Tag Archives: Mt. Sinai

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

This week’s parasha, Beshalach, recounts the Splitting of the Sea. It is common knowledge that this was the Red Sea, called yam suf in Hebrew. Yet, in recent decades scholars have tried to “debunk” that notion, preferring to associate yam suf with a smaller lake of some sort. They often start by pointing out that yam suf literally means “sea of reeds”. It is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea. There are indeed several shallow, marshy lakes with reeds in that vicinity of Egypt, around the modern Suez Canal. The fact that the Torah speaks of the “Reed Sea” being near places like Pi-Hahirot, whose location is believed to be known, is used as further proof of yam suf not being the Red Sea.

Of course, this serves to diminish the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. It almost implies that the Israelites waded through a shallow lake, as opposed to crossing a vast expanse. The reality is that such a hypothesis does not at all fit with the descriptions we receive in the Torah. A careful look reveals what yam suf actually is, and further helps to locate an even bigger prize: Mount Sinai.  

A Sea or a Lake?

From the Torah’s description of the Splitting of the Sea, we learn that the waters stood as large walls to the left and right of the Israelites, and that the Egyptians later drowned in its depths (see, for instance, Exodus 14:28-29, 15:4, 8). This implies a deep sea, not a shallow, marshy lake.

Yam suf is mentioned well over twenty times in the Tanakh. When going through these verses and their context, one will find that it is a major geographical entity, not a small lake. For example, Numbers 14:25 says that the Amalekites and Canaanites live near yam suf, while Numbers 21:4 says the Edomites are near it, too. If it was a small lake somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula, or by the Suez Canal, this wouldn’t make much sense.

The Biblical lands of Edom, stretching down to the Red Sea (Credit: Briangotts)

In fact, the land of Edom is known to be in the area of what is today the Negev desert, roughly southern Israel and Jordan, going down to what is today Eilat. This is confirmed by I Kings 9:26, where we read that “King Solomon made a navy of ships in Etzion-Geber, which is beside Elot, on the shore of yam suf, in the land of Edom.” King Solomon built a navy-yard in a port near Elot (אֵלוֹת), undoubtedly related to today’s Eilat. And, like today’s Eilat, is in on the shore of yam suf, the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. This verse solves the entire puzzle. Scholars wonder why the sea became known as the Red Sea, when the answer might be right there in the Torah: to the Israelites, this was the sea by the land of Edom, which literally means “red”. It was the Edomite Sea, the “Red Sea”. And it is the selfsame body of water as yam suf.  

On that note, some have proposed that is isn’t yam suf, but yam sof, literally the sea “at the end”, since it is at the southernmost tip of Israel. Yet another idea is that it is yam sufa, “Storm Sea”, referring to the great wind storm that God sent to part the waters (Exodus 14:21). Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the Israelites did indeed cross what we know today as the Red Sea.

The bigger question is: where exactly did they cross?

Some believe that the Red Sea got its name from the red blooms of sea sawdust, Trichodesmium erythraeum (a type of cyanobacteria), that occasionally happen there.

Sinai or Saudi Arabia?

NASA Satellite Image of the Sinai Peninsula

It is commonly thought that Mount Sinai is somewhere in what is today called the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, back in the 6th century, Christians built a monastery on a mountain in the Peninsula which they believed to be Sinai. It still operates today as Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and is among the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The only problem is that it isn’t anywhere near the real Mt. Sinai.

First off, the Torah introduces us to Mount Sinai when Moses is living far from Egypt in Midian. Recall that Moses had fled Egypt, and eventually ended up living among the Bedouins of Midian. This already confirms that Mount Sinai was probably not in today’s Sinai Peninsula, which would have still been under Egyptian control in those days. In fact, we know from historical and archaeological evidence that in those days, the Egyptians ruled at least as far as Canaan itself. Moses fled outside of Egypt’s domain, across the Red Sea, to what is today Saudi Arabia. This is the land traditionally associated with the Midianites. And the Torah tells us that Mt. Sinai is there (Exodus 3:1-2):

And Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horev. And the angel of God appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed…

The Torah famously tells us that Moses saw a burning bush during his first encounter on the “mountain of God”. In Hebrew, it is called a s’neh, which gives rise to the name Mount Sinai. This mountain is in the wilderness around Midian, in a land call Horev. Later on, the Israelites cross the Red Sea and journey towards this same mountain, where they receive the Ten Commandments. This implies that the Israelites crossed somewhere in the Gulf of Aqaba, ending up in what is today Saudi Arabia. This makes all the more sense since they can journey from there to the wilderness “on the other side of the Jordan”, where they spent forty years before crossing the Jordan River—from the East—into Israel.

Jebel Musa in Saudi Arabia

Amazingly, there is a mountain in Saudi Arabia which is completely sealed off by the authorities, and off limits to any historians or archaeologists. Nonetheless, some have been able to secretly get through, and report evidence of a large camp that was there millennia ago, with a sacrificial altar, and even engravings of an idolatrous calf! The locals who live near the mountain call it Jebel Musa, “mountain of Moses”. Mysteriously, its peak is entirely blackened, perhaps because the Torah states that God descended upon the mountain with great fire and smoke. (Several documentaries have been made about this mountain, such as this short one.)

The Talmud supports the notion that Sinai is in Arabia. We read how Rabbah bar bar Chanah—famed for his adventurous tales—was “once traveling in the desert and was met by an Arab merchant… he said to me: ‘Come and I will show you Mount Sinai.’” (Bava Batra 73b-74a) Bar bar Chanah goes on to say that he followed the Arab to the mountain, and heard a Bat Kol, a voice emanating from Heaven. Having said that, it must be mentioned that the Sages often rejected bar bar Chanah’s tales because they thought he made them up!

Putting It All Together

This week’s parasha begins by laying out the journey of the Israelites (Exodus 13:17-18):

And it came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near, because God said, “Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by way of the desert, around the Red Sea…

We learn from this that God did not lead the people directly along the coast of the Mediterranean to the Holy Land, which would have been the fastest and straightest route. This would have taken them through the coastal lands of the Philistines, and the Israelites would have feared them. So, God led them roundabout, along the coasts of the Red Sea in what is today the Sinai Peninsula.

We are told that the Israelites “travelled from Succoth, and they encamped in Etham, at the edge of the desert.” (Exodus 13:20) This means they went all the way down to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Fittingly, God then told them “turn around and encamp in front of Pi-Hahirot, between Migdol and the sea; in front of Baal-Tzfon, you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea.” (Exodus 14:2) Having journeyed south all the way to the “edge”, they were now being told to turn around and head back north, along the eastern coast, “by the sea”.

At this point, Pharaoh’s informers told him the Israelites were “confused” and lost in the desert (Exodus 14:3), and he thought he had a chance at revenge. Pharaoh and his chariots pursued the Israelites and trapped them along the Gulf of Aqaba. The Red Sea split, and the Israelites crossed the narrow gulf into Arabia, where they later received the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The narrative of the Ten Commandments is in parashat Yitro, because it begins with Jethro joining up with Moses and the Israelites. This further proves that Sinai is near Midian, in Arabia, and not in what is today called the “Sinai” Peninsula.

To summarize: yam suf is indeed the Red Sea, the Israelites most likely crossed the Gulf of Aqaba, and the best candidate for the location of Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia. It may be Jebel Musa, or perhaps another mountain unknown to anyone. It may not even be there at all, for as we’ve written in the past, one tradition has it that Mount Sinai descended to this world only to be the vessel for delivering the Torah, and has since disappeared.  

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.