May 26, 2024
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Striking Implications of the Melech Always Carrying a Torah

Practicality

It is a striking halacha that a melech must carry a Torah wherever he goes. The first question regards feasibility. It does seem overly burdensome to require the melech always to have a Torah. The Rashash (Sanhedrin 21b) boldly suggests that the melech did not carry a full sefer Torah. Rather, he thinks a melech took just a tiny scroll containing several mitzvot.

In January 2020, my family visited the Museum of the Living Torah in Brooklyn, New York. The owner showed us a tiny complete sefer Torah, which easily fits in one hand! He argued that the melech would carry a Torah this size. The problem with this suggestion is that the minimum shiur of a sefer Torah is six tefachim (18 to 24 inches) long (Bava Batra 14a and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 272:1).

 

Reason Number 1: Merging The King’s Heart With Torah

Whatever the practicality, let us explore possible reasons for this interesting requirement. First, my older son, Binyamin, suggests the Torah wants the melech to merge his personality with the Torah. The idea parallels the mishna (Avot 2:4) urging us, “Aseh retzonecha retzono—to combine our desires with Hashem’s desires so that He merges His desires with ours.”

While I deeply regret it, many years ago, I watched the movie, “La Bamba,” which portrayed the life of rock and roll star, Ritchie Valens. The film showed the protagonist carrying a guitar wherever he went—no matter how awkward the circumstance. The guitar defined Valens, and he was not ashamed to let everyone know.

The same idea underlies a king always carrying a Torah. The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 4:10) writes that the king’s goal and agenda should be to promote Torah and its observance. Always having a Torah reminds the king not to be distracted from his holy mission. Moreover, the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 3:6) writes that the king’s heart reflects the nation’s heart. Thus, the king carrying a Torah wherever he goes models for Am Yisrael of their mission to mind the Torah at all times, “B’shivtecha b’veitecha, u’velechtecha vaderech, u’veshachbecha u’vekumecha—when we sit at home, walking on the road, and when we wake and go to sleep,” (Devarim 6:7).

Rav Aharon Kotler carried a Mishna Berura wherever he went. It is a good idea for everyone to emulate this practice and carry a Chumash or other sefer whenever possible.

Interestingly, the melech and not the Kohen Gadol would always carry a Torah. One would expect the religious leader to always take the Torah. Instead, the lay leader always bearing the Torah exemplifies full-time commitment to Torah by the laity and the rabbinate.

 

Reason Number 2: Obeying the Law

The king is exceptionally powerful. Just as Shimshon was given added mitzvot from birth to keep his extraordinary power in check, a melech carries a Torah to ensure he does not abuse his power and exceed the law. We find in Tanach that kings succeeded when they respected the law, but failed when they disrespected it. Even the great Shlomo HaMelech stumbled when he stretched the Torah beyond its limits. For this reason, David HaMelech—on his deathbed—urged Shlomo HaMelech to obey the Torah, for success lies in doing so.

Kings who did not respect the law and did whatever they wished failed. Pharaoh, Avimelech and Achashveirosh are prime examples. Achashveirosh’s longing for Vashti after he eliminated her (Esther 2:1) showcases the tragic results of a king who abuses his power. Always carrying a Torah reminds the king that the law controls him, not vice versa.

 

Striking Implications for Today

No one can exceed the Torah. No one owns the Torah. Therefore, even the greatest rabbi cannot grant permission to violate the Torah. A story is told about the Chafetz Chaim convincing a store owner to close his shop on Shabbat. The businessman agreed, but begged the Chafetz Chaim for permission to keep the store open one last Shabbat, since he was expecting a flood of payments that day. The Chafetz Chaim responded that he does not “own” Shabbat and has no right to grant dispensations from Shabbat observance.

Advocates of the shallow and deeply misguided notion of “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a rabbinic way” fail to grasp this idea. They think that the rabbis control the halacha and that if the resulting ruling is to their displeasure, it reflects the rabbi’s lack of care and sensitivity.

Those who think they can manipulate halacha have no future. Only those who respect the halacha and maintain its integrity remain part of the Jewish future in the long run.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (https://www.torahweb.org/torah/special/2019/ryds_rietsalumni.html) relates that his grandfather, “Rav Chaim used to try his best to be a meikel. However, there were limits even to Rav Chaim’s skills. When you reach the boundary line, it is all you can say: ‘I surrender to the will of the Almighty.’”

Any responsible rabbi worthy of the title respects that boundary line and dares not exceed it, no matter the cost. The Torah/Hashem controls us. We do not, chas v’shalom, control Hashem and His Torah. The melech carrying the Torah—at all times—conveys this message powerfully. As the Torah (Devarim 17:19) states, the king takes the Torah to learn to respect Hashem and adhere to the Torah and its laws.

 

Reason Number Three: Avoiding a Personality Cult

Finally, we note that it is very tempting for a king to build a personality cult. Always carrying the Torah steers the king from such arrogance as the Torah states (Devarim 17:20), “Levilti rum levavo meiachav—so that his heart not be raised above his people.” The melech’s goal is to promote the Torah, not himself. A proper and successful melech is devoted to serving Hashem and His nation (Melachim II 11:17), not himself. Holding the Torah keeps the king focused on his goal and avoids the distraction of arrogance and self-promotion. As Ramban (Devarim 17:20) notes, the prohibition of arrogance applies to all. Our goals should be on Hashem and others, and not on ourselves.

Bereishit, perek 11 presents the people of the dor hapelaga, who were focused on “creating a name for themselves.” By contrast, the Torah introduces Avraham Avinu in Bereishit, perek 12 as promoting Hashem’s name. The road to happiness and fulfillment follows Avraham Avinu’s model and spurns the misguided path of the dor hapelaga.

 

Conclusion

The more powerful an individual, the more restraint he must exercise. The melech’s constant carrying of a sefer Torah helps this all-powerful man stay on the proper path. Affixing a mezuzah in each room constantly reminds every Jew to hew (adhere) to the Torah path. It is our miniature Torah that calls us to a higher calling. May we heed its subtle but powerful call!


Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. Rabbi Jachter’s 16 books may be purchased at Amazon and Judaica House.

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