Shoftim 5772 – Gilayon #763

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Parshat Shoftim

When you come to the land that the lord your god

Has given you… And you say: i

will appoint over me a king,

Like all the nations which surround me.

You shall surely appoint over yourself a king

Whom the lord your god shall choose

(Devarim 17, 14-15)


And you will say I will

appoint over myself a king. Said R' Nehorai:

This passage speaks contemptuously of Israel, for it is written (I Samuel 8) 'For it is not you that they have

rejected but they have rejected me from ruling over them.' Said R' Yehudah: But is it not a Torah commandment to request a

king, as is written "You shall surely anoint over

yourself a king whom the Lord your God shall choose?' Why then were they

punished in the days of Shmuel? Because they added:

'Like the nations which surround us.' R' Nehorai

said: They sought a king to force them into idol worship, as is written there

'And we, too, shall be like all the nations, and our king will judge us, and go

out before us and fight our wars'.

(Sifre, Parasaht Shofetim, Piska 13).



you say: I will set over me a king" The meaning of "say" is not expression by speech;

it is rather like "And you say: I want to eat meat", et al.

This usage implies that there was no absolute mitzva

to appoint a king – the matter was optional. Yet it is common knowledge that Chazal considered the appointment of a king to be a

mitzvah! Why, then, does Scripture state "Should you say"? It

would seem that the form of national leadership depends on whether matters are

determined by monarchy or by the will of the people. Some nations cannot bear

monarchial control, whereas for others a state without a king is like a ship

without a captain. This matter cannot be determined by the force of a positive

mitzvah; matters of state leadership touch upon sakanat

nefashotlife-threatening situations, and

considerations of sakanat nefashot take precedence over positive mitzvot. Therefore it is impossible to command the

appointment of a king as long the general public is not in favor of it, seeing

neighboring nations functioning under a better system… Therefore it is

written "Should you say" – if the people demand it, then "[You

may] set, yes, set over you a king".

(Netziv, Haamek Davar, Devarim 17:14)


The monarch and the will of the people

Ariel Rathaus

A memorial lamp for my mother and teacher

Beracha bat Yehuda David

Zuker z"l

Passed away 11 Elul 5744

Rabbi Yitzchak

Abarbanel's approach in interpreting the chapter on

the monarchy in Parashat Shoftim

(Devarim 17:14-20) is

one of the most famous and innovative of his Torah commentaries (and his ideas

are repeated in his commentary on the Early Prophets). Like many other

commentators, Abarbanel asks the classic question about

the seeming contradiction between the Torah passages on monarchy ("And you

shall say: I will appoint upon myself a king… you shall indeed appoint upon

yourself a king… etc.") and what is related in I Shmuel

(8:4-22).when the Children of Israel

request a king, and the prophet initially refuses to accede to their request

and reminds them how heavy will weigh the king's yoke on their necks. What is

unique about Abarbanel is that this question only

serves as a starting point for a comprehensive and deep discussion of the

preferable form of government, among the nations in general and among the Jews

in particular.


conclusion is that no nation needs a king, certainly not the Jewish nation,

whose king is God. Throughout the discussion, the commentator's

intellectual clarity is revealed, along with his deep revulsion at the tyranny

and corruption of rule by one man. Kings, who began to rule "with force

and the stronger overcame", were supposed "to serve the people, but

they became masters", and, in general, the monarchy is a "malignant

leprosy" which spread throughout the world. The history of the Jewish people

does not present a more positive picture, because the kings "turned the

hearts of the children of Israel



R' Yitzchak praises republican rule. He recalls the example of Rome, which,

in his view, reached the peak of its power during its republican period and its

decline was brought about by the Caesars, and also some contemporary examples,

from the political reality of his times: the venerable Venetian republic and

the state of Florence (which enjoyed republican rule for a short period at the

end of 15th century, when Abarbanel

composed his Torah commentary). It is difficult to accept that those republics

were indeed places "with no obstinacy and deviousness, no one raises his

hand against the other nor his foot to any manner of transgression," as Abarbanel wrote, but despite the extreme idealization, one

cannot say that the examples are totally arbitrary. Yet more, even without the

examples, the principle is important: R' Yitzchak Abarbanel

lauds the states ruled by "leaders chosen for set periods" and it is

clear that in his view this is the preferable system of government for man in


It is with

good reason that Abarbanel's words are considered a

highly significant source for the world view which combines Torah with

democracy, but it seems that their very radicalism prevented them having real

influence. Few followed in his footsteps to emphasize, when they spoke about

government according to the Torah, the values of liberty and respect for the

will of the majority. Despite this, we do not lack, in later generations,

examples of similar sensitivity to those values.

A commentator

and thinker whose approach is not far from that of Abarbanel,

and may have been influenced by it, is Rabbi Eliyahu ben Almazog, author of the Torah

commentary "Em LaMikra"

(Livorno 1862-3).

A fascinating figure, a modern scholar who was also a mystic with complete

faith in the secret teachings (Kaballa), he served as

rabbi in the community of Livorno, Italy, in the

second half of the 19th century.

Like Abarbanel (when he wrote his Torah commentary), R' Eliyahu Ben Almozag lived in Italy, but after Abarbanel's

departure, far-reaching changes in the political reality occurred, in Italy and in Europe

in general. A new form of rule came into being, one which combined the

institution of the monarchy with liberal and democratic ideals – the

constitutional monarchy. No wonder that the rabbi of Livorno saw before him not the example of the

Venetian republic, which had ceased to exist, but a form of government close in

spirit and principles to the constitutional monarchy. In his commentary on the

chapter of the monarchy, Ben Almozag emphasizes,

first of all, that the king in Israel

is not the source of the law, but rather high commander of the army and

judge, subservient to the law as everyone else. It was particularly the misunderstanding

of this point that was the Israelites' great mistake when they came to request

of Shmuel a king, and because of this Shmuel reproached them:

 [According to the Torah, the king] was in no

way to be a legislator. He was sometimes called shofet

 a judge – who leads them in war,

whether he himself was head of the judges, or this was a figure of speech, and

when Israel asked for a king, had they not added "to judge us like all the

nations" there would have been no fault in this… they did not want a a head of the army according to Torah law and like some of

the ancient nations, but (they) wanted someone to judge them as is done among

all the nations, that the law be in his hands, free to do as he wishes… (Em L'Mikra, Devarim 17:8)

The Israelites

in Shmuel's times wanted to appoint over themselves

an absolute ruler, one who could change and warp the law arbitrarily, in total

contrast to the Torah's intent. This is an interesting way to explain the

disparity between the passages in our parasha and the

story in the Book of Shmuel, but in the definition of

the character of monarchy according to the Torah, there is nothing unusual. The

halacha expressly

establishes that kings are not above the law and they may themselves be judged

– at least so kings of the Davidic

dynasty (as distinct from the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel

who may not be judged "because they do not heed the Torah's words" – Rambam, "Mishnah Torah",

Laws of Sanhedrim 2:5). Ben Almozag simply assigns

this law a central position, making it the law which expressed the character of

the institution of monarchy in Israel.


continuation of R' Ben Almozag's commentary, however,

is surprising. He asks the question asked repeatedly since the days of the Tanaim, whether "som

tasim" – "you shall surely appoint"

is mandatory or optional, and, in the light of the answer to this question he

attempts to clarify the meaning of the passage: "And you will say: I will

appoint over me a king":

And the view

of the scribes (=the sages) of blessed memory, is that this is a commandment

and their words are true, for there is nothing with greater potential for good

and for bad as the establishment of or a monarchy, and it is inconceivable that

the Torah would leave it up to man's choice without showing him the proper path

and distancing him from its opposite – and if you should say: Why did Scripture

make [the institution of monarchy] dependent upon [the       Israelite] saying "I will appoint over myself, etc."?

I say that the meaning is: Eventually you will    say

it, and this comes to teach us that the appointment of a king can be only by

the will of the people, and it is the choice of the people (with the

anointment by God) which gives the power to rule, and lacking this, he is but a

tyrant and rules by force and is not a king. And they, of blessed memory,

had wonderful things to say on this matter, I wonder if they [the wonderful

things] are to be found among sages of the nations and in all their kingdoms in

the times of our Sages, and this is proof that their words came from a

celestial divine source, as follows (Ruth Rabba 5:6): All those six months in which David was fleeing Absalom were not counted as years

of his reign, because he achieved atonement by [sacrificing] a she-goat like a commoner

(that is to say, he was not considered to be a king, but just a commoner

who offers a she-goat to atone for unintentional transgression)" (Ibid. Devarim 17:14).

It is

worthwhile to compare the above to the words of the Netziv

in his "Haamek Davar"

which was published a few years after "Em L'Mikrah". The Netziv, too,

wonders about the meaning of "and you will say 'I will appoint over myself

a king'", and he, too, explains it as implying that the appointment of a

king is somehow contingent upon "the consensus of the people" (in his

words), but that this agreement is expressed in a different way. In the Netziv's view, for one nation it is good to be led "by

the view of the people and their elected" and another nation "without

a king is like a ship without a captain". The Torah left the choice of system

of rule in the hands of the people, since the leadership of the people is a

matter of life and death, and it is impossible to force upon a nation and form

of govern-ment which is not suitable for it.

Therefore, in his view, paradoxically, the nation can choose (as has happened –

and may yet happen) a "strong" government which will limit its

freedoms and save it he need and bother to choose again.

In contrast to

the words of the Netziv, it seems that for R' Ben Almazog there is no choice of form of rule: The Torah wants

Israel to ruled by a king, but this king is explicitly a constitutional

monarch, he must rule with the people's consent, from the will of the people he

derives all his legitimacy.

One can, of

course, argue with the interpretation offered here by this midrash,

but in the final analysis, this is but an asmachta

b'almaa support [but not an actual, binding

source] It is superfluous to note that it is not the midrash

which is the source of Rav Ben Almozag's

point of vview, but rather his understanding of the

meaning of Israel's Torah. As with Abarbanel, his

perception of the king issue flows from a deep belief that the Torah cannot

champion tyranny, and that only a nation of free men can fulfill the most

important of missions – to adhere to God's ways out of free choice, to choose

the blessing and to reject the curse.


Ariel Rathaus, literary researcher and translator, teaches

in the Hebrew University

in Jerusalem


On war and peace: ethical and

ideological aspects


wage war against it"but not to starve it and not to cause it

to thirst and not to kill it with disease.


are to call out to it in terms of peace"Great is peace, for

even the dead are in need of peace; great is peace, for even in Israel's wars

they need peace; great is peace, for even the celestial beings need peace, as

is written, "He who makes peace in his Heights" (Job

25); great

is peace for with it we conclude the priestly benediction, and Moshe, too,

loved peace, as is written, "Now I sent messengers from the Wilderness

of Kedemot… words of peace" (Devarim 2:26).

(Sifri, Parashat Shofetim, Piska 199)


The afraid and disheartened – Spiritual,

Psychological or Moral Categories?


officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, "Is there anyone

afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home… (Devarim 20:8)

Rabbi Akiva says: Afraid and disheartened is meant

literally – he cannot endure the armies joined in battle or bear to see a drawn

sword. R. Yossi Ha-Galili

says: The afraid and disheartened is he that is afraid for the

transgressions that he has committed; wherefore the Law has kept his punishment

in suspense, so that he may return because of them.

 (Mishnah Sotah 8:5, based on Danby



Jacob was greatly frightened and anxious, so he divided the people with

him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps                                                                                  (Bereishit 32:8)

Was frightened – that he might be


And anxious – that he might kill the others.                                                                  (Rashi loc cit)


"When the Murderers became Numerous – the Eglah Aufah was


How are

we to understand these words of the Sages, relating to the discontinuation of

the eglah arufah

and "bitter waters" [of the Sotah] due to

the proliferation of murderers and adulterers? The answer is that these

commandments involve impressive rites of atonement that were carried out in

exceptionally rare instances, and which were intended to close breaches in the

existing fence…


the foundations of the life of Torah and purity are destroyed, as in our own

days, when murder, bloodshed, rape and adultery are reported almost daily in

the media, and in the context of a society in which murderers act openly, there

is almost something ridiculous and revolting when organizations and

associations devote themselves to battling these phenomena, and we see how what

was in the past a legal institution and an act bearing restorative influence

disappears and is revoked when the generation is unworthy of it.

What is

this like? A rabbinate which proclaimed a dire prohibition

against the butcher using an imperfect knife to slaughter pigs. This is

true as well of the struggle against damaging graves, of which we hear


(Prof. Y. Leibowitz, Sheva Shanim shel Sihot al Parashat

Ha-Shavua, pg. 858)


The Exodus from EgyptContditions

and Purpose

"Atone for Your people"

this refers to the living. Whom you redeemed"– this refers to the

dead; this comes to teach that the dead, too, need atonement thus we learn that

one who sheds blood sins as far back as those who left Egypt.

"Whom you redeemed"

On this condition did you redeem us, that there not be murderers among


                                                                                                                                                                (Sifri, Parashat Shoftim, 210)


And the Sages explained that this

teaches that we were redeemed upon this condition, that there not be found – in

any and all generations – those who spill blood. Now that murderers exist among

us, it is revealed retroactively that those who exited Egypt were not deserving

of redemption, and that all the miracles performed on their behalf were

unnecessary, and because of this sin, the guilt returns to those who left Egypt

whom we now know to have been undeserving; if they had been deserving, their

merit would have saved their descendents from the sin of bloodshed, and

[therefore] they are in need of atonement.

(From Malbim's Commentary on the Sifri)


You Are Not to Raise Yourself a Standing Stone Such As the Lord Your God

Hates" You Are Not to Bow to Stones


standing stone [matsevah] referred to by the

Torah is a construction in which all gather, even to worship the Lord, for this was the

custom of idolaters, as is written, "You are not to raise yourself a standing stone" and whoever raises a

standing stone is to be flogged, and similarly with the decorated stone

mentioned in the Torah, even though one bow on it to God, he is to be flogged, as

is written, "A decorated stone you are not to place in your land, to prostrate

yourselves to it", because this was the custom of the

idolaters, to place a stone before the worshipped object and to prostrate one's

self upon it. Therefore, this is not to be done before God…

(Rambam, Mishne Torah, Law of Idolatry 6, 6)




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