Tag Archives: Hannah

The Priests and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, most famous for its account of the Golden Calf incident. Last year, we addressed some of the major questions surrounding the Golden Calf, including who exactly instigated the catastrophe, why it was done in that particular way, and the mystical reasons behind it. Another set of questions arises from the way Moses dealt with the incident. We read how Moses first had the Golden Calf ground up and mixed with water, a mixture that the populace was forced to drink. Then, he called on the perpetrators to be killed by sword. Finally, God sent an additional plague as punishment for the incident. What is the significance of these three measures?

Priestly Procedure

Rashi comments on Exodus 32:20 that Moses “intended to test them like women suspected of adultery”. This refers to the sotah procedure, described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman who may have committed adultery is brought before the priests and tested by having her drink a special mixture of “holy water”. If she is guilty, she would die immediately; if innocent, she would be blessed. Moses did the same by grinding the Golden Calf into a special mixture and having the people drink it. This would identify those who were guilty of idolatry. The symbolism is clear: in the same way that the adulteress cheats on her husband, the Israelites at Sinai “cheated” on God.

Rashi further explains that this procedure was only to identify those who had worshipped the Calf secretly, without any witnesses. However, there were those who had worshipped the Calf openly and publicly. Deuteronomy 13:13-18 states that the punishment for such open displays of idolatry—assuming the idolaters had been given a clear warning—is death by sword. It was these people (three thousand of them) who were killed in this particular way.

The last group were those who had worshipped the Calf openly, but were not given a warning. In Jewish law, the death penalty is not meted out unless the perpetrators were given a clear explanation of their sin and were explicitly warned about the consequences beforehand. Since this last group of people worshipped the Calf openly, but without a warning, they could not be punished. In such cases, it is up to the Heavens to dole out justice. This is why they were punished with a plague.

Priestly Origins

Rashi’s comments come from the Talmud (Yoma 66b), which also provides us with an alternate explanation for the three types of punishment. Those that were most involved in the idolatry—sacrificing animals and burning incense to the Golden Calf—died by sword. Those who merely “embraced and kissed” the Calf died by plague. And those who only “rejoiced in their hearts” and worshipped the Calf in secret died by drinking the mixture.

The same page of Talmud reminds us that the entire tribe of Levi did not participate in the sin. The Sages explain that this is why the Levites were elevated to the status of priests. Prior to the Golden Calf, it was the firstborn male of every family that was supposed to ascend to the priesthood. After the Calf, the Levites were designated as the priestly class, with the descendants of Aaron serving as the kohanim, the high priests. For this reason, a firstborn male must be “redeemed” from a kohen in a special ceremony known as pidyon haben thirty days (or more) after his birth.

Illustration depicting Moses commanding the Levites at the Golden Calf, from ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ by Persian-Jewish sage Rashid-al-Din (1247-1308)

Priestly Exceptions

Having said that, we do see a number of exceptions to this rule. Pinchas was a Levite who was elevated to kohen status after his actions brought an end to the immoral affair with the Midianites. He would go on to become the kohel gadol, the High Priest, and hold that position longer than anyone else—over 300 years according to certain opinions!

Another exception was the prophet Samuel. His barren mother, Hannah, promised that if God would give her a child, she would make the child a nazir (loosely translated as “monk”) from birth and dedicate him to the priesthood. After Samuel was weaned, Hannah—considered a prophetess in her own right—left him under the tutelage of the High Priest Eli. The Tanakh tells us that Eli’s own two sons, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas above) were “base men who did not know God” (I Samuel 2:12), and it appears that Samuel filled the void they left, for he “served before Hashem, a youth girded with a linen ephod” (2:18). The ephod was one of the special vestments worn only by the kohanim, as described in last week’s parasha. Despite Samuel being from the tribe of Ephraim, it appears he became a full member of the priesthood. So great was he that Psalms 99:6 famously equates Samuel with Moses (a Levite) and Aaron (a kohen) combined.

In fact, long before Aaron we read how Melchizedek was a “kohen to God” who came to bless Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified with Shem, the son of Noah (appropriately his firstborn son, according to many opinions). He was the first person in history to serve as a proper priest, offering sacrifices to God upon an altar upon exiting the Ark following the Great Flood (see Beresheet Rabbah 30:6).

Finally, the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) speaks of a certain “righteous priest” who is one of the four messianic figures prophesied by Zechariah. While Mashiach himself is said to be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, there are a number of perplexing sources speaking of Mashiach being a kohen! In fact, there are only four places in the entire Torah where the word mashiach (משיח) actually appears. All four cases are in reference to a kohen, mentioned as hakohen hamashiach. While the simple explanation is that this refers to the “anointed” priest, ie. the High Priest, the deeper meaning suggests that Mashiach himself is somehow a kohen.*

In reality, this isn’t so hard to understand. After all, when Mashiach comes everything will revert to the way it was meant to be originally. The sin of the Golden Calf will be rectified, together with all the other tikkunim. Thus, the priesthood will once again belong to the firstborn. And even this will likely be temporary, for God always intended the Jewish people to be a mamlechet kohanim, for each and every Jew to be a priest, as it is written (Exodus 19:5-6):

…If you would but hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Interestingly, the breakaway sect of priests known as the Essenes—who likely produced the Dead Sea Scrolls—believed in a messianic figure referred to as moreh tzedek, the “Righteous Teacher”. Scholars have suggested this was a high-ranking kohen named Judah who separated from the corrupt Sadducee priests of the Second Temple and founded the ascetic Essene sect. Judah was ultimately killed for apostasy, and the Essenes apparently believed that he would return to life to usher in the Messianic age. It seems early Christians adopted many elements of this legend. The possibility is explored by Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ.

Does the Torah Allow Polygamy?

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, is full of intriguing Torah laws. One of these is with regards to inheritance in the case of a man having two wives, where one of them is beloved while the other is hated. This brings up a fairly big question: does the Torah permit polygamy, the practice of having multiple spouses? On the one hand, looking at passages such as the one mentioned here, it appears that the Torah does allow it. On the other hand, we see very few actual cases of polygamy in the Torah, and in those few cases, they are always painted in a negative light. So, what’s the final verdict?

Starting at the very beginning, God created Adam and Eve – one man and one woman – and commanded: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Clearly, it was God’s intent that a single man unite with a single woman to become completely unified as one. Monogamy is undoubtedly the ideal.

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) further comments: “Forty days before the conception of a child, a Heavenly Voice issues forth and declares: ‘the daughter of so-and-so is designated for so-and-so’…” Thus, long before a child is even born, their spouse is already designated for them in the Heavens. This may be among the most ancient sources for the concept of soulmates. Interestingly, the same passage in the Talmud concludes that this applies specifically to a first marriage, while to pair a second marriage would be “as difficult as the Splitting of the Sea”!

Not surprisingly, essentially every case of polygamy in the Torah comes with a negative twist. The first person to have multiple wives was Lemech, in the seventh generation from Adam (Genesis 4:19). Here, Rashi writes that it became common in the time of Lemech for men to take two wives: one for reproduction, and the other simply for pleasure. The latter would be given a certain medicine that made her infertile, and would be adorned and beautified. This was a great evil, and Rashi suggests that it was one of the major reasons for the Great Flood that wiped out the Earth’s population. Further solidifying the point, the Torah explicitly states that the righteous Noah and his three sons each had a single wife.

Ten generations later, Abraham was married solely to Sarah, until it became clear that she was barren. At this point, Sarah suggested the surrogate womb of Hagar. This brought a great deal of tension into the family, and Hagar had to be expelled from their home. Later, after Sarah’s passing, Abraham formally married Hagar, who was now known as Keturah. (Although 24:6 suggests that Abraham may have had other concubines, Rashi assures us that the verse refers only to Keturah.) Abraham’s son Isaac married only Rebecca, and this couple is held up as an ideal of love and marriage. (We have explored this in more depth in the past; see: ‘Isaac and Rebecca: the Secret to Perfect Marriage’ in Garments of Light.)

Jacob, too, only wished to marry Rachel. However, his father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying her sister Leah. Although he could have technically divorced her, Jacob took pity on Leah, as no one wanted to marry her. With Rachel’s consent, he kept Leah as a wife, but never loved her. This alludes directly to the passage in this week’s Torah portion that describes a man with two wives, one beloved, and one despised. Later, when Rachel and Leah were barren, they too gave their maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) to Jacob as surrogates in order to bear more children. Jacob may be the only righteous Torah figure that can be described as polygamous. Ultimately, the competition between his wives, and later between their respective children, only brought Jacob endless troubles, and he himself stated that his life was a miserable one (Genesis 46:9).

Having said that, the cases of Jacob and Abraham illustrate why the Torah seems to allow polygamy, and does not expressly forbid it. Throughout most of history, the average person could not survive on their own. There were no condos for rent, no fully-stocked supermarkets, and no police departments to call. People generally had to construct their own homes, grow the bulk of their own food, and defend their property by themselves. This required a lot of hands, and very large families. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always possible.

For instance, if a woman was unable to have children, it would make it very hard for the couple to make a living. Thus, instead of abandoning their wives, men would take on another. A good example is that of Elkanah, who married Peninah because his beloved Hannah was barren. Peninah gave him ten sons, yet he always loved Hannah more than anything (I Samuel 1:5-8).

Further exacerbating the problem was that oftentimes the population of women far outnumbered that of men, since entire male populations could be decimated in battle. In order to survive, several women would have to marry a single man. (This also helps to explain why it is polygyny, the practice of having multiple wives, that predominates, and not polyandry, the practice of having multiple husbands).

And yet, polygamy was still extremely rare in the Jewish world. Joseph and his brothers, Amram, Moses*, Aaron, Joshua, Caleb, and just about every other great Torah figure was monogamous. The kings of Israel were permitted to take on multiple wives, but mainly for the sake of political alliances. Most famously, King Solomon had one thousand wives and concubines, yet these were certainly not for his own pleasure. Rather, they were marriages for political purposes that allowed him to bring peace to the entire region (hence his fateful name, Shlomo, which means “peace”). This, too, ended in disaster though, and was never attempted again by any other Hebrew king.

Further on, the Sages of the Talmud were monogamous, and by the Middle Ages, Rabbeinu Gershom formally banned polygamy. Today, it is essentially unheard of in the Jewish world, as well as in the Western world at large. Once again, this could very well be a reflection of the world approaching a perfected state, and a return to the Garden of Eden, where a pair of soulmates – one male and one female – can unite as one, as God originally intended.

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

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*Numbers 12:1 may make it seem like Moses had a second wife, but the Midrash explains that after Moses fled Egypt in his youth, he lived in Cush (likely modern-day Ethiopia) and married there, though he never consummated that marriage. Because of this, he left Cush and made his way to Midian, where he married his one true wife, Tzipora.