Sotah 41

Flattery will get you nowhere.

A mishnah on today’s daf discusses the mitzvah of hakhel, a once-in-seven-years public reading of the Torah by the king at a gathering of the entire community, adults and children alike. A curious passage concerns the day when King Agrippa fulfilled this mitzvah.

King Agrippa arose, and received (the Torah scroll) and read standing, and the sages praised him. And when he arrived at: “You may not appoint a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), tears flowed from his eyes. They said: Fear not, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother.

The mishnah offers no further comment about this episode, but the Gemara records this teaching: 

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Natan: At that moment the enemies of the Jewish people (a euphemism for the Jewish people) were sentenced to destruction for flattering Agrippa. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta says: From the day that the power of flattery prevailed, the judgment has become corrupted, and people’s deeds have become corrupted, and a person cannot say to another: My deeds are greater than your deeds.

A number of questions need to be answered in order to understand this episode, and the apparent difference in these two versions of it. Why was King Agrippa crying? Why did the people respond as they did? And was their response warranted? 

King Agrippa in the Talmud is most likely King Agrippa II, a descendant on his father’s side of Herod the Great, the Roman king of Judea, and the Hasmoneans, the Jewish kingly dynasty. As a descendent of Herod, Agrippa may have wept at reading the passage about a foreigner ruling over the Jewish people because he believed that his Herodian lineage should have disqualified him from being king in the first place. A close reading of Deuteronomy 17:15 reveals that the king is supposed to be taken mikerev achecha, “from amidst your brothers,” which Tosafot explains means Jewish on all sides. According to Rashi, the people reassure him that he is in fact their brother — that is, Jewish — on account of his mother being of Hasmonean descent. But while his maternal lineage may have made him Jewish, it’s not enough to warrant his ascension to the throne. 

This explains why Agrippa cried and why the people sought to reassure him. But why would this warrant their destruction? Why is flattering the king so terrible?

First, there’s the problem of illegitimate usurpation. The throne of Israel is supposed to be held only by a descendent of King David, which Agrippa was decidedly not. Then there’s the issue of pandering. While it might be acceptable to flatter a king — after all, he is the king — in this case, they may have been flattering a usurper who has just read a verse indicating that it’s forbidden for him to ascend the throne. 

Finally, there’s the issue of flattery in general. The Gemara takes the people to task for heaping false praise — so much so that it is seen as wholly destructive to the nation. If, as Rabbi Shimon bar Halafta says in our passage, judgment itself becomes corrupt (seemingly because the people are flattering judges into ruling unjustly), what is there to stop anyone from doing what they want, the law and the consequences be damned? 

Often, it’s human nature to flatter those deemed to be our superiors, whether they deserve it or not. The Gemara comes to caution us to be more careful, lest that flattery get us nowhere.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 9, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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