Tag Archives: Nazir

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.

Are More Restrictions Good for Judaism?

This week’s parasha is Nasso, the longest portion in the Torah. Among many other things, Nasso relates various laws pertaining to the nazir, commonly (and loosely) translated as a “monk”. Nazirite status was typically conferred on a person temporarily, for a minimum of 30 days. During this time, the nazir abstained from wine and grape products (and likely anything else that might have put them under the influence), from being contaminated by the impurity of death (and therefore avoiding contact with corpses or visits to a cemetery), and desisted from cutting their hair. At the end of the term, the nazir would immerse in a mikveh and bring a series of offerings in the Temple.

The Torah describes a person who has undergone the nazirite process “holy”. At the same time, the Torah instructs this person to bring a sin offering. As such, the Jewish Sages debate whether becoming a nazir is something commendable, or actually sinful! The most likely possibility is that a person who felt a great deal of guilt over some sin they had done would take on the nazirite vow as a form of expiation or spiritual purification. A person could even take on the nazirite vow for life.

Rabbi Elazar HaKappar taught (Taanit 11a) that a nazirite is likened to a sinner for practicing such abstinence, and the sage Shmuel taught that anyone who fasts voluntary for self-affliction is a sinner, too. Separating one’s self from the joys of this world and taking on more and more restrictions is not a path to spiritual enlightenment. The Jewish way has always been about finding balance. It is not about separating from this physical world, but properly engaging in it. And more than just restrictions, the Jewish way focuses on positive actions.

It is said that this was Abraham’s revolution: What the first Jew did was introduce people to spirituality not by way of abstinence from the physical, but rather, spirituality by way of elevating the physical. Abraham did not invent negative mitzvot, but presented the right way to do positive mitzvot. This is hinted to by his name, for the numerical value of Abraham (אברהם) is 248, which is the number of positive mitzvot in the Torah. Meanwhile, Moses brought down the complete Torah, balancing the positive and the negative – both deeds and restrictions – in 613 mitzvot, also hinted to by his name and title Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו), which equals 613.

Dealing with Stringencies

If taking on more and more stringencies and restrictions is not the proper path, how do we deal with the ever-increasing expanse of halachic prohibitions and “fences”? The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4) writes how the more stringent Beit Shammai once took hold of the Sanhedrin and enacted 18 restrictions, among them rules like chalav yisrael and pat yisrael. This day is described as being as tragic for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf! While Rabbi Eliezer said that on that day the scholars “filled the measure” (ie. did a good thing), Rabbi Yehoshua said that they completely erased the measure!

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow explains that Rabbi Yehoshua believed more restrictions would end up destroying Judaism in the long run. While it may be different for the serious scholar, the average person is unable to keep taking on more and more restrictions, and will only be frustrated by the ever-increasing stringencies. Soon enough, these people will cast off the yoke of Torah completely.

It appears that Rabbi Yehoshua’s words were prophetic, for this is precisely what has happened in the Jewish world. Today, Orthodox Judaism has so many fences that the average Jew wants nothing to do with the religion, and fears taking on even a little more observance. Non-observant Jews often critique (and rightly so) that the restrictions have gone so far that they bear little resemblance to what the Torah initially instructed! It therefore isn’t surprising that the vast majority of Jews today are completely secular.

On the other hand, repealing fences can also be dangerous. The thinking is that once people start taking things out, there will be no end to it. This is what happened in Reform Judaism, which started out fairly innocent, but quickly became just about completely secular. Where is the line to be drawn?

Finding the Right Balance

The above issue is possibly the central challenge of modern-day Judaism: How do we return to a logical, spiritual, uplifting Judaism, without destroying its fundamental base? To continue adding more and more fences does not work, nor does forcing people into observance through guilt and fear. On the other hand, how do we avoid being ensnared by the descending spiral that plagues the Reform and Conservative world?

At present, it appears we are unable to remove any stringencies at all for the masses, and it is highly doubtful that any great halachic figure alive today feels they have the authority to do so. Perhaps, then, the secret to success lies solely within the individual. There were 600,000 Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai, and the Arizal taught that every one of them received their own unique explanation of the Torah. Each person needs to find their own unique path within the vast world of Torah and halacha. Every individual must continue learning, digging deeper, and getting to the bottom of why they are practicing what they are.

What is the origin of the halacha in question? Does it have a Biblical or Talmudic basis, or is it simply a long-outdated local custom? Do all rabbinic authorities agree on its necessity, or do major authorities hold against it? Is there a good, logical reason to keep certain fences? Do particular restrictions enhance one’s religious experience, or constrain it? And most importantly, does a person feel like they are growing closer to God through their chosen path of halacha, and becoming holier and more righteous, or do they feel like they are actually falling backwards because of it?

These are vital questions that each person should be asking. We must never simply submit unquestioningly to the words of a wise man or a charismatic leader, whether a rabbi or anyone else. It is a central tenet of Judaism to always ask questions, and find good answers to them. If the answers don’t satisfy us, we must prod further. And if there is still no answer, we must seriously reconsider what we are doing. This is all the more significant in our generation, in the footsteps of Mashiach, which the Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes as a period where “the meeting place of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate… and the truth will be missing…”

May Hashem give us all the strength and wisdom to see the truth and find the proper Godly path.