A King Over Israel
Devarim 17:14-20 establishes the Halachic framework for the kingship in Eretz Yisrael. Much has been discussed in regard to the nature of these verses. Are they to be treated as an obligation, or do they offer a Halachic structure for a voluntary institution? Is the existence of a corporeal kingship over Israel a fulfillment of an ideal, or a failure? Regardless, these verses were actualized when Shemuel anointed Sha’ul as king over Israel (Shemuel I 9-10).
“Mishneh Torah” in Sefer Devarim
A Jewish king has both restrictions and responsibilities. He cannot have too many horses, marry too many wives, or amass too much wealth. In terms of obligations, Devarim 17:18 tasks the king with the writing of a “Mishneh Torah”:
“VeHaya KeShivto Al Kisei Memelacheto VeKatav Lo Et Mishneh HaTorah HaZot Al Sefer MiLifnei HaKohanim HaLevi’im,” “And it shall be when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a Mishneh Torah in a book, from before the Kohanim and Levi’im.”
The term “Mishneh” can be rendered in a variety of ways, and is most frequently translated as “second.” According to this interpretation, the king is required to write two Sifrei Torah. While there is a broader national obligation to write a Sefer Torah (Devarim 31:19), a king is obligated to write an additional Sefer Torah. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) elaborates that one Torah is to be held in the king’s treasury, and the other must be kept on his person at all times. The purpose of this constant exposure is explicated by the Pesukim (Devarim 17:19-20):
It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem, his God, to observe all the words of the Torah and these decrees, to perform them; so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will prolong years over his kingdom, he and his sons amid Israel.
“Mishneh Torah” in Sefer Yehoshua
The only other time the term Mishneh Torah is used in Tanach is after the battle of Ai when Yehoshua inscribes the “Mishneh Torat Moshe” on stones (Yehoshua 8:32). Radak explains that the basis for the word Mishneh is the phrase “VeShinantam LeVanecha,” “and you shall teach them [the words of the Torah] to your sons” (Devarim 6:7). While the roots of “VeShinantam” and “Mishneh” are different, Radak submits that they both refer to clarification and teaching. Radak cites R. Saadia Gaon, who says that Yehoshua only inscribed a list of Mitzvot on the stones and not the entire Torah. Yehoshua’s inscription served to clarify and summarize the words of the Torah.
Likewise, Rashash believes that the king’s “Mishneh Torah” is also a bullet point summary of the Mitzvot. He bases his interpretation on Targum Onkelos, which renders “Mishneh Torah” as “Patshegen Oraiyta,” meaning the essence or summary of the Torah.1This interpretation of “Patshegen” is based on an understanding of Esther 4:8, in which Mordechai gives Hatach the “Patshegen Ketav HaDat,” “written text of the law” that proclaims the destruction of the Jews. Presumably, this “written text of the law” is a summary of the full legislation. See the Malbim’s commentary on Esther 4:8.
The Failures of the Malchut
Regardless of interpretation, the purpose of the king’s obligation to write a “Mishneh Torah” is clear. The king must be continuously cognizant of the fact that there is a King above him, and that he answers to Him. Unfortunately, time and time again, many of the kings of Sefer Melachim fail to take this message to heart. They fail to heed the words of the various Nevi’im and fail to rid the land of the Bamot and Avodah Zarah. And, as Rambam writes (Hilchot Melachim 3:6), “SheLibo Hu Leiv Kol Kahal Yisrael,” “for his heart in the heart of the congregation of Israel,” the kings’ spiritually deficient behaviors are reflected in the nation’s attitude towards Torah and each other. Eventually, the sins accumulate, the Beit HaMikdash is destroyed, and the nation is exiled. The message of the “Mishneh Torah” is ignored— such is the story of Sefer Melachim.
From David to Destruction
Throughout the 2018-19 school year, Rabbi Jachter taught Sefer Melachim to 102 students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC). Every class, Rabbi Jachter would supply the students with textual material to be studied BeChavruta, in pairs. Towards the end of the period, Rabbi Jachter would assemble the class to discuss the lesson. From David to Destruction is a collection of those discussions.
If the king “shall write for himself” a “Patshegen Oraiyta,” then From David to Destruction, in a similar vein, is an expression of that charge on an institutional level, in which we have recorded and compiled some of the Torah taught at TABC. As the Gemara (Chagigah 3a) boldly posits, “Ee Efshar LeBeit HaMidrash BeLo Chiddush,” “there cannot be a study hall without novelty.” Rabbi Jachter’s class at TABC has produced incredibly innovative insights into Sefer Melachim, and this work aims to share those insights with the broader community.
Rabbi Jachter has fostered a tradition of student involvement in the publication of his books, going back to the year 2000, with (now Rabbi) Ezra Frazer’s (‘96) involvement in the publication of Gray Matter. I began working on From David to Destruction in May 2019, as a part of my senior work-study project.
Throughout my time at TABC, I had the opportunity to work closely with Rabbi Jachter on Kol Torah, the weekly Torah bulletin published under his guidance. I am incredibly grateful for the time I have been able to spend with him, and I look forward to continuing our close relationship in the future.
It is my hope, Be’Ezrat Hashem, that From David to Destruction will inspire others in their study of Sefer Melachim, and that it will encourage further student contribution to the community’s Torah discourse.
Fair Lawn, New Jersey