The Commandment to Appoint a King

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash



SHIUR #1: The Commandment to Appoint a King


by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein



            With the establishment of the Jewish state, the nation of Israel has been confronted by the challenge of establishing practical rules and regulations for many areas of Halakha which were for thousands of years totally theoretical.  The need to transform entire areas of Halakha from the realm of the ideal to the practical world has re-invigorated the halakhic debate regarding these disciplines, as the practical realities involved in the new situation rise to the fore, requiring a re-examination and issuance of guidelines which can satisfy both the halakhic and practical needs.


            One of these areas is the issue of government.  Aside from scattered remarks in various sources, the only systematic exposition of the laws pertaining to Jewish government is the Rambam's Hilkhot Melakhim (Laws of Kings and their Wars).  Though the Torah devoted an entire section to the laws of kingdom, subsequent discussions in Chazal (the Talmudic Sages) still leave many issues, some of which have attracted much attention in our times, unresolved.


            This series of shiurim will attempt to deal with the various issues relating to Jewish government as recognized by Halakha.  Starting from the biblical sources and working our way down to modern poskim (halakhic authorities), we will concern ourselves with the system as developed by Chazal and with its applications to our current-day realities.  [At this point, it is only proper that we acknowledge our debt to an outstanding secondary source, Prof. G. Blidstein's "Ekronot Medini'im be-Mishnato shel Ha-Rambam," which provided much needed sources and organization in this uncharted field.]


            The starting point for our discussion must obviously be the section in Sefer Devarim which deals with the appointment of a king by the people of Israel.  In a famous passage, the Torah states: "You shall appoint yourselves a king" (Devarim 17:15), after which it details the halakhot regulating royal policy and behavior.


            The most fundamental question relating to these verses (pesukim) is whether the statement regarding the appointment of a king - "Som tasim alekha melekh" - is an imperative command, establishing the fact that there is a positive commandment (a mitzva) to appoint a king, or is the Torah only regulating the conduct of a potential ruler, should the people of Israel appoint one of their own accord?  The gemara (Sanhedrin 20b) registers a machloket (dispute) between the Tannaim on this issue.  R. Yehuda and R. Yossi claim that the appointment of a king is a positive command, imperative on the people of Israel upon entry into Eretz Yisrael, while R. Nehorai is of the opinion that the Torah doesn't require a monarchial system at all, and that all the laws relating to royal affairs are no more than the recognition and regulation of a pre-existing state of affairs.


            Most Rishonim (medieval Sages) accept the majority position that a monarchy is the desired form of government, with the notable exception of the Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, 15th century, Spain) who forcefully argues against this position.  (See his commentary on the section in Devarim and his introduction to Sefer Shemuel.)


            In analyzing this machloket, we must first undertake to understand the opinion of those who reject the monarchial system.  Are they denying that the Torah has taken an interest in any form of government or are they merely unaccepting of monarchy as the desired form of government?  For, actually, there are two separate issues which confront us here.


A)     Does the Torah have anything to say about forms of human government or not?  Is the regulation and organization of society a concern of the Torah or does it consider these to be practical matters of human convenience which Divine Wisdom need not concern itself with?


B)      Even if we accept the premise that the Torah interests itself with practical human affairs, it must still be decided which of the various forms of government the Torah chose, and whether monarchy is indeed the desired system.


            Obviously, R. Yossi and R. Yehuda, the Rambam (R. Moshe ben Maimon, 12th century, Egypt) and Sefer HaChinukh (author unknown, 13th century, Spain) and all those commentators who are of the opinion that there is a mitzva to appoint a king, answer both of these questions in the affirmative.  Implied in their opinion are both the fact that the Torah involves itself in the regulation of human affairs and that it chose to endorse monarchy as the proper form of government.


            Rejection, though, of EITHER of these two premises will result in the opinion that the Torah does not mandate the appointment of a king.  Therefore, R. Nehorai's dissenting view that the Torah did not require the people of Israel to anoint a king can be understood as expressing total detachment from political affairs or as a more limited position which argues only that the Torah is unwilling to accept the specific form of monarchial government as being preferable to other alternatives.


            Though the sources don't provide much help in resolving this safek (doubt), it would seem that the latter alternative should be adopted.  The Torah constantly involves itself with human affairs and devotes much space to mitzvot whose purpose is to regulate various aspects of human society.  Moreover, a considerable amount of the Torah itself revolves around the political situation current in the time of the Nevi'im (prophets).  To assume apathy towards the political system which is the fundamental regulatory mechanism of human society seems to run counter to the entire grain of Torah and mitzvot.  Therefore, it would seem that all agree that the Torah requires good government.


            [The Rambam, who admittedly cannot serve as an indicator since he holds that the appointment of a king is a mitzva, describes the regulation of human affairs as one of the Torah's two primary goals, albeit the lesser one (Guide of the Perplexed III:27; see also II:40): "The Law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body ... [t]he second aim is prior in nature and time.  The latter aim consists in the governance of the city and the well-being of the states of all its people ... [A]n individual can only attain [the things needed for the governance of his body] through a political association, it being already known that man is political by nature."  Nevertheless, his overall claim rings true and seems in accordance with the Torah's general direction.]


            Moreover, we must examine the situation in the pesukim.  The pesukim in Sefer Devarim are phrased in a style similar to so many other mitzvot detailed in Devarim, "Ki tavo ... som tasim," – when you arrive in the land, the following must be done.  "Som tasim" is formulated in lashon tzivui, the imperative mode.  This would seem to imply that there is a mitzva to appoint a king.  On the other hand, though, there are numerous indications in Tanakh that the request for a king was frowned upon, both by leaders such as Gidon and Shemuel, and by God Himself who told Shemuel that the appointment of a king is tantamount to rejection ("me'isa") of Him.  (See Shoftim 8:22-23 and Shemuel 8:1-22.)  Actually, the pesukim in Devarim also present the need to appoint a king as a function of pressure from the people ("ve-amarta asima alai melekh") rather than initiated from above.  R. Nehorai's solution to these conflicting signals, based upon our previous analysis, is quite simple.  The Torah endorses and commands shilton but not melukha, i.e. establishing a government is a mitzva (unlike the negative state of anarchy described in Sefer Shoftim as "everyone did as he pleased"), but the specific form of the governing body is not mandated by the Torah.  The word melekh in the pasuk is thereby interpreted as malkhut – government.


            R. Yehuda and R. Yossi disagree with R. Nehorai and claim that the Torah specifically wanted a monarchial system.  Why?  What is there in a monarchy which is lacking in other forms of government?


            One answer to this question is offered by Sefer HaChinukh (mitzva 71 and 497 in the Machon Yerushalayim edition).  He views the Torah's preference for a monarch as a choice based upon utilitarian considerations.  In his opinion, a single absolute ruler, capable of action and leadership, will be better able to protect society against enemies and tensions (both from within and without) than a system of government which relies upon the opinions and actions of many people to formulate and implement policy.  Thus, the Chinukh does not view monarchy as having any intrinsic metaphysical value; its entire advantage is practical.


            Such a position raises an obvious difficulty.  Aside from the issue of whether the Torah involves itself with decisions regarding the utilitarian advantages of different systems, the question which immediately cries out is:  Are monarchies really indeed as benevolent and praiseworthy as the Sefer HaChinukh makes them out to be?  Though the Platonic vision of the philosopher-king is an exalted one, history is replete with examples of regal misbehavior in all countries and all ages.  Acton's dictum that "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely," seems, unfortunately, to reflect a basic (and base) aspect of human nature.  Moreover, the damage and suffering created by a tyrant are far more severe than the benefits to be derived from a benevolent and efficient king.  In short, a reality check would seem to dispute the Chinukh's claim that there are practical advantages to be gained by choosing a monarchial system and, therefore, from a purely utilitarian perspective, it is hard to justify opting for a monarchy.


            In response to the Chinukh, one of two approaches can be taken.  A) Either we accept his premise that there should be a utilitarian motive behind the choice of government, yet disagree with him as to the desirability of a single ruler, and, therefore, conclude that there is no mitzva to appoint a king, or B) we can claim that there is a mitzva to appoint a king, but that the rationale is not a utilitarian one.


            Abarbanel expresses the first viewpoint, appealing to historical experience and human nature to dispute the Chinukh's claim.  Contrasting the Italian republics to the monarchies of his time, Abrabanel points out that even from a geopolitical perspective, the republican model is more prosperous; moreover, the dangers inherent in a tyrannical despot are vividly described by Abarbanel.  Throughout this machloket, the political sophistication and the hard-headed recognition of political realities of Abarbanel, who tasted political life in the Portuguese and Spanish courts, stands in sharp contrast to the innocent naivete of the Chinukh, who is drawing upon literary sources.


            Clearly, if the monarchial model is to be judged by a utilitarian standard, the yardstick by which to decide the machloket should be the historical reality as the Abarbanel claims, and he certainly seems to have gotten the better of the argument in his disagreement with the Chinukh.


            Therefore, if we would like to explain the opinion that there is a mitzva to appoint a king, we should seek another interpretation of R. Yehuda's position.  To do so, we must turn our attention to a passage in Sanhedrin (20b) which states that the phrase "Ki yad al keis Kah" ("Hand upon the throne of the Lord," Shemot 17:16) refers to the king: "Ve-ein kisei ela melekh she-ne'emar Vayeshev Shelomo al kisei Hashem le-melekh" - "'Throne' refers to the king, as it is written, 'Shelomo sat on the throne of the Lord as king' (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:23)."  (See also Ramban ad loc., who adopts this position.)  The upshot of this statement, further emphasized by the gemara's subsequent statement that "Be-tchila malakh Shlomo al ha-elyonim she'ne'emar vayeshev Shlomo al kisei Hashem le-melekh" ("At first Shelomo ruled over the the upper spheres"), is that the king is not solely a human figure serving the needs of his countrymen, but rather he is also a sacral figure, representing Divine interests in the human world.  Just as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is the Divine representative in the religious sphere, serving as a "shelucha de-rachmana" (emissary of God) no less than a "shelucha didan" (emissary of man), so too is the melekh an ambassador of God in the political sphere.  The Heavenly Throne (kisei Hashem) serves as a symbol of Divine involvement in the human world and, therefore, the description of the king as sitting upon this throne serves to establish his rule as a manifestation and executor of Divine Will in our world.  In this context, mention should already be made of the fact that the king, as the kohen, is anointed with shemen ha-mishcha (the anointing oil).  [A fuller discussion of this issue will follow in the next shiur.]


            If we accept this line of reasoning, the Torah's interest in a royal head of state is not due to his practical utility to human society, but rather is due to the fact that a royal figure is a better representative of God on Earth.  By adopting such a position, we are able to understand the need for a king, despite the drawbacks which Abarbanel pointed out.  To offset those, the Torah added a whole list of regulations and mitzvot designed to distance the monarch from "gavhut ha-lev" (arrogance), involvement with earthly affairs and the temptations of power (i.e. women, money and horses) and to instill in him and his subjects the sense of a Divine mission (the need to constantly have a Torah scroll at his side).


            Thus, to summarize, we have seen a disagreement whether there is a mitzva to appoint a king or not, and a further disagreement as to the rationale of the mitzva (if there is such a mitzva).