Tag Archives: Mt. Sinai

Torah Laws You Really Should Keep – Even If You’re Secular

This week’s parasha is Yitro, most famous for the proclamation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. In the past, we’ve written how some of the Torah’s commandments are impossible to observe today, while others were never meant to be eternal to begin with. We wrote how God gave us the ability to reinterpret the law when necessary—as our ancient Sages did so skillfully—but at the same time, critiqued Reform leaders who essentially abrogated the mandatory observance of mitzvot. Many Jews today argue that they believe wholeheartedly in Hashem, and accept the divine nature of the Torah, but they do not accept rabbinic interpretations, or believe that God did not intend for us to keep the law today as it was millennia ago. Let us take this argument to its extremes.

Ignoring everything outside of the Five Books of Moses, let us look into the Torah and find only the laws that are clearly, explicitly, and undoubtedly proclaimed by God to be eternal. Indeed, what we find is that sometimes the Torah says a certain law is chok olam or chukat olam, an “eternal law”, or a brit olam, an “eternal covenant”, while most times it does not. Perhaps, just for a moment, we can entertain the possibility that God only intended laws affixed with this “eternal” description to be observed forever, whereas the rest might no longer be necessary. If so, what are the laws in the Torah which God explicitly says are eternal?

The Torah’s Eternal Laws

The Torah uses different language to affirm that a law should be kept in perpetuity. Sometimes it says the law should be kept l’dorotam or l’dorotechem (“for generations”) and other times it says mi’yamim yamima (“from day to day”). We will avoid such terms, for one can argue that they don’t necessarily mean for all generations or for all days. We will only use instances that undeniably say l’olam, “forever”.

Also, it must be remembered that we are only looking at the Torah’s ritualistic laws, chukim, and not the ethical and judicial laws, or mishpatim (like theft, murder, etc.), which are not exclusive to Judaism and just about the whole world recognizes and understands their necessity.

The first case of an eternal law is in Genesis 17, where God forges the covenant of circumcision with Abraham. Here we see the term l’dorotam l’brit olam (17:7) and then again l’brit olam (17:13). The next case is Exodus 12, where God tells us to celebrate the Passover holiday l’dorotechem chukat olam, repeated in 12:14 and 12:17. In Exodus, too, we have the eternal law of lighting the Temple Menorah (27:20-21), chukat olam l’dorotam, as well as the priestly washing before the Temple service, chok olam… l’dorotam (30:21).* Then, of course, we have Shabbat, l’dorotam brit olam (31:16).

Next, the Torah says the priesthood will be eternal, l’kehunat olam l’dorotam (Exodus 40:15). It is unclear whether this is an actual law (the verse is speaking specifically of the special oil for anointing the priests) or the Torah is simply affirming that Israel must always have priests. Leviticus 7:34-36 says that the priests deserve their terumah (a portion for the priests donated by the Israelites) l’chok olam and chukat olam l’dorotam.** Amazingly, terumah appears to be so important that it is described as l’chok olam at least another five times (Exodus 29:28, Leviticus 10:15, Numbers 18:8, 18:11, 18:19).

Continuing in similar fashion we get a total of seventeen explicit laws, as follows:

  1. Circumcision
  2. Passover (also in Exodus 12:24)
  3. Menorah (also in Leviticus 24:3)
  4. Priestly washing
  5. Shabbat (also in Leviticus 24:8)
  6. Anointing priests/eternal priesthood (also in Exodus 29:9)
  7. Terumah
  8. Not to consume chelev (certain prohibited animal fats) or blood (Leviticus 3:17)
  9. The mincha offering (Leviticus 6:11, 15 and 23:21)
  10. Not to perform priestly service inebriated (Leviticus 10:9)
  11. Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31, 34 and 23:31)
  12. To sacrifice only to God/Not to sacrifice to demons or idols (Leviticus 17:5-7)
  13. Shavuot (Leviticus 23:21)
  14. Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41)
  15. Blowing the Temple trumpets (Numbers 10:8)
  16. Levites to serve God/prohibition for them to own land in Israel (Numbers 18:23)
  17. The Red Cow (Numbers 19:10, 21)

There are several more pertinent cases of “forever”: In fact, the very first instance in the Torah is with regards to Noah (Genesis 9), though that was a covenant over the rainbow with all of mankind, not strictly with the Jews. Secondly, Numbers 15:15 states that Jews and non-Jews should be equal before the law, chukat olam l’dorotechem, particularly with regards to sacrificial offerings. This is not necessarily a law in itself, but simply a proclamation of equality.

Thirdly, Deuteronomy 23:4 and 23:27 cautions Israel not to intermarry with Moabites or Ammonites, or even allow them to convert, ‘ad olam. This does not say definitively that the law is eternal, but that Jews should never accept these particular nations, or at least not to accept them for ten generations. The latter case makes the most sense, since we see that the righteous Boaz married Ruth the Moabite (the grandmother of God’s beloved David), and Solomon married Na’amah the Ammonite. Regardless, there are no more Moabites or Ammonites in our days to worry about.

Fourth, Exodus 19:9 has God promising Moses that the Israelites will believe in him l’olam, forever. This is not a law commanded to Israel; simply a promise made to Moses. And lastly, Deuteronomy 29:28 famously states that “the secret things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and for our children forever to do all of the words of this Torah.” Although the verse suggests we must fulfil the whole Torah forever, it can also be read to mean that we were simply given the Torah forever. The verse says we must “do” (or “complete”) its words—so one can argue it is not necessarily saying to fulfil its mitzvot. It may even be referring to Torah study and interpretation, hence the verse explicitly speaks of secret and revealed teachings. In any case, it can be argued there is no clear law stated here, just a general principle of the Torah’s eternity.

The Minimal Torah

Of the seventeen eternal laws listed above, we find that ten are impossible to observe today because there is no Temple. Most of them can be reinterpreted ever so slightly to make them observable (for example, netilat yadaim, Shabbat and Chanukah candle-lighting, and charitable donations, as discussed in the footnotes below). Or, when Mashiach comes and the Temple is rebuilt, those ten will once more be observed. In the meantime, there are seven clear eternal laws left:

  1. Circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14)
  2. Passover (Exodus 12:14-20)
  3. Shabbat (Exodus 31:13-17)
  4. Not to consume chelev (certain prohibited animal fats) or blood (Leviticus 3:17)
  5. Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31, 34)
  6. Shavuot (Leviticus 23:21)
  7. Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41)

We can now go back to our initial question. For the Jew who accepts Hashem and His Torah, but wants only the scriptural laws that are undoubtedly eternal (assuming all others have become “outdated” and/or without any additional rabbinic interpretations), they are still obligated to observe these seven at the very least. That means keeping Shabbat, which even according to the plain, overt meaning of the Torah requires desisting from one’s weekday labour and not dealing with any flames (including a combustion engine vehicle and barbeque). It means keeping seven days of Pesach, with matzah and no chametz; fasting on Yom Kippur; commemorating Shavuot; and all seven days of Sukkot, in a hut. And while essentially all the laws of kosher seem to be gone, there is still a prohibition of consuming chelev and blood, thus basically invalidating the consumption of any meat that isn’t certified kosher!

Over the years, I’ve met many Jews who made the argument in question, yet none of them really kept these mitzvot. Oftentimes, this argument is only an excuse for not observing anything. If you really know there is a God, and believe in the Torah, even if only the Written, at the very least start with these. Otherwise, you are guilty of hypocrisy. And the Talmud (which you may not appreciate just yet) states in more than one place that God absolutely detests the hypocrite.

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)


*I believe that this phrasing is what gave the Sages the basis to establish the rabbinic mitzvot of lighting Shabbat candles, Chanukah candles, and netilat yadayim. These are three of seven mitzvot which are rabbinic in origin, yet we recite a blessing on them as if God Himself commanded, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav… God did command that we must light candles and wash before serving Him forever, so the Sages instituted these laws, as a way of fulfilling God’s eternal command.

**The Talmud implies in multiple places that in lieu of priests serving in the Temple, we have rabbis who are devoted to Godly service. Indeed, the non-Jewish world often sees rabbis as priests, and in most countries they are considered “clergy”. Perhaps the Torah means there must always be spiritual leaders for Israel. Similarly, although there hasn’t been terumah since the end of the Temple days, we are obligated to donate a portion of our income. While ma’aser (tithe) refers specifically to agriculture, the Torah uses terumah more flexibly, and it can refer to voluntary financial contributions as well. The fact that terumah is mentioned more than any other mitzvah with regards to being eternal should teach us that being charitable is of utmost importance.

Note: all of the above applies to Christians, too, who also accept the Torah (at least as the “Old Testament”) but generally do not fulfil its precepts. It is commonly believed that Jesus abrogated Torah law, or replaced it, or that it isn’t necessarily to fulfil Torah law because the path to Heaven is supposedly only through Jesus anyway. This is very flawed reasoning, especially when considering that Jesus himself explicitly stated (Matthew 5:17) that he did not come to repeal the Torah’s laws, but rather to ensure their fulfilment! On the validity of Christianity as a whole please read here and here.

Does the Torah Punish a Rapist?

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, contains a whopping 74 mitzvot according to Sefer HaChinuch. Two of these deal with a situation where a man seduces an unbetrothed virgin girl. In such a case, the man must pay the girl’s father fifty pieces of silver, and not only must he marry her (unless she does not want to marry him) but he is never allowed to divorce her.

It is important to mention that the Torah is not speaking of rape. Unfortunately, this passage is commonly misunderstood and improperly taught, resulting in people being (rightly) shocked and offended to hear that a rapist gets away with his crime, having only to pay a relatively small fine. The Torah is not speaking of rape!

In our parasha, the Torah uses the term shakhav imah, “lay with her”. In the infamous case of Dinah being raped by Shechem (Genesis 34), the Torah says shakhav otah, he “laid her”, forcefully, before saying v’ya’aneah, “and he raped her”. This terminology does not appear in the verses in question. Another tragic case is that of the “concubine of Gibeah”, where the shakhav root does not appear at all, and the Torah says ita’alelu ba, “abused her”. In both of these cases, the punishment was death. Rapists deserve capital punishment.

In our parasha, the Torah continues to say that “they were found” (v’nimtzau)—not that the man was found committing a crime, but that they, the couple, were discovered in the act. This suggests that there was at least some level of consent. That’s precisely how the Zohar (Ra’aya Mehemna) interprets it, explaining that they both love each other, but she does not want to be intimate with him until they are properly married. He manages to get her to sleep with him anyways. The Zohar concludes that this is why the Torah states he must marry her. She was worried to be with him until he was formally committed to her; until they were “married with blessing”. So, the logical result is that he must marry her, and not just a sham marriage where he will divorce her shortly after, but a marriage with no chance of divorce (unless she wants to)! This makes far more sense; the Torah cannot be speaking of rape—why would a rape victim ever want to marry her rapist?

Spiritual Unification

In Sha’ar HaGilgulim, the Arizal explains that when a man lies with a woman, he infuses a part of his soul within her. The two are now forever linked. This is essentially how two soulmates re-connect to become one again, as stated in Genesis 2:24. The Talmud speaks of this as well. For example, in one place (Sotah 3b) we learn how Joseph “did not listen to her, to lie with her, to be with her” (Genesis 39:10), means that Joseph did not want to sleep with Potiphar’s wife “in this world, or to be with her in the World to Come.” Had he been intimate with Potiphar’s wife, their souls would have been linked eternally.

It seems that not even divorce can break this powerful bond. In another Talmudic passage (Pesachim 112a), Rabbi Akiva teaches Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai five important things, one of which is not to marry a divorced woman. This is because the woman is still spiritually linked to her former husband (some say only if her ex-husband is still alive). Another teaching is then cited: “When a divorced man marries a divorced woman, there are four minds in the bed.” Both divorcees are still attached to their former spouses mentally and emotionally, which will undoubtedly complicate their relationship. (Having said that, other sources insist that, of course, it is still better to be married to someone than to stay single.)

In the same vein, a man who seduces his girlfriend has spiritually bonded with her, and must therefore marry her. Meanwhile, a rapist should be put to death, for it seems that this is the only way to spiritually detach him from his victim (at least in this world).

God Seduces Israel

The Zohar takes a deeper look at this case, and sees it is a beautiful metaphor for God and Israel. Just as Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is traditionally interpreted as a love story between God and His chosen people, the Zohar identifies God with the seducing man and Israel with the virgin. Indeed, Israel is compared to a young maiden or virgin girl throughout the Tanakh. The Zohar cites Amos 5:2, which states “the virgin Israel has fallen”, then quotes Hosea 2:16, “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly unto her.”

God took a “virgin”, unbetrothed, godless people out of Egypt, led them into the wilderness, and as the Talmud famously states, coerced them into a covenant with Him:

“And they stood under the mount,” [Exodus 19:17] Rav Abdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, this shall be your burial.”

Israel didn’t have much of a choice at Sinai. (It is commonly said that on Shavuot, God chooses us and gives us His Torah; and it is only on Simchat Torah when we choose God, joyfully dancing with the Torah He gave us.) God is like that seducing man, so to speak. As such, according to His own Torah, He must “marry” us forever, and cannot ever abandon us. (Those Christians and Muslims that believe they have “replaced” Israel and God created a new covenant with them are terribly mistaken!)

The Zohar doesn’t end there. The Torah says the man must pay fifty pieces of silver. What are the fifty pieces of silver God gave us? One answer is the very special Shema, which we recite twice daily, and has exactly fifty letters (not counting the three additional paragraphs). Our Sages state that the Shema is not just an expression of God’s Oneness. Rather, its deeper meaning is that Israel is one with God; we are eternally bound to Him. And perhaps a day will soon come when, as the prophet says (Zechariah 14:9) all of humanity will reunite with God: “Hashem will be King over the whole earth; on that day, Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One.”


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How Moses Smashed the Two Temples

Tomorrow is the seventeenth of Tammuz, one of the six public fast days in the Jewish calendar. The Talmud (Ta’anit 26b, 28b) tells us that the Sages instituted this fast because of a number of tragedies that occurred on this date: the daily offerings ceased in the First Temple, and an idol was erected there; and a Torah scroll was burned in the Second Temple, and Jerusalem’s walls were breached by the Romans leading to that Temple’s destruction. The Jerusalem Talmud notes that the walls of Jerusalem were breached on the 17th of Tammuz in the destruction of both Temples. Perhaps most importantly, the first tragedy that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz was that Moses shattered the Two Tablets after coming down from Sinai to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. What is the connection between these events?

Ten Commandments on Two Tablets

‘Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law’ by Gustav Doré

The Two Tablets which Moses brought down from Sinai were engraved with the Ten Commandments—five on one tablet, and five on the other. The first five commandments deal with mitzvot between God and man (bein adam l’Makom): knowing that there is one God, and not to have other gods, not to take God’s name in vain, to keep the Sabbath, and to honour one’s parents. The second five are between man and his fellow (bein adam l’havero): not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, and be jealous. The command to honour one’s parents may seem like it should belong in the second category, but it is considered to be in the first category because the relationship between a parent and child is likened to that between God and man. If a person cannot honour their physical, earthly parents, how could they ever properly honour their Father in Heaven?

Why Were the Temples Destroyed?

The most commonly cited reason for the destruction of the First Temple is idolatry. Indeed, the Talmud cited above states that one of the tragedies of the seventeenth of Tammuz is that an idol was erected in the First Temple on that day. A second major reason for the First Temple’s destruction is Israel’s failure to observe shemittah, the seventh-year Sabbath. In fact, it is said that the reason Israel was exiled for seventy years following the First Temple’s destruction is because they failed to observe seventy sabbaticals (based on II Chronicles 36:21).

Meanwhile, it is well-known that the Second Temple was primarily destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews. Idolatry was no longer a factor in the Second Temple, since the Sages had successfully prayed to God to have the desire for idolatry removed from Israel (Sanhedrin 64a). The late Second Temple period was one of great religious fervour, and the vast majority of Jews at the time were Torah observant. However, there were multiple interpretations of the Torah, leading to endless bickering between different Jewish factions, especially the Perushim (Pharisees) and Tzdukim (Sadducees), and even deeper internal rifts within these factions. The Talmud states that it was in the Second Temple period that “the Torah was burned”, alluding to the fact that these internecine conflicts were destroying the Torah and ripping apart the Jewish people.

Shattering Stones

When looking at the reasons for the two Temples’ destruction, a clear connection to the Two Tablets emerges. We see that the First Temple was destroyed for failure to observe the five commandments on the first Tablet, while the Second Temple was destroyed for failure to observe the five on the second Tablet. Worshipping idols and failing to keep the Sabbatical year touches on pretty much every single mitzvah on the first Tablet—bein adam l’Makom—while sinat hinam represents transgressions between a person and their fellow, bein adam l’havero.

The Talmud states that on the seventeenth of Tammuz, the breaching of the walls leading to both Temples’ destruction occurred. On that very same day centuries earlier, Moses shattered the Tablets. His smashing of the two stones symbolizes the two future “smashings” of Jerusalem’s stone walls: the first Tablet to the First Temple, and the second Tablet to the Second Temple.

Ultimately, God forgave the people for their sin, and Moses later brought a new set of Tablets. These new Tablets were not smashed. They were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, which is said to have been hidden, awaiting the day when it can return to its rightful place in the final, Third Temple. And so, while the first broken Tablets represent the first two broken Temples, the final set of Tablets symbolizes the last, everlasting Temple, within which they will soon be housed.

‘Going Up To The Third Temple’ by Ofer Yom Tov

Is Mount Sinai Really a Mountain?

This week we read another double portion, Behar and Bechukotai, which begins by telling us that God “spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 25:1). Why does the Torah constantly reiterate that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai? Why does Mount Sinai matter so much?

Pirkei Avot opens by stating that Moses received the Torah not “at Sinai” (b’Sinai), but “from Sinai” (miSinai), as if the mountain itself revealed the Torah. More perplexing still, it is said that Sinai was so unique it descended down into this world just for the Torah’s revelation—and can no longer be found today! What do we really know about this enigmatic “mountain”?

A Mountain of Many Names

The Talmud (Megillah 29a, Shabbat 89a) records that Mount Sinai had multiple names, including Horev, Tzin, Kadesh, Kedomot, Paran, Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, and Har Gavnunim. The latter name comes from the root meaning “hunched” (giben) or short. Mount Sinai was a lowly and humble mountain, which is why God picked it in the first place. This name is also a reason why it is customary to eat dairy foods on the holiday of Shavuot—which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai—since gavnunim is related to gevinah, cheese.

The term gavnunim comes from Psalms 68:17, where we read how other mountains were jealous of Sinai. The same verse is cited by Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 19) in stating that God created seven special mountains, and chose Sinai for the greatest of His revelations. We are told that the name Sinai comes from s’neh, the burning bush that appeared to Moses on this mountain. Delving deeper, however, we see that Moses didn’t just stumble upon the place and, in fact, Sinai was far more than just a mountain.

Mountain, or Vehicle?

In commenting on the first chapters of Exodus, Yalkut Reuveni tells us that Mount Sinai actually uprooted itself and flew towards Moses while he was shepherding his flocks. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously states that the Israelites stood not at the foot of Sinai, but underneath Sinai, with the mountain hovering over their heads. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 41) gives us even more fascinating details:

On the sixth of Sivan, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to Israel on Sinai, and from His place was He revealed on Mount Sinai and the Heavens were opened, and the summit of the mountain entered into the Heavens. Thick darkness covered the mountain, and the Holy One, blessed be He, sat upon His throne, and His feet stood on the thick darkness, as it is said, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and thick darkness was under His feet.” (II Samuel 22:10)

Despite being a lowly mountain, Sinai’s summit ascended up to the Heavens. Then God Himself descended upon it, with His “feet” amidst the cloud of thick darkness (‘araphel) surrounding the mountain. The passage continues:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah said: The feet of Moses stood on the mount, and all his body was in the Heavens… beholding and seeing everything that is in the Heavens. The Holy One, blessed be He, was speaking with him like a man who is conversing with his companion, as it is said, “And Hashem spoke unto Moses face to face.” (Exodus 33:11)

Moses’s feet were “on the mount”, yet his entire body was in Heaven! This brings to mind the vision of Ezekiel, where the prophet sees the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, descending from Heaven before “… a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the sound of a great rushing… also the noise of the wings of the Chayot as they touched one another, and the noise of the wheels beside them, the noise of a great rushing.” (Ezekiel 3:12-13)

A Sci-Fi Version of Ezekiel’s Vision

Like Elijah and Enoch before him, Ezekiel was taken up to Heaven upon a mysterious vehicle, complete with wings and spinning wheels that generated a deafening noise. (With regards to Elijah, we read in II Kings 2:11 that “there appeared a chariot of fire… and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind up to Heaven.”) Similarly, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer suggests that there were 22,000 such chariots at Sinai! This is based on Psalms 68:18, which says “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; Adonai is among them, as at Sinai, in holiness.”

A Vehicle of Prophecy

The similarities between Ezekiel’s Vision and the Revelation at Sinai don’t end there. Ezekiel (1:4, 13, 24) writes:

… A stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up… and out of the fire went forth lightning… a tumultuous noise like a great military camp…

Exodus 19:16-18 describes the scene this way:

… There were noises and lightning bolts, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a horn exceedingly loud… And Mount Sinai was covered in smoke, because Hashem descended upon it in fire…

Both passages speak of fire and lightning, thick clouds and ear-splitting noises. The semblance is undoubtedly the reason for Ezekiel’s Vision being read as the haftarah for the holiday of Shavuot. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:8) even writes that the inspiration for the Golden Calf at Sinai was the face of the bull upon God’s Chariot, as described by Ezekiel (1:10).

These midrashic descriptions suggest that Sinai—far from being simply a mountain—is a vehicle of prophecy and revelation, much like the Merkavah. It is therefore not surprising to see Sinai implicated in various other prophetic visions, including Elijah’s conversation with God (I Kings 19), and Jacob’s vision of the ladder (where “ladder”, סלם, also has the same gematria as “Sinai”, סיני). It explains why Pirkei Avot states that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and why the Torah constantly connects Moses’ prophecy to it.

Ultimately, prophecy and divine revelation will return with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. So, it is fitting to end with one more midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 391), which states that God will bring back Sinai in the future; it will descend upon Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt right on top of it.


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.