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Iyun Masechet Sota: 40b

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


The main focus of our sugya is the halakha that only kings of Bet David can sit in the Azara. The gemara quotes the rule that "it is prohibited to sit in the Azara, except for Davidic kings" as axiomatic, without mentioning its source, its degree of authority, i.e., whether it is a de'oraita or de'rabbanan, or its reason.


Rashi explains that it is disrespectful to the KBH, the King of Kings, to sit in His presence. The Mikdash is His abode, the spot on earth that God desired as His dwelling place in our temporal and material world so that man could present himself to the KBH. The prohibition upon sitting in the Mikdash is an expression of the decorum expected of man appearing in the sanctuary of the Master of the Universe. Actually, Rashi tells us, it is not only man but all created beings, including the angelic realm, that must stand in His presence.


The Mishneh Lamelekh (Beit HaBechira 7:6) discusses the question whether sitting in the Azara is prohibited by the Torah or is an injunction of rabbinic origin and quotes our Rashi to the effect that this halakha is mede'rabbanan (since Rashi explains the reason rather than quoting a source). This, though, is problematic since Rashi in other sugyot explicitly states otherwise, either ascribing it to a halakha leMoshe miSinai (Sanhedrin 101b s. v. gemiri d'ein yeshiva) or to the pasuk in Devarim that teaches us that kohanim must stand when performing the Avoda of the Mikdash (Yoma 25a s.v. ein, 69b s.v. ein). The Mishneh Lamelekh therefore concludes that Rashi is of the opinion that the prohibition is mede'oraita and that his explanation in our sugya is merely intended to provide the reason for the mitzva. He also notes that Tosafot in Yoma are also of the opinion that this rule is a de'oraita prohibition, while Tosafot in Zevachim consider both options and are inconclusive on this point.


The Mishneh Lamelekh's suggestion that Rashi's explanation is intended to explain the Torah's rationale is very reasonable, especially in light of the other sources that he quotes and Rashi's introduction of the fact that angels (who presumably are not obligated to rabbinic decrees) are also prevented from sitting in the Mikdash. Yet this position, convincing as it seems in light of the above considerations, requires us to rethink the exception of the Davidic kings. For if the Torah itself granted an exemption to the seed of David from an obligation rooted in man's standing vis a vis God, the meaning of this is that the Torah recognizes their unique status in an issue that is a function not of political but of religious significance. If they can sit while others (even angels!) must stand in God's presence, the implication of this is that their position regarding the King of Kings is different than that of ordinary human beings.


This brings us to the root of the issue regarding the election of the Davidic line. As David and his descendants were chosen as monarchs, we must briefly present the major theories regarding the monarchy.


The Rambam in the Moreh Nevukhim and the Sefer ha-Chinukh claim that the Torah's choice of a monarchial system of government is rooted in utilitarian considerations; the primary criteria guiding the Torah in her choice is the greater efficiency of the monarchy that is not paralyzed by the disagreement and indecision inherent in systems of government that lack a recognized individual leader. Others, Abarbanel being the most articulate and systematic of the group, disagree and argue that the disadvantages of absolute government far outweigh its advantages and therefore conclude that the Torah could not possibly have desired a monarchial system as an ideal form of government for utilitarian reasons. The arguments supporting the Abarbanel's approach are quite convincing, both from their historical perspective and from their ability to escape the rationalistic straight-jacket that reduces the mitzva to a utilitarian calculation. The position adopted by Abarbanel, therefore, is that the Torah does not desire monarchy and that other forms of government are indeed preferable. This, although based upon R. Nehorai's opinion (Sanhedrin 20b) that there is no mitzva to appoint a king, is problematic. First, it must rely upon a minority opinion that does not reflect the mainstream in the Talmudic discussion, that prefers the simple reading of the verse in Devarim that there is a mitzva to appoint a king. Moreover, even if we are not concerned by the fact that it is a minority position (after all there are many cases in which Rishonim prefer a minority view over a position supported by a majority of Tanaim or Amoraim), the acute problem with Abarbanel's position is the central role that restoration of the monarchy occupies in our daily yearning and aspiration for a better and improved future. A major element in our eschatological hope for better times is the eventual return of the Davidic monarchy, a point that we emphasize daily in our tefilot and berakhot, yet which does not seem to fit into Abarbanel's scheme of things. After all, if monarchy is an undesirable form of government, why should we constantly plead for its establishment?


Thus, the problems that confront these two opposite views lead us to a third alternative that accepts the majority opinion that monarchy is a mitzva that the Torah desired as the preferred form of government, but for non-utilitarian reasons. The reasons for the Torah's preference is hinted at in the gemara in Sanhedrin that describes the king as sitting upon God's throne, a point that was further developed by the Ramban in his commentary on the Torah (Shemot 17:16 ). Essentially, this theory claims that the king is not only a human ruler who monitors human affairs but he is also God's representative upon earth. Just as the Kohen Gadol represents Him in the religious sphere, so, too, does the monarch represent Him in the political sphere. In other words, there is a sacral element that accompanies the monarch's political role. This is the source of our yearning for the restoration of the monarchy, for it is the king as the KBH's representative that we pray and hope for his arrival.


There are very good reasons to believe that the role of the king as a sacral figure is limited to the House of David. David was chosen, anointed with holy oil and granted a covenant that his descendants will rule. The proofs for this claim, aside from our tefilot that are focused exclusively upon Beit David, were presented in great detail in the VBM series that dealt with Hilkhot Melakhim (yhe-kings), so that I will not repeat them here. For our purposes, mention should be made of the Ramban's statement (Bereishit 49:10) that a non-Davidic king has the authority to rule as a political leader but he lacks royal glory ("hod malkhut"), the Rambam's position that there is a prohibition that prohibits strangers ("zarim") who are not from David's seed from ruling in the same manner that there is such a prohibition regarding strangers who are not descended from Aharon haKohen from serving in the Mikdash and the halakhot regarding anointment that have a common denominator with kehuna but are dissimilar from the anointment of non-Davidic rulers (see Keritut 5b-7a, esp. 6b).


This is the point at which our sugya unites with the present discussion. The permission granted to the sovereign to sit in the Azara, even though it is prohibited to all others, is not a political act of displaying honor to the temporal king in front of his subjects, since such considerations would not suffice to overcome a de'oraita prohibition. Therefore, if it is a Biblical injunction as the Mishneh laMelekh claims, it must be due to the fact that the monarch's religious status differs from that of a regular person regarding the propriety of sitting in God's presence. This should be understood in light of the suggestion that the king is God's political representative upon earth (analogous to the kohanim that are considered "sheluchi deRachmana"), a designation that gives him the prerogative of sitting in the Mikdash. The limitation of this privilege to Davidic kings alone is in accordance with our claim that this status is unique to them alone. Had it been a means of fortifying the political leader's prestige and honor, it should apply to all legitimate sovereigns and not only to those of David's seed. However, if it is a rule that is rooted in the religious standing of the king, its restriction to the chosen line of David is obvious.


Thus, this halakha that seemingly focuses upon a relatively minor detail from the halakhot of the Mikdash conceals within it a much more basic idea regarding the significance of the House of David. If our analysis to this point has been quite straightforward, there is one problem that casts a serious doubt on the suggestion that the privilege of sitting is a religious and not political one. The obvious question that must be solved is whether the Kohen Gadol can sit in the Azara or not. If the kingly prerogative is political in nature, its limitation to the sovereign alone, even to the exclusion of the Kohen Gadol can be justified; however, if the Davidic king is permitted to sit in the Mikdah since he "is at home there" as a member of the KBH's staff, this should be doubly true of the Kohen Gadol who indeed "belongs" to Mikdash - his status as the KBH's religious representative should enable him to sit in the Azara.


It is clear from our sugya, though, that the Kohen Gadol cannot sit in the Azara, as he must remove himself to the Ezrat Nashim to read the Yom Kippur portions. Our theory should presumably be rejected and the dispensation to sit in the Azara should be interpreted as a special favor granted to David by the KBH, as Rashi's phrasing seems to imply. Yet there is more to this point than meets the eye. First, Tosafot quote a machloket between our sugya and the Medrash regarding this issue. The Medrash indeed is of the opinion that the Kohen Gadol can sit in the Azara and not only the king (actually, the Medrash grants this privilege only to the KG and denies it to the Davidic monarch, since it regards only the Kohen as belonging to the Mikdash, but it is certainly possible to separate the two discussions and arrive at a position that allows both to sit).


Second, we must examine the reason that the KG is prevented from sitting in the Azara. Rashi in our sugya explains that sitting in the Azara is prohibited because it is disrespectful to the KBH. This interpretation is in contradiction to his explanation in Yoma (25a s.v. ein. 69b s.v. ein) that this halakha is derived from the verse that mandates that kohanim stand when performing avoda in Mikdash. If we combine Rashi's two suggestions and view them as complementing each other, rather than as contradictory statements, we can conclude that there are two issues regarding sitting in the Mikdash: a. disrespect and b. proper service in the Mikdash. Other than kohanim engaged in service, no one is permitted to sit in the Mikdah as this would be disrespectful to God. The KG and other kohanim (at least those on duty in the Mikdash) are considered part of the Mikdash and not prohibited from sitting as strangers appearing in God's presence, yet they can not sit since they are engaged in avoda that necessitates their standing in the Azara.


Thus, in our sugya, the KG is prohibited from reading in theAzara due to his need to stand when performing avoda. Aside from the possibility that the very presence of the KG in the Mikdash may be a form of avoda, the KG's reading of the Torah on Yom Kippur may itself be an avoda. The gemara discusses this issue in the opening lines of the seventh perek in Yoma (68b and Yerushalmi 7:1) without reaching a definitive conclusion. Therefore, we may suggest the following: if the KG would read the Torah in the Azara, it would be part of the avoda and would require his standing; he leaves the Azara and reads in the Ezrat Nashim, where it is no longer considered an avoda, so that he can sit down and read the Kria sitting.


[I do not deny that the above is somewhat speculative and textually constrained to a degree; however, the basic theory is solid, even if the last stage can be disputed. It is presented here in the understanding that the VBM is essentially a written shiur, rather than written Torah, so that it will hopefully serve to arouse thought and debate. I am also aware that a fuller treatment would have required a longer discussion of Yoma 25a but constraints of space and format dictated not doing so.]


Sources for next week's shiur:

Continue to the end of the perek.

Tosafot 41b s.v. oto.


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