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 the author of God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). Mosaica Press published his first book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew, in 2014, and it became an instant classic. Rabbi Klein has also published papers in several prestigious journals, including Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (New York), Jewish Bible Quarterly (Jerusalem), Kovetz Hamaor (Monsey), and Kovetz Kol HaTorah (London). His weekly articles also appear in the Ohrnet, Jewish Press, Oneg Shabbos, and other publications. Many of his writings and lectures are available for free on the internet. Rabbi Klein is a native of Valley Village, CA and graduated Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, before going to study at the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ. He received rabbinic ordination from leading authorities Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, and Dayan Chanoch Sanhedrai. He is also a member of the RCA, an alumnus of Ohr LaGolah, and was awarded a summer fellowship at the Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men in 2015. He is a long-time member of the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem and lives with his wife and children in Beitar Illit, Israel. Questions and comments can be directed to The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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