In this parsha we read about the Jewish king. In our day and age when most nations accepted democratic systems of government and even the few countries that still have monarchies generally do not give their kings much power the question of why the Torah seems to choose kingship to be the “ideal” government system is especially topical. Why does the Torah tell us to appoint the king and what was his purpose?




Before we even start the discussion about the Jewish kings we need to realize that even the assumption that it is a mitzvah to appoint one is not necessarily agreed upon. In truth, there is an argument in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) regarding the verses of the Torah that discuss the Jewish king. The Torah plainly says (Devarim 17:14): “When you come to the land that Hashem your G-d is giving you, you will inherit it and settle in it and you will say: I shell appoint a king over myself ... Then indeed you should appoint a king over yourself ...” The language of the Torah seems obscure. Is it trying to tell us that the monarchy is not the ideal system of government, but Hashem allows it if the people will demand it? Or is it trying to say that indeed there is a mitzvah to appoint a Jewish king at some point in our history? In fact both interpretations exist in the Talmud[1].


Some 400 years after we entered the land of Israel the Jewish people asked Shmuel, the greatest prophet of the time, that a king should be appointed (see Shmuel 1:8:5). We read that Shmuel was very upset at their request and kept warning them that the kingship they are asking will one day turn against them. Even when the first king Shaul was appointed, Shmuel made a startling ceremony that frightened the people. Many explanations are given regarding why Shmuel was so unhappy[2]. In any case, even if appointing the king is generally a mitzvah, the exact way they asked for it in that generation was inappropriate. Discarding the elderly righteous prophet who was leading them for all these years in favor of a king who “would judge them” was totally improper. Moreover, the people did not ask for a king to fulfill the mitzvah but rather for their own reasons to get the benefits of monarchy[3].


In general, a righteous king empowered to rule over the nation can get the people to accomplish great heights. In a democratic system of government, the leaders are generally afraid of the people, for if they don’t follow the crowd, they may not get reelected[4]. Indeed in our day the presidents and prime ministers can hardly do anything to improve the nation. On the other hand the righteous kings of Israel were able to force the people to improve their observance and Torah learning, and often completely changed the whole nation[5]. On the other hand when the king is wicked he can use his powers to bring a tremendous destruction[6]. Indeed Shmuel’s warning came true; the history of our people is full of examples of bad kings who brought our nation to near destruction. 


In the end of days we are promised restoration of Jewish monarchy. King Moshiach will be able to use his powers to bring our nation to full observance. There is a tradition that before the coming of Moshiach ben Dovid, there will be another leader, Moshiach ben Yosef[7], who will start the process of bringing our nation back. The GR”A[8] writes that just as Shaul’s dynasty preceded Dovid’s, so too the rule of Moshiach ben Yosef (also coming from Rachel, like King Shaul) will precede the rule of the descendant of Dovid. And we will wait for the fulfillment of this promise every day!


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[1] See Sanhedrin 20b and Sifri (Shoftim, 13) where Rabbi Yehuda argues with Rabbi Nehorai. The Talmud leaves this dispute undecided, Rambam (Melachim 1:1) follows the opinion that appointing the king is a mitzvah, while Abarabanel (Devarim 17:14) holds that it’s not. See also Ramban (Devarim 17:14) that the Torah purposefully uses obscure language here without clearly stating if it commendable to appoint a king or that simply this is what would happen later in history.


[2] See Meam Loez on Shmuel 1:8:5-20 where close to ten opinions are brought.


[3] See Radak on Shmuel 1:8:5 and Malbim 1:8:6.


[4] According to Rav Elchanan Waserman this is what our sages meant when they said (Sotah 49b): “In the end of days the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog”. The face, meaning the leadership will behave like a dog that runs before its’ master. An observer might think that the dog is the leader, since it’s always in the front, but indeed it’s the master that determines the course of action. Let him only turn and the dog will quickly switch direction as well, and run in front of him in the new direction.


[5] See Sanhedrin 94b that King Hezekiah put a sward in Beis Midrash and forced the people to study the laws. In the end even boys and girls knew even the complicated laws of ritual purity.


[6] Note, that even in democratic society a leader can be elected and grab enough power to bring much evil. Hitler was elected by democratic process and was able to create a war situation that ultimately gave him the power of total control. However most nations try to protect themselves from this type of situation and limit the powers of the ruler even during the time of war. (There are however some former republics of the Soviet Union where the leader who was elected by democratic voting was able to or is trying to get full control over the nation. I am forced not to mention any examples, since this commentary is sent to some of these countries).


[7] See Talmud, Sukka 52b; Zohar 1:25b; see also GR”A, Devarim, second peyrush 33:17; Malbim, Yechezkel 37:19, Tshuvos Chasam Sofer, 6:98. The Arizal (Likutey Hashas, Sanhedrin) writes that the statement in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) that Hezekiah could have been Moshiach, implies Moshiach ben Yosef. This would seem to imply that Moshiach ben Yosef does not have to physically come from Yosef. However, it’s possible that being descendant of Yosef through the female line is sufficient (as we find similarly that Hillel dynasty was coming from Dovid through the female line, see Yerushalmi, Kesubos 65b). Indeed the kings of Yehudah after Yehoshafat were all coming from Achav’s daughter Atalia, and Achav belonged to the tribe of Ephraim ben Yosef.


[8] In his commentary to the first chapter of Sifra Detzniusa, see also GR”A in Imrey Noam on Brochos 13a, 34b, GR”A on Agada Brochos, 34b, see also Yaros Dvash 1:8. The GR”A also writes that if we had deserved, Moshiach ben Yosef could have come in year 4000, and there would then be two thousand years of times of Moshiach (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a). Regarding the question of how Hezekiah could possibly be Moshiach ben Yosef, even before year 3000, it’s possible to say that under extreme circumstances of great Tshuvah and merit of the generation, our nation can deserve to be redeemed much earlier (see also Vayoel Moshe 1:73). Just as any prophesy for bad can be reversed, so too the prediction of the exile and its’ duration (see also our words to parshas Lech Lecha that prophesies can be fulfilled in various ways).