the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Nasi – Prime Minister or President?
Midrashah for Women
This week’s reading mentions various sacrifices that were offered under specific circumstances. One of these is “in case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt” (Lev. ). Who is this chieftain who must bring a male goat without blemish as a sin offering? 
“Nasi,” rendered here as ‘chieftain’, is a general descriptive word referring to anyone elevated (Heb. nissa) above the people due to his status, function or office. This term appears extensively in the Bible for various types of positions.
Ephron is called nesi Elohim, the elect of G-d (Gen. 23:6); Ishmael had twelve chieftains (Gen. 25:16); Shechem son of Hamor is called “chief of the country” (Gen. 34:2); there are twelve chieftains of the tribes (Num. 1:16); the twelve spies are also called chieftains, although they are not necessarily chieftains of the tribes (Num. 13:2); and even the half-tribe has a chieftain (Num. 34:23). The two-hundred and fifty who offered incense in Korah’s dispute are chieftains (Num. 16:2); King David is called nasi, “a ruler among them” (Ez. 34:24) and his son Solomon as well (I Kings 11:34); Sheshbazzar was nasi, “prince” of Judah (Ezra 1:8); the anointed king is called nasi, “prince” (Ezek. 48:22); and so on.
Later, towards the end of the Second Temple Period and after, also those authorized to give instruction in Jewish practice, the heads of the Sanhedrin and the leaders of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel were called nasi: “The wisest of them all shall be placed at their head; he is the head of the yeshivah and he is the one the whom the Sages call nasi everywhere” (Maimionides, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 1.3).
The Mishnah interprets the verse, “In case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt,” as referring to the king: “Who is meant by nasi? The king, for it says in the continuation of the verse, ‘by doing any of the things which by the commandment of the Lord his G-d…’ (Lev. ), meaning a ruler above whom there is none but the Lord his G-d” (Horayot 3.3).
A similar interpretation can be found in the midrash halakhah Sifra:
By nasi could it mean a chieftain of one of the tribes, such as Nahshon? The Torah says: “by doing any of the things which by the commandment of the Lord his G-d…”, and further on it says, “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his G-d” (Deut. ). Just as the second quote refers to a ruler above whom there is none but the Lord his G-d, so too, nasi here means someone above whom there is none but the Lord his G-d.
From the unique expression, “the Lord his G-d,” which occurs both in the verse at hand and in the passage on kings, the teachers of Mishnah and Midrash deduced that the term nasi here referred specifically to a king and not just to any person who wields power. If indeed this verse pertains specifically to a king, why does Scripture not say so explicitly instead of leaving us to deduce this from exegesis?
Rashi explains his question:
If I were living in the time of the
The Sages apparently understood the verse to mean that the
person at the pinnacle of the pyramid of the governmental structure of the
Jewish people is the one who offers a male goat.
Generally this was the king, since he had the
highest and broadest dominion in terms of government, as is learned by analogy
from the use of the expression, “the Lord his G-d,” both here and in the
passage on kings. When
Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the verse at hand may be
understood similarly. He says that nasi
in our verse means head of a tribe or clan, by which he apparently meant to say
that in principle, the highest governing authority in Israel—in the early
Biblical period this was the chieftain of the tribe or the head of the clan--
must bring the male goat offering.
That is why the Torah says “in case it is a
chieftain who incurs guilt,” and not “in case it is a king who incurs
guilt.” For if Scriptures had meant to
refer only to a king, why did it not say so explicitly?
Rather, a king is the prime example of
someone who, at a later point, was at the pinnacle of governmental authority in
How does this discussion apply to modern government in
The Prime Minister wields great and extensive governmental
authority, but on the other hand, the person considered the First Citizen, at
the pinnacle of the governmental pyramid in
 This subject has also been discussed by Rabbi Y. Shaviv, “Al Mosad ha-Nesi’ut,” Shema’tin, 129-130 (1997), pp. 17-23.
 This is according to the interpretation of Rabbi Abraham Borenstein, Resp. Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 313.11. His son, Rabbi Samuel Borenstein (author of Shem Mi-Shemuel), is of like opinion; see Resp. Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 112.27, in the glosses.
 Indeed, this is the
conclusion drawn by Rabbi Isaac of Karline, regarding this question; cf. Keren
Orah, Hiddushim le-Masekhet Horayot,
 Initially Rabbi Meshulam Rothe agreed with this view, in his response to a question of whether one should rend garments to mourn the passing of Chaim Weizman, Israel’s first president; cf. Resp. Kol Mevasser, Jerusalem 1973, Part I, 76: “Clearly, as regards the obligation to rend garments in mourning for the President, there is no need for the title of King and the necessary concomitant circumstances; suffice it for him to have been chosen as the ruler of highest authority in the government; then he satisfies the criteria of nasi and one must rend one’s garments in mourning for him.” By the end of his responsum, however, he changed his opinion regarding the obligation to rend one’s garments since the obligation to rend garments over a nasi who has passed away was deduced from the case of Saul, who had been king (B. Mo’ed Katan 22b), and this rule might have been said specifically with regard to a king or someone from the royal family, as the exilarchs were. Since, he explained, “the obligation of rending garments is only of rabbinic authority (me-de-rabbanan), in case of uncertainty the more lenient ruling is to be preferred (see the Be’ur ha-Gra, Yoreh De’ah 340, n.5 and 49). Also, if there is no need to [rend garments], then the prohibition against needless waste (bal tashkhit) comes into play, and therefore one should not rend one’s garment.” Regarding the offering of a male goat, however, the decisive criterion here is a matter of being at the top of the governmental pyramid, as he himself discusses in the course of answering the query addressed to him.