Parshat Shoftim: The Sefer Torah of the King
By: Rav Moshe Stav
“When he is seated on his royal throne, he should write for himself this Mishna Torah in a scroll, from before the Kohanim, the Levi’im” (Devarim 17:18). This pasuk teaches the mitzva upon a king to write himself a sefer Torah, in addition to the similar mitzva that applies to every Jew. However, there are a number of differences between the king’s obligation and that of other Jews. One difference is that the king’s scroll must be copied from the sefer Torah that was kept in the azara and authorized by a beit din of 71. This is learned from the pasuk itself, which describes that the sefer Torah was taken “from before the Kohanim, the Levi’im.” In addition, the king must carry his sefer Torah wherever he goes, so as not to become distracted from focusing on it. As the Rambam writes (Hilchot Melachim 2:36): “The Torah was stringent regarding the removal of his heart… for his heart is the heart of the entire congregation of Yisrael. For this reason, the Torah instructs that he must cling to the Torah more than the rest of the nation, as the pasuk states, ‘all the days of his life.’”
There is accordingly an essential difference between the two mitzvot of writing a sefer Torah: The king is commanded to learn from his special sefer Torah, whereas all other Jews are commanded to write a sefer Torah. Indeed, the pesukim indicate that the sefer Torah written by all Jews was intended to serve as a form of testimony.
The difficulty is that at this point in the Torah, the concept of a “sefer Torah” has not yet been introduced! The concept is mentioned only later in Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech. (At the end of the tochacha, we read, “Record this as a memorial in a sefer and place it in the ears of Yehoshua,” but there is no indication of which sefer is intended.) The idea of a “sefer Torah” was established only when Moshe wrote his scroll, placed it in the aron, and instructed the people regarding the actions that they should take to ensure that the Torah would be passed down to future generations.
The explanation appears to be that the two sifrei Torah serve different purposes. During the forty years that Bnei Yisrael were in the desert, the Torah was not recorded in a “sefer,” but rather learned directly from its source, as the purpose of a sefer is essentially to record matters for posterity. Even if they recorded individual sections (according to the view that the Torah was given “megilla megilla”), that record had no more significance than any other private memoir. Only before Moshe’s death did those records become a “sefer,” a testimony for future generations. This is the significance of the individual Jew’s writing of a sefer Torah.
Before the Torah was recorded as a “sefer Torah,” it was taught to Bnei Yisrael by the Kohanim and Levi’im. The Kohanim were the source for the Torah, just as they would later become the transmitters of the Torah SheBe’al Peh. The king learned the Torah from them and recorded his own sefer Torah. The main goal of the Torah that the king is commanded to write is to have him learn it from the Kohanim and Levi’im. What he learns from them must accompany him wherever he goes in order for him to be successful.
The significance of the king’s writing of his own sefer Torah has additional significance in the modern world, in which most countries have adopted a policy of “separation between church and state.” This policy is the result of a bloody history of conflict regarding the question of which sphere maintains true authority – religion or government. (Indeed, contrary to popular misconception, this separation is intended not only to free the state from religion, but also to free religion from the rule of the state. The original supporters of this idea were religious people who saw a danger in the intertwining between religion and government.)
The kingship and the Sanhedrin, which are mentioned in our parsha side by side, draw their authority from different sources and different perspectives, which creates a situation of struggle between them. Thus, the king, who accepts upon himself to act in accordance with the Torah, can copy his sefer only with the authorization of the Sanhedrin, the greatest Torah authority.
Shiur ID: 7682