Class Notes - Class #21

Mitzvot #497 – 503 deal with kingship, the model of political authority.  Before we look at those mitzvot, I think we need to put this discussion in two different contexts.

            As citizens of an established democracy we make certain assumptions about government.   We expect that government institutions are subject to legal control rather than above legal control.  We expect government institutions to be honest rather than corrupt.  We expect that elections will decide who the leaders will be.  Our expectations are not always met, but they are what we expect the government will try to do. We also expect an orderly, non-violent transfer of power from one leader to another, and, in the United States, that expectation has been fully met since the Civil War.  Even during the difficult transition after the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore we all had confidence that the crisis would be resolved peacefully.

            But those assumptions are recent.  Earlier, in most European societies, everyone expected that political leadership would be held by whoever was strong enough to hold it.  Leadership was assumed to be hereditary, but someone who inherited political leadership only kept it if he had the power to fight off rivals.  The leader would often kill off his potential rivals, including his closest relatives.  The political leader made the law and could ignore the law as long as he had the power to get away with it.  That leader acted in his own interest, although sometimes the leader perceived that keeping ordinary people satisfied was in the leader’s own interest. 

As a second point of context, a major theme of the books of the Early Prophets is how to establish political authority.  Moses was both the religious and political leader of the Jews who left Egypt.  Moses had a direct line of communication with God.  That made Moses unique as a political leader, and created a situation where God had direct control of the political positions of the Jewish people.  In part for that reason it was difficult for Moses to delegate political jobs. Ultimately, though, faced with his own upcoming demise, Moses created a mechanism to transfer political power to Joshua.

            Transitions of political power after that were much more problematic.  While Joshua was in charge the Jews conquered territory in Israel and settled that land as tribal groups.  Joshua left no political successor.  The Jews formed a confederation with broad autonomy for each tribe. Charismatic individuals took leadership when the Jews faced a problem that forced them to act as a unified nation.  Sometimes the charismatic leaders were military leaders, sometimes they were prophets.  But the stories in the book of Judges show that that method deteriorated until finally the Jews were morally corrupt and fighting each other. The leadership of the cohanim was hereditary, but that deteriorated as well so that by the time Samuel was born the leading cohanim were also corrupt.

            Samuel revived prophetic leadership.  He served as a spiritual leader and also as a judge.  Although Samuel was well respected, when he appointed his sons to positions of leadership they were corrupt as well.  Hoping to find a better alternative to intermittent charismatic leadership, the people asked Samuel to establish a monarchy.  How well the monarchy worked is a continuing theme of the rest of the books of the Early Prophets.

            The mitzvot in this series define the parameters of how halachah understands monarchy.  Mitzvah #497 requires the Jews to establish a monarchy after settling in Israel.  Mitzvah #498 requires that the king be a native born Jew.  Mitzvot #499, 501 and 502 limit the king from indulging in excessive luxury.  Mitzvah #503 requires that the king write a Torah.  Mitzvah #500 prohibits Jews from living in Egypt; we will see shortly how that relates to the mitzvot about monarchy.

            In I Samuel chapter 8, the people ask Samuel to establish a monarchy.  Samuel is reluctant.  God tells him to comply, although God is dissatisfied with the request as well.  Given that, it is surprising that we find a mitzvah for the Jews to establish a monarchy.  Our author does not deal with that apparent contradiction.  Rather, he reads to source verse, Deut. 17:15, as a straightforward requirement for the Jews to set up a monarchy after they have conquered and settled in Israel, leaving aside the question of God and Samuel being hesitant.  (The discrepancy may be related to the reason the Jewish leaders give for wanting to establish a monarchy.  They ask for a king so they can be like other nations.)

            Our author explained in mitzvah #71, which prohibits Jews from cursing the political head of government, how important it is to have someone running a government rather than leaving people to live in anarchy.  People are fractious and tend not to co-operate with each other unless forced to do so.  The author refers to the horrific results when the Jews tried to do without unified government in the period after Joshua died.  Without a political leader to tell everyone what to do, economic activity would come to a standstill and disputes would be solved violently rather than peacefully.  Even a political leader who enforces unfortunate policies makes life better for people than no leadership at all.  Government is necessary to a prosperous, settled society. 

            Our author puts the job of initially establishing the monarchy in the hands of prophets in consultation with the beit din of seventy.  Joshua was appointed by Moses in consultation with the seventy elders Moses earlier appointed to help him.  But it is hard to see how that model would work later in Jewish history.  The leaders of the Jewish community approached Samuel, a prophet, and Samuel appointed Saul and later David.  But the institution of the “seventy elders” becomes obscure after the Jews entered Israel, and prophecy ceased somewhat later, so neither of the necessary appointing bodies would be available to establish a new royal line.  Whatever the theoretical model, though, the notion is apparently that a royal line is established through appointment by other leaders rather than simply by force of arms. 

            The rules for appointing royal lines changed fundamentally when David became king.  After that, the royal succession remains with the descendants of David even if there is an interruption in the kingship. The dynasty of David’s royal line will last until Messianic times.  Given that change, it might seem that the mitzvah to appoint a king is no longer in effect, and that perhaps it ought not to be counted as a permanent mitzvah because it applied only until David became king.  But there are other aspects of the mitzvah to appoint a royal line.  As we will see shortly, Jews must see to proper succession in the royal line and must show the required respect for the king.  Those aspects remain in effect.

            The monarch must be a native born Jew, not a non-Jew or even a convert.  Note that, under the United States Constitution, the president also has to be a native born U.S. citizen and not a naturalized citizen.  Our author explains that the population will need to obey the king, so it is important that the king be competent and be concerned with the welfare of the people.  Native born Jews tend to inherit certain characteristics:  compassion, mercy, righteousness, fairness.   A convert might have those characteristics, but it seems almost impossible that a native born Jew will be someone lacking compassion and generosity.  The author says that, beyond the question of pedigree, those appointing the king should find someone who is personally generous and compassionate, not someone wicked or cruel.  Those appointing the king might be tempted to choose someone they are afraid of or someone they hope will favor them, but our author warns that ultimately that strategy will backfire.  Rather, reward will come to those who appoint a generous, caring king.

The appointed monarch must be a man rather than a woman. Someone who previously worked at a job generally held in disrespect may not be appointed king.  For example, someone who had been a barber, bath-house owner or tanner may not be appointed king.  (They are also disqualified to be cohen gadol.) Even if the person is wonderful, people will continue to disrespect someone who comes from a questionable background. Once a candidate is appointed, the new monarch is installed in his position by being anointed.

            Realistically, though, appointing and installing a king is only the first step.  For the king to have authority, the king will have to prove he has the power to command.  That means demonstrating military strength.  The king only has the power that the king can successfully assert.

            Once the royal line is established it becomes hereditary.  The line of succession follows the formula for inheritance of property.  Where two relatives of the king have equal claim, the older succeeds before the younger.  If the successor is too young to become king we should hold the position until the successor is old enough to take charge. But no matter how wise the son, the son does not succeed to a position unless the son has proper respect for God.  If the inheritor does not have proper respect for God, the successor is turned out of office. This all seems aspirational rather than realistic. 

            The rest of the populace is required to show respect for the king, obeying royal decrees as long as those decrees are not contravened by Torah law.  Other people may not ride the king’s horse, sit on the king’s throne, use the king’s crown or scepter.  If the king dies, no one else may marry the king’s widow.  The king cannot forego these acts of respect.  The respect seems to be for the office rather than for the person holding the office.

            In trying to talk the Jews out of establishing a monarchy, God tells Samuel to list all the things a king is likely to do that the people probably will not like. Our author understands that Samuel is not exaggerating; he is just listing the legitimate actions of a monarch.  So Samuel’s list is the source for those things a monarch may legitimately do.  The list is long.  The monarch will draft young men into the military; take work taxes and require people to work on the king’s agricultural land; take work taxes from women who will be cooks, bakers and perfumers; take land taxes of valuable orchards and vineyards and award that land to the king’s followers; tax the harvest at the rate of 10% of the grain harvest; conscript ordinary people and animals into the king’s service.  Reading that list, is seems that issues of “big government” and excessive taxation are nothing new. 

            Our author lists several other powers of a properly appointed king.  The king has the right of eminent domain, taking private land for roads.  The king has the power to punish anyone who disobeys the king’s law or rebels against the king in any way.  The king’s punishments include anything up to and including the death penalty.  The king can punish based on whatever evidence seems sufficient to him; he need not follow the strict legal procedures set out for a beit din in criminal cases.   The king may also punish anyone who shows even the slightest disrespect for the king.  Our author cites an example.  King David wanted to eliminate Batsheva’s husband Uriah. Uriah apparently had not done anything wrong, but Uriah was an obstacle to David’s relationship with Batsheva.  David secretly ordered that Uriah go on a military suicide mission during which Uriah was killed.  But the Talmud, Shabbat 56a, says that David was within his rights to have Uriah killed.  Uriah referred to one of the generals as “my lord.”  That minor breach of respect for David the king was enough to justify David condemning Uriah.  This is obviously rationalization for David’s behavior, but it does serve to illustrate the level of respect a king has the right to demand.

            Although the king has broad power to tax the people, several mitzvot apply specifically to the king, prohibiting the king from taxing to support the king’s excessively lavish life style.  Mitzvah #502 specifically prohibits the king accumulating great wealth.  The king may tax to support community needs, and it is appropriate for the king to maintain a life style that will enhance communal respect.  But the king may not tax to accumulate personal wealth or to support excessive luxury.  I am not sure how to tell how much luxury is “excessive.” 

By Torah law any Jewish man, including the king, may have several wives.  But mitzvah #501 limits the Jewish king to eighteen wives.  The author says wives can lead their husbands astray, so the king should be careful to choose righteous, conscientious wives.  One aspect of international diplomacy was for a princess of one kingdom to marry the king of another kingdom.  The author makes general disparaging comments about wives, but he may be thinking mostly of the foreign wives who marry the king in service of political alliances. 

The king may keep horses for work, for travel and for military needs.  The king may keep extra horses in reserve should a military need arise. A king may want to keep extra horses as a kind of conspicuous consumption.  When the king goes by accompanied by retainers and by extra horses the king projects an image of a rich, powerful monarch.  But mitzvah #499 prohibits the king from keeping those horses just for display.

Egypt was a major center for breeding horses.  A king might be tempted to establish a colony in Egypt to buy or raise the best horses.  But mitzvah #500 prohibits Jews from living in Egypt, although Jews may travel to Egypt for commercial reasons.  The king is overreaching by sending Jews to live in Egypt just to have the finest looking horses.  Egyptian society will be a bad influence on the Jews who live there.  And God performed miracles to help us get out of Egypt.  It seems utterly ungrateful of us to go back voluntarily.  The prohibition on living in Egypt applies at all times, although our author cites Rambam for the notion that should a qualified Jewish king conquer Egypt the prohibition on living there would not apply.  In our author’s time there long had been an established Jewish community living in Egypt.  Rambam himself lived much of his life in Egypt.  But our author does not discuss that community.

Mitzvah #613 requires each Jewish man to write or commission the writing of a Torah.  But, according to mitzvah #503, the king must write a Torah and constantly keep that Torah in his presence.  The king is a powerful person, with the right and ability to kill and to take property on his whim.  No one is likely to chastise the powerful king if the king overreaches.  There is no practical way to limit the king’s behavior. If the king is to use his power for the general good, he will have to do so motivated by his own moral perspective.  Therefore the king has a mitzvah to write a Torah and check the text against the Torah from the Temple.  The king keeps that Torah with him wherever he goes: out to war, in court, even at meals.  Seeing that Torah might help remind the king that there are higher values to which he owes allegiance and therefore he will act less in his own perceived self-interest and more in the interest of the people of his kingdom.

            Several of the rules about kings apply to other community officers as well.  Our author explains that other offices of authority over the Jews are hereditary just as the kingship is hereditary.  Similarly, those officers are disqualified if they do not have sufficient respect for God.  The community, whether in Israel or elsewhere, should not appoint converts to positions of communal authority, although the community may appoint someone whose mother is Jewish but whose father is not.  As with a king, the community as a whole will benefit if it appoints officers who are generous and competent.  Despite the temptation to appoint someone out of fear of that person or in hope of currying favor with the appointee, the community will regret appointing officers who are cruel. Our author does not define what constitutes a “position of authority” although he does give the example of someone in charge of distributing irrigation water between the farms in a given community.

            Overall, these mitzvot set a model of a limited monarchy.  Realistically a king will have to take and maintain authority by force even if that king is appointed through proper halachic channels. All effective governments need to be able to control their populations by force, but it is hard to get a government with controlling force to use its power exclusively for the good of the community. The king has broad powers, including the power to tax and punish.  But at least in theory the king must be someone who shows respect for God and who does not take from the people to unnecessarily enhance royal prestige. Ideally the king will be focused on the good of the community. And the king, like everyone else, is subject to the law of the Torah.

            The mitzvot here anticipate kingship as the model of government.  Our author anticipates a Jewish monarchy being restored in Israel in messianic times. The stories in the books of the Early Prophets suggest that kingship is the best of several inadequate political alternatives.  Democracy was not an option; it had not been invented yet.


After Joshua led the Jews into Israel, the land they conquered was divided between the tribes.  According to mitzvah #504 the levi’im were not given agricultural land.  Rather, they received 48 parcels scattered within the land designated for other tribes on which they built cities.  We saw earlier that those cities had specific zoning requirements.  Without agricultural land it was harder for the levi’im to support themselves.  Other Jews were required to give ma’aser rishon that provided the levi’im with an income.  That allowed the levi’im the leisure to provide spiritual and religious leadership for the rest of the Jews. 

Mitzvah #505 prohibits the levi’im from sharing in the other spoils of the initial conquest of Israel.  Although Joshua’s conquest of Israel was mandated by God, the act of acquiring the spoils of war was still tainted.  The levi’im, the spiritual leaders, are required to avoid those tainted goods.  Rather, our author explains, the property of the levi’im should be obtained by peaceful means, ways of decency and truth, methods above reproach.  This mitzvah continued to apply during the time the Temple was functioning.  Violation of this mitzvah is not punishable because the violation is subject to restitution if the levi returns the spoils to the community collection.  Note that this mitzvah/essay does not have a “dinei hamitzvah” section. Some early manuscripts and editions have the introductory words that typically introduce that section, but no content follows.

The author discusses another aspect of what counts as a separate mitzvah.  The term “levi’im” might cover cohanim as well as levi’im.  Sometimes there is a verse addressed to levi’im and a parallel verse addressed to cohanim.  Sometimes a verse addressed to levi’im applies both to levi’im and cohanim, and sometimes the verse applies to levi’im but not cohanim.  Some verses prohibit all Jews from doing something, and a different verse prohibits the same behavior for cohanim.  That leaves multiple options as to what counts as a separate mitzvah and what does not.  In general, the more mitzvot someone violates by doing a certain action, the more sets of malkot the person receives as punishment.  Given all that potential confusion, our author relies on Rambam, Sefer haMitzvot Neg. 170, to explain why the mitzvot are counted as they are.  Two specific questions arise about the mitzvot we are dealing with here: 1. Is there one mitzvah prohibiting levi’im from being assigned inherited agricultural land and part of the spoils, or are these two separate mitzvot, one prohibiting levi’im from being assigned inherited agricultural land and a separate mitzvah prohibiting levi’im from sharing in the spoils?  2.  Do cohanim have separate, distinct mitzvot that cover those prohibitions, or are cohanim covered by the same mitzvot that govern levi’im?

The source verse for mitzvot #504 and #505, Deut. 18:1, says, “The cohanim, the levi’im, the entire tribe of levi, shall not have a part and an inheritance with Israel….”  The midrash halachah explains “part” as the spoils and “inheritance” as agricultural land.  Those two categories might still be read as one mitzvah that covers two topics, agricultural land and spoils. But Deut. 18:2 repeats the prohibition on assigning the levi’im inherited agricultural land.  Since that verse speaks of inheriting agricultural land without including mention of the spoils, those seem to be two distinct topics. Therefore this verse is the basis for treating the prohibition of assigning the levi’im agricultural land as a separate mitzvah from the prohibition on the levi’im getting some of the spoils. 

Num. 18:20 prohibits cohanim from getting an allocation of agricultural land or taking a portion of the spoils.  Under the principle we just mentioned, that when the Biblical text repeats a concept that repetition supports delineation of separate mitzvot, it would seem we should have two mitzvot prohibiting cohanim from being assigned agricultural land and spoils, and two separate mitzvot prohibiting other levi’im from being assigned agricultural land and spoils.  But our original source verse specifies the cohanim, the levi’im, and the whole tribe of levi.  The general phrase “the whole tribe of levi” subsumes all the sub-groups of the tribe of levi under the rubric of one mitzvah.

There are several other instances where we might be tempted to formulate a separate mitzvah for a sub-group based on a Biblical passage that repeats a certain mitzvah specifically about a sub-group.  The prohibitions on a cohen marrying a divorcee, a halalah and a zonah are repeated specifically for the cohen gadol.  The prohibitions on Jewish men of shaving parts of the head or making bald spots on the head are repeated for cohanim.  In both cases the repetition does not create distinct mitzvot that apply only to cohanim.  Various Talmudic passages count the number of sets of malkot someone gets for behavior that violates those mitzvot and those passages prove that cohanim have the same prohibitions as everyone else.

There are many situations where the Torah repeats mitzvot in several different passages.  Those repetitions reinforce the concept mentioned in the text.  Aspects of the mitzvah might be left vague in one passage and clarified in the other passage.  But in general there is only one underlying mitzvah even if the different passages have some differences between them.  The author reminds us that he commented on situations where the Torah repeats mitzvot when he introduced the mitzvot in the book of Deuteronomy.

Mitzvah #520 requires that six of the 48 cities of the levi’im be designated as cities of refuge, “arei miklat.”   When someone kills inadvertently there is danger of a blood feud.  If the killer is in one of the cities of the levi’im the family of the victim may not kill the killer. 

This mitzvah requires special provisions for six of those cities, three on each side of the Jordan River.  Those six cities make special arrangements to ease the way for fleeing killers.  The roads leading to those cities must be wide, level, and must have signs showing the way to the city.  The Sanhedrin must send a repair crew once a year to keep the roads to the cities clear and in good repair.  A killer who takes refuge in those six cities lives there rent free.  A killer who happens to be in one of the six cities is protected, whereas a killer is only protected in the other 42 cities if the killer went there to take refuge.  Responsibility for making those arrangements falls on the king and on the community as a whole.

The special protective status of the cities of the levi’im did not take effect until Joshua had conquered and distributed land in Israel.  But the three cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan were designated by Moses before the Jews entered Israel even though those cities did not yet confer protection.  Our author explains that Moses was anxious to do all the mitzvot he could so he seized the opportunity to establish cities of refuge even though the refuge was not yet effective.  The author ends his explanation of this topic with the intriguing comment that three new cities of refuge will be established in messianic times.