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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Shoftim: The king's second Torah

The parasha of Shoftim details many judicial institutions and practices that the Jewish people are commanded to establish on entering the land of Israel, including local and national courts, interrogating witnesses and responding to unsolved murders. At the top of the legal system sits the king, whom the people are commanded to appoint. 

The Jewish king is not an autocrat. Although he has extensive powers (see Shmuel II, chapter 8) his personal conduct is constrained by the Torah. There is a limit prescribed on the number of horses he can acquire, the number of wives he can marry and riches that he can amass. And his judgements and behaviour must be guided at all times by the Torah - so much so that the Sefer Torah that everyone is commanded to write (Devarim31:19) is not sufficient for him. 

(יח) וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם.

(יט) וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כׇּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם.

(18) It shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law (“מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת”) in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

(19) and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear Hashem his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them; (Devarim 17)

The commentators are divided as to the meaning of מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, and what exactly was the nature of the extra sefer that the king had to write.

Rashi (11th century France) understands מִשְׁנֵה in line with the Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b), as related to שני, meaning a second (as in לחם משנה - doubled bread). Thus in addition to the Torah which all must write, he must write another (which is why, according to the Mizrachi’s commentary on Rashi, the Torah says מִשְׁנֵה - “second”  - rather than “two”). The king needs two sifrei Torah so that, as the Gemara says, one is placed in his treasury and the other accompanies him wherever he goes. 

The Rambam (12th century Egypt)  follows the same opinion and codifies this law as 

בעת שישב המלך על כסא מלכותו כותב לו ספר תורה לעצמו יתר על הספר שהניחו לו אבותיו

When the king sits on his throne he writes for himself a Sefer Torah, in addition to the one bequeathed by his ancestors. (Hilchot Melachim 3:1)

But this interpretation is questioned by many. The Rashash (Rav Shmuel Strashun, 19th century Lithuania) asks how could it be possible that the king write an entire Sefer Torah, given that the Gemara says that the  “hung from his arm like an amulet”, which is hard to imagine if the מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרָה were a Sefer Torah. Even the smallest possible Sefer would be too big and too heavy for one to imagine it being carried in such a way, not to mention that being suspended from an arm is normally considered a disgrace for a Sefer Torah.

Therefore, says the Rashash, (introduced with the rabbinic phrase of modesty: “if I were not afraid I would say…”) this מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה is an “abbreviated book of mitzvot” rather than the entire Pentateuch. After all, the Gemara (Bava Batra 14a) refers to the verse “תורה צוה לנו משה” (Moshe commanded us the Torah) as a “Sefer Torah”. (This idea also explains how the “entire Torah” could be written on stones on Har Eval - Devarim 27:3.

The Rashash says that he finds support for the position that the מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת is not an entire copy of the Torah in a highly authoritative source. The classical Aramaic translation by Onkelos (1st century Israel) offers “פַּתְשֶׁגֶן אוֹרַיְתָא הָדָא” as the translation of מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. Rashi quotes Onkelos in his own commentary, and says that the Aramiaic word פַּתְשֶׁגֶן means “learning and saying”, suggesting that מִשְׁנֵה is related to שינון - learning (as in וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ). 

The word פַּתְשֶׁגֶן appears in Megillat Esther (3:14) and there Rashi explains it as “ספור הכתב” - “the account of the text” - and compares it to the Old French disreinement, meaning “account”. Thus interpretation of Onkelos (whose antiquity affords him Mishnaic status) is that the king wrote not a Sefer Torah, but a synopsis of the Torah to accompany him.

In a similar vein, the Daat Zekanim MiBa’alei HaTosfot (published in 18th century Italy, but ascribed to the medieval authors of the Tosfot) suggests that the king’s “Sefer Torah” was simply the Aseret Hadibrot, which contains 613 letters, one for each mitzvah of the Torah.

Yet another approach in the same direction is brought by the Ktav VeKabalah (19th century Germany) in the name of Rav Naftali Herz Wessely (18th century Germany). The latter’s suggestion is that “מִשְׁנֵה” means “explanation”. For this reason, the book of Devarim is called by the Talmudic sages “מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרָה” because of the many mitzvot that are repeated and given further detail in Devarim. The Rambam gave his magnum opus the same name, because it was a re-statement of all the mitzvot of the Torah. Indeed the Mishnah itself is called such because the Oral Torah that it contains is the explanation of the written Torah. So in our case, the king was not commanded to write the entire text of the Torah, but an explanation thereof.

The Ktav VeKabalah rejects Rav Wessely’s analysis as without foundation, and instead claims that מִשְׁנֵה (and פַּתְשֶׁגֶן in Aramaic, contrary to Rashi’s explanation of that word) means נוסח or “text”. Thus the Ktav VeKabbalah reaches the same conclusion as Rashi and the Gemara, that the king must write an entire Sefer Torah.

Whichever explanation we follow, it is clear from the original text that the Sefer Torah, or the synopsis or explanation thereof that the king must write is not to remain on his bookshelf. The Torah is is be opened, studied daily and internalised, so that “that he may learn to fear Hashem his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them”.

Although a homily, which is clearly far removed from the actual meaning of the text, does not normally have a place in these essays, I feel compelled to share a particularly beautiful idea. Remembering the words of the Gemara, that one Sefer Torah stays in the king’s treasury and the other travels with him, we can imagine a scenario when the king, whilst visiting his people, is asked a halachic question and he needs to research the answer in his portable sefer. Unfortunately the answer written in the Torah is not the one the questioner wants to hear (for instance, it says “no” instead of “yes”). Ever eager to please his populace, the king quickly scratches out the objectionable word in the Torah and replaces it with the preferable one before anyone can notice, and pronounces that the answer to the question is precisely the one that was wanted. This happens from time to time as the king completes his journey through his kingdom.

What then is the purpose of the Sefer Torah residing back in the treasury? That version serves as an unaltered “master copy”. When the king returns home and compares the two texts - the amended one that travelled with him and the original back at base, the degree to which they differ is a measure of how far the king has deviated from the path of integrity.

In the days leading up to last Rosh Hashanah, we all metaphorically documented the high standards that we set for our behaviour over the year that is now drawing to its close. And as Elul commences and we review our own performance, the correlation or otherwise between the plan that we created last year and the actual lived experience is the indicator of our degree of success. Let us hope that there is a good match, and that next year there will be an even better one.

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