Before the election for the first Knesset in January 1949, a number of leading rabbis issued a Kol Koreh proclamation urging their flock to participate, stating that it was a “mitzvah to vote!” The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, was approached by one of his hassidim who asked, “is it really a mitzvah? A mitzvah like eating matzah?” The Belzer Rebbe thought for a moment and quipped, “Maybe more like eating maror!”
For many frustrated Israelis, voting in a fourth election in two years feels like “eating maror.” But is participating in the electoral process just a mere civic duty or is it a mitzvah?
The Torah commands: “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom the Lord your God shall choose” (Deuteronomy 17:15). In fact, according to Maimonides, appointing a king is one of three mitzvot to be fulfilled upon entering the Land of Israel (Hilchot Melakhim 1:1; Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Aseh 173. See also Sanhedrin 20b; Sifrei, Re’eh).
But what about electing a body to govern the modern State of Israel?
In a responsum written in 1916, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook defends the creation of a modern democratic state in Israel, even without a king or Sanhedrin (Mishpat Kohen 144). Kook argues that in the absence of a Sanhedrin or a prophet, a king can be appointed by “consent of the Jewish Nation.” He continues, “When there is no king, since the laws of government concern the general welfare of the Nation, the rights of government return to the Nation” (See Radbaz to Hilchot Melakhim 3:8, who also assumes a king can be appointed by consent).
According to Rav Kook, the Jewish people have the right to self-determination and have the authority to create a government at all times. He goes as far as saying that “any lawmaker that arises in Israel has the status of king concerning governing the state.” He cites the Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:13), who rules that the reish galuta (exilarch) in Babylonia had the status of king, and writes, “all the more so when there are leaders chosen by the Nation when she is in her sovereign land.”
Based on the above, it would appear that according to Kook electing a body to govern the Jewish Nation is indeed a fulfillment of the mitzvah to appoint a king. (See also Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Amud ha-Yemini 7).
In addition, the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:18) instructs us to “appoint judges and officers in all of your cities,” establishing a just and equitable society. This mitzvah includes creating a central supreme court and local district courts, as well as appointing officers to enforce the law. Without a government, there would be total anarchy. The Mishna (Avot 3:2) states: “Rabbi Chanina, deputy High Priest, said: Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive.” A democratically elected government ensures that no one “swallow one another alive.”
But beyond swallowing “one another alive,” a government ensures a quality of life. Many pages in the Talmud discuss the responsibility members of a community have to their community and to one another. The Talmud also describes the responsibilities that officials have to their community, and even the process of electing community leaders and the need for consensus. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak taught: “One may not appoint a leader over the community unless it is by consent of the community” (Berachot 55a). In fact, all decisions concerning the community require a consensus and the support of a majority (Rema, Hoshen Mishpat 163:1).
According to the Rashba, the leaders of a community need not be the wisest of sages, but rather the individuals that a community elects to govern them. And those elected leaders have significant authority over the community (See Rema, Hoshen Mishpat 2:1).
On October 3, 1984, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein penned a letter encouraging the Jewish community to vote in the upcoming US Presidential Elections. He wrote:
“A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent on each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote. Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible, and by voting. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.”
If Rabbi Feinstein felt that a citizen of the US is obligated to perform their civic duty and vote, all the more in Israel, especially with all that is at stake.
And while the “heart of the King is in the Hand of God” (Proverbs 21:1), it is in our hands to choose our leaders.
Among the many contemporary authorities who have ruled that it is indeed a mitzvah to vote in Israel’s elections are rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu, Shlomo Aviner, Ratzon Arusi and David Stav.
Voter turnout for the country’s first election in 1949 was 86.9%, but recent years have seen a decline. With so many crucial issues hanging in the balance – the pandemic response, economic stability, education, safety and security, just to name just a few – it should be a sin not to vote! Exercising our civic duty and participating in Israel’s elections is both an obligation and an opportunity to build the Jewish state together and ensure a bright future for our children and their children.The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof’s Kehilat Zichron Yosef.