Shiur #36: Torah Study (10) The Crown of Torah

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

I. Three Crowns

It is taught in tractate Avot (4:13):

Rabbi Shimon said: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excels them all.

Tractate Yoma cites a contradicting statement of Rabbi Yochanan, who sets the crown of Torah above the crown of royalty:

Rabbi Yochanan said: There were three crowns: that of the altar, that of the ark, and that of the table. Aharon merited the one of the altar and he received it. David merited the one of the ark and he received it. The one of the table is still unclaimed and whoever wants to take it may come and take it. Perhaps you might think it is of little account. Therefore the verse states: "By me, kings reign" (Mishlei 8:15).

The Rambam formulates the matter as follows:

Three crowns were conferred upon Israel: the crown of priesthood, the crown of royalty, and the crown of Torah. Aaron merited the crown of priesthood, as it is stated (Bemidbar 25:13): "And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants after him." David merited the crown of royalty, as it is stated (Tehilim 89:37): "His seed will continue forever, and his throne will be as the sun before Me." The crown of Torah is set aside, waiting and ready for each Jew, as it is stated (Devarim 33:4): "The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov." Whoever desires may come and take it. Lest you say that the other crowns surpass the crown of Torah, surely it is stated (Mishlei 8:15-16): "By me, kings reign, princes decree justice, and nobles rule." Thus, you have learned that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two. (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1)

What makes the crown of Torah the greatest? It is difficult to say that it has to do with the size and beauty of the crown, or to the honor that is shown to the crown by the people.

We appear to be dealing with a deeper and more fundamental dimension.

In order to understand the value and uniqueness of the crown of the Torah, we must examine the fundamental essence and significance of the idea of a crown. We will then be able to understand the value of each of the aforementioned crowns. Based on this, we will be able to clarify the greatness and the value of the crown of the Torah.

II. The Meaning of a Crown

The idea of a crown includes two fundamental points:

  1. A crown is placed at the top, above the head and the body.
  2. A crown is a separate unit, and not part of the body.

The Maharal, in his commentary to Avot, Derekh Ha-Chayyim, discusses the essence of a crown and the relationship between the various crowns. While it is our intention to suggest our own explanation of the idea of a crown, we will cite passages from the Maharal's work to illustrate the two points mentioned above.

In his commentary to Rabbi Shimon's remarks in the Mishna concerning crowns cited at the beginning of this study, the Maharal writes:

A crown is the ultimate measure of his wearer, and each of these three crowns has an objective and an end, which it strives to reach. (Derekh Ha-Chayyim 4, 13)

According to this, a crown expresses the highest level that the wearer of the crown strives to reach.

In the last chapter of tractate Avot, it is taught (6:6):

You shall not crave for the table of kings, for your table is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their crown. (Avot 6:6)

Commenting on this Mishna, the Maharal writes:

What this means is that a king definitely posseses a certain Divine quality, as was explained above. And this is the reason that kings are anointed with anointing oil. If the monarchy did not have an element of Divine sanctity, it would be inappropriate for kings to be anointed with sanctified oil. This is demonstrated by the crown, for a crown is an ornament of honor worn on the head. For a distinctive virtue is fitting for the head which is the highest part of man; the seat of the soul which is separate, and therefore it deserves an ornament of honor… (Derekh Ha-Chayyim, ibid.)

A crown is worn on the head, and is separate from the rest of the body, and it expresses a Divine virtue found in him who wears it.

In addition, the "crown" is also the highest sefira in the list of the ten sefirot. Some even see it as standing above all the other sefirot and not as included among them.[1] This disagreement is not our concern here, as all agree that the "crown" is the highest level, whether it is the highest of the sefirot or it stands above all of them.

If so, the sefira of the "crown" expresses the closest possible connection between man, the bearer of the crown, and God Himself, as it were, who is totally unimaginable.

III. The Crown of Royalty

Let us now try to understand each of these crowns. First of all, let us probe the meaning of the idea of "crown of royalty." From the outset it should be emphasized that while keter, crown, stands at the top of the emanations from the Creator, malkhut, kingdom, stands at the other end of these emanations. The start of the emanations, crown, is the initial expression of the will of the Almighty, and its objective is to reach kingdom. At the same time, the essence of kingdom is to become a vessel to receive Divine enlightenment. Like the moon which has no light of its own and receives all of its illumination from the sun, the kingdom must also have "nothing of itself."

Divine enlightenment emanates from the crown through all the stages until it reaches the level of kingdom which is meant to reveal and express God's kingdom in the world, as "there is no king without a nation."

The objective of human kingship is to realize and reveal God's kingdom in this world. God wishes to rule as king over His people, but He chooses not to do this directly, instead by way of a king of flesh and blood. This king realizes the idea of God in the real world.

This is the meaning of the Torah passage dealing with the king, which at first glance seems very difficult. The Torah allows or might even command the appointment of a king,[2] but does not spell out his duties, dominion or methods of leadership.[3]  The Torah instructs us that the king must not amass horses, silver, gold or wives, and he is also commanded to write a Torah scroll from which he must read all his life. God wants a king who is limited by prohibitions and who studies Torah all his life, but what about his reign, his nation and his country?

It seems that the Torah intends to emphasize this point precisely. The king of Israel must internalize that he is not the ultimate king, but rather the King of the universe is the ultimate king. A human king is merely God's messenger to govern His people and His country as He sees fit.

Clearly the king of Israel must lead the nation, fight the wars, and judge the people. However, all this must be done while clearly recognizing God's rule over His people and accepting the yoke of His kingdom.

The king must lead God's people in the light of the Torah and its commandments, which he must read over and over throughout his life. It is through the king that God's kingdom over His people will find expression.

Therefore, when presenting the king, the Torah's primary emphasis is on the limitations of royal power, so that the king should know that he is not the source of power and authority, as was commonly accepted among the kings of the world, but rather the Lord, God of Israel, is the actual source of power. The king, as His agent, leads and governs the people.

This is also the underlying issue in the discussion between Shemuel and the people when they ask him for a king. The people want a king who will rule over them and govern them "as all the nations." In chapter 12 of his book, Shemuel describes to them how God ruled over them and governed them for many years. Shemuel explains to them that as God's people they must accept His kingship and follow in His path, both they and their king. Only in this way "will the Lord not abandon His people for His great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you His people" (I Shemuel 12:22), and will "the Lord your God be your king" (I Shemuel 12:12).

The king of Israel mediates between the people and God. He represents the king before the King of the universe, and at the same time he represents the kingdom of heaven when he governs the nation. This is clearly described in the covenant entered into by Yehoyada:

And Yehoyada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord's people; between the king also and the people" (II Melakhim 11:17)

Yehoyada made two covenants:

1. A covenant between God and the people through the mediation of the king: "Between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord's people."

2. A covenant "between the king also and the people."

This is the reason that a king is chosen both by God and by the people, seeing that the king mediates between and represents both of them: he represents God to the people, and he represents the people to God. This was the case with the appointment of Yehoshua,[4] Shaul,[5] David,[6] and others.

This is the deeper meaning of David's words in his song that summarizes his life's work governing God's people:

God is my strength and rampart; and He makes my way [ketiv: "His way"] smooth. He makes my feet [ketiv: "His feet"] like hinds' feet: and sets me upon my heights. (II Shemuel 22:33-34)

In these verses there is a certain tension between the way the words are written [ketiv] and the way they are read [keri]. The main difference between the two versions lies in the question of who is the subject being discussed here. Is it the feet and path of King David, or the feet and path of God? It would appear that David wishes to emphasize that from his perspective his feet and path have joined together with God’s, as he has fully internalized the significance of his serving as king over Israel on behalf of God. Thus we are dealing with human kingdom that stands in the light and in the shadow of the kingdom of heaven.[7]

To summarize, the crown of royalty is the crown of connection to God who wishes to lead and reveal Himself to His chosen people through the mediation of the king. The crown of royalty is the crown of Israel, who are crowned by God's providence and governance through their worldly, political leadership. In the case of the Jewish people, the people of God, even political leadership is holy leadership.

The king sits on the throne of God, as it is stated about Shelomo: "Then Shelomo sat on the throne of the Lord as king" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 29:23), and Eretz Israel is "the foundation of God's throne in the world" (see Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, Shemona Kevatzim, Kovetz I, 186, and elsewhere).

IV. The Crown of Priesthood

Like the crown of royalty, so too the crown of priesthood is the crown of mediators. God governs His people through political leadership immersed in worldly life, and He also governs them through the Holy and the Temple. God causes His name to rest at the place of His choosing, and from that place He bestows abundant blessing upon His people and upon His world, and demonstrates His love for His nation. God reveals Himself at the ark and at the keruvim, in the cloud rising from the incense, in the lighting of the menorah, and in the daily morning and evening offerings.

The heart of the service in the Temple is performed by the priests, the descendants of Aharon, who are responsible for operating the entire system. An ordinary Israelite who wishes to offer an animal-offering or a meal-offering, to bring first fruits or animal tithe, needs a priest to mediate between him and the altar, and to sacrifice the offering on his behalf.

Whether we see the priests as serving as "our representatives" or as "God's representatives,"[8] in any case we are dealing with those who are mediators between God and ourselves. It is most reasonable to suggest that the priests are "our representatives" regarding the offering of our sacrifices, and "God's representatives" when they receive our bikkurim and bring the blessing of bounty upon the people of God.

Yom Kippur and the service performed on that day express this matter in finest fashion. The High Priest[9] offers the people's goat offering in order to atone for and to purify them, and then goes to burn the incense inside the Holy of Holies, and to be seen by God. God reveals Himself to the High Priest in the cloud of the incense, and through him God's blessing and pardon are bestowed upon his people. Through the High Priest’s purification, the entire people become purified before God.

If so, the crown of priesthood is also a crown of connection to God. The High Priest and his priestly brothers who bear this "crown" express their connection to God, and they were selected only to serve as the people's representatives as they stand before God.

V. The Crown of Torah

The crown of Torah, however, which expresses the connection between one who studies Torah and God, is not a crown that mediates God's connection to His people through worldly, political leadership or through Temple ritual leadership. The crown of Torah is a crown that rests before anyone who wishes to establish a direct connection to God, through study of His word and Torah.

When a person engages in study of God's Torah, he cleaves to God's wisdom, the very source of wisdom. This is the crown of Torah that attaches every student on his own to his Creator, as is stated in tractate Avot:

Rabbi Chalafta of Kefar Chananya said: [When there are] ten sitting together and occupying themselves with Torah, the Shekhina rests among them, as it is stated: "God stands in the congregation of God" (Tehilim 82:1). And from where [do we infer that the same applies] even [when there are] five? [From] that which is stated: "And He has founded His band upon the earth" (Amos 9:6). And from where [do we infer that the same applies] even [when there are] three? [From] that which is stated: "In the midst of judges He judges" (Tehilim 82:1). And from where [do we infer that the same applies] even [where there are] two? [From] that which is stated: "Then they that fear the Lord spoke one with another, and the Lord hearkened, and heard" (Malakhi 3:16). And from where [do we infer that the same applies] even [when there is] one?[10] [From] that which is stated: "In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you" (Shemot 20:21). (Avot 3:6)

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The crowns worn by mortals enthrone God and reveal His kingship in the world. This is true whether it is the king wearing the crown of royalty, a priest bearing the crown of the priesthood, or an individual or a whole community wearing the crown of Torah.

God's kingdom came first, and existed "before any creature was formed," and it will persist even after "all things have had an end," when "He alone, the dreaded One, shall reign." Nevertheless, when He is crowned by His people, His name becomes sanctified in the world, for "at the time that all things were made by His desire, then was His name proclaimed king," by those who praise God, declare His unity and sanctify Him.

His reign is over everything, over the crowns of the nation; the crown of royalty and the crown of priesthood. He reigns over His people's earthly, political leadership, through which He takes care of His nation in all facets of their worldly lives and oversees what is happening to them at all times. So too, He reigns over their ritual Temple leadership, through which He directs the spiritual dimension of life that parallels the worldly dimension, and even nurtures and maintains it.

The personal crown, the crown of Torah, supersedes them all. The crown of Torah is worn by Torah scholars in every generation and in every place, by those seeking personal connection and closeness to God, an intimate bond with the source of wisdom and the source of life.

By drinking constantly from the well of knowledge, they merit being "enlightened by the light of the living" (Iyov 33:30), "for with You is the fountain of life; in Your light" – the light of Torah – "we see light" (Tehilim 36:10).

(Translated by David Strauss)

 


[1] This is the position of Chabad, who have their own way of counting the upper sefirot. They do not have: keter, chokhma, bina, but rather: chokhma, bina, da'at.

[2] The Tanna'im disgree (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 4:5, and elsewhere) whether there is a mitzva to appoint a king, or whether this is merely an option. We prefer the approach according to which there is a mitzva to appoint a king, through which the kingdom of heaven is revealed on earth.

[3] As does the prophet Shemuel, when the people ask him to appoint a king over them (see I Shemuel 11-12).

[4] Yehoshua was chosen by God to lead the people after Moshe. But when we examine the beginning of the book of Yehoshua we see that the people accepted Yehoshua as their leader with a condition, "Only the Lord your God be with you" (Yehoshua 1:17). This condition was fulfilled when a miracle was performed with the water of the Jordan River, through which God demonstrated that "as I was with Moshe, so I will be with you" (Yehoshua 3:7). Only then does it say: "And they feared him as they had feared Moshe" (Yehoshua 4:14).

[5] Even though Shaul was also chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Shemuel to serve as God's agent, a portion of the people did not agree with this choice. It was only after his glorious victory that Shaul was accepted by all, and his kingship was renewed at Gilgal (I Shemuel 11:15).

[6] Here it is clear: Initially David ruled as king only over the members of his own tribe in Hebron, and only after a considerable period of time when all of Israel approached him and asked him to be their king, did he move to Jerusalem to rule as king over all of Israel.

[7] This is the main reason for the Gemara's assertion in Kiddushin 32b that even if a king waives his honor, his honor is not waived, because his honor is the honor of heaven, which the king cannot waive.

[8] See Kiddushin 23b, and the parallel passages, and the Tosafot there, s.v. de-amar.

[9] An expression of the twofold nature of the High Priest's role as representative of the people and representative of God is evident in the framework in which the High Priest is appointed.

The Rambam rules in Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash (4:15) as follows:

"A High Priest should be appointed only by the court of 71 judges. He should be anointed only during the day, as it is stated (Vayikra 6:13): 'On the day of his anointment....' Similarly, if he was initiated merely by wearing the priestly garments, the initiation should only take place during the day."

It is clear from here that there are two requirements for the appointment of a High Priest: First, he must be appointed by a court of 71 judges, who represent the people. In addition, he must be anointed with the anointing oil, so that he is sanctified and becomes like a holy vessel that is used in the Divine service.

[10] Compare with Berakhot (6a):

"And how do you know that even if one man sits and studies the Torah the Shekhina is with him? For it is stated (Shemot 20:21): 'In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.'"