י״ב באב ה׳תשע״ז (August 4, 2017)

Sanhedrin 20a-b: Are We Commanded to Establish a Monarchy?

As we have learned, Jewish law recognizes the unique position of the King, who has special laws and dispensations that apply only to him. Does the halakha view the institution of a Jewish monarchy as the ideal state of affairs for governing the Jewish people?

At first glance, this question seems hardly tenable. The Torah clearly commands the appointment of a king upon entering the Land of Israel (see Devarim 17:14-20). Nevertheless, this most basic question is debated on today’s daf.

The Mishna teaches that the king can confiscate fields that belong to others in order to set up a path to his own field. This rule is based on a lengthy passage in Sefer Shmu’el (see I Shmu’el chapter 8) where the prophet Shmu’el replies to the request for a king by describing in detail what the king will do. While Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as teaching that the king has the right to do all that is described there, Rav believes that it was said in response to the request for a king in order to frighten the people into rescinding their request.

A parallel disagreement between tanna’im is brought by the Gemara, with Rabbi Yehuda listing the commandment of establishing a king as one of three mitzvot that the Jewish people had to do upon entering the Land of Israel (along with destroying the nation of Amalek and building the Temple), while Rabbi Nehorai says that the laws of appointing a king were only taught in response to the complaints of the people.

Some of the rishonim understand that Rabbi Nehorai’s teaching applies not so much to the statements in Sefer Shmu’el, but to the commandment that appears in Sefer Devarim. Thus, the Torah is not understood to be obligating the people to establish a monarchy, rather it is teaching what the parameters of the monarchy should be if the people choose to request a king.

This may depend on the intention of the petitioners. The Gemara brings the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer who distinguishes between the elders who requested that Shmu’el establish a king “to judge us” (see I Shmu’el 8:6) and the rabble who insisted that they needed a king so that they could be “like the other nations” (ibid 19-20).

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