“The King of Israel: The Privileged and Obligated Monarch”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Shoftim, we read the biblical statement regarding appointing a king in Israel.

The Torah states in Deuteronomy 17:14 that when the People of Israel come to the land of Canaan, possess it, and settle in it, they will say: “Let us set a king over ourselves, like all the nations around us.” Scripture then says (Deuteronomy 17:15): Sohm tah’seem ah’leh’chah meh’lech ah’sher yiv’char Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah bo,You shall surely set over yourselves a king that the Lord your G-d shall chose.

The king who sits on the throne of Israel has many privileges but also many obligations. He is required to write for himself two copies of the Torah that shall always be with him and from which he should read from all the days of his life. He may not become haughty over his brethren, nor turn from the commandments right or left. There is a talmudic debate between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nechemiah regarding whether there is a religious duty for the people to have a king. Rabbi Judah says it is. Rabbi Nechemiah disagrees (Sifrei to Deuteronomy 17:14).

In the first book of Samuel, Chapter 8, we learn that Samuel had grown old and his sons did not follow in their father’s good ways. The elders of Israel then came to Samuel in Ramah to ask him to make a king who “would judge us like all the nations.” In I Samuel 8:6, we read that the request displeased the prophet, who then prayed to G-d. G-d told Samuel to listen to the voice of the people for “they have not rejected you, but have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.”

Samuel then warns the people that a king will be very demanding. A king, he says, will draft their children into the military, force the people to serve in the royal arsenal, and labor in the royal kitchens. He will appropriate their lands, and present them as reward to his ministers. The king will heap taxation upon the citizens and confiscate their slaves to do the king’s work.

The people, however, refuse to listen to Samuel’s warnings, and cry out (I Samuel 8:19-20): “No, there shall be a king over us, so 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.” G-d, once again, instructs the prophet Samuel to listen to the voice of the people and anoint a king for them.

The word “melech,” usually translated as king, comes from the origin of the word “moleech,” to be a leader, a guide, a ruler. While Moses was considered a teacher who possessed temporal powers, he was not considered a king. Nor was Joshua. The first to rule as a monarch was Saul, and after him David.

In Exodus 19:6, G-d instructs the Jewish people to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” This exalted people will obviously need leadership, someone who will go out and come back with them, like a shepherd. But apparently that was not enough for the people.

Already in the time of the judges, the people ask Gideon to be their king, but he refuses, telling his supporters that G-d will rule over you (Judges 8:23). However, without a strong central leadership, the period of the judges declines into a time of anarchy–each person doing what was just in his own eyes. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 2b) state that the elders were correct in asking Samuel for a king. The common people, however, who desired “to be like all the other nations” were misguided.

Kings are appointed in Israel only when the people dwell in the land of Israel. The first king must be appointed not only by the prophet, but by the Sanhedrin, the court of 71 (some say 70) elders, as well. A king must be unquestionably Jewish, and not descended from converts. A woman may not serve as monarch, although one of the legendary leaders of Israel shortly after the time of the Hasmoneans was the Queen Shlomtzion (Salome Alexandra, 139-67 BCE). The monarchy is hereditary, passed from father to son, who must abide by the biblical strictures regarding kingship. He is not to have too many horses, so that his standing army not be large enough to allow him to constantly go out to battle. The king is permitted to have no more than 18 wives (probably for political reasons). He is allowed to amass only enough wealth to maintain his entourage. He is, however, permitted to tax the people for communal needs, but not to fill his coffers in order to glory in his wealth.

The office of the king is to be greatly revered by the people. No one but the king may ride on the king’s horse, sit on his throne, use his scepter or his crown, or any of his other personal items. Should the king die, all his royal vestments are to be burnt. His male and female servants may not be used by a succeeding king. The surviving queen may not remarry, even to another king. Kings are not expected to attend funerals. The king was accorded a special place to sit in the Temple courtyard. The people are to respect his privacy. They are forbidden to view him while in the bathhouse or at the barber, even though he was expected to shave every day and wear beautiful clothes. Those who visited him in the throne room, even the prophet, were required to bow before him.

Despite the unusual respect and reverence that was due the king, the king himself was required to be unquestionably subservient to G-d. The king was to stand in the presence of the High Priest when he consulted with the Urim v’Tumim (the priestly breastplate). The king is also expected to show respect to learned scholars, to stand before them, and invite them to sit on his side. The Talmud in Ketubot 103b says that Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, would privately stand before a scholar, kiss him and call him “My teacher and master.”

The king is not permitted to be haughty. The king’s life was therefore to be guided by Torah. He was required to either write a Torah scroll or to commission someone to write one for him. He was obligated to write an additional Sefer Torah that was to be in his sight, wherever he stood. In the year of Hakhel, every seventh year on Sukkot, the king was to read and teach the Torah to the people. It was the Torah that served as a restraining force to keep the king in check and to remind him that the Torah demanded of him to be compassionate and just. A king who wished to relax the rules of reverence, as a father or a priest may do, is not permitted to do so.

From biblical as well as talmudic sources, it seems apparent that the ideal form of government for the Jewish people is a theocracy. Notwithstanding the debate over whether it is a mitzvah to appoint a king or not, G-d does approve the monarchy. However, the monarchy is very much restricted, at least in theory.

Those of us who take pride about living in a democratic society will find the idea of a monarchy rather offsetting. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Judaism envisioned a restricted and limited monarchy whose power was very much controlled by the Torah and by the Supreme Court of Israel, the Sanhedrin. As we have witnessed ourselves, democracy, while a benevolent form of government, has its deficits. The lack of a single authoritative power leads to indecisiveness, and results in a very slow governmental process. A wise and benevolent king can rule over the people with authority and compassion and make things happen effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, the famous aphorism, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” holds true for most monarchs in history.

Certainly, the Messiah, the son of David, will be an exception to that rule, and will govern the people and guide them in the most exceptional manner that will promote peace, tranquility and brotherhood under the rule of the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.