Was it a deemed a problem that "every man did what was right in his own eyes" before there was a King? By the people or by G!d? Or was this seen as aproblematic or even workable and gainful at the time?

As it says in the pasuk: בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם אֵ֥ין מֶ֖לֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֛ישׁ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

"In those days there was no King in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes."

  • 1
    Did you read the preceding horror story? The narrator (the Prophet Samuel) is explaining to us why this system utterly failed, and teeing us up for the need for a monarchy in the next book.
    – Shalom
    Commented May 20 at 16:40
  • Yes, I've read it ... and perused it recently ...
    – הראל
    Commented May 20 at 16:46

2 Answers 2


Most certainly not seen as a good thing.

The passuk בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם אֵ֥ין מֶ֖לֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֛ישׁ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה occurs twice towards the end of Shofetim (Judges) - 17:6 and 21:25. These verses bookend two terrible incidents - first, Micah and his idol and second, the concubine of Givah.

Rabbi Sacks זצ״ל addresses these verses in (at least) two places in his writings:

First, in his dvar torah on Masei “The Complexity of Human Rights” available here https://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/masei/complexity-human-rights/ where he writes:

As the book of Judges points out, individualism is another name for chaos: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).

Second, in Numbers: Then and Now (page 20 of the Bamidbar collection of his Covenant and Conversation divrei torah) excerpts available here https://media.rabbisacks.org/20211022102611/c_c_numbers_excerpt.pdf

Where he writes: “[T]he conflicting societal pressures of order and freedom can only be reconciled by law, freely accepted and collectively applied. Law ensures that my freedom is not bought at the cost of yours. That is the difference between a society in which “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” the biblical description of chaos,[footnote citing Shofetim 17:6 and 21:25 and also Devarim 12:8 and Mishlei 12:15] 17 and one in which there is an agreed-upon moral code and thus a shared form of order"

Devarim 12:8 reads (text and translation from Sefaria): לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּן כְּ֠כֹ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֲנַ֧חְנוּ עֹשִׂ֛ים פֹּ֖ה הַיּ֑וֹם אִ֖ישׁ כׇּל־הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָֽיו׃ You shall not act at all as we now act here, each of us as we please,

And Mishlei 12:15 reads (text and translation from Sefaria): דֶּ֣רֶךְ אֱ֭וִיל יָשָׁ֣ר בְּעֵינָ֑יו וְשֹׁמֵ֖עַ לְעֵצָ֣ה חָכָֽם׃ The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; But the wise man accepts advice.

Devarim 12:8 and Mishlei 12:15 cited by Rabbi Sacks זצ״ל further emphasise the negativity of a society where each individual does what is right in their own eyes.

  • If you like my answer, please consider accepting it. Otherwise, please comment on how it can be improved.
    – Edward B
    Commented Jun 4 at 15:35

On the simple level of things (and as explained by the commentaries on the respective verses), Edward's answer is correct. But it's worth pointing out that there's another approach.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 25a), in explanation of Shmuel 2:1:18 ("behold, it is written in the Book of Yashar (lit., The Upright)"), cites R. Shmuel bar Nachmani's opinion that the book of Judges is so called because of this repeated refrain about everyone doing what was yashar (upright) in their own eyes.

R. Avigdor Miller zt"l comments on this in several places in his writings - one that's available online is here - that according to this view the verse is meant in a positive sense:

So it’s an upside down world! Here is a verse that people cite as a proof of the lawlessness of that generation – “Each one did what is right in his own eyes” – and the Gemara tells us, “No! That exact verse is the one that tells us that it was the most righteous era because every man did what was right in his eyes!”

That changes everything. It’s an eye opener because now we have to read the possuk all over again. This time we read it the way the Sages read it: בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל – In those days the Jewish people did not need a king. They wouldn’t stand for a king who would force them to do certain things because they didn’t require it! אִישׁ כָּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו יַעֲשֶׂה – Every man was loyal to the real King, Hashem, and everyone did what he considered right!

  • ... or the Gemara is saying exactly the opposite of Rabbi Miller's creative reading. The book in which sadly each person deemed themselves the ultimate arbiter of morality ...
    – Shalom
    Commented May 21 at 19:28
  • @Shalom The other two opinions there about the identity of Sefer Hayashar take the latter term in a positive sense, so that justifies understanding R. Shmuel bar Nachmani's in the same vein. The truth is, though, that the excerpt above doesn't really do the argument justice; it's more fully developed (with lots of examples) in R. Miller's book Behold a People, which in turn draws heavily on Doros Harishonim - Tekufas Hamikra. It's also a good counterweight to those who would claim that Torah was unknown in those eras, or that the "daughter religions" are more moral than ours, etc. etc.
    – Meir
    Commented May 22 at 14:28
  • Just to give one example of R. Miller's (and DHR's) points: the era of the Judges lasted some 360 years; if we count up all the times about which it says that they "did what was evil in Hashem's eyes," it comes out to around 120. So for fully 2/3rds of that era - without a king to enforce the law - they were keeping Torah and mitzvos punctiliously.
    – Meir
    Commented May 22 at 14:35

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