Tag Archives: II Samuel

Why Did the Levites Become Priests?

This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is more commonly known as Leviticus—after the tribe of Levi—since most of it is concerned with priestly, or Levitical, law. The big question is: at which point did the Levites (including the Kohanim, who are from the same tribe of Levi) become priests, and why?

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. The traditional explanation (see, for example, Rashi on Numbers 3:12) is that the Levites were the only tribe not to participate in the Golden Calf incident, and thus merited to become priests. Before that point, the firstborn son of each family was meant to serve in the priesthood (and presumably anyone else who so wished), as God had originally stated that the entire nation will be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).* After the Golden Calf, everything changed and it was strictly the Levites who became worthy of the priesthood.

Yet, other traditions maintain that the Levites were already priests long before the Golden Calf debacle. It is commonly held that the Levites were not enslaved in Egypt (or, at least, not to the same degree) because they were recognized as priests, and priests were protected under Egyptian law (see Genesis 47:26). This notion is supported by Exodus 5:4 where Pharaoh tells the Levite leaders Moses and Aaron: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? Go to your own burdens.” Pharaoh essentially tells the brothers to mind their own business and let the others do their work.

Rashi cites the Midrash here in explaining that Aaron and Moses were able to freely appear before Pharaoh whenever they wished because Levites like them were not enslaved. In Gur Aryeh, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, d. 1609) goes so far as to suggest that Pharaoh—perhaps the Pharaoh who actually enslaved Israel; not the Pharaoh of the Exodus—knew that Israel were God’s people, so he left the Levites to serve Hashem in an attempt to avert his own doom! This explanation may actually be a pretty good one, since polytheistic religions like that of the ancient Egyptians typically accepted the existence of other gods beyond their own pantheon. The Roman Empire famously absorbed the deities of the various peoples they conquered to the point where they had hundreds of gods in their pantheon. Doing so would appease the gods, and more importantly, help to subdue their conquered believers. For Egypt, allowing a portion of Israel to remain in God’s service would be a valuable political tool, hence the freedom granted to the priestly Levites.

There is a further issue in that the Levites are already commanded in priestly duties in the parasha of Tetzave, which comes before the parasha of Ki Tisa where the Golden Calf incident is recounted. This is generally dealt with through the principle of ain mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”, meaning that many events in the Torah are not presented in their chronological order. Still, there may be a way to solve the conundrum without resorting to this conclusion.

So, when and why did Levites become priests?

Surprising Answers from Jubilees

As discussed in the past, the Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one 49-year yovel, “jubilee”, period. While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty, and clearly influenced a number of midrashic texts, as well as the Zohar.

The Book of Jubilees offers three different reasons for the tribe of Levi’s priesthood. First (explained in 30:18), the Levites merited to become priests because their forefather Levi had defended his sister Dinah’s honour after her rape by Shechem (Genesis 34). Although Shimon was the leader of that mission, he later lost his merit when he suggested killing Joseph. This explanation is problematic because the wording in Genesis suggests Jacob was not at all happy with his sons Shimon and Levi for their impulsive, violent attack. Because of that, Jacob actually did not give these two sons a blessing as he did his other sons (Genesis 49:5-6).

In Chapter 31, Jubilees suggests a better answer. Here, we read how Jacob went to visit his parents after returning from a twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban in Charan. Jacob does not take his entire family, but is accompanied only by Judah and Levi (the reason why is not stated). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing, and in this blessing Judah is conferred royalty and Levi given the priesthood. Thus, Judah’s descendants ultimately became kings while Levi’s became priests. That also explains why these two tribes alone would survive through history (the other ten—“The Lost Tribes of Israel”—having been extinguished over the centuries). Today, we have only Yehudim (ie. Judahites) among whom are Kohanim and Levi’im (ie. Levites).

A Tithed Son

The Book of Jubilees offers one more intriguing explanation for the ascent of the Levites to the priesthood. In Chapter 32, Jacob fulfils his previous oath to God (as in Genesis 28:22) to tithe everything God blesses him with. Since Jacob promised to tithe everything God gives him, that includes his children. So, Jacob lines up his twelve sons according to age and starts counting from the youngest, Benjamin. The tenth son, of course, is Levi, and therefore he is designated for God—to the priesthood. Following this, Levi sees a dream at Beit-El (in the same place his father had the vision of the Heavenly Ladder) in which God confirms Jacob’s deed and officially appoints Levi the family priest.

Finally, Jacob offers a host of sacrifices to God, and it is Levi who facilitates them. Levi accordingly becomes the first official Israelite priest. This may explain why later in history the Levite tribe in Egypt was already considered priestly and spared much of the slavery, and it also explains why the leadership of Israel in Egypt was composed primarily of Levites (Amram, Moses, Aaron). It gives a reason, too, for why it was the tribe of Levi in particular that did not participate in the Golden Calf, for they would have spent their time in Egypt in service of Hashem, making it highly unlikely that they would be drawn to idolatry like the common folk. Perhaps what happened after the Golden Calf is that God officially made the entire tribe priestly, and formally removed the responsibility from the firstborn.

Having said all that, there are those who maintain that having such priests was only necessary because of the Golden Calf, and sacrifices were only instituted to repair that grave sin, or to give the people an outlet to perform sacrificial offerings like they were used to (as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). If not for the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for a sacrificial altar or priestly offerings. The entire nation would have been a mamlekhet kohanim—a kingdom of priests—as God intended; and serving God, like today, would have been through prayer, study, and mitzvot.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*It appears that occasionally non-Levites did become priests. In II Samuel 8:18 we read that some of King David’s sons somehow became kohanim. Rashi dealt with this perplexing statement by saying they were not literal kohanim but simply “chief officers”. Samuel himself is described as being from the tribe of Ephraim, yet is given over to Temple service by his mother Chanah and seemingly becomes a priest. The later Book of Chronicles deals with this by stating that Samuel really was descended from a Levite (see I Chronicles 6).

Joseph, Tamar, and Mashiach’s Kingdom

josephs-coatThis week’s parasha is Vayeshev, where the narrative starts to shift away from Jacob and towards his children. Before we read about how Joseph’s brothers abandon him in a pit – which led to his eventual rise to power in Egypt – we are told that Jacob gave Joseph, his favourite son, a special garment, described as k’tonet passim. The mysterious wording has stirred quite a bit of debate. Some say it means that the garment was colourful, ornamental, or covered in pictures; others say it was striped or embroidered, long-sleeved, reaching to his feet, and made of either fine wool or silk. Whatever the case might be, a more important question is: why did Jacob give Joseph a garment at all? Of all the things Jacob could have bestowed upon his son, why this k’tonet passim?

There is only one other place in the entire Tanakh where the same term is used: “And she had k’tonet passim upon her; for this is how the king’s virgin daughters were dressed” (II Samuel 13:18). This verse comes from the passage of Amnon and Tamar. (Not to be confused with the other Tamar discussed in this week’s parasha!) Amnon and Tamar were half-siblings, children of King David from different mothers. The Torah prohibits relations between half-siblings, but Amnon lusted after Tamar nonetheless, and ended up seducing her. This created a huge rift in the family, with Amnon ultimately being killed by Tamar’s brother Avshalom. In the verse above, Tamar is described as wearing k’tonet passim because this was the garment worn by virgins. Based on the equivalent wording (gezerah shavah), we may conclude that the garment Jacob gave his son had the same purpose. Why did Jacob want Joseph to wear a garment denoting his virginity?

The Tzadik

In Jewish tradition, it is customary to append a title to all of the major forefathers and Biblical figures. Each patriarch is called avinu, “our father”, Moses is called rabbeinu, “our teacher”, Aaron and the priests are called hakohen, “the priest”, David and the kings are called hamelech, “the king”, while Samuel and the prophets are called hanavi, “the prophet”. Joseph is unique among all of these. He alone carries the title hatzadik, “the righteous one”. But weren’t all of our forefathers righteous tzadikim?

The 10 Sefirot, with the 9th Yesod, or "Foundation", leading directly to the 10th, "Kingdom".

The 10 Sefirot, with the 9th Yesod, or “Foundation”, leading directly to the 10th, “Kingdom”.

Our Sages explain that the greatest mark of righteousness is one’s ability to control their sexual temptations. While few people have an urge to murder or worship idols, just about everyone grapples with sexuality. These urges are the most difficult for the average person to conquer, and the Torah’s prohibitions of sexual sins are described in the gravest terms. Kabbalistically, the spiritual rectification of sexuality lies within the ninth sefirah, Yesod. The tenth and finally sefirah is Malkhut, “Kingdom”. Thus, it is said that the final test before one reaches their spiritual fulfilment – their own kingdom – is the purification of sexuality. Yesod is the last step before Malkhut.

On a larger scale, the Kabbalists teach that Malkhut represents the Kingdom of Mashiach. Before Mashiach can come, the world needs to rectify all of its sexual sins. The final generation before Mashiach is said to lie within the cosmic sefirah of Yesod. Not surprisingly, our current generation is mired in sexual conflict and immodesty. The media is full of filthy content, pornography is available to anyone and everyone at the touch of a finger, online services offer to set up cheating spouses with secret affairs, smartphone apps allows people to scan countless profiles for quick “hook ups”, and newspapers and magazines are obsessing over an ever-expanding set of acronyms like LGBTQ2. The world celebrates lewd and licentious behaviour parading through the streets as more and more people struggle with their sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a world that is wrestling within Yesod, as the Kabbalists described centuries ago. This is society’s final tikkun. Thus, our Sages state that it will be a special kind of Messiah, not Mashiach ben David, but Mashiach ben Yosef who comes to rectify it all.

The Two Messiahs

The Torah tells us that Joseph was exceedingly handsome, and all the ladies would scale over high walls just to catch a glimpse of him. He never lacked suitors, but was able to resist them all and maintain his chastity. We read of his most difficult sexual test in this week’s parasha, where the beautiful wife of Potiphar (whose name, according to some sources, was Zuleikha, or Zulai) is throwing herself on Joseph. The Midrash famously describes how incredibly difficult it was for Joseph to hold himself back, so much so that, metaphorically speaking, “semen emerged from his fingertips”! And yet, he overcame these tests, eventually found his true soulmate, Osnat, and married her in a wholesome, monogamous union (at a time when polygamy was common, and when a viceroy like Joseph could easily have a harem of many concubines).

Thus, Joseph completely rectified the sefirah of Yesod, and became its very personification. This is why he alone is called “the Tzadik”, as he was the only one confronted with such monumental challenges, and found the fortitude to conquer them all. And so, it is he that returns as “the first messiah”, Mashiach ben Yosef, to fix the world before the final king, Mashiach ben David (who personifies the sefirah of Malkhut) can ascend the throne.

In fact, it is in this week’s parasha that both messiahs are born. Amidst the Joseph narrative that plants the seeds of Mashiach ben Yosef, the Torah takes an aside and tells the story of Judah and Tamar. The result is the birth of the twins Peretz and Zerach, the former being a direct ancestor of King David, the progenitor of Mashiach ben David. These two stories teach us what the generation of Mashiach needs to accomplish. Some will have the strength to be like Joseph and inoculate themselves from society’s sexual woes. Most, however, will have to follow the path of Judah.

Judah had his own sexual struggles, and ended up in the arms of an apparent prostitute. It turned out to be his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar. When Tamar later confronted him, Judah had the power to deny it all and have her executed. Instead, he owned up to his misdeeds, repented wholeheartedly, and purified himself of sin. This is the task of our generation.

Israel’s Garment

So why did Jacob give Joseph that particular garment? The k’tonet passim was a symbol of chastity, and Jacob gave it to his son to remind him of his divine test, and protect him along the way. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joseph was 17 years old at the time. This is no coincidence, since that is the age when the sexual temptations begin to rage furiously. (Hence, the Mishnah says the ideal age to get married is 18.)

A careful reading of the Torah text reveals that it actually wasn’t Jacob who gave Joseph the garment, but Israel, the name used when Jacob is on a higher, prophetic level. Israel foresaw what Joseph would be going through, and it was Israel, not Jacob, who sent Joseph on that journey that led to his descent to Egypt. All was part of God’s divine plan, in the same way that what society is going through now was set in motion long ago, and in the same way that God’s divine plan will find its fulfilment in the forthcoming arrival of Mashiach.

The Guardian Angels and Hybrid Beasts Known as Cherubs

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, relates God’s instructions to the Israelites for constructing the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. The most important part of this elaborate structure was undoubtedly the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark of the Covenant. Throughout the centuries, this gold-plated Ark has often been depicted in art, history, and even film (perhaps most notably with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, what the Ark actually looked like is hard to discern. The Ark disappeared two and a half thousand years ago when the First Temple was destroyed. Since then, many different versions and interpretations for its appearance have been proposed, both by Jewish Sages and secular scholars.

Common Depiction of the Ark

Common Depiction of the Ark

The issue is not so much with the Ark itself, since the Torah is pretty clear on its description: a box two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high, made of wood and plated with gold from the inside and out. (A cubit is somewhere in the area of two feet long.) What’s not so clear is the part that follows: the Ark’s cover, with its two golden Cherubs.

What is a Cherub (kruv, in Hebrew)? The only descriptor the Torah gives is that the Cherubs had wings. Rashi, drawing from the Talmud, comments on verse 25:18 that they had the face of a child. The Torah describes the two as being set on the cover ish el echav, literally “a man facing his brother”. This suggests a human form to the Cherubs, along with their child-like face and wings. Indeed, this is how the Cherubs are generally depicted. The reality may be quite different, though. A look at the historical and Biblical evidence may shed some more light as to the true identity of the Cherubs.

Raphael's Cherubs, from his 'Sistine Madonna'

Raphael’s Cherubs, from his ‘Sistine Madonna’

The Evidence

A similar word for the Hebrew term kruv is found across the languages of the Ancient Near East: kuribu in Akkadian, karabu or kirubu in Babylonian and Assyrian. These refer to very large statues placed at entrances to important venues which served as guardians. They had the body of a bull or lion, with wings, and a human head. At times, they were worshipped as guardian deities.

Assyrian Karibu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Assyrian Kirubu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Karibu at the Louvre

Kirubu at the Louvre

This parallels the Torah’s original description of Cherubs. The very first time Cherubs appear is in Genesis 3:24. Following Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, God placed Cherubs to guard the entrance to Eden so that man could not return. Like the Mesopotamian kuribu, the Cherubs are guarding an entrance.

This could be why the Cherubs were placed atop the Ark, again as guardians of the holy vessel. When the Tanakh describes how King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings, chapter 6), it states that Solomon had two massive ten-cubit high Cherubs placed at the entrance to the Holy of Holies (the room in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept). The following chapter describes them as kruvim arayot, “Cherub-Lions” (7:36). Not only do we once again see the Cherubs as guarding an entrance, but we now have some evidence that the Cherubs had a lion-like appearance, just as the Mesopotamian kuribu often had.

All of this appears to hint to a famous passage in the Bible: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Chariot.

Ezekiel’s Chariot

In the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, we are given a detailed description of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot:

“And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, a brightness was all around it; and from within the appearance of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and all four had the face of a lion on the right side; and all four had the face of an ox on the left side; all four had also the face of an eagle.” (1:4-10)

Ezekiel describes his angelic vision, with winged figures that have attributes of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and the appearance of a man. The figures are leading the way for the Divine Chariot, again serving as sentries or guardians.

This description allows us to potentially synthesize the Torah’s description of Cherubs with the historical and Biblical evidence: human-like winged creatures with aspects of a lion and a bull or ox. Although Cherubs are not explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s account, the Merkava, or Chariot, is explicitly mentioned, and it shares the same root letters (k-r-v or r-k-v) as Cherubs, kruvim.

We can draw further proof from the Book of Psalms, which states that God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and swooped down upon the wings of the wind,” (18:11) as well as from II Samuel, which says God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and was seen upon the wings of the wind,” (22:11). Clearly, the Cherubs are associated with the Divine Chariot, so it isn’t hard to relate them to Ezekiel’s vision.

So, are the Cherubs innocent child-like, winged angels, as depicted in art, or are they powerful Heavenly guardians with the hybrid qualities of various majestic beasts?

Ultimately, we may never know the true appearance of the Cherubs. Perhaps they are not even concrete entities, but rather metaphorical devices or prophetic visions, like the Divine Chariot is often interpreted to be. Whatever the case, we may just have to rethink the way we commonly draw the Ark of the Covenant and its Cherubs.