Voter turnout for Israel's first elections in 1949 was 86.9%, but recent years have seen a significant decline. This past April, only 68.5% of those eligible voted, and in September's elections only 69.8% of Israelis cast their ballots. With so many crucial issues hanging in the balance - national security, economic stability, and education, to name just a few - it is surprising more Israelis don't participate in the elections.
But is it a Mitzvah to vote?
The story is told that a man once approached Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the revered Chazon Ish, and explained that he did not have enough money to pay his taxes and would not be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections. The Chazon Ish asked the man if he owns a pair of Tefillin. The man replied, "Of course." The Chazon Ish then instructed the man to sell his Tefillin and pay his outstanding taxes so he would be allowed to vote. The Chazon Ish explained, "You can borrow Tefillin from someone else, but you can't borrow your right to vote from someone else!”
While this story may sound extreme, according to many authorities it is indeed a mitzvah to vote.
The Torah commands: "You shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem, your G-d, shall choose..." (Devarim 17:15). In fact, according to the Rambam, appointing a king is one of three mitzvot to be fulfilled upon entering the Land of Israel (Hilchot Melachim 1:1; Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 173. See also Sanhedrin 20b; Sifrei, Re'eh).
But what about electing a body to govern the modern State of Israel?
In a Teshuvah written to Rav Shlomo Zalman Pines in 1916, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook defends the creation of a modern democratic state in Israel, even without a king or Sanhedrin (Mishpat Kohen 144).
Rav Kook argues that in the absence of a Sanhedrin or a prophet, a king can be appointed by “consent of the Jewish Nation.” Rav Kook continues, “When there is no king, since the laws of government concern the general welfare of the Nation, the rights of government return to the Nation" (See Radbaz to Hilchot Melachim 3:8, who also assumes a king can be appointed by consent).
According to Rav Kook, the Jewish People have the right to self-determination and have the authority to create a government at all times. He goes as far as saying that “any lawmaker that arises in Israel has the status of king concerning governing the state.” He cites the Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:13), who rules that the Reish Galuta (Exilarch) in Babylonia had the status of king, and writes, “all the more so when there are leaders chosen by the Nation when she is in her sovereign land.”
Based on the above, it would appear that according to Rav Kook electing a body to govern the Jewish Nation is indeed a fulfillment of the mitzvah to appoint a king. (See also Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Amud Hayemini 7).
In addition, the Torah (Devarim 16:18) instructs us to "appoint judges and officers in all of your cities," establishing a just and equitable society. This mitzvah includes creating a central supreme court and local district courts, as well as appointing officers to enforce the law. Without a government, there would be total anarchy. The Mishnah (Avot 3:2) states: “Rabbi Chanina, deputy High Priest, said: Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive." A democratically elected government ensures that no one "swallow one another alive."
But beyond swallowing "one another alive," a government ensures a quality of life. Many pages in the Talmud discuss the responsibility members of a community have to their community and to one another. The Talmud also describes the responsibilities that officials have to their community, and even the process of electing community leaders and the need for consensus. Rav Yitzchak, for example, taught: "One may not appoint a leader over the community unless it is by consent of the community" (Berachot 55a). In fact, all decisions concerning the community require a consensus and the support of a majority (Rema, Choshen Mishpat 163:1).
According to the Rashbah, the leaders of a community need not be the wisest sages, but rather the individuals that a community elects to govern them. And those elected leaders have significant authority over the community (See Rema, Choshen Mishpat 2:1).
On October 3, 1984, Rav Moshe Feinstein penned a letter encouraging the Jewish community to vote in the upcoming US Presidential Elections. Rav Moshe wrote: "A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov — recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent on each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.
Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible, and by voting. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.”
If Rav Moshe felt that a citizen of the United States is obligated to perform his/her civic duty and vote, all the more in Israel, especially with all that is at stake.
And while the "heart of the King is in the Hand of Hashem" (Mishlei 21:1), it is in our hands to choose our leaders.
Among the many contemporary authorities who rule that it is indeed a mitzvah to vote in Israel's elections are Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, Rav Shlomo Aviner, Rav Ratzon Arusi, and Rav David Stav.
Before the elections for the First Knesset in January 1949, a number of leading rabbis issued a ‘Kol Koreh,’ urging their flock to participate, and stating that it is indeed a “Mitzvah to vote!” The Belzer Rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, was approached by one of his chassidim who asked, “Is it really a mitzvah? A mitzvah like eating Matza?” The Belzer Rebbe thought for a moment and quipped, “Maybe more like eating Maror!” (See Yosef Israel, Rescuing the Rebbe of Belz, p. 497).
For many frustrated Israelis, voting in a third round of elections feels like "eating Maror." But exercising our civic duty and participating in Israel's elections is both an obligation and an opportunity to build the Jewish State together, and ensure a bright future for our children and their children.
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