Tag Archives: Levites

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.

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).

The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

Tuesday evening marks the start of Shavuot—the second of the Torah’s pilgrimage festivals—commemorating the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Not surprisingly, the Torah reading for the day is the text of the Decalogue, more commonly known as “the Ten Commandments”. It is well-known that the Decalogue text actually appears in two places in the Torah: Exodus 20:1-14, and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The latter is in the final book of the Torah, written from the perspective of Moses. The two texts are nearly identical, with the only major difference being the description of the Shabbat commandment. In Exodus, we are told to remember (zachor) the Sabbath, while in Deuteronomy we are told to observe or safeguard it (shamor). The former explains Shabbat being in commemoration of God’s creation of the universe, while the latter ties it to God bringing the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.

If we have two different Decalogue texts, which one was it that the Israelites heard at Sinai? Some say they heard both simultaneously. (Every Friday night in Lecha Dodi we sing shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad, “‘safeguard’ and ‘remember’ in one utterance…”) Others say the Israelites heard the Exodus version, and the Deuteronomy version is simply Moses’ recollection forty years later, or that Moses purposefully made slight changes to better reflect the needs of the Israelites at the time.

Whatever the case, few are aware that there is actually a third Decalogue text in the Torah! This one is in Exodus 34. Here, we are given a very different set of Ten Commandments:

[1] You shall make no molten gods. [2] The feast of unleavened bread shall you keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of spring, for in the month of spring you came out of Egypt. [3] All firstborn are Mine; and of all your cattle you shall sanctify the males, the firstlings of ox and sheep. And the firstling of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. [4] Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. [5] And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, [6] and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before Hashem, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem, your God, three times in the year. [7] You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; [8] neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left unto the morning. [9] The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring unto the house of Hashem, your God. [10] You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Aside from idolatry and Shabbat, the above text is a totally different Decalogue! And just in case you thought that this was an unrelated set of ten laws, the Torah continues by emphasizing in the following two verses (Exodus 34:27-28):

And Hashem said unto Moses: “Write these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with Hashem forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

The Torah makes it explicitly clear that these ten are the Ten Commandments that Moses wrote upon the Tablets, and with these ten did God seal the covenant with Israel! What’s going on?

The Golden Calf

The key to solving this mystery is understanding when the second Decalogue was given. This set came after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf. That one monumental incident totally changed the course of history. The Arizal explains how the Israelites had affected many tikkunim (spiritual rectifications) during their long years of slavery in Egypt. The Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea accomplished even more rectifications. The preparatory period leading up to the Sinai Revelation ascended the Israelites even further, and when they witnessed God’s Revelation, they had climbed all the way up to the highest level, nearly repairing the entire cosmos. All that was left was to receive the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue which they had heard). This Decalogue was the whole Torah. Once they would have received it and wholeheartedly accepted it, that would have completed the entire rectification of all of Creation, and it would have ushered in the Messianic Age (Moses being Mashiach). Unfortunately, the people worshipped the Golden Calf which, the Arizal explains, now shattered the cosmos once more. Everything reverted to the way it was before the Exodus.

Israeli commemorative stamp of the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), better known as “Maimonides”.

The Sages teach that before the Golden Calf incident, every firstborn male was meant to be a priest. After the Calf, the Levites became the designated priests (since they were the only tribe to abstain from the idolatrous act), and among them, only the descendants of Aaron could serve as high priests. Meanwhile, the Rambam writes that God never wanted the Israelites to bring any sacrifices or offerings (Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). It seems that this only became necessary after the Golden Calf incident. The Rambam explains that the Israelites could not separate themselves from the old pagan ways they were accustomed to. Offering sacrifices is what they knew; this was their way to connect to a higher power. So, God reluctantly gave them various sacrificial rituals, but only to wean them off this unnecessary practice. The Rambam bases his argument on the words of several prophets, including Jeremiah 7:22, which explicitly has God stating that He never commanded any sacrifices! A careful reading of this verse in Jeremiah shows that God said He never wanted sacrifices when He took the Israelites out of Egypt. Later, however, they became necessary, though only as a temporary measure.

And so, after the Golden Calf incident, God gave Moses a new Decalogue. He affirmed that it was with this new Decalogue that He was forging a covenant with Israel. Reading through these commandments, we see how they are all related to the Golden Calf incident.

The first one commands not creating molten gods. The phrasing here uses the exact same words that were used to describe the Golden Calf. The second commands observing the Passover holiday. Recall that at the Golden Calf incident, the people declared that it was the Calf that took them out of Egypt. Now, the second commandment makes clear that God took them out of Egypt. (This also explains why Moses modified the text of the original Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, changing it from remembering Creation, to remembering coming out of Egypt.)

The third commandment is to redeem the firstborn males. As we saw above, before the Golden Calf, all firstborn were priests; after, only the Levites and their descendants. Thus, each firstborn now had to be “redeemed”, since they would not be serving as priests. The fourth commandment is the only one to stay the same: keeping the Sabbath.

The fifth and sixth are celebrating Shavuot and Sukkot, the remaining two of three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover, which was the second commandment). The seventh command introduces sacrifices, and the eighth deals with the Paschal offering. The ninth is about bringing first fruits, another type of offering. All of these fit under the Rambam’s explanation of God giving the Israelites something they were familiar with, since pilgrimage festivals and sacrificial offerings were the two major staples of pagan religion at the time.

The final commandment is not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, or the prohibition of consuming a mixture of meat and dairy foods. There are many explanations for this enigmatic mitzvah. One of the mystical explanations is once again tied to the Golden Calf incident. It is said that the incident occurred just six hours before Moses returned from Sinai. The nation had only to wait several more hours to avoid the catastrophe. Therefore, waiting six hours to consume dairy after eating meat is seen as a spiritual rectification for that bit of impatience.

Restoring the Ten Commandments

The words of the original Decalogue of Exodus 20 have precisely 620 letters. This is famously said to parallel the 620 commandments in Judaism, 613 being derived from the Torah, and an additional seven that were instituted by the Sages. All of the mitzvot were included in the original Ten Commandments. The entire Torah could be found inscribed on the first set of Two Tablets through those 620 letters. From a mystical perspective, these Ten Commandments were all that was necessary. The 610 commandments that followed only came as a result of the Golden Calf incident, and the need to repair the cosmos from the beginning.

For over three millennia, we have slowly been fulfilling the tikkunim once more. The events that surround Mashiach’s coming are the final steps of that process. Mashiach will come and usher in the grand finale. The Tanakh tells us that he will then establish a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:30-31):

Behold, days are coming, said Hashem, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429) says Mashiach will bring a “new Torah”, and the current Torah will be “vain” compared to the Torah of Mashiach (Kohelet Rabbah 11:12). Midrash Tehillim 146:4 is even more specific, suggesting that all non-kosher animals will become kosher, and intimacy with a woman still in the state of niddah will be permitted. A better-known midrash teaches that all of the Torah’s holidays will be abolished (with only Purim—which is not a Torah holiday—remaining).

So, which commandments will be left? The original ten of the first Decalogue; the one that was intended for a Messianic Age to begin with. A simpler set of laws for all of mankind, in an era when (Zechariah 14:9) “Hashem will be king over all of the earth; in that day, God will be One, and His Name will be One.”


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

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.

Mysteries of the Twelve Tribes and the Borders of Israel

In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we read about the six “cities of refuge” that God commanded the Israelites to establish. These cities were places where an inadvertent murderer could take refuge. The Torah gives an example: two people are chopping trees when the axe of one suddenly breaks, flinging the sharp end and killing the other person accidentally. It is understandable that the victim’s family might want to take revenge and pursue the inadvertent murderer. The Torah states that the inadvertent murderer should flee to the nearest city of refuge, where the victim’s family has no right to pursue him, and where he will be protected by Levites.

Six Cities of Refuge

Six Cities of Refuge

Of the six refuge cities, three were on the west side of the Jordan River – within the proper borders of the Holy Land – and three on the east side of the Jordan, where the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe settled. The Arizal explains that this allowed Moses to fulfil an important mitzvah – after all, Moses himself was an inadvertent murderer! Back in Egypt, he had accidentally killed the Egyptian officer who was senselessly beating an Israelite slave. The Arizal states that Moses only wished to defend the Jew, but ended up killing the Egyptian inadvertently. While Moses was forbidden from entering the Holy Land, he was permitted to traverse the territories on the east side of the Jordan, so by establishing cities of refuge there, Moses could finally fulfil the mitzvah of an inadvertent murderer.

Tribal Border of Israel

Tribal Borders of Israel

A bigger question one might ask is why were the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe settled outside of the Holy Land to begin with? The Torah tells us the simple meaning: the Reubenites and Gadites liked the land on the east side of the Jordan, and were more than happy to settle there. Moses wanted half the tribe of Menashe to join them, perhaps to keep an eye on them to make sure they fulfil their vow in helping the rest of the Israelites conquer and settle the Holy Land.

Of course, nothing in the Torah is without its deeper meaning. If Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were settled outside of the land, there must be a good spiritual reason for it. The Arizal gives us some incredible mystical insights into the matter.

Conception in Holiness

After seven years of hard labour, Jacob was ready to marry his beloved Rachel. Instead, his father-in-law Laban tricked him by having him marry Leah. That night, Leah conceived. However, the whole time Jacob thought he was with Rachel! Thus, Reuben was conceived through trickery and deception, bringing a certain spiritual stain upon him. Later on, Reuben “mounted the bed” of his father (Genesis 35:22, 49:4), and apparently slept with Jacob’s wife Bilhah (originally Rachel’s maidservant).  Therefore, Reuben lost his status as the firstborn son. Instead, the firstborn status went to Joseph, who was meant to be the firstborn all along since Jacob intended to marry Rachel. In Torah law, the firstborn receives a double portion from his father’s inheritance, and so, Joseph had two tribes – and two territories – issue from him, that of Menashe and Ephraim.

After Reuben’s birth, Jacob and Leah had Shimon, Levi, and Judah. These three were conceived in holiness, without any deception. At this point, Rachel was still childless so she suggested that Jacob use her maidservant Bilhah as a surrogate. Bilhah had two children: Dan and Naftali.

Now it was Leah’s turn to be jealous. Seeing that she stopped having children, Leah gave her own maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate. Zilpah conceived and Leah called the child Gad. Peculiarly, the Torah states that Leah named him thus from the word bagad. This word literally means “traitor”. To avoid negative connotations, the word is traditionally split in two and read as ba gad, “luck has come”. But the Torah makes no such division. In fact, Rashi comments here that Leah said bagad because she felt like Jacob had cheated on her! Perhaps she regretted giving her maidservant to her beloved husband.

twelvetribesmosaicThe Arizal goes further, pointing out another deception based on a careful reading of the verses. The night that Gad was conceived, Jacob was supposed to be with Leah. Instead, Leah wanted children so badly that she secretly had Zilpah go in her place! Jacob was deceived yet again. This child, too, would have a spiritual stain upon him, like Reuben. Zilpah went on to have one more child, Asher. The Arizal says that this name (אשר) is an anagram of rosh (ראש), “head”, since this time Jacob was in his right mind and had the correct intentions.

After this, Leah would have two more sons conceived in holiness, and Rachel would have her own two. Of the twelve sons, we see that two came into the world through deceit, and carried a certain spiritual defect. Thus, these two tribes – Reuben and Gad – were ultimately excluded from settling in the Holy Land.

What about the half-territory of Menashe?

Spiritual Genetics

Menashe was the firstborn son of Joseph. The Torah tells us that Joseph was married in Egypt to a woman named Osnat (Asenath), the daughter of an Egyptian priest. To solve the mystery of Menashe’s territory, we need to delve further into Osnat’s origins. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 134) fills in the missing details.

After Leah had six sons, she had a seventh child, a daughter named Dinah. When Jacob returned to the Holy Land after twenty years with Laban, he settled in Shechem, and Dinah went out to meet “the daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). A young man named Shechem (not to be confused with the city of the same name) seduced Dinah and raped her. In their rage, Dinah’s two older brothers Shimon and Levi slaughtered Shechem and his compatriots. Jacob was not very happy with his violent sons, and for this reason, neither Shimon nor Levi would inherit complete territories in the Holy Land. Instead, each tribe received a number of cities interspersed among the territories of their fellow tribes.

Meanwhile, Dinah had conceived a child with Shechem. A daughter was born, which Shimon and Levi wanted to get rid of as well. To protect her, Jacob wrote a certain Divine Name on a piece of gold and tied it around her neck when she was abandoned (or fled). The girl hid in a bush, hence her name Osnat, which comes from the root s’neh, “bush”. The angel Michael (or in other versions, Gabriel) saved the girl and brought her to Egypt, to be raised by an Egyptian priest, Potiphar (or Poti-Phera), and his barren wife (named Zuleikha, according to Sefer HaYashar). Joseph met Osnat while working as a servant in the priest’s home. He knew he was meant to marry her because of the Divine Name on her special golden necklace.

The Arizal explains that Osnat’s spiritual make-up contained a holy portion (from Dinah) and an unholy portion (from Shechem). Joseph’s spiritual make-up, from Jacob and Rachel, was entirely holy. In conceiving Ephraim, Osnat’s holy portion combined with Joseph’s holy portion; in conceiving Menashe, however, it was Osnat’s unholy part that combined with Joseph’s, making their firstborn half pure and half impure. For this reason, half of the tribe of Menashe was inside the borders of the Holy Land, and half was outside!

In this way, the Arizal gives us a beautiful explanation of why Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were excluded from the Holy Land. Of course, when Mashiach comes and all of the spiritual rectifications are complete, the borders of the Holy Land will expand “from the Nile to the Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18), or from the Red Sea to the Euphrates (Exodus 23:31), and the territories of Reuben, Gad, and all of Menashe will indeed be part of the Holy Land. May we merit to see this day soon.