In the portion of Shoftim we are given the mitzvah to appoint a king, “You should surely appoint over yourself a king.”1

The Midrash Tanchuma2 says, “The head of the generation is the entire generation.” The Rashba3 writes that “the king is like the community, because the community—indeed all of Israel—is dependent on him.” Similarly Rashi4 also says that “The nassi [the ‘leader’ or ‘king’] is like the entire generation, because the nassi is everything.” The Rambam5 says about the king, “His heart is the heart of the entire congregation of Israel.”

The king is like the heart of the Jewish people, because just as all of the organs in the body are dependent on the heart, all of Israel is dependent on the king.

It is true that the heart pumps the blood, bringing vital oxygen to every organ of the body, but it is the brain that directs the entire body, including the heart. Why, then, is the king called the heart and not the brain of the Jewish people?

In the Torah, depending on context, nassi means either “king” or “head of a tribe.” In Talmud, nassi always refers to the head of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jewish people. The word melech is always used to refer to the king.

By differentiating between melech and nassi, our sages are teaching us that they have different qualities. And even when a king is called a nassi, it is referring to the nassi qualities found within the king.

What are the differences between a nassi and a melech? The differences are similar to those of the brain and the heart.

A king’s job is to take care of the needs of the nation, just as the heart serves the entire body. As king, he doesn’t have any purpose other than serving the nation, just as the heart has no other function than to provide the needs of the organs of the body.

Therefore, he is attached to the people in two ways. First, he is involved in the needs of the nation, and second, he gets whatever he wants from the people. This also demonstrates the weak position of the king, as he is totally reliant on the people. Similarly the heart serves the needs of the body, and as the Zohar says, “The heart is tender and weak,” because it has no function of its own. This is why the king is called the heart of the entire congregation of Israel.

The nassi is the head of the Jewish people, the brain. The nassi’s job is to be an impartial arbiter of Torah law, directing the entire nation in G‑d’s ways, just as the brain directs the entire body. Unlike the king, the nassi is not totally reliant on the people. Yes, he gets a salary from the people, but he is getting paid to work, just like any person who holds a public office. Similarly the brain directs the entire body, but it also has a function of its own, to think and impartially scrutinize ideas. It gets nourished from the heart just like any other organ does.

Now we can understand why a king is not called the brain. That is the job of the nassi.

Some of the laws pertaining to the king and the nassi.

  • A nassi may forgo his honor, a king may not.6
  • A king must rise out of respect when the Sanhedrin or Torah scholars enter before him.7
  • A king doesn’t make laws (other than those necessary for the immediate needs of the nation8 ), but he enforces the laws handed down by the Sanhedrin.9
  • A king isn’t given the position of Head of the Sanhedrin.10

However, two kings of Israel have both titles: nassi and melech. The first was Moses, our first redeemer. He was a king,11 as it says regarding him, “And there was a king in Jeshurun (AKA Israel).”12 . He took care of the Jewish nation in the desert, just as a king would. He was also the nassi, head of the Sanhedrin, the primary teacher of Torah to the Jewish people.

The second will be Moshiach, our final redeemer, who will be our king and nassi.13 He will teach us new insights in Torah that will take us to spiritual heights, beyond anything we could imagine.

In Kabbalistic and Chassidic teaching, the cognitive abilities are connected to the brain, and the emotions are connected to the heart.

The brain is above the body, not intermingled with the organs of the body. This is because to be impartial, you need to be separate or above feelings. Otherwise your feelings will skew your thinking. The same is true about a nassi. He is above the nation, and to be able to determine the true Torah law, he can’t let his feelings get in the way.

On the other hand, the heart is inside the body, among other organs. The same is true about a king. He needs to be among the nation, with the ability to feel for them, so that he can properly serve them.14

Each of us is king and nassi over ourselves, our families, and our surroundings. It is very important to know when to be a nassi and when to be a king. When you are learning Torah or you have a question in halacha, you need to be the nassi, to follow what is true and right. But when it comes to your welfare and the welfare of your family and friends, you need to be the king. You need to feel for them, and provide for them accordingly. Of course within the boundaries of halacha.

May our efforts to lead a Torah based life, hasten the coming of Moshiach, our king and our nassi. May it happen soon.