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The Monarchic Imperative in Rabbinic Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Gerald J. Blidstein
Department of History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel 84120
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Recent decades have seen a flowering of research into the political tradition and culture of the Jewish people. It seems appropriate, therefore, to undertake an investigation of key rabbinic discussions of a central biblical and historical institution: the monarchy. This study opens with a close reading of the sources and attempts to understand them in their conceptual and literary contexts, moves on to a consideration of possible historical contexts and repercussions, and concludes with some reflections on the relation of our topic to the messianic element in Israel's faith.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1982

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1. Finkelstein, Louis, ed., Sifre to Deuteronomy (Berlin, 1939), section 156, p. 208.Google Scholar

2. 1 Samuel 8:7.

3. Deuteronomy 17:15.

4. 1 Samuel 8:20.

5. 1 Samuel 8:8, which follows immediately upon the verse with which he earlier needled R. Judah. Idolatry, then, sums up the desire “to be like all the nations”; having a king who will judge and war is the concrete, derivative, expression. See B.T. Sanhedrin 20b.

6. Temurah, B.T. 15b, given in the name of R. Joshua (see on!); similarly in Seder 'Olam, chapter 14 (MedievalJewish Chronicles, ed. Neubauer, Adolf, 2 vols. [Oxford, 1887], 2: 45).Google Scholar

7. Semahot, ed. Michael Higger (New York, 1931), p. 151; translated by Zlotnick, Dov, The Tractate Mourning(New Haven, 1966), p. 58.Google ScholarBaron, S. W., A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 17 vols. to date (Philadelphia, 1952), 2114, detects an antimonarchic edge in R. Yohanan b. Zakkai. See also R. Hananiah segan ha-kohanimas cited in Adolf Büchler, Studies in Sin and Atonement(London, 1928), pp. 63–71. This comment, with its clear political tendenz, demonstrates (irrespective of whether one follows Büchler or I. H. Weiss, Dor dor ve-doreshav, 5 vols. [Berlin, 1924], 1:191) the interpenetration of theological construct and political ideology.Google Scholar

8. Rabbah, Genesis, ed. Julius Theodor and Chanoch Albeck, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Jerusalem 1965), 1:419, 2: 624; Deuteronomy Rabbah, ed. Saul Lieberman (Jerusalem, 1940), pp. 63–64. Elsewhere R. Samuel b. Nahman refers to Roman emperor worship: see Leviticus Rabbah, ed. Mordecai Margaliot, 5 vols. (Jerusalem, 1953–1960), 4: 769. The contrasting view, which has Abraham accepting the kingship, is found in Tanhuma Beha'alotekha, 9, and parallels.Google Scholar

9. Deuteronomy Rabbah 5: 8–11; translated by Rabinowitz, J. (London, 1939), pp. 109113Google Scholar. The sheer quantity and concentration of antimonarchic material in this collection is noteworthy from the point of view of literary history. As my discussion indicates, I do not think that these sentiments parallel the Hellenistic antimonarchic attitudes collated by Halevi, E. E., “The King's Law” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 38 (1968): 225230.Google Scholar

10. Midrash pitron torah, ed. Urbach, E. E. (Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 333334Google Scholar ought mention, at this point, one final, rather inscrutable text, on the subject of the tension of Heavenly and Terrestrial in our context. The Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin, chap. 2, end) tells of a fourth century Samaritan who twitted (?) a rabbi: “See what it says, ‘You shall place a king over you.’ It doesn't say I (i.e., God) will put a king over you, but you, you will make a king for yourselves.” Is the Samaritan taking an exegetical poke at the rabbi by pointing out that designation of a king is in the people's hands—the view taught by Samaritan biblical history (at least according to The Samaritan Chronicle I, ed. John Macdonald [Berlin, 1969], pp. 101–2)? That the appointments of both Saul and David did not have divine approval (see John Macdonald, Theology of the Samaritans[London, 1964], p. 18)? Or ought the comment be read in its historical context as a gibe at the pretensions of the Davidic Patriarchs, who had recently shifted the halakhah to an anti-Samaritan position (according to Gedaliah Allon, Toledot ha-yehudim, 2vols. [Tel-Aviv, 1961], 2: 251)? Indeed the talmudic chapter closed by this anecdote is replete with tales of conflict between sages and Patriarchs, as Goitein, S. D., “The Attitudes Towards Government in Islam and Judaism” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 19 (1948): 155, has pointed out.Google Scholar

11. See n. 1. My translation reflects the natural reading, where R. Judah responds to R. Nehorai and then must counter the dilemma raised by 1 Samuel. It is also possible to translate (in somewhat forced fashion): “… since it is a miṣvahto appoint a king, … why were they punished?” R. Judah's comment would then derive from a discussion of the Samuel texts, and it will have been the editor who produced the appearance of a debate. The first reading is much sounder and is also supported by Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:5, ed. M. S. Zuckermandel, 2d ed. (Jerusalem, 1937), p. 421.

12. See also Sifre, Deuteronomy, sec. 157, p. 209, line 5.

13. Sifre, Deuteronomy, sec. 68 (p. 132) and parallels.

14. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, ed. H. S. Horowitz and I. A. Rabin (Frankfurt, 1931), p. 186. The Oxford MS ed, princ, and Yalqut Shim'oni (Salonica, 1526; altered in subsequent editions) give: “when the kingsits,” which is doubtless a correction based on R. Judah's midrash as found in Sifre and Talmud (B. T. Sanhedrin 20b). Thirteenth century Midrash Ha-Gadol, ed., Mordecai Margaliot (Jerusalem, 1956), p. 345, in fact derives R. Judah's view from R. Joshua. Mekhilta de-Rashbi, ed. J. N. Epstein and E. Z. Melamed (Jerusalem, 1955), p. 126, line 28, diplomatically omits the subject of the phrase altogether! R. Eliezer. Mekhilta de-RI, lines 4–7. (A different sequence may be reflected in Mekhilta de-RI, p. 150, lines 8–14.)

15. Sifre, Deuteronomy, sec. 6, p. 14; , Sifre, Numbers, ed. Horowitz, H. S. (Leipzig, 1917), p. 181Google Scholar, lines 6–8; Vermes, Geza, “The Symbolic Interpretation of Lebanon in the Targums”, Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958): 115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16. Sifre, Deuteronomy, sec. 157, p. 208, line 13; p. 209, line 5. Interestingly, M. Sanhedrin 2:5 derives the duty of reverence of kings from this verse (not, as does Sifre, p. 209 lines 1–4, from the second use of tasimin Deut. 17:15); yet since even that phrase can sustain a number of homilies, I do not believe that the Mishnah intends to reject the imperative of appointing a king. True, the Mishnah does not list the requirement—but neither does it list the requirement of appointing a Sanhedrin. But cf. Ze'ev (Wilhelm) Bacher, 'Aggadot ha-tanna'im, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1922), vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 141, n. 13.

17. Sanhedrin 20b; Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:5, p. 421; Midrash Tanna'im, ed. David Hoffmann (Berlin, 1908), p. 104. An alternative cause for God's displeasure is the impropriety of the commoner's motivation as opposed to that of the elders. This view is attributed by the Tosefta and some Talmud MSS to R. Eleazar b. R. Jose, and by other MSS of the Talmud to R. Eleazar b. Zadok (Diqduqei soferim, ad loc), sages who lived at or after the time of R. Judah. Some MSS also eliminate the talmudic tanya, so that this view literally follows that of R. Nehorai, and is not an independent, earlier, source. Finkelstein's attempt (in the note to his edition of Sifre, line 7) to identify R. Judah with this view is puzzling since nothing is there said about the commoners speaking before (i.e., “rushing”) the elders. Note also Bacher, 'Aggadot, yet see his alternative explanation, p. 152, n. 18. See also Kimhi to 1 Samuel 8:5.

18. Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews 7 vols. (Philadelphia 1909–1938), 6: 230, n. 47, citing Pseudo-Philo 56: 1–3.Google Scholar

19. Thus: “… go anoint him whom I shall tell thee, for the time is fulfilled wherein his kingdom shall come” (59:1, Montague R. James, trans., Biblical Antiquities of Philo[London, 1917], p. 231). See Charles Perrot and Pierre-Maurice Bogaert, Pseudo-Philon: Les Antiquites Bibliques.2 vols. (Paris, 1976), 2: 226–27. For the dating (70–132 C.E.) and provenance (Palestine) of pseudo-Philo, see Louis H. Feldman's “Prolegomenon” to the New York, 1971 reissue of Charles's edition, pp. XXII-XXXI.

20. Antiquities6:39: “… into what a change they are rushing”; 6:43: “… They pressed him importunately …”

21. Here ; there (see at n. 22): The phrase incidentally, is not always used in a negative sense; see Mekhilta de-RI, p. 214, 1. 6.

22. Sifre, Deuteronomy, sec. 67, p. 132, and parallels.

23. Exodus 17:16, and see at n. 14; Deuteronomy 12:10–11. Other proof texts follow, with further literary elaboration in B.T. Sanhedrin 20b.

24. That order (king, temple, Amalek) is also found in Tosefta, op. cit., and in R. Hananel's epitome at Sanhedrin 20b. Interestingly, Sifre, Deuteronomy, sec. 6, p. 14, spoke only of king and temple: does this reflect its exegetical base? Or an earlier tradition that did not yet include Amalek—which, when first added, went to the end of the line until conceptually integrated by the midrash before us?

25. The fact that Saul is commanded to war against Amalek immediately upon his accession (1 Samuel 15:1–3) is not cited, indicating either a Davidic predilection or the fact that the midrash, at this point, considers the sequential priority of king-Amalek to be assured and is concerned only about the sequence of Amalek-Temple.

26. Epstein, J. N., Mevo'ot le-sifrut ha-tanna'im(Jerusalem, 1957), pp. 539541.Google Scholar

27. Thus, the question, “…why were they punished…?” and of course the reply, can be severed (rather crudely) from the opening statement of R. Judah and assigned to an anonymous speaker; while this statement does appear in Tosefta, op. cit., it is lacking at Sanhedrin 20b and of course in Sifre, sec. 67.

28. Schechter, Solomon, “Mekhilta to Deuteronomy,” Festschrift…Israel Lewy (Breslau, 1911), Hebrew section, pp. 191192. Prof. Saul Lieberman has referred to this midrash as an “ancient work”: “Notes” to Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind, 3d ed. (New York, 1972), p. 371, to n. 26. See also below, n. 54.Google Scholar

29. Seen. 18.

30. Deuteronomy 12:5.

31. Deuteronomy 11:31.

32. Deuteronomy 12:10.

33. Schechter (note to line 44) is puzzled by this assertion and suggests Proverbs 24:21 as its source.

34. Deuteronomy 25:19. Seen. 36.

35. 1 Samuel 8:5.

36. It is difficult to see how Deuteronomy 25:19 supports the sequence Temple-Amalek. Does “inheritance” refer midrashically to the Temple, as in Mekhilta de-RI to Exodus 15:17 (p. 149)? That very midrash takes the “inheritance” of Deuteronomy 25:19 to mean the Land of Israel! Interestingly, the Munich MS to B.T. Sanhedrin 20b (Diqduqei soferim, note 50) takes the verses Deuteronomy 25:19–20 (in place of Deuteronomy 12:10–11) to demonstrate the sequence Amalek-Temple: first (v. 19) war on Amalek, then bring first fruits to the Temple (v. 20). Might this not be R. Jonathan's intention? But our text does read: “the Temple precedes Amalek”; cf. also Mekhilta de-RI, p. 150, lines 8–14.

37. Midrash Shemuel, ed. Solomon Buber (Cracow, 1893), p. 42, par. 4.Google Scholar

38. Yalqut to 1 Samuel 8:7, and Kimhi to Hosea 3:5: “Israel will not see redemption until…”

39. Hosea 3:5.

40. See nn. 14, 24. The identification of Amalek with Rome is well known.

41. Tehillim, Midrash, ed. Solomon Buber (Vilna, 1891), p. 127, par. 4. See also Pesiqta Rabbati, ed. Meir Friedmann (Vienna, 1895), p. 6b; Midrash Shemu'el, p. 94; Mekhilta to Deuteronomy, p. 191, lines 7–13, and n. 54 below. It would seem significant that Midrash Tehillim speaks of “the thousands who fell in battle,” though the biblical text speaks of a “plague.” Actually, rabbinic texts elsewhere indicate that “plagues” may be used as code for “war” (see Allon, Toledot, 2:42–43).Google Scholar

42. See Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:5, p. 421, where normative conclusions are drawn from the baraita; B.T. Kiddushin 38a (bottom).

43. Seen. 17, above.

44. See Rashi, Sanhedrin 20b, s.v. shalosh; Maimonides, Sefer ha-miṣvot, addendum to Positive Commands; B.T. Kiddushin 38a; Goldin, Judah, “The First Pair”, AJSreview 5 (1980):4143.Google Scholar

45. M. Kiddushin4:14.

46. R. Judah was appreciative and admiring of Roman accomplishments, according to the story told in B.T. Shabbat 33b.

47. Issues of sequence are raised primarily in connection with the proper order of Temple ritual.

48. The actual status granted Bar Kochba is a matter of discussion cf. Allon, G., Toledot, pp. 33ff., and in Samuel Yeivin, Milhemet Bar Kokhba, 2d ed. (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 77Google Scholar; Schurer, Emil, History of the Jewish People, ed. Vermes, Geza, 2 vols. to date (Edinburgh, 1973), 1543, but even the term nasihas monarchic overtones and R. Akiba, for one, is cited (P.T. Ta'anit 68d) as declaring Bar-Kochba to be “King Messiah.”Google Scholar

49. G. Allon, Toledot, pp. 34–38; Schurer, History, pp. 545–46 and n. 145. Allon's reading of “Jerusalem” as symbolic of the constitutional role of the people as over against the leadership (pp. 37–38) is not convincing. See also Bowerstock, G. W., “A Roman Perspective on the Bar Kochba War,” in Green, W. S., ed., Approaches to Ancient Judaism, 2 (Missoula, Mont, 1980), pp. 136137.Google Scholar

50. Tosefta, 'Avodah Zarah 1:19, p. 461; Michael Avi-Yonah, Bi-yemei Roma u-Bizanṭiyon, 4th ed. (Jerusalem, 1970), p. 65Google Scholar. The political tendenzof this comment is underscored by its attribution to Yohanan, R. b. Zakkai along with two clearly anti-Zealotic teachings in 'Avot de-Rabbi Natan, ed. Schechter, Solomon (Vienna, 1887), Version B, chapter 31, p. 67.Google Scholar

51. Pesiqta Rabbati, ed. Friedmann, M., p. 7a; trans. W. G. Braude, 2 vols. (New Haven, 1968), 1:5657.Google Scholar

52. Mekhilta de-RI, p. 343. Significantly, this same generalization is attributed to R. Simeon b. Eleazar, but the specifics, e.g., Temple, are omited (B.T. Shabbat 103a, and see at note 50, above).

53. See Urbach, E. E., “The Edict of Cyrus in Rabbinic Perspective” [Hebrew], Molad 19 (1961): 373, n. 15.Google Scholar

54. Thus Mekhilta to Deuteronomy (p. 191, lines 7–12) states: “‘Ye shall seek His habitation’—this means that they are required to demand () a Temple… Now, a fortiori: if they are required thus to demand a Temple before one is built, certainly [they are required to demand one] after it has been built [and destroyed]. ‘His habitation’—R. Simeon b. Yohai says, “This refers to Yavneh.” “Ye shall seek His habitation'—Therefore the prophets and sages… directed Israel to pray, thrice daily: ‘Return Thy presence to Zion and the Temple-service to Thy city Jerusalem.’” The final homily refers, or course, to liturgical practice; but what of the first one, which speaks of “demanding” a Temple? In Midrash Shemu'el, p. 94, the homily elsewhere attributed to R. Simeon b. Yohai (see n. 41, above) concludes with a more historically personalized version of the above (“all those…fell because they did not demand the building of the Temple…all the more so ought we, therefore the prophets and sages ordained…”), and the demand is identified—by a later editor?—with prayer. See also Tehillim, Midrash, and Rabinowitz, Z. M., Ginzei Midrash(Tel-Aviv, 1977), p. 204. Yet the fault of David's men lay not only in their flawed prayer, and one wonders whether David himself, who is also blamed for not “demanding” a Temple (Pesiqta Rabbati, p. 6b) was only deficient in prayer. Prayer, then, is at least an indicator of desire, and perhaps more; but focusing on liturgical formulae blunts activist urgency. Thus Midrash Tehillim has: “…and ordained a separate benediction, ‘God …rebuilds Jerusalem,‘” which seems to speak to the much narrower question of combining or separating the blessings for Davidic monarchy and the Temple in the prayer. Note, incidentally, the non-Temple orientation of R. Simeon in the Mekhilta passage cited!Google Scholar

55. Seen. 26 above.

56. See Gaon, Saadiah ben Joseph, Sefer ha-miṣvot, ed. Perla, Y. F., 3 vols. (Warsaw, 1914), 3:230–32.Google Scholar

57. The materials cited in Urbach, E. E., The Sages, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1975), 1: 690–92 might also be seen in a similar perspective.Google Scholar

58. Beer's, Moshe “Simeon Bar Yohai and Jerusalem” [Hebrew], Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, ed. Oppenheimer, Aaron (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 361–75, appeared after I completed this essay. That paper referred me to Beer's earlier study in the Memorial Volume for David Hacohen, Nezer 'eḥav (Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 196–206. Both papers complement this study.Google Scholar