Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, brought Tziporah, Moshe’s wife, after she
had been sent away. (18:2)
Rashi writes that the above verse, which speaks of Tziporah having been
sent away, refers to Moshe’s arrival in Egypt. When Moshe came to Egypt at
Hashem’s behest, he brought along his wife and children. Aaron came out to
greet Moshe, and seeing whom he brought along, promptly told Moshe to send
them back. “We grieve for the ones that are already here—you want to add
to their number?”
Many Rishonim (medieval commentaries) differ with Rashi. According to
them, being sent away refers to Moshe’s having divorced Tziporah before
entering Egypt. But if she was divorced, why does the Torah still call
her “Moshe’s wife?”
This question is addressed by the Moshav Z’keinim (Mi-ba’alei Ha-tosafos).
He answers that there is a fundamental difference between the ex-wife of a
king (whether divorced or widowed) and any other divorced woman. Normally,
a woman who has received a get (divorce document) from her husband is
(after a short waiting period) permitted to marry other men (with the
exclusion of Kohanim). The widow or ex-wife of a king is the exception.
Because a king must be feared and honoured, it would be a slight to him if
someone else were to take his divorced wife in marriage. She must remain
single out of respect for her previous husband.
Moshe had the status of a king (see Zevachim 102). This explains why
Tziporah was still called Moshe’s wife, even after being divorced.
Although technically she was no longer married to Moshe, she remained
connected to him due to her inability to marry other men—because she had
been the wife of Moshe.
We know that there are taryag (613) mitzvos in the Torah. In fact, the
Torah has far more than 613 mitzvos, but not all its mitzvos are counted
among the 613. Which mitzvos are included and which are not is a topic of
much discussion among the mefarshim (commentators) who count mitzvos. One
of the accepted principles for a mitzvah being ‘counted’ is that mitzvos
that are not ongoing—only applying in a given time period (such as the
mitzvah of tying the Pesach sheep to the bedposts in Egypt)—are not
The Rambam counts the mitzvah of appointing a king as one of the 613
mitzvos. The Sefer Ha-chinuch (mitzvah 497) questions this based on the
above principal. Once kingship was given to Dovid Ha-melech (King David),
it was automatically transferred to his children and children’s children
for all generations. Melech Ha-moshiach must also descend from David.
Clearly, once the Davidic dynasty were given a monopoly on kingship, it
ceased to be a mitzvah to appoint new kings, and thus is not an ongoing
mitzvah but rather one that only applied for a given time-frame. If so, it
should not qualify to be counted among the 613!
He writes that the mitzvah of appointing a king covers not only his
initial selection (which no longer exists), but also our ongoing
acceptance of his kingship through the fear and honour we demonstrate
towards him. Thus the mitzvah did not lapse with the dynasty awarded
David; although we may no longer appoint new kings, we will always be
commanded to show them the honour and fear that is their due.
He not only answers the question; his answer gives us new insight into the
concept of honouring and fearing a king. We would likely have understood
the mitzvah to fear and honour a king much in the same way we perceive the
mitzvah to honour and fear one’s parents or teachers; i.e. we must fear
them because their persona demands respect. In fact, according to the
Chinuch, fearing a king is a branch of the mitzvah of appointing a king;
we make him king by demonstrating our fear and respect for him.
This concept has important precedent with regard to Moshe. The Gemara
(Sanhedrin 20b) says that the mitzvah of appointing a king was one of the
first three mitzvos we received upon entering Eretz Yisrael. This means
that although Moshe may have had the status of king, his ‘monarchy’ was
not ordained by the mitzvah of appointing a king. And according to the
position of the Chinuch—that fear of a king is not due to his elevated
position in the community, but rather part of the mitzvah of appointing
him—the normal laws that apply to fearing and honouring a king would not
have applied to Moshe!
This brings us back to the question of Tziporah: Why was she still called
Moshe’s wife? According to the Sefer Ha-chinuch, she would not have been
forbidden to marry other men after having been divorced by Moshe; even
though Moshe was considered a king, his appointment was not Torah-
ordained, and the mitzvah of fearing the king, which precludes his wife
from remarrying, would not have applied.
(The Chinuch would, on the other hand, help us answer the Sefer Ha-
Mikneh’s question (Kiddushin 32b): How was Moshe permitted to serve Aaron,
Yisro, and the Elders at the meal (see Rashi verse 12)? A king is not
allowed to demean himself by performing such mundane tasks publicly—nor
does he have the right nor the ability to forgo this honour! According to
the above, however, Moshe’s status of king would not have awarded him the
honours of a king, which are tied in to Torah-ordained appointment, which
he didn’t have.)
Let us ask another question regarding the ex-wife of a king: Why is she
forbidden to remarry? According to the Chinuch, fearing a king is tied-in
to the mitzvah of appointing him. As such, it should only apply to the
people under his rule—who appointed him king in the first place. In the
time when Yehudah and Yisrael each had their own king, people living in
Yehudah, for instance, had no mitzvah to fear the Melech Yisrael since
they didn’t appoint him! (See D’var Avraham 2:32:19 who makes just this
point). According to the Rambam, who holds that the prohibition to marry
the king’s ex-wife is part of the larger mitzvah of fear and respect, she
should be prohibited only to the subjects under the rule of her ex-husband!
Also, if not marrying the king’s widow is part of the mitzvah of fearing a
king, which itself is part of the mitzvah to appoint a king, why should
one be forbidden to marry his widow? Certainly there is no mitzvah to
appoint a king (and fear him) once he is no longer alive?!
It appears there are two separate laws which apply to our conduct towards
a king: The one law, which we have addressed, is part-and-parcel to
appointing him; we must support his position by demonstrating our fear and
respect. This law applies only to kings appointed by the public, and would
not have applied to Moshe.
The second law is to show our respect for authority: When Moshe and Aaron
went to warn Pharaoh about the plagues, Hashem commanded them to show him
respect, despite his wickedness—because he was a king! Likewise, Eliyahu
Ha-Navi showed great respect for King Achav, despite his extreme
wickedness. (See Zevachim 102a). Not marrying any king’s widow, as well as
the laws of fear and respect that applied to Moshe Rabbeinu, are covered
by this second category of respect: Not one necessitated by his
appointment, but the respect that must be shown to all people in positions
of authority, particularly a king.
The Gemara gives a limited status of ‘king’ to all Torah scholars. While
one may not be forbidden to marry the widow of a Torah scholar who has
passed away, this still gives us a small inkling into the level of respect
the Talmud deems appropriate for those who dedicate their lives to Torah
It is also noteworthy that the Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 190) writes
that the mitzvah of showing respect to kings and leaders (even secular
ones) is not a mitzvah sichlis (a mitzvah that appeals to our sense of
logic) but rather a chok—which we understand no more than we understand
the mitzvah of Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer). In Western culture, where
ridiculing leaders is commonplace, it is easy to see how society can
quickly descend until authority loses their ability to guide us,
everything and everyone is open to criticism (whether grounded or not),
and (we) the masses wander aimlessly back and forth like a ship lost at
sea. One who doesn’t keep this mitzvah, he writes, is no different than a
person who doesn’t put on tefillin every day.