Parashat Shoftim: Shaping the role of the king

The three things forbidden a Jewish king – ostentation, pleasure and personal wealth – were the central characteristics of monarchies throughout history

August 17, 2018 10:49
3 minute read.
STUDY OF King David, 1866. (Depicts Sir Henry Taylor; Wikimedia Commons)

STUDY OF King David, 1866. (Depicts Sir Henry Taylor; Wikimedia Commons). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, deals at length with the various authoritative branches in the Jewish state: judiciary, legislative, and executive. It is important to note that the legislative branch with which our Torah portion deals is divided into two authorities: the halachic (Jewish law) legislative branch – the high court (beit din gadol) in Jerusalem – and the civilian legislative authority (the king).

Already in the Torah, the concept of monarchy created a complex and problematic issue. The style of writing points to this clearly. “When you come to the land... and you say, ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,’ you shall set a king over you...” (Deuteronomy 17, 14-15) The monarchy is presented here as being the will of the nation wishing to imitate its neighbors. Despite this, generations of commentators debated whether the instruction “You shall set a king over you” is a commandment or an instruction dependent on the will of the people. We will not determine who is correct in this debate; however, let us examine the way the Torah treats the king, his reign and his political power.

We find three restrictions placed upon the king in the Torah, and each one has its own explanation.

First, “He may not acquire many horses for himself.”

The king is restricted in his personal cavalry, something that every king in ancient times boasted about. The reason given is “so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses.”

Second, “He shall not take many wives for himself.”

The king cannot set up a royal harem. Having multiple wives was a known diplomatic practice in ancient times. Kings would forge diplomatic ties with other monarchies by marrying another king’s daughter.

The reason given for this restriction is “His heart must not turn away.”

And third, “He shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself.” Rich kings are the way of the world but a Jewish king is not supposed to accumulate great wealth, the reason being “so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers.” Wealth leads to haughtiness, and the king is commanded not to be arrogant despite his position.

ACTUALLY, THE role of king in Israel, when carried out in accordance with the Torah’s instructions, is not that tempting. Fanciness, pleasures and personal wealth were all forbidden. So what was left of the kingship? Mostly jobs and missions to accomplish.

So, what is the job of a king? We cannot learn this from history, since most kings we know of took advantage of their status for their personal gain, or acted out of concern for their own respect. The three things forbidden a Jewish king – ostentation, pleasure and personal wealth – were the central characteristics of monarchies throughout history. If Judaism took these away from the king, how does it view the king’s role? A chapter in Psalms is dedicated to this subject in which we find the following verses: “For he will save a needy one who cries out, and a poor one who has no helper.

“He will have pity on the poor and needy, and he will save the souls of the needy.

“From blows and from robbery he will redeem their soul, and their blood will be dear in his eyes.” (Psalms 72, 12-14) The job of the king is to be concerned about the welfare of the nation, in particular, the weaker segments of society that cannot take care of themselves.

When we think about it, it makes perfect sense for the king to be responsible for the welfare of his people.

He is, after all, the person running the country with the ability to lead to prosperity in all facets of life. Who should concern himself with the prosperity of the nation and its welfare if not the king? But, as we pointed out, history is full of examples of kings who did not act this way. The Torah recognizes this problem and deals with it by placing these restrictions on the king. If the king is forbidden to concern himself with his own prosperity and cannot therefore become arrogant, the Torah leaves him to deal only with his moral obligations to his people.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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