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The Kingdom of the House of David

Text file

Translated by David Silverberg

            Commenting on Yaakov’s blessing to Yehuda, “The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda” (Bereishit 49:10), the Ramban addresses at length the concept of kingship in Am Yisrael.  He establishes that “from the time that Yehuda became the tribe of the monarchy, it shall not depart from him to another tribe.”  Thus, all the kings of the northern kingdom during the period of the First Temple “violated the will of their forefather [Yaakov]” (with the exception of Yeravam, who was appointed by a prophet).  The Ramban adds that, their righteousness notwithstanding, the Hasmonean kings were annihilated as punishment “for their having reigned without having descended from Yehuda and Beit David (the Davidic line).”

            Thus, according to the Ramban, Yaakov’s departing words to his children introduce the prohibition against anyone from a different tribe assuming the monarchy in Am Yisrael.  (However, the Ran [Derashot, 7] argues that Yaakov’s final charge to his sons presented only a promise, not a prohibition.)

            It would appear, then, that in the Ramban’s view any monarch from a different ancestry would not attain the formal halakhic status of “king.”  Such a position, however, directly contradicts a comment in the Gemara (Horiyot 11b) regarding the special sin-offering of the “nasi” discussed in Parashat Vayikra (4).  The Gemara there identifies this sacrifice as one brought exclusively by a king, and adds that kings from both the Davidic line as well as the northern kingdom would bring this offering after committing certain transgressions. 

            We are thus compelled to broaden the definition of the term “nasi” in this context as referring not to halakhically recognized kingship, but rather to practical authority and leadership over the nation.  Indeed, the word “nasi” denotes a leader of supreme authority, regardless of the official title of “king.”  It therefore stands to reason that even if the kings of the northern kingdom did not attain the halakhic stature of a king, as the Ramban maintains, they would nevertheless be included in this korban.

            As for the reign of King Shaul, a descendant of the tribe of Binyamin, the Ramban claims that his was merely a temporary kingship.  As the time for the permanent, eternal kingship had yet to arrive, his reign had never been intended to last for an extended period.  (If not for his sin, he would have likely retained his rule over the tribes of Binyamin, Efrayim and Menashe, but not over the tribe of Yehuda.)  By contrast, the Meiri (in Horiyot) writes that Shaul had never achieved the status of king, but rather had the status of “an appointee and one running the kingdom as a treasurer or overseer until the king’s arrival.”

            It appears from the Rambam’s comments in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (lo ta’aseh 362) that, theoretically, anyone from among Benei Yisrael could have ascended the throne.  However, “as you already know from the books of prophecy, David and his offspring after him earned [the kingship] for all eternity.”  Unlike the Ramban, the Rambam maintains that the source for Yehuda’s exclusive rights to the monarchy emerges from the prophets, rather than the Torah.  Nevertheless, he writes, “For one who believes in the Torah of Moshe, the master of all prophets, there is no king other than from the family of Shlomo.”  Similarly, in his formulation of the twelfth of the thirteen principles of faith in his introduction to Chapter “Chelek” in Masekhet Sanhedrin, the Rambam views this exclusive right to the monarchy held by David’s family as an important component of our belief.  The belief in the arrival of the Messiah, he writes, includes the doctrine “that there is no king for Yisrael other than from the house of David and Shlomo’s offspring.  Whoever challenges this family denies God and the words of His prophets.”

            An allusion to a possible source for his view appears in the Rambam’s comments in the aforementioned passage in Sefer Ha-mitzvot.  There he compares the kingship of David’s family to the priesthood: “…just as any family aside from Aharon’s is considered ‘foreign’ as far as the avoda [service in the Mikdash] is concerned.”  On this basis, the Brisker Rav points to the following comment of the Mekhilta (Parashat Bo, 12:1) as the source for the Rambam’s position:

Until Aharon was selected, all Yisrael were fit for the priesthood; once Aharon was selected, all Yisrael were excluded… Until David was selected, all Yisrael were fit for the kingship; once David was selected, all Yisrael were excluded, as it says, “Surely you know that the Lord God of Israel gave David kingship over Israel” (II Divrei Ha-yamim 13).

            Thus, according to the Rambam’s view, that the selection of David excludes all others from the monarchy, the appointment of a king from a different family violates the simple meaning of the verse, “You may not appoint over yourself a foreigner.”  One who denies this effectively denies the entire Torah.

            This position, however, seems to contradict the Rambam’s own ruling in Hilkhot Melakhim (1:8):

If a prophet establishes a king from the other tribes of Yisrael, and that king follows the path of the Torah and the commandments and fights the wars of God, he is considered a king, and all the mitzvot concerning the kingship apply to him.

He explains (in halakha 9) that the only distinction between a king from the Davidic line and one from the other tribes involves the endurance of the monarchy: only kings from David will retain their leadership forever; a monarchy from other tribes will not last.  How can we reconcile this position with his comments in Sefer Ha-mitzvot?

            One could suggest that the Rambam here retracted his view expressed in Sefer Ha-mitzvot.  He concludes that, unlike the monarchies established from other tribes, that of Beit David constitutes a single, multi-generational entity of kingship.  Kings from other tribes can establish only their own rule and pass it down to their heirs through inheritance.  However, the reigns of father and son are two distinct monarchies, not components of a single dynasty.  Therefore, the kingship established by those from other tribes will not endure.

            Rav Yitzchak Herzog zt”l suggested a different solution.  Although a prohibition indeed exists against the crowning of a king from a different tribe, in certain situations of dire need, such as when no suitable candidate for the throne can be found from Yehuda, the nation may appoint a king of a different lineage.  The prohibition forbids the formation of a parallel kingdom to that of Beit David.  The nation may appoint a king from a different tribe if his position is clearly distinguishable from that of a king from David’s family.

            Though at first we may have limited this possibility to instances of explicit permission granted by a prophet, the Rambam’s famous comments at the beginning of Hilkhot Chanuka clearly suggest otherwise: “The family of the Chashmonaim prevailed … and kingship returned to Yisrael for over two hundred years.”  Apparently, a temporary kingdom may be established from a different tribe even without the explicit orders of a prophet.  Rav Kook zt”l (in Mishpat Kohen) explains this phenomenon in two ways.  The first emerges from the comments of the Radbaz (Hilkhot Melakhim 3:8), which imply that a general consensus of the people has the same authority to crown a king as a prophetic appointment.  Secondly, Rav Kook suggests, the entire prohibition may apply only when a concurrent kingdom from Beit David exists.  When no king from Yehuda rules over the nation, the people may crown a king from a different tribe.

            Earlier, we assessed the situation of a leader with undisputed authority but without the formal status of “kingship.”  We may also address the opposite situation, of a king from Beit David who does not exert practical authority.

            This issue arises in the Yerushalmi (Horiyot 3:2), which claims that during the period of Avshalom’s revolt, the temporarily-ousted King David brought the sacrifices of a commoner, rather than those of a king.  Such a position calls into question the death sentence issued against Shimi ben Gera, who stoned and cursed David as he left Jerusalem during his son’s revolt.  Why was Shimi considered a “mored be-malkhut,” a rebel against the monarchy, if David had lost his official status as king?  Indeed, the Parashat Derakhim (11) concludes that Shimi’s conduct during the rebellion did not, in fact, render him liable for the death sentence; his sentence came on account of a different crime (his disobedience to Shlomo).  However, the Rambam himself points to Shimi’s humiliation of David as an example of forbidden disrespect towards a king (Hilkhot Melakhim 3:8).

            The answer to this question appears to lie in the distinction drawn earlier between the formal status of king and the actual functioning as such.  The special sin-offering of a “nasi” is required of one who, practically speaking, exercises monarchical control over the populace.  One who bears the formal title of king but enjoys no authority does not bring this special sacrifice.  He does, however, retain his official status of monarch.  As such, all laws pertaining to the Jewish king would apply, including the death sentence against rebels.  This explanation perhaps emerges from Rashi’s comments on the verse’s description of Shimi’s crime: “He raised his hand against the king, against David” (II Shmuel 2:21).  Rashi writes, “‘Against the king’ - even if he were not David [Shimi would deserve the death sentence]; ‘against David’ - even if he were not king.” 

            We may understand in a similar vein the distinction between Shaul’s kingship, which he lost as a result of his sin, and that of David, who retained his monarchy and bequeathed it to his offspring despite his wrongdoing.  Shaul merely functioned as king; he never earned the formal, personal status thereof.  Once his sin revealed that he did not function appropriately in this capacity, he lost his rights to authority.  David, by contrast, had assumed this official status; therefore, his sin could not divest him of his royalty.

            In light of all we have said, we may present the following hierarchy of Jewish kingship:

I.       A king from the House of David who enjoys authority over the nation is the classic king, regarding whom all laws relevant to kingship apply and who transfers his power to his biological heir.

II.    If a king from a different tribe is crowned by a prophet (or, according to the Radbaz, by a consensus of Benei Yisrael), all laws of kingship apply, but his rule will not pass to the next generation.  (On this same level may stand the Jewish king from a different tribe who rules in a period without a king from Beit David, such as during the dynasty of the Hasmoneans.)

III.  If a king from Beit David does not, for whatever reason, exercise control over the nation, it appears from the Rambam that all laws of the monarchy nevertheless apply to him, with the exception of the king’s sin-offering, which depends on the actual exercise of authority.

IV. If a king from a different tribe ascends the throne without the explicit appointment of a prophet, then it would appear that according to the Rambam all the laws of the kingship would apply.  In the Ramban’s view, however, he has violated a prohibition and is not considered a king at all.  (This also would appear to be the case according to Tosafot, Sanhedrin 20b, regarding the regal authority of Achav.)  Nevertheless, even according to the Ramban, such a king’s enjoyment of royal powers would require him to bring the special sacrifice of a king.

            In Hilkhot Melakhim (11:1), the Rambam writes, “The Messianic king will, in the future, arise and restore the kingship of David to its prior glory.”  Once again, the Rambam clearly expresses a strong connection between the Messiah and the monarchy.  Additionally, we see here, too, the view of the kingship of Beit David as a single royal entity, as the Rambam considers the Messiah’s rule to be “the kingship of David,” precisely akin to the reign of David himself.

            May we soon earn the privilege of seeing the return of the monarchy of David Ha-melekh.

(This is a student summary of a shiur delivered in the yeshiva on Motza’ei Shabbat Parashat Vayechi 5748 [1988].)

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