Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Shoftim: Divine Dictator or Populist King?

After Joseph told his brothers about his dreams, which seemed to foretell Joseph’s eventual rise to greatness and leadership over his brothers, the brothers responded, “Will you reign over us? Will you rule us?” (Gen. 37:8). Joseph’s brother were not simply waxing poetic by repeating their question. Rather, they were alluding to two different concepts. The first question asks if Joseph thought he will become a melech (king) over his brothers, while the second question asks him if he will be a moshel (ruler). What is the difference between a melech, a king, and a moshel, a ruler”?

Some explain that a melech is the king on top, while a moshel is a governor or the like to whom the king has delegated certain powers or sovereignty. However, the consensus view understands that a melech and a moshel are both the same in terms of their position of power; they differ only in how they got there.

The commentators explain that a melech is someone whose ascent to the throne is commissioned directly by the people. In other words, if the people willingly elect to anoint someone as their leader, he is called a melech. If the people do not necessarily accept their leader’s sovereignty willingly, but rather he takes it from them by force, then he is called a moshel. Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik of Switzerland explains that for this reason the Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 16) says that a groom is comparable to a melech. Just as even the most Machiavellian melech must constantly make concessions to his people in order that they lovingly accept upon themselves his sovereignty, so too must a groom always act with patience and reliability so that his wife will continuously want to remain his partner.

The Vilna Gaon expands on this approach in differentiating between melech and moshel. He writes that the melech arises from within the camp of the masses. The melech possesses no inherent advantage over anyone else, except for the fact that the people had decided to recognize him as king; otherwise, he is their equal. The moshel, on the other hand, serves as a leader because of his abilities, not just because of the people’s whims. The moshel proves his worth in battle and the like, showing that he is more talented than everyone else. Using his abilities, he grabs hold of his constituency, and forces them under his rule. This approach explains why the Jews offered Gideon the position of moshel (Judges 8:22). That is, even though the masses willingly offered him this leadership position, he would have still been called a moshel, not a melech, because they offered him the position only due to his acknowledged military prowess.

The term melech is also applied to G-d, the ultimate King of the Universe. Interestingly, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) justifies the practice of reciting, during the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah, different Biblical verses that speak of G-d’s Kingship, by explaining that G-d said, “You shall say before Me [verses about] kingship in order to make Me king (melech) over you”. By saying these verses, the Jewish People affirm their acceptance of G-d’s role as King of the Universe. But the Talmud assumed that saying those verses is not just an affirmation of accepting G-d’s kingship, but rather makes Him into a king. Why is G-d’s kingship contingent on the Jewish People’s acceptance of His sovereignty? Based on the above, the answer is clear: By showing their willing acceptance of Gd’s kingship, the Jewish People are consolidating G-d’s role as a melech of the world, as opposed to simply a dictatorous moshel.

The Vilna Gaon takes note of an apparent contradiction between two verses cited at the end of the Aleinu prayer. In one verse we say, “For to G-d is the kingship (melucha), and He rules (moshel) over the nations” (Ps. 22:29). This verse implies that G-d holds two roles: for the Jews He is considered a melech because they willingly accept His rule, and for the other nations of the world He is a moshel because He rules them despite their objections. Afterwards, however, we say, “G-d will be the king (melech) over the entire world — on that day G-d will be [recognized as] one and His name as one.” (Zech. 14:9). This implies that He will be a melech over the entire world. The answer must be that while in contemporary times not everyone accepts G-d’s role in the world, in the future Messianic Era, when all truth will be finally revealed, everyone will recognize His role and accept it upon themselves — so G-d will universally be a melech, not a moshel.

By the way, I’m happy to announce the publication of my newest podcast series on the Book of Judges (Sefer Shoftim), entitled “The Book of Judges UNCENSORED“. These lectures on the Book of Judges (Sefer Shoftim) were delivered by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein at the Wild Summer Program in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem (August 2019). They follow follow the Book of Judges based on traditional rabbinic sources. The podcast is also available on Stitcher and Player.FM

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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