta Berakhot 3:25, ed. Lieberman, p. 18, which identifies the blessings against enemies as one of the oldest aspects of the Amidah blessings.

9 The evildoers in this blessing might be human as the kingdom of insolence was often understood to be a specific nation (in Jeremiah 50:31-32, it is Babylonia; in Exodus 18:11, Nehemiah 9:10 is it Egypt; in later rabbinic sources, it is Rome). But the evildoers mentioned in the blessing are not limited to humans only. For instance, the Kabbalist Moshe Cordovero understood this blessing to refer to “the malevolent, nonhuman forces in the world… [this liturgical text] becomes a curse of both human evil and a way to counter the forces of evil in the divine realms, neither connected specifically with any religious community.” (Quoted from Langer, Cursing the Christians?, p. 128, 138). Rabbeinu Behaye interprets the evil mentioned in this blessing as our own evil inclination. See his comment to Deuteronomy 11:13, ed. Chavel, p. 316.

10 Uri Ehrlich, Tefilat Ha-Amidah shel Yemot Ha-Hol (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2013), p. 166.

11 Spain, 14th century.

12 See also Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:14; R”I bar Yakar, ed. Yerushalmi, p. 49.

13 The term minim (which is in some versions of this blessing in the Sepharad tradition familiar to Abudraham) has many meanings, which change over time in Rabbinic literature. See Reuven Kimelman, “Birkat Ha-Minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Late Antiquity,” In Jewish and Christian Self- Definition, Volume Two: Aspects of Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Period, ed. E. P. Sanders, A. I. Baumgarten, and Alan Mendelson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 226-244. For our purposes, it is safe to assume the term minim is directed toward those who wish to do the Jewish people harm.

14 This discomfort is shared by commentators across the ages. Abudraham (p. 227) asks: “How can we curse in our prayers the minim and meshumadim?” Compare Beruria’s critique of R. Meir on Bavli Berakhot 10a, in which she tells him to pray for the end of sin, not the sinners, considered by R”I bar Yakar in his commentary to this blessing, ed. Yerushalmi, pp. 49, and R. Yehoshua ben Levi’s failed curse against his enemies on Bavli Berakhot 7a, considered by Abudraham, p. 228.