In the Berachos that Yaakov Avinu bestows upon his children, we find the words of the verse: “The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah, nor the lawmaker from between his legs” (Bereishis 49:10).
The Ramban explains that Pasuk alludes to the monarchy that Yaakov gave to his son Yehuda. Although the monarchy was initially given to Shaul, from the tribe of Binyamin, the Rambam explains that this was done as a temporary measure, during a time period when the idea of the kingship was detestable in the eyes of Hashem.
The Ramban explains further that the Chashmonaim, who were Kohamin, were punished for taking for themselves the kingship as well as the priesthood. This was sinful, for the kingship belongs exclusively to Yehuda, as stated in the Pasuk, and their punishment was that their lineage was ultimately cut off.
By contrast with the Ramban, the Rambam (Laws of Kings 1:8)does not seem to understand the Pasuk as a legal instruction, but rather as a prophecy.
Although the crown of kingship belongs to the lineage of David (from the time of his appointment as King), this does not preclude the possibility of appointing a monarch from another of the tribes, on a temporary level. If this is done by a prophet, and the monarch follows in the ways of the Torah, then “all the laws of the monarchy apply to him”. Accordingly, the Rambam does not share the criticism levelled by the Ramban against the Chashmonaim (see Laws of Chanukah 3:1).
As a related topic, the present article will discuss the laws related to rebelling against the king. What constitutes rebellion, who is included in the definition of a king, and to what degree is the concept relevant outside of the Davidic kingdom? We will discuss these questions, and others, below.
Rebellion: The Mored Be-Malchus
The Rambam (Laws of Kings 3:8) details the prohibition of rebelling against the king:
“Anyone who rebels against a king of Israel may be executed by the king. Even if the king orders one of the people to go to a particular place and the latter refuses, or he orders him not to leave his house and he goes out, the offender is liable to be put to death. The king may execute him if he desires, as it states in Yehoshua: ‘Whoever rebels against your command … shall be put to death’ (1:18). Similarly, anyone who embarrasses or shames the king may be executed by the king as was Shim’i ben Gera. The king may only execute people by decapitation. He may also imprison offenders and have them beaten with rods to protect his honor. However, he may not confiscate property. If he does, it is considered theft”.
What constitutes rebellion against the king, the sin of insurrection that is punishable by death? From the wording above, it seems that any disobedience of the king, in matters minor or major, is included in the law.
Indeed, in his Book of Mitzvos (Aseh 173) the Rambam writes that “we are obligated to comply with the king’s directive, so long as it does not contradict the Torah, and somebody who disobeys the king’s orders, it is permitted for the king to kill him.”
Definition of Rebellion
The Torah definition of rebellion is thus far more severe than modern law would have it, where insurrection involves actively bringing about “hatred, derision or infidelity to the state” (citation from Israel’s criminal law, §133). Indeed, it appears to be somewhat difficult: If a person disobeys a Divine directive of the Torah, or a directive of the Sages, he is not punishable by death—except for the most severe transgressions. Why is mere disobedience of the king so severe, as to warrant the death penalty?
It is possible to suggest that the transgression that constitutes rebellion does not refer to a simple offense committed le-te’avon, out of temptation or necessity, but only to a transgression with intent to rebel against the monarch.
However, precedent suggest otherwise. For example, Shlomo Ha-Melech restricted the freedom of motion of Shimi ben Geira, ordering him to remain within the confines of Jerusalem. After some time Shimi could no longer comply with the statute, and having disobeyed the King by leaving Jerusalem (to recover slaves that had escaped his home), he was duly killed on the charge of rebellion rebelling against the monarch. (The case is reflected in the above ruling of the Rambam: “Even if the king … orders him not to leave his house and he goes out, the offender is liable to be put to death.”)
It therefore seems that any case of disobedience is considered rebellion against the king, because it threatens the status of the monarch as the final and binding authority in matters of the law of the land.
Foregoing His Honor
The severity of punishment for transgressing the king’s command is mitigated by the king’s discretion is administering the punishment. Unlike sins against Hashem, for transgressions against the king the monarch has the discretion to punish or not to punish (as the Rambam notes). Presumably, one of the major factors in deciding to punish or not to punish is the threat (or otherwise) to the monarchy posed by the act of disobedience.
In his commentary to the Mishnah (Erchin 1:3), the Rambam adds that “even if he is being taken out to be killed by order of the king … the king can still retract his decree.”
The same is true for the offense of cursing or insulting the monarch, which (as the Rambam rules) is another aspect of rebellion against the king, as found in the case of Shimi ben Geira (II Shmuel, Chap. 20). In this case, David Ha-Melech chose not to punish him in his own lifetime.
On the other hand, the Gemara establishes that a king does not have the right to forego his honor (Kesubos 17a), and Shaul was indeed punished for not punishing those who insulted and debased him (Yoma 22b). It seems that while the monarch may not forego his honor, it is still permitted, for instrumental reasons, to refrain from meting out punishment, where this is appropriate under the circumstances.
What Constitutes a King
In addressing the question of who is considered a true monarch for purposes of rebellion against the king, the Radvaz (Commentary to Rambam, Melachim 3:18) writes that “this king—refers to somebody who was coronated by a prophet or that the entire nation of Israel agreed to his rule. But if a person arises to rule over Israel by force, then Israel is not obligated to hear him, and somebody who rebels against him is not guilty of rebellion against the king”.
It emerges from the Radvaz that a monarch (for purposes of rebellion) is not necessarily a king by Divine appointment (of a prophet), but even a king whose coronation was by national agreement.
This approach can be understood as broadening the definition of the monarchy for purposes of ruling over the nation. The nation of Israel requires concrete leadership, whether there is a full monarchy or not, and the concept of rebelling against the king is a specific detail in establishing true leadership.
In the light, Rav Kook writes that the laws of the monarchy apply even to lesser leaders of the people (the passage is cited by Rav Ovadya Yosef in Shut Yecheveh Daat 5:64). According to Rav Kook “in a time when there is no king […] these rights return to the nation as a whole. In particular, it appears that any judge who rises to rule over Israel has the status of a king, for several matters of the laws of monarchy, and specifically in those pertaining to the leadership of the public. […] Concerning leadership of the public, any national leader can judge based on the laws of the monarchy, which represent the general needs of the nation as required at their time” (Shut Mishpat Kohen 144).
The idea that certain aspects of the monarchy exist even when there is no formal king is presented by the Meiri, in a somewhat different sense. He writes that “the laws of the monarchy are present at all times, and even in every generation the (Torah) leaders of the generation have the right to punish and to kill in a temporary manner (as dictated by the needs of the generation)” (Beis Habechira, Sanhedrin 52b).
Indeed, concerning the prohibition against cursing a nasi, the Ramban (Shmos 22:27, based on the Rambam, Sanhedrin 26:21) writes that “the prohibition applies to every nasi who possesses the highest authority over Israel—whether the authority vested in the monarchy or whether a Torah authority, for the nasi of the Sanhedrin is the highest Torah authority.”
Expansion of the Principle
The Torah does not mention a prohibition against rebelling against the king; we find it implied in the stories of David and Shlomo, and even in an instruction concerning Yehoshua (1:18) whereby somebody who defies his word shall be put to death—but never as a formal law. (The Gemara in Sanhedrin 49a derives the rule that one who defies a command of the king is punished by death from this verse in Yehoshua; see Rashi, Sanhedrin 66a, who explains that Yehoshua had the status of a nasi). Why the lack of a formal law?
It seems that idea of rebelling against the king is inherent in the very concept of monarchy. If a monarch is to rule, it goes without saying that he needs to wield the authority to put down rebellion—for otherwise there is no way to ensure the stability of his reign. This will also explain the expansion of the idea as found in the commentaries mentioned above: Israel (just as other nations) requires the rule of law, and the severity of rebellion against the monarch draws from the threat to the rule of law.
Of course, this does not mean that the specific laws found in the Rambam will apply to every regime. It stands to reason that in a democracy, somebody who insults the Prime Minister will not be subject to punishment, for the insult poses no threat to leadership capacity. However, it remains permitted to do whatever is required to ensure the stability of the regime, and the competence of its leadership.
May we see the sprouting of the Davidic Kingdom, and the final redemption of Israel, speedily and in our days.