Tag Archives: Hofni

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.

The Secret History of the Holy Temple

This week’s parasha is Pinchas and begins with God’s blessing to Pinchas for putting an end to the immorality conducted by the Israelite men with the Midianite women. Following this, the Torah describes another census, then the incident with the five daughters of Tzelafchad, the appointment of Joshua to succeed Moses, and ends with a long list of holidays and the sacrificial offerings to be brought on those days. Elsewhere in the Torah, we read that these sacrifices must be brought only in the one specific place God chooses (Deuteronomy 12:11).

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

In the Wilderness, and several centuries after, this place was the Mishkan, the “mobile sanctuary”, or tabernacle. Around the first millennium BCE, King Solomon built a permanent sanctuary in Jerusalem which would be known as the First Temple. After the Babylonians destroyed it, a Second Temple was built on the same spot, and was itself destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE. According to tradition, both destructions occurred following the 17th of Tammuz and culminated on the 9th of Av, hence the period of mourning known as the “Three Weeks” which we find ourselves in now. This is the basic history of the Holy Temple that most are familiar with. In reality, the Temple’s history has many more hidden secrets and intriguing ups and downs.

Mishkan, First Temple, and “High Places”

The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) recounts the history of the Mishkan. It was constructed under the leadership of Moses, Betzalel and Aholiab and erected a year after the Exodus. Once in Israel, the Mishkan was in the city of Gilgal for 14 years, during which time the Holy Land was conquered from the Caananites and divided up among the tribes of Israel. Once the conquest was complete, the Mishkan was moved to Shiloh, where it stood for 371 years. Finally, it spent 57 years in the towns of Nov and Gibeon until the Temple was built (480 years after the Exodus, based on I Kings 6:1).

Common Depiction of the Ark of the Covenant

Common Depiction of the Ark of the Covenant

The epicentre of the Mishkan was the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. However, towards the end of the period of Judges, the Ark was removed from the Mishkan and taken into battle against the Philistines in the hopes of bringing about a miraculous victory. No victory was had; the Israelites were defeated, suffered the deaths of the sons of Eli the Kohen Gadol, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas of this week’s parasha), and lost the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines. The Ark and the Mishkan would never reunite again.

King David later brought the Ark back to Jerusalem and placed it in a special tent, while the Mishkan remained in Gibeon. We see that at this point sacrifices were actually brought in both locations – David brought offerings before the Ark in Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:17), while offerings were also brought on the actual altar in Gibeon (I Kings 3:4). In fact, the Tanakh tells us that before the Temple, people brought offerings and sacrifices in various “high places” across the country (I Kings 3:2), and not just the one place “that God chooses”.

It was King Solomon who first attempted to centralize the sacrificial rituals in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, people continued to offer sacrifices across the country instead of trekking all the way to the Holy City. Following Solomon’s death and the split of the kingdom in two, Jeroboam (king of the northern, “Israelite” kingdom) built two more temples – in the cities of Dan and Beit-El. These two temples quickly turned idolatrous, with Golden Calves being the centre of worship. The Temple in Jerusalem also turned idolatrous shortly after, with worship of Asherah trees being particularly common (I Kings 14:23, II Kings 21:7). The Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us that it was primarily because of this idolatry that the Temple was destroyed.

While everyone knows how the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, it was actually sacked and emptied out long before that. Just five years after Solomon’s death, the people of Judah descended into so much idolatry that God sent the Pharaoh Shishak (or Sheshonq) against them. Shishak took away all of the gold and treasure from the Temple, and King Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) replaced what he could with essentially brass replicas (I Kings 14:25-28). So, the First Temple only lasted with all of its original holy vessels for about 35 years, since it was completed in the 11th year of Solomon’s 40-year reign (I Kings 6:38). For its remaining three and a half centuries, it was only a hollow shell of Solomon’s Temple, with counterfeit vessels, and lengthy periods of rampant idolatry.

Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been taken by Shishak as well, since it is no longer mentioned in the Tanakh, except for one reference in II Chronicles 35:3, which describes how Josiah purified and rebuilt Solomon’s Temple. The corresponding passage in II Kings 23 does not mention the Ark. Some suggest that Solomon hid the original Ark somewhere in the Temple Mount, knowing that the kingdom would fall apart after his death. Josiah brought the Ark back from this secret location temporarily, before hiding it again so that the Babylonians could not carry it away (Keritot 5b). Some believe the original Ark is still hidden away deep below the Temple Mount.

The Second (Third, Fourth, and Fifth) Temple

Soon after the destruction of the First Temple, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, and Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their temple. When they came (about 50,000 altogether), the Jews met resistance by the Samaritans. These people claimed to be the original Jews that remained behind while the majority of Jews were taken to Babylon (and Assyria before that). The Babylonian Jews claimed that the Samaritans were imposters, foreigners from another land that were settled in Israel by the Assyrians. The Talmud calls them Kutim, from the place in Iraq where they are said to have originated.

The Samaritans had their own temple erected on Mt. Gerizim, which they consider the original holy mountain (as opposed to Mt. Moriah, where the temples stood). The Samaritans resisted the new Jewish arrival, and prevented them from rebuilding the Jerusalem temple for a while. Ultimately, the Second Temple was built, and the Samaritans would slowly be forgotten. A small number still exist today, and hold on to their traditional beliefs. They still claim to be the original Israelites and “Guardians of the Ark”, and insist that Mt. Gerizim is the holy mountain. Archaeological evidence shows that an elaborate temple dedicated to Hashem did exist on Mt. Gerizim as far back as the 5th century BCE. The temple was destroyed around 128 BCE by the Maccabee warrior-king and high priest John Hyrcanus (Yochanan Hurkanus), the son of Simon the Maccabee, and grandson of Matityahu, the original leader of the wars with the Syrian-Greeks, as commemorated during Chanukah.

Elephantine Papyrus asking the governor of Judea for help in rebuilding the Elephantine temple

Elephantine papyrus asking the governor of Judea for help in rebuilding the Elephantine temple

At the same time, two more temples were erected by Jews outside of Israel. In 1967, archaeologists discovered a Jewish temple in Egypt, on the island of Elephantine (modern-day Aswan). In the middle of the first millennium BCE, Elephantine had a large Jewish population. Various papyri have been found there, among them a letter to the governor of Judea to help rebuild the Elephantine temple. It is not certain when this temple was first constructed. After the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, many Jews fled to Egypt (with the prophet Jeremiah reluctantly joining them) to avoid the Babylonians. It is possible that they built this temple instead of the Jerusalem temple. It is also possible that this temple was built alongside the Second Temple during the early Persian period. The Elephantine temple was gone by the middle of the 4th century.

Some time later, another Jewish temple was built in Egypt, in Leontopolis. We know far more about this temple, since it is mentioned by historical sources like Josephus, and is even mentioned in the Talmud. It was built in the 2nd century BCE by a kohen named Onias (Chonio), the son of Simon the High Priest. The Talmud (Menachot 109b) says this was Shimon HaTzadik, and gives two accounts as to what happened. In one account, Shimon appointed his son Onias to take his place before his death, but his older brother Shimi wrested the high priesthood from him, so Onias fled to Alexandria and built his own temple. This was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 19:19).

Josephus suggests the Leontopolis temple stood for as long as 343 years, and was a centre of sacrifices and offerings. The great Jewish philosopher Philo offered sacrifices there, in addition to the Jerusalem Temple. It appears that in those days it was common to worship God at both temples! Indeed, the Romans were aware of this, and when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Vespasian gave the order to destroy the temple in Leontopolis as well. The order was carried out in 73 CE, putting an end to Jewish sacrificial services.

Since then, Jews have been waiting for a Third (Jerusalem) Temple. However, as we’ve written before, it is highly unlikely that this Temple will offer any sacrifices. Instead, it will be a holy gathering place of unity, peace and prayer; a place for deeper contemplation, meditation, inspiration, and elevation. It will be, as many sources suggest, an eternal edifice that will not have to be built by man at all, but will descend miraculously from Heaven. May we merit to see it soon.