Character vs. Environment

And it will be that when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy[1] of this Torah as a book from before the kohanim of the leveyim.  And it will be with him.  He will read it all the days of his life.  In this way he will learn to fear Hashem his G-d and to observe all of the words of this Torah and its statutes in order to perform them. His heart will not be lifted above his brothers and he will not turn from the commandment to the right or left.  In this manner he will lengthen the days of his rule – he and his sons among Israel.   (Sefer Devarim 17:18-20)

1.  The king’s obligation to write a sefer Torah

Parshat Shoftim discusses the appointment of a king.  A king is subject to some special laws.  One of these is described in the above passages.  Upon assuming authority, the king is obligated to write for himself a copy of the Torah.

Maimonides’ code of Torah law includes a section that is devoted to the laws related to kings and associated material.  In this section he explains that the king is required to create a personal copy of the Torah.  He transcribes his copy from the Torah scroll kept in the courtyard of the Sacred Temple – the Bait HaMikdash.  He is required to keep this personal copy with him at virtually all times.  Even when engaged in a military campaign he is required to have his Torah with him.[2]

Maimonides’ discussion of this requirement in his comments regarding the king is the second occasion in which he discusses this requirement in his code – Mishne Torah.  Earlier, he explains that every male is required to create for himself his own sefer Torah – Torah scroll[3]. According to Maimonides, this requirement is one of the Torah’s six hundred and thirteen commandments – the taryag mitzvot.[4]  Maimonides adds that a king is required to transcribe for himself a second copy of the Torah upon ascending to the throne.  The requirement upon the king is also one of the taryag mitzvot.[5]  In other words, the king is subject to two commandments in regard to transcribing the Torah.  He is included in the commandment that applies to all males and he is the subject of a specific commandment incumbent upon kings.  He discharges his obligations by transcribing two copies of the Torah.  The second copy – transcribed upon ascension to the throne – is to be with him at virtually all times.

2.  Maimonides redundant treatment of the king’s obligation

Maimonides’ Mishne Torah is composed with enormous precision.  The work is precise, concise, and orderly.  It is notable that Maimonides deals with the king’s obligation to transcribe a sefer Torah in two locations. He first describes the mitzvah in the laws related to the sefer Torah.  He then repeats the discussion in his presentation of the laws of kings.  In the second discussion very little is added that could not have been included in the prior discussion.

There is another more subtle aspect to this repetition.  Maimonides opens each section of his code with a brief list of the commandments that will be discussed in the section.  Each commandment of the Torah is listed only once.  In other words, each commandment is assigned to a section and to only a single section.  This system organizes the commandments into groups and suggests connections and relationships among the commandments.

For example, the prohibition against incantations is listed among these commandments enumerated at the opening of the section dealing with idolatry.  This reveals that Maimonides regards this commandment as associated with the prohibitions against idolatry.

Where does Maimonides place the commandment requiring a king to create a personal copy of the Torah?  He lists it at the opening of his discussion of the laws of the sefer Torah.  By listing the mitzvah in this section, Maimonides indicates that he regards the king’s commandment as closely related to the mitzvah incumbent upon every male to create a personal sefer Torah.  Why, then, does he feel that the commandment must be reviewed in his discussion of the laws of kings?  After all, he has already established that the king’s mitzvah is closely associated with the mitzvah of the commoner male; he thoroughly discussed the king’s commandment in that context.  Why return to it?

3.  The message of the Prophets

In order to resolve this problem, it will be useful to consider an interesting dispute among the commentators regarding the objective of the king’s commandment.  However, before exploring this dispute, we will consider a related issue.

TaNaCh – the Jewish canon is composed of three basic elements. The first element is the Five Books of Moshe – the Torah.  The second is the Prophets.  The third is the Sacred Writings.  These include Mishle – Proverbs, and Tehilim – Psalms. All of the books included in the canon were assigned this status be the ancient Sages.

The Prophets is composed of two elements.  The Early Prophets is written in the style of historical narrative.  It covers the period beginning with the death of Moshe and end with the period following the destruction of the first Bait HaMikdash. The Latter Prophets includes less narrative material and provide a record of the addresses of the prophets to the kings and the people of their times.

Considered in their entirety, the Prophets provides a record of the fulfillment of the covenant described in Sefer Devarim.  Moshe repeatedly explains that the destiny of Bnai Yisrael in the Land of Israel will not be determined by historical trends or other natural factors.  Instead, their destiny will be the product of providence and this providence will be guided by their adherence to the laws and principles of the Torah. The Prophets interprets the events that befell the nation as the expression of this providence and explain these events – both the achievements and the tragedies – as direct consequences of the nation’s conduct.

4.  The influence of leaders

However, the Early Prophets focuses primarily upon the behaviors and the attitudes of the nation’s leaders and kings.  Much less attention is given to the practices of the general population.  This is odd given the work’s objective.  It is not the behavior of the leader or king that determines the nation’s destiny.  The nation’s faithfulness to the Torah is the crucial determinant of its destiny.

This focus implies that the behaviors and attitudes of the people are very much a product of their leader’s model.  A leader who encourages and expects Torah observance can have enormous impact upon his followers.  A leader who is lax or who rejects observance will set an example for the people that they will emulate.  Therefore, the Early Prophets focuses upon the nation’s leaders because of their role in shaping the behaviors and attitudes of the people.

This interpretation of the style of the Early Prophets provides additional insight into a comment of Gershonides.  He explains that the king of Bnai Yisrael is enjoined to lead the people according to the laws and values of the Torah.  His responsibility is to ensure that the affairs of the nation are conducted according to these laws and values.  He explains that for this reason the king is required to compose his personal copy of the Torah.  This is both a reminder to the king of his responsibility and a body reference for him to consult in his governance of the people.[6]  It can be added that the king’s obligation to create a copy of the Torah reflects the enormous impact that the king has upon the behavior and values of the people.  It is because of this influence that he is required to compose this copy upon ascension to the throne.

5.  The tragedy of Yeravam

Sefer HaChinuch proposes an alternative interpretation of the king’s obligation to compose a copy of the Torah.  An incident from Sefer Melachim I – First Kings – captures the message communicated by Sefer HaChinuch.

Melachim I describes the disintegration of the tribes Bnai Yisrael into two separate kingdoms.  Two tribes remained faithful to the descendants of the household of David.  The other tribes appointed as their king, Yeravam.  Yeravam’s selection accorded with Hashem’s wishes. There can be no doubt that Hashem selected Yeravam as the king of His people because he was a righteous and courageous leader.  However, once assuming his throne, Yeravam led the people down a path of corruption and idolatry. He immediately established a system of idolatry intentionally designed to undermine worship of Hashem in the Bait HaMikdash. Also, he created a system of festivals intended to replace the pilgrimage festivals.  He was motivated by selfish political considerations.

Yeravam believed that if the people continued to worship and celebrate the festivals in the Bait HaMikdash, his own authority and credibility as ruler would be undermined.  His people would travel to Yerushalayim and the Bait HaMikdash – located in the kingdom of the descendants of David.  They would long to be part of the kingdom that included this most sacred site.  Eventually, the people would forget their grievances with the kings of David’s family and yearn to be reunited with their brothers.  Yeravam would lose the people and his kingdom.  In order to prevent this, he created a state religion and undermined the role of the Bait HaMikdash.

The tragedy of Yeravam is that power corrupted and perverted a righteous and capable leader.  It acted as a narcotic.  Yeravam’s intense need to retain his power and authority corrupted his morals and perverted his reasoning.

6.  Ascension to the throne is a transformational experience

Sefer HaChinuch explains that ascension to the throne is a transformative event. It exposes the newly crowned king to temptations and deep emotions with which he has not previously grappled.  He may have lived righteously to this moment.  But now he is a new person, a transformed individual.  He cannot rely upon the momentum of his previous commitment to guide him into his future.  As a new and transformed person, he must recommit to Torah values.  This recommitment begins with the writing of a new copy of the Torah.[7]

In short, Gershonides and Sefer HaChinuch provide two interpretations of the requirement that a king create his own copy of the Torah.  According to Gershonindes, this obligation reminds the king of his duty to lead the people not as he pleases but according to the Torah.  It is also the body of reference that he consults in fulfilling this role.  According to Sefer HaChinuch the obligation to create a copy of the Torah reflects the transformation that accompanies ascension to the throne and the challenges the king will face in remaining faithful to the Torah.

7.  Two aspects of the king’s obligation

Now, Maimonides’ treatment of the mitzvah can be understood.  He maintains that the interpretation of Sefer HaChinuch captures the fundamental formulation of the commandment.  The commandment of the commoner and that of the king are essentially the same. A person must compose for himself a copy of the Torah.  The king’s separate obligation reflects his transformation or “rebirth” with ascension to kingship.  As a new individual – distinct from the one who, as a commoner, wrote a copy of the Torah – he must compose a new copy of the Torah.

However, Maimonides does not reject Gershonides’ interpretation of the commandment.  He understands this as a secondary element of the mitzvah.  The king must lead the people according to the Torah.  This requirement also is reflected in the king’s obligation to create a copy of the Torah.  Therefore, Maimonides again notes this obligation in his laws related to kings.

8.  Anticipating and planning for change

An important message communicated by this mitzvah is that our character is often shaped or at least strongly influenced by our environment or circumstances.  We cannot assume that positive and praiseworthy behaviors and values that we have developed are innate elements of our personality. We must be mindful that a new environment or a change of circumstances can undermine our commitment and divert us to another, less committed path.

Ideally, we should be careful to not place ourselves in situations that may overwhelm our commitment.  However, this is not always possible.  A new job or relocation to a new community can place us in an unfamiliar environment and pose unexpected challenges.  This mitzvah alerts us to not assume that we are so committed that such changes will not impact us.  Instead, we should assume that our environment will impact us and prepare accordingly.  We should evaluate changes in our environment and plan for them.  We should put in place measures that will reinforce our commitment and support our values and behaviors.  If we take this precaution, we will be more likely to remain committed to these values and behaviors.


[1] The passage contains the unusual expression mishne haTorah ha’zot.  Rav Natan Adler (Netinah LaGer ad loc) suggests that the proper translation as suggested by the Targum is “copy of this Torah”.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 3:1.

[3] Generally, this commandment is fulfilled according to the interpretation of other authorities – including Rabbaynu Asher.  These authorities define the commandment more inclusively than Maimonides.  They maintain that we can discharge our obligation through the purchase of Torah texts.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sefer Torah 7:1.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sefer Torah 7:2-3.

[6] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemuel I, 8:4.

[7] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 503.