Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayiqra 5764/ March 27, 2004


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 Nasi – Prime Minister or President?


Rabbi Judah Zoldan

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. 4:22).  Who is this chieftain who must bring a male goat without blemish as a sin offering? [1]

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. 4:22), 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. 17:19).   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?

Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah who lived after the destruction of the Temple and was not a king, asked regarding himself (Horayot 11b):   “Rabbi inquired of Rabbi Hiyya:   Whom am I like, regarding [the requirement to bring a sin offering of] a male goat?  Rabbi Hiyya answered:  You have a rival in Babylonia.”

Rashi explains his question:   If I were living in the time of the Temple, would I have to bring a male goat, as required of a king?   This question was the touchstone for him to evaluate what it meant for him to be nasi.   Rabbi Hiyya’s answer was that the Exilarch in Babylonia was higher than the Nasi in the land of Israel in terms of sovereignty, implying that the Exilarch was the one who would have had to bring a male goat offering, were the Temple still standing. [2]   Thus we see that these verses do not necessarily concern kings alone, but also the Exilarch and the Nasi in the Second Temple Period.

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 Israel has a king, then he is the one who must bring a male goat offering, and not the tribal chieftain or head of the clan.  But when there is no king, then the offering is brought by the person considered to leader of the people in terms of the governmental organization, such as the Exilarch, whose governmental authority was greater than the Nasi in the Land of Israel.

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. [3]   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 Israel.   The law, however, is not stated specifically with regard to a king, but with regard to any leader who stands at the head, even if he is not a king.  In other words, it is not the title Nasi that confers the status, for Rabbi Judah was called Nasi, yet had the Temple been standing in his day, the exilarch and not the Nasi would have had to bring the male goat offering.

How does this discussion apply to modern government in Israel today?  Were the Temple standing today, who would be responsible for bringing this sin offering?   The answer lies in the fundamental question, who is considered to be at the pinnacle of government in Israel today?

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 Israel, is the President.  He is the figure-head representing the State of Israel both domestically and to the outside world.  The Prime Minister, for example, rises for him at ceremonies of state (on Holocaust Memorial Day, IDF Memorial Day, at the award ceremony of the Israel Prize on the Day of Independence, etc.), and not the reverse.  Thus the person who has none but “the Lord his G-d” over him, and to whom everyone pays homage, is the President. [4]   The same would hold true even if the title given the President in the State of Israel (Heb. Nasi) were different, such as Governor, Chairman, or the like.  It is not the title that confers the status, but the authority the person holds as the head of the people of Israel.


[1] This subject has also been discussed by Rabbi Y. Shaviv, “Al Mosad ha-Nesi’ut,” Shema’tin, 129-130 (1997), pp. 17-23.

[2] 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.

[3] Indeed, this is the conclusion drawn by Rabbi Isaac of Karline, regarding this question; cf. Keren Orah, Hiddushim le-Masekhet Horayot, New York 1983, p. 224 (Horayot 11b, s.v. yakhol).

[4] 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.