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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

This shiur is dedicated to the memory of the thousands of brave soldiers of Tzahal and the underground who gave their lives for the creation and protection of Medinat Yisra’el, for the Sanctity of God’s Name, the Nation and the Land. May their memories always be a shining inspiration for us as we move from the solemnity of Yom haZikkaron to the celebration and Hallel of Yom ha’Atzma’ut. Rosh Chodesh Iyyar 5758



The Rav, besides being a mentor to scores of American Rabbis and the Rebbi of countless Talmidei Chachamim, was also an ardent supporter of Medinat Yisra’el and was, indeed, the spiritual spokesman for Religious Zionism in the Golah. It is perhaps most fitting to commemorate his fifth Yahrzeit with a shiur relating to the Medinah. As we prepare to celebrate 50 years of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisra’el, it is appropriate for us to occupy ourselves with textual and Halakhic issues relating to the notion of Jewish government.

As the Rav himself did, in most of the magnificent Yahrzeit shiurim which he gave over the years, we will begin with a citation from the Mishneh Torah.

In the opening paragraphs of Hilkhot M’lakhim uMilhamoteihem (the Laws of Kings and their Wars), the final section of Halakhah in the Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes as follows:

The Jewish people were commanded regarding three Mitzvot upon their entry into the Land:
  1. To appoint a king, as it says You shall set him king over you (D’varim 17:15);
  2. To eradicate the seed of Amalek, as it says you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek (ibid. 25:17) and
  3. To build the Beit haMikdash, as it says: to his habitation shall you seek, and there you shall come;
(ibid. 12:5).

Rambam’s formulation is a near-verbatim quote from the B’raita in Sanhedrin (20b):

It has been taught: R. Jose said: Three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land;
  1. to appoint a king;
  2. to cut off the seed of Amalek;
  3. and to build themselves the chosen house [i.e. the Beit haMikdash]
and I do not know which of them has priority.

But, when it is said: The hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation, we must infer that they had first to set up a king, for throne implies a king, as it is written, Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king.

Yet I still do not know which [of the other two] comes first, the building of the chosen Temple or the cutting off of the seed of Amalek.

Hence, when it is written, And when He giveth you rest from all your enemies round about etc., and then [Scripture proceeds], Then it shall come to pass that the place which the Lord your God shall choose, it is to be inferred that the extermination of Amalek is first.

And so it is written of David, And it came to pass when the king dwelt in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies round about, and the passage continues; that the king said unto Nathan the Prophet: See now, I dwell in a house of cedars etc.

In the following Halakhah, Rambam codifies this order – first appointing a king, then eradicating Amalek and finally building the Beit HaMikdash.

So far, everything seems to be “in synch” – the Torah commands us to appoint a king, the Gemara recognizes that command and Rambam codifies it.

A closer look will demonstrate that things are not as simple as they seem:



D’varim 17:14-20

The command to appoint a king (from D’varim 17), appears within the context of a section known as Parashat haMelekh:

When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall live in it, and shall say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me; You shall set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brothers shall you set king over you; you may not set a stranger over you, who is not your brother. But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; for as much as the Lord has said to you, You shall henceforth return no more that way. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; nor shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites; And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them; That his heart be not lifted up above his brothers, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.

There are several questions which immediately come to the fore upon reading this Parashah:

  1. Note that the command to appoint a king is necessarily preceded by the people’s request for such a leader. Throughout the Torah, we are commanded to act in a given way regardless of our interests and desires – why is this Mitzvah (unlike any other) contingent on the people’s interest?

  2. Note that the popular request for a king which should/will precede the appointment of a monarch is couched in unquestionably negative terms: Like all the nations that are around me. Even a cursory read of the latter half of Sefer Vayyikra and Sefer D’varim casts a declaration of this sort in a most unacceptable light. Why does the Torah add this phrase here?

  3. Although the central phrase: You shall set him king over you, which is the source of this Mitzvah (in both the Gemara and Rambam), implies a positive orientation on the Torah’s part to the monarch (indeed, the law that a king may not forgo his honor is inferred from this phrase – see BT Kiddushin 32b); it is immediately followed by a list of restrictions. There are no monarchic privileges listed here, only limitations (horses, wives, money) and severe warning against the haughtiness which comes with power. This abrupt change in tone produces a sense of tension within the Parashah – a tension which is reflected in the wide-ranging dispute among the Rishonim about the obligation of appointing a king.

These questions, along with several key passages from N’vi’im (which we will see in section III), led a number of commentators to disagree with Rambam and to understand this Parashah in a neutral light (e.g. Ibn Ezra, Sa’adiah Ga’on, who understand the Torah as “permitting” but not commanding the appointment of a king). The Abravanel (15th c. Portugal) even saw the pejorative phrasing here as implying a negative attitude on the part of the Torah towards not only monarchy, but any form of human government over the Jewish people. (See his comments ad loc. and in Sh’mu’el I 8; his attempt to interpret the Rambam in the same vein is generally rejected by later commentators).

These differing opinions are also rooted in Tannaitic opinions mentioned in the Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 20b). For an informative discussion regarding this dispute among the Rishonim, see R. Perlow’s commentary on Sa’adiah Ga’on’s Sefer haMitzvot, Volume III, Parashah 7.

Our three questions become more severe when we note three attempts – the final one “successful” – during the era of the Shof’tim (between Yehoshuah and Sha’ul) to appoint a Jewish king.


Shoftim 8, Shoftim 9, Sh’mu’el I 8


During the time period after the death of Yehoshua, when the tribes had (more or less) completed the conquest of the Land and were settling in to their Divinely ordained inheritance, the people were, from time to time, subjected to harassment and persecution by neighboring nations. At each one of these junctures, a leader would arise and deliver them – and things would be calm for several decades or so. These leaders are called, as a group, “Shoftim” (See Shof’tim 2:16-18).

A. Gid’on (Shoftim 8)

After Gid’on had successfully defeated the Midianites, the people approached him and asked him to be their king:

Then the men of Israel said to Gid’on: Rule over us – you, your son and your grandson as well; for you have saved us from the Midianim. But Gid’on replied, I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord alone shall rule over you. (8:22-23)

B. Avimelekh-Yotam (Shoftim 9)

Subsequent to Gid’on’s victory, one of his son’s, Avimelekh, convinced the people of Sh’chem and Milo to appoint him king. He killed all of his brothers – except for the youngest, Yotam, who made this declaration regarding the appointment of Avimelekh:

When Yotam was informed, he went and stood on top of Mount G’rizim and called out to them in a loud voice: Citizens of Sh’chem he cried, listen to me, that God may listen to you:

Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves. They said to the olive tree: Reign over us. But the olive tree replied, Have I, through whom God and men are honored, stopped yielding my rich oil, that I should go and wave above the trees?

So the trees said to the fig tree, You come and reign over us. But the fig tree replied, Have I stopped yielding my sweetness, my delicious fruit, that I should go and wave above the trees?

So the trees said to the vine, You come and reign over us . But the vine replied, Have I stopped yielding my new wine, which gladdens God and men, that I should go and wave above the trees?

Then all the trees said to the thornbush, You come and reign over us. And the thornbush said to the trees, If you are acting honorably in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, may fire issue from the thornbush and consume the cedars of L’vanon!(Shof’tim 9:7-15)

These stories share a common theme – although presented from two opposing sides. The text shows a clear disdain for monarchy: A hero (Gid’on) refuses to serve and states that only God should be our ruler. On the other hand, a clearly despicable person (Avimelekh) longs to reign – and his reign is, indeed, short-lived:

When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel, God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech. (ibid 22-23)

C. Sh’muel

The greatest leader of the era of the Shof’tim was Sh’mu’el. As popular and successful as he was, he was also destined to be the final Shofet:

And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. And the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after unjust gain, and took bribes, and perverted judgment. Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah, And said to him, Behold, you are old, and your sons walk not in your ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, how they have forsaken me, and served other Gods, so do they also to you. And therefore listen to their voice; but you should solemnly warn them, and relate to them the customary practice the king who shall reign over them. And Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. And he said, This will be the customary practice of the king who shall reign over you; He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive trees, the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your best young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and you shall be his servants. And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. And the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, No; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, Listen to their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said to the men of Israel, Go every man to his city. (Sh’muel I 8)

What we have seen is that even if there is a Mitzvah in the Torah to appoint a king (as Rambam maintains), the protagonists in pre-monarchic days were severely opposed to a monarchy – and God Himself recognized the popular demand for a king to be a rejection of His rule!

As mentioned above, this narrative is the core of Abravanel’s approach. He maintains that if it were a Mitzvah to appoint a king, Sh’mu’el would not have been upset at their demand; indeed, that would have been a more appropriate response from the people when challenged by Sh’mu’el – instead of insisting “we want one anyway”, they should have supported their demand with religious imperative.

Rambam himself is sensitive to the problems raised by Sh’mu’el’s response:

…since appointing a king is a Mitzvah, why was God not pleased when they asked Sh’mu’el for a king? Because they asked as a complaint (rather than asking in order to fulfill the Mitzvah) since they rejected Sh’mu’el, as it says: …For they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me…

This answer itself begs the question: Since when is the applicability and obligatory nature of Mitzvot subject to proper motivation? While intent, both legalistic and spiritual, play a central role in many Mitzvot, the lack thereof never exempts one from fulfilling a Mitzvah. Not feeling like giving Tz’dakah – or being motivated to give Tz’dakah for the “wrong reasons” is not a Halakhic exemption. We must still give Tz’dakah – and correct our attitudes. How, then, does Rambam solve the “Sh’mu’el problem”?

Although there may be “local” textual and/or conceptual answers which may resolve this problem, I would like to share a broader approach, suggested by Professor Yehudah Elitzur z”l, which addresses the very notion of Jewish monarchy and government.



In the past few hundred years, since the popularization of historiography, we have become accustomed to reading any book which relates an account of events much as we do any contemporary history text. First one thing happened, which led to another which caused a war, a famine, an uprising, a peace treaty, etc. This linear approach, so central to secular history, is a foreign implant in Jewish thinking. To clarify: Although we recognize the value of a linear assessment of events, we recognize a more sophisticated and multi-layered approach of the events which shaped national destinies, an approach which is at once broader while also more profound.

As per example: Any secular version of the history of the downfall of the Second Commonwealth will mention the factionalism within the Jewish community in Yerushalayim, along with the plethora of competing sects – but the major focus will be on Roman power and colonialism. If asked to account for the cause of the destruction, a historian would first point to military prowess.

A Jewish perspective on that history accepts these facts – but has a greater appreciation for the underlying causes which sets these facts into motion:

    “Why was the Temple destroyed?

  1. Because the people did not say the blessing on the Torah. (BT Nedarim 81a);
  2. …because of causeless hatred (BT Yoma 9b);
  3. …because they insisted on strict adherence to the law (and did not go beyond the letter of the law (BT Bava Metzia’ 30b) etc.

In other words, Jewish tradition recognizes the validity of “facts on the ground”; but also understands that these socio-politico-economic facts are caused by ethical-religious behavior – both good and bad – on the part of the various people and groups involved in the given situation.

This understanding of history is, indeed, the chief calling of the Prophets – whose consistent message was that treaties, armaments, weapons and diplomacy are merely vehicles via which God will allow them – if He so chooses – to be victorious. Their first approach must be inward – to repairing their society in accordance with God’s commands. Only through reversing the perversion of justice, by supporting the weak and infirm, by strengthening the exclusivity of worship to God alone – only through these will our ventures prove successful.

The first example of this phenomenon is found in the first book of N’vi’im – Yehoshua. After the successful rout of Yericho,

And Yehoshua sent men from Jericho to Ha’ai, which is beside Beit-Aven, to the east of Beit-El, and spoke to them, saying, Go up and spy out the country. And the men went up and spied out Ha’ai. And they returned to Yehoshua, and said to him, Let not all the people go up; but let about two or three thousand men go up and strike Ha’ai; and make not all the people to labor there; for they are but few. So there went up there of the people about three thousand men; and they fled before the men of Ha’ai. And the men of Ha’ai struck of them about thirty six men; for they chased them from before the gate to Shebarim, and struck them in the descent; therefore the hearts of the people melted, and became as water. And Yehoshua tore his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the Ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads. (Yehoshua 7:2-6).

God’s answer to Yehoshua is rooted in the crime mentioned in the verse just preceding this section:

But the people of Israel committed a trespass in regard to the devoted property, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the devoted things; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people of Israel.

Yehoshua’s response was to ferret out the trespasser (Achan); only after that was he able to lead the people to the successful conquest of Ha’ai. Note that even when he did so, he employed brilliant military tactics (read Chapter 8); in other words, God’s promise that Ha’ai would be conquered did not mean that Yehoshua should not utilize military strength or savvy; but no attempt at conquest would be successful as long as God did not will it so.

This is the job of the N’vi’im – not to tell us WHAT happened (or what will happen); rather to tell us WHY it happened and what role we play in shaping our own histories and destinies. In other words, the N’vi’im show us that what historians tell us are “causes” are really symptoms – and the true causes are to be found in our own adherence to Torah and Mitzvot.

Prophecy is no longer available to us and our ability to point to specific moral, social or religious failings as being the cause of disaster is severely limited (and care must be taken that we not ignore that limitation). Nevertheless, the overriding message of both the N’vi’im and Hazal – that our own national success and weal depends on the perfection of our own society – is one which should inform our policies and priorities at every step of the way.



Using this introduction to the Jewish approach to history, Professor Elitzur explains Sh’mu’el’s reticence to favorably respond to the people’s request (as well as the negative responses we noted in Sefer Shoftim) as follows:

Appointing a king has far-reaching implications for the destiny of the nation. Since our nation is destined to be a kingdom of Kohanim, a holy nation (Sh’mot 19:6), it is imperative that whatever form of leadership we appoint serve as an appropriate vehicle towards that goal. Here is where the people’s motivation comes into play.

As we noted above, there is a discernible tension in Parashat haMelekh – between the positive place over yourselves and the negative like all of the nations around me. Indeed, that tension reflects the inherent tension in the (inevitable?) move towards a monarchy. The people could be looking for a leader who will help them achieve their status as a holy nation, a light unto the nations etc. – or they could be mistaking a symptom for the cause in their belief that if they only had a king, all their problems would be solved.

This is why Gid’on rejected the request that he be king – for he recognized that the people thought that he, as king, was “the answer” to the problem of future troubles with Midian.

This is certainly the import of Yotam’s “fable of the trees” – you are seeking a king just to have one, not on account of his moral greatness or leadership qualities – and that endeavor will surely fail.

This is also why Sh’mu’el was dejected by the people’s demand for a king. Again, they believed that having a king would solve all of their problems. Note the wording, No; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. Compare that with the stand at the Reed Sea, where God fights our wars.

We can now return to Rambam’s ruling: Although, to his thinking, it is a Mitzvah to appoint a king, that Mitzvah must be initiated in the right way. In order for the king to further the goals of the nation, the people must be ready to accept his leadership on a moral and religious level, understanding that neither he nor his august position will be the source of their salvation; rather their national success will come about as a result of their own courageous introspection and willingness to maintain a society dedicated to the principles of justice, loving-kindness and truth, as embodied in our holy Torah.

Text Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.
The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles