Is it a mitzvah to have a king?

In Parshat Shoftim, Dvarim 17:14-15 we are taught:

When you arrive in the land that HaShem, your God is giving you and inherit it and live in it, and you say, “Let me appoint over me a king like all the nations around me”; Appoint are you to appoint over yourself a king whom HaShem, your God will choose. From among your brothers are you to appoint over yourself a king; you may not place over yourself a foreigner who is not your brother.

We see from here, that it is permissible, possibly even obligatory to have a king under certain conditions.

If that is the case, then why was Shmuel the prophet so hesitant to allow the nation to have a king? As we see in Shmuel I, 8:4-6:

All the elders of Israel then gathered together and came to Shmuel, to Ramah. They said to him, “You have grown old, and your sons did not follow your ways. So now appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations.” It was wrong in Shmuel’s eyes that they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” and Shmuel prayed to HaShem.

Shmuel may have been hoping that his sons would take over for him and was disappointed when it was made known that they were unworthy.

Another reason could be that Shmuel was not happy that they wanted a king “like all of the nations” as the Jewish kings are very different from the non-Jewish kings. In Dvarim 17:16-20 we read about all of the extra restrictions that God imposes on the king:

However, he must not acquire an abundance of horses for himself so that he will not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire an abundance of horses, because God told you, “You are not to proceed to return along this route again.” And he is not to acquire an abundance of wives for himself so that his heart will not veer; and silver and gold he may not accumulate for himself in great abundance. It shall be, that when he occupies the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a duplicate of this Torah in a scroll form…That his pride not increase over his brothers and he does not stray from the commandment right or left; so that the days of his reign are lengthy over his kingdom, he and his sons within Israel.

In Sifrei, Dvarim 156:6, Rav Nehorai brings up the issue that they requested a king because they wanted to be led to idolatry.

Sforno explains:

God disapproved of the hereditary type of monarchy such as is customary among the gentile nations, so that He stipulated that if the people insisted on appointing a king who would start a dynasty, the initial king had to be approved not only by the people but by God’s representative on God’s behalf as we see in Shmuel I 8:18. The restrictions in appointing the original king were designed to ensure that such a king could not lead the people away from God’s Torah; on the contrary, they are meant for the people to see in him a shining example of Torah- observance, which in turn would inspire their own piety.

We see from here, that the problem was not the fact that they wanted a king. After the period of the Shoftim, Judges, where there was hardly any stable leadership, it makes sense that the nation was looking for a strong leader, especially when they saw that Shmuel’s children were not following in his footsteps. The problem was that they asked for a king “like all of the nations.” That type of king could lead them astray. If they are looking for a king who will follow the rules outlined in the Torah and it is done in the proper place and at the proper time, it can actually be a mitzvah to appoint him.

As we approach the elections in Israel, let’s remember what makes a true leader and try to find candidates with the qualities mentioned in the Torah.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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