Judaism: Appointing a King
Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
"When you come into the land which Hashem your G-d gives you, and you will inherit it and dwell in it, and you will say: I will set a king over myself like all the nations which are around me – then you shall assuredly set a king above yourself whom HaShem your G-d shall choose. You shall appoint a king from among your brothers: you cannot allow a foreign man, who is not your brother, to be above you” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).
There are two general trends in the interpretation of this passage:
Rabbi Nehorai (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:5), the Abarbanel, the Ramban, and the Ibn Ezra (commentary to v.15) understand that the Torah here is giving us permission to establish a monarchy. It is not the ideal, because the perfect Jewish state is subordinate directly to G-d and not to a mortal king; nevertheless, we are permitted to establish a kingship. According to this understanding, establishing a king is akin to eating meat without bringing a sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:15-25), or capturing a beautiful woman of an enemy population in wartime (21:10-14), or driving away the mother bird before taking eggs or fledglings from a nest (22:6-7): the Torah permits it only reluctantly. “The Torah only states this as a concession to [man’s] evil inclination” (Kiddushin 21b; see also Rashi and Ohr haChayim to Deuteronomy 21:11; Yalkut Shimoni, Ki Teitze 924 et. al.).
The alternative understanding is that of Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i (Sanhedrin 20b), Sifrei D’varim (Re’eh 67), the Rambam (Laws of Kings 1:1), and others: that this mitzvah of appointing a king is a national obligation which applies upon Israel’s entry into the Land. That is to say, that the ideal is for the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel to appoint a king over themselves.
Those who hold the first opinion – that a king is permitted though not ideal – cite G-d’s and Samuel’s displeasure when the Jews demanded a king in the days of the prophet Samuel, who subsequently anointed Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 8:4-22).
According to this opinion, then, appointing a king is akin to a man divorcing his wife. For sure, halachic divorce is one the 613 mitzvot, but it is not a mitzvah which anyone should hope to fulfil. Rather, it is a tragic situation; but if a man is going to divorce his wife, then the Torah prescribes how he is to do it. Appointing a king falls into the same category: we should not aspire to a monarchy, but if we are nevertheless going to appoint a king, then the Torah prescribes how we are to do that.
Those who hold the second opinion – that establishing a king is an a priori Torah obligation – explain G-d’s seeming reluctance to agree to appoint a king in Samuel’s day: that the people were getting ahead of themselves, because the time had not yet come (Tosefta ibid.); and that they wanted a king for the wrong reason – not in order to fulfil the mitzvah, but rather in order to be “like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5), and because they rejected the prophet Samuel (Rambam, Laws of Kings 1:2).
Be that as it may, the opinion which has been accepted as normative halakhah is that we are commanded to establish a monarchy: “Israel were commanded with three mitzvot upon their entry into the Land of Israel: to set up a king for themselves, to annihilate the seed of Amalek, and to build a Holy Temple” (Sanhedrin 20b; Yalkut Shimoni, Beshallach 268; Sifrei Devarim, Re’eh 67; Rambam, Laws of Kings 1:1 et. al.).
Nevertheless, the fact remains that when the nation demanded of the prophet Samuel that he appoint a king, saying “Give us a king who will judge us, like all the nations, the matter was bad in Samuel’s eyes when they said, Give us a king to judge us; and Samuel prayed to HaShem” (1 Samuel 8:5-6).
The Radak (commentary ad. loc.) explains: “Why was the matter bad in HaShem’s eyes? – Because they demanded it complainingly, and not for the sake of the mitzvah. Had they said, Give us a king who will judge us with honesty and faith, the matter would not have been bad in Samuel’s eyes;… or had they said, We will follow your advice in appointing a king over ourselves since you have grown old, and this king will judge us and chastise us, and fear of him will be upon us so that we will keep G-d’s ways – then this request would have been good. But when they said, ‘Give us a king’, this was bad and a lack of trust in G-d, especially as they added ‘…like all the nations’”.
The Radak, then, agrees with the opinion which became normative halakhah – that establishing a king is an a priori Torah obligation; however, their motives at the time were mistaken.
That appointing a king is an a priori obligation is, as noted above, the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i, cited in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b). Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i was a fourth-generation Tanna (mid to late second century) – that is to say, just a few short decades after the final Roman destruction of the last vestige of Jewish independence. In 126 C.E., Jewish forces under Rabbi Akiva and his legendary general Shimon Bar Kochba had re-conquered Jerusalem, and for almost three years complete Jewish sovereignty was restored to the Land – an achievement that no other nation in the Roman Empire would ever accomplish.
When Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i was active, that brief restoration of Jewish sovereignty was still a recent and painful memory – particularly for Rabbi Yehudah, who was himself one of Rabbi Akiva’s greatest students (Yevamot 62a). And Rabbi Ila’i, Rabbi Yehudah’s father and mentor, was the closest disciple of Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos (Menachot 18a), who was in turn the rabbi and mentor of Rabbi Akiva (Yerushalmi Pesachim 6:3).
Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i, fired by the concept of Jewish independence and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, enshrined this concept into halachah at a time when the nation was defeated, yet still yearning to restore their monarchy.
Rashi has a powerful insight into Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i’s statement that “Israel were commanded with three mitzvot upon their entry into the Land of Israel: to set up a king for themselves, to annihilate the seed of Amalek, and to build a Holy Temple”. He expounds: “‘Upon their entry into the Land of Israel’ – because the Torah uses the expressions ‘yerushah’ (‘inheritance’) and ‘yeshivah’ (‘dwelling’) in connexion with all three. ‘You will inherit it [the Land of Israel] and dwell in it, and you will say: I will set a king over myself’ (Deuteronomy 17:14).
The Torah commands us to annihilate Amalek ‘when HaShem your G-d will grant you respite from all your surrounding enemies in the Land which HaShem your G-d gives you as a heritage to inherit’ (Deuteronomy 25:19). And it commands us to build the Holy Temple when ‘you shall dwell in the Land which HaShem your G-d causes you to inherit…’ (Deuteronomy 12:10)”.
Thus Rashi shows the inexorable connexion between dwelling in and inheriting the Land of Israel, appointing a king, annihilating Amalek, and building the Holy Temple.
Ever since the annual cycle of Torah-readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, Parashat Shoftim is invariably read on the first Shabbat in Ellul (this year, the 7th of Ellul). And Ellul is the month in which we prepare to crown G-d as King over ourselves, and indeed over the whole world. G-d has commanded us: “On Rosh ha-Shanah, recite before Me verses which tell of Kingship, Remembrance, and the Shofar. Kingship, so that you crown Me over you; Remembrance, so that your remembrance ascend before Me for your benefit; and with what? – With the Shofar” (Rosh ha-Shanah 16a, 34b).
For sure, the ideal Jewish king is one who leads the nation in the ways of the Torah which G-d has commanded us, just as the ideal is for us to appoint a king for the sake of fulfilling the Torah’s mitzvah. In the days of Samuel, when the people had the wrong motive for doing the right thing, G-d exhorted Samuel: “Listen to the nation’s voice, to all that they say to you; because it is not you that they have rejected, but rather it is Me that they have rejected from reigning over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
Rashi (in his commentary to Sanhedrin 20b cited above) shows the centrality of the Land of Israel. And the Sifra – a halakhic Midrash on Leviticus – states explicitly that “every Jew who dwells in the Land of Israel accepts the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven upon himself, while anyone who leaves the Land of Israel is as though he worships idols” (Sifra, Behar 5).
And the Sifra was composed by Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’i (Sanhedrin 86a, Bechorot 61a).
As we approach Rosh ha-Shanah, this is the time to literally “appoint the King over ourselves”: to crown G-d, so to speak, such that His sovereignty is at least as tangible to us as any government’s temporal authority. And as a Jew, you can only truly and fully accept G-d’s sovereignty over yourself “when you come into the Land which HaShem your G-d gives you, and inherit it and dwell in it”.