THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shoftim – פרשת שפטים
August 14, 2021 – ו אלול תשפא
This essay is sponsored by Robert Silver in memory of Yaakov ben Naftali Z”L.
The Royal TreasuryScripture limits an Israelite king’s ability to raise funds for the royal coffers. “Nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess (Deuteronomy 17:17).” Unlike the other restraints imposed by Scripture on the king – for example, he may not accumulate too many horses lest he send people back to Egypt (17:16), and he may not marry too many wives lest they turn his heart astray (17:17) -- the text does not expressly state why the sovereign cannot amass inordinate material wealth. Pseudo-Jonathan offers an embellished Aramaic rendering of the verse: the king shall not amass silver and gold lest his riches make him haughty and cause him to rebel against God. Bachya, too, explained that a king who has too much wealth will inevitably be drawn towards hubris. Instead of putting his trust in God, the fabulously wealthy king will put his trust in his own bloated treasury. This interpretation connects Deuteronomy 17:17 with 17:20; the latter reads: “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.” According to a plain reading of the Masoretic text, 17:20 explains why it is necessary for the king to write a Torah scroll, carry it with him always, and frequently read from it (17:18-19). Yet it is possible to gloss over the two verses concerning the Torah scroll and consider 17:20 to be the rationale for the ban on royal hoarding of wealth. Some academic scholars even suggest that verses 18 and 19 are a later interpolation, disrupting the logical flow of the text. The view that possessing material abundance may lead to the corruption values and cause one to deny Divine Providence is not one where the concern in question relates only to the monarch or to members of the economic elite. Moses warned the Israelites that this could happen to all of them upon their entering the Promised Land. “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased … beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God… and say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’ (8:14-18).” Ibn Ezra understood the limits on the king’s wealth to be a safeguard against confiscatory taxation that could poison relations between the sovereign and his subjects. Famously, King Solomon imposed a heavy tax burden on Israel to fund the massive building projects undertaken during his reign. His son, Rehoboam, after listening to poor advice offered by inexperienced counselors, signaled his intention to impose even more crushing imposts. The people rebelled and the country was split between a northern kingdom of Israel and a rump southern kingdom of Judah. Adoniram, the long-tenured tax collector, was stoned to death (I Kings 12:18). Ibn Ezra’s interpretation fits neatly with the end of the Pentateuchal section regulating kings. “To the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:20).” Reckless and foolhardy tax policy, among other factors, killed the United Monarchy of Israel after only two generations. The Mishnah clarifies that a king may impose taxes and fill the royal treasury, but only to the extent needed to fund the standing army (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4). The Gemara rules that a king may liberally estimate the government’s needs when determining the national budget and the rate of taxation (Sanhedrin 21b). Torah Temimah understood the Gemara to mean that a modest “rainy-day fund” is permitted, just in case additional soldiers need to be hired in an emergency when the standing army alone does not suffice. Despite the Torah’s warning about the dangers of having the nation governed by hyper-affluent leaders, Jewish society tended to prefer such people at the helm of their ecclesiastical, political, and educational institutions. (The nascent Church also handed its plum positions to moneyed individuals.) The high priest was supposed to be greater than his priestly brethren in strength, aesthetic beauty, wisdom, and material wealth. On the basis of Leviticus 21:10, the Talmud teaches that if an impoverished (or even middle-class) priest ascends to the high priesthood, his kohanic colleagues were supposed to give him gifts and elevate his class status (Yoma 18a). When Rabban Gamliel II was deposed as head of the Yavneh academy, he was replaced (temporarily) by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. The Talmud explains that Eleazar ben Azariah had three credentials: He a) was wise b) was wealthy and c) had an illustrious pedigree. Why was it so important for the leader of the rabbinical conclave to be wealthy? In case it became necessary to bribe the Roman government, Eleazar ben Azariah would have the wherewithal to do so (Berakhot 27b). With a measure of hyperbole, the Talmud claims that he tithed 12,000 calves annually (Shabbat 54b). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (known as “Rabbi”), who in late 2nd century CE exercised a measure of temporal and religious authority over the Jews of the Land of Israel, was extraordinarily wealthy (Mishnah Avot 6:8). Exaggeratedly, the Talmud claims that even Rabbi’s stable boy was richer than King Shapur of Persia (Baba Metzia 85a). Rabbi’s balsam oil was compared to Caesar’s (Berakhot 43a). He did not lack fresh produce on his table even during the rainy season (57b). Still, on his deathbed, Rabbi asserted that not even his pinky finger had benefited (illegitimately) from all his riches (Ketuboth 104a). Hillel was a rare exception in that he ascended to the top of the Pharisaic community and rose to national prominence despite being terribly poor (Yoma 35a). The tradition of wealthy Jewish leaders likely affected the development of Aggadic tales about Moses. There is little evidence in Scripture to suggest that Moses had valuable material possessions. At most, one could infer from Moses’ rant against the Korachites “I have not taken one donkey from them (Numbers 16:15)” that he was a man of independent means who took no compensation for his duties as national leader. And yet, there developed a variety of Midrashic theories claiming that Moses was extremely wealthy. One version, expounding homiletically upon Exodus 34:1, says that Moses became rich by keeping for himself (with Divine permission) the scrapings from the precious stones used to carve the second set of Decalogue tablets (Nedarim 38a). Alternatively, a sapphire quarry was found under Moses’ tent (Yerushalmi Shekalim 49a). Yet another theory is that Moses received a disproportionate amount of booty from the leaders he defeated: Pharaoh, Sihon, and Og (Leviticus Rabbah 28:4). Another view is that Jethro devolved a handsome dowry upon Moses when Moses married Zipporah (Midrash Vayosha). Why do some societies prefer to be led by members of the economic elite? In many instances, it is not a choice. In the absence of democratic norms, the economically powerful often control society. In other instances, the people may consciously choose that arrangement. Many may believe that having a wealthy person as national or ethno-religious standard-bearer elevates the prestige of that office and of the nation generally. (This was true with regard to the Patriarchate of Eretz Yisrael and the Gamalielian dynasty.) Another reason to prefer wealthy office holders is the theory that people of substantial means will be less likely to abuse their public trust than would people of modest means (who might see dishonest public service as an opportunity for personal enrichment via graft and bribery). In codifying the rules governing royal prerogatives, Rambam offers a more nuanced approach than what appears in the Bible and Talmud. In his view, contrary to Louis XIV’s “l’etat c’est moi,” the king is not the state. Taxation for the purpose of funding religious institutions and for the state’s essential budget (inclusive of the military budget) has no upper limit. In fact, Rambam considers it a mitzvah to increase the supply of funds in God’s treasury to be used for national purposes. It is only the more narrowly defined “royal treasury,” used for honoring and glorifying the monarch, that, in Rambam’s view, must not be over-funded (Hilkhot Melakhim 3:4). In modern times, the best application of Deuteronomy 17:17 would be to limit those perks of public office that offend the citizenry. In the State of Israel, every time a coalition is formed, new-fangled ministries emerge to satisfy the political ambitions of those MKs being courted to join the government. The resulting cars, chauffeurs, security details, office staff, and expense accounts all drain the exchequer. People live large at the public’s expense and they do so brazenly. Scripture warns that officeholders’ over-feeding at the public trough may lead to civil unrest. Let us hope that, going forward, the State of Israel may experience success in curbing extravagances that enrage the citizenry, while still maintaining those ceremonial dignities that befit the State’s honor.