Tag Archives: Priest

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).

Who Was the First Rabbi in History?

Tuesday evening marks the start of Chanukah. This is the only major Jewish holiday without a basis in the Tanakh. However, there is a scriptural Book of Maccabees—which recounts the history of Chanukah and the chronicles of Matityahu, Judah and the Hashmonean brothers—but it was not included in the Tanakh. Some say it was not included because by that point (2nd-century BCE), the Tanakh had already been compiled by the Knesset haGedolah, the “Great Assembly” which re-established Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Others argue that the Tanakh was not completely sealed by the Knesset, since it appears that the Book of Daniel may have been put together around the same time as the Book of Maccabees, but was included in the Tanakh, while later still the rabbis of the Talmud debate whether certain books (such as Kohelet, “Ecclesiastes”, and Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs”) should be included.

It is possible that the Book of Maccabees was not included for the same reason why there is no Talmudic tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a tractate for every other major holiday. (Chanukah is discussed in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat). Some argue that the events of Chanukah were so recent at the time that everyone knew them well, so having a large tractate for Chanukah was simply unnecessary. The other, more likely, reason is that although the Hashmonean Maccabees were heroes in the Chanukah period, they soon took over the Jewish monarchy (legally forbidden to them since they were kohanim) and actually adopted the Hellenism that they originally fought so valiantly against!

The first Hashmonean to rule was Shimon, one of the five sons of Matityahu. He was the only son to survive the wars with the Seleucid Greeks. He became the kohen gadol (high priest), and took the title of nasi, “leader” or “prince”, though not a king. Although he was a successful ruler, Shimon was soon assassinated along with his two elder sons. His third son, Yochanan, took over as kohen gadol.

Yochanan saw himself as a Greek-style king, and took on the regnal name Hyrcanus. His son, Aristobulus (no longer having a Jewish name at all) declared himself basileus, the Greek term for a king, after cruelly starving his own mother to death. Aristobulus’ brother, Alexander Jannaeus (known in Jewish texts as Alexander Yannai) was even worse, starting a campaign to persecute rabbis, including his brother-in-law, the great Shimon ben Shetach. Ultimately, Yannai’s righteous wife Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion) ended the persecution, brought her brother Shimon and other sages back from exile in Egypt, and ushered in a decade of prosperity. It was Salome that re-established the Sanhedrin, opened up a public school system, and mandated the ketubah, a marriage document to protect Jewish brides. After her death, the kingdom fell apart and was soon absorbed by Rome.

‘Alexander Jannaeus feasting during the crucifixion of the Pharisees’ by Willem Swidde (c. 1690)

Sadducees and Pharisees

While Alexander Yannai was aligned with the Sadducees, Salome Alexandra was, like her brother Shimon ben Shetach, a Pharisee. The Sadducees (Tzdukim) and Pharisees (Perushim) were the two major movements or political parties in Israel at the time. The former only accepted the written Torah as divine, while the latter believed in an Oral Tradition dating back to the revelation at Sinai. Thus, “Rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today is said to have developed from Pharisee Judaism.

Because the Sadducees only accepted the written Torah, their observance was highly dependent on the Temple and the land of Israel, since most of the Torah is concerned with sacrificial and agricultural laws. When the Romans ultimately destroyed the Temple and the majority of Jews went into exile, Sadducee Judaism simply could not survive. (Later, a similar movement based solely on the written Torah, Karaite Judaism, would develop.) Meanwhile, the Pharisees and their Oral Tradition continued to develop, adapt, and flourish in exile, resulting in the Judaism of today.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan states that the Sadducees get their name from one Tzadok, a student of the sage Antigonus. Antigonus famously taught (Pirkei Avot 1:3) that one should serve God simply for the sake of serving God, and not in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. It is this teaching that led to Tzadok’s apostasy. Indeed, we know that the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead or apparently any kind of afterlife at all. This makes sense, since the Sadducees only accepted the Chumash as law, and the Chumash itself never mentions an afterlife explicitly.

In that same first chapter of Pirkei Avot, we read that Antigonus was the student of Shimon haTzadik, the last survivor of the Knesset HaGedolah. Antigonus passed down the tradition to Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, who passed it down to Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai haArbeli, who passed it down to Shimon ben Shetach and Yehuda ben Tabai. This means that Shimon ben Shetach, brother of Queen Salome Alexandra, lived only three generations after Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly. This presents a problem since, according to traditional Jewish dating, the Great Assembly was about 300 years before the rule of Salome. (It is even more problematic according to secular dating, which calculates nearly 500 years!) It is highly unlikely that three generations of consecutive sages could span over 300 years.

The rabbinic tradition really starts with Shimon haTzadik, the earliest sage to be cited in the Talmud. He is said to have received the tradition from the last of the prophets in the Great Assembly, thus tying together the rabbinic period with the Biblical period of prophets. Yet, Shimon haTzadik himself is not called a “rabbi”, and neither is his student Antigonus, or Antigonus’ students, or even Hillel and Shammai. The title “rabban” is later used to refer to the nasi of the Sanhedrin, while the first sages to properly be called “rabbi” are the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader at the time of the Temple’s destruction by the Romans.

Despite this, the title “rabbi” is often applied retroactively to earlier sages, including Shimon ben Shetach, Yehoshua ben Perachiah, and others, all the way back to Shimon haTzadik, the first link in the rabbinic chain. Who was Shimon haTzadik?

The Mystery of Shimon haTzadik

The most famous story of Shimon haTzadik is recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 69a). In this story, Alexander the Great is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, so Shimon goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle.

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

While it is highly doubtful that the egomaniacal Alexander (who had himself declared a god) would ever bow down to anyone, this story is preserved in a number of texts, including that of Josephus, the first-century historian who was an eye-witness to the Temple’s destruction. In Josephus, however, it is not Shimon who meets Alexander, but another priest called Yaddua. Yaddua is actually mentioned in the Tanakh (Nehemiah 12:22), which suggests he was a priest in the days of the Persian emperor Darius. Of course, it was Darius III whom Alexander the Great defeated. It seems Josephus’ account is more accurate in this case.

In fact, in Sotah 33a, the Talmud tells another story of Shimon haTzadik, this one during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula. We know that Caligula reigned between 37 and 41 CE—over three centuries after Alexander the Great! The Talmud thus gives us three different time periods for the life of Shimon haTzadik: a few generations before Shimon ben Shetach, or a few centuries before in the time of Alexander the Great, or centuries after in the time of Caligula. Which is correct?

The First Rabbi

The Book of Maccabees (I, 2:1-2) introduces the five sons of Matityahu in this way:

In those days, Matityahu ben Yochanan ben Shimon, a priest of the descendants of Yoariv, left Jerusalem and settled in Modi’in. He had five sons: Yochanan, called Gaddi; Shimon, called Thassi; Yehuda, called Maccabee; Elazar, called Avaran; and Yonatan, called Apphus.

Each of the five sons of Matityahu has a nickname. The second son, Shimon, is called “Thassi” (or “Tharsi”). This literally means “the wise” or “the righteous”, aka. HaTzadik. It was Shimon who survived the Chanukah wars and re-established an independent Jewish state. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 14:41-46) tells us:

And the Jews and their priests resolved that Shimon should be their leader and high priest forever until a true prophet should appear… And all the people agreed to decree that they should do these things to Shimon, and Shimon accepted them and agreed to be high priest and general and governor of the Jews…

Apparently, Shimon was appointed to lead the Jews by a “great assembly” of sorts, which nominated him and, after his acceptance, decreed that he is the undisputed leader. The Book of Maccabees therefore tells us that Shimon the Maccabee was a righteous and wise sage, a high priest, and leader of Israel that headed an assembly. This is precisely the Talmud’s description of Shimon haTzadik!

Perhaps over time the “great assembly” of Shimon was confused with the Great Assembly of the early Second Temple period. This may be why Pirkei Avot begins by stating that Shimon haTzadik was of the Knesset haGedolah. In terms of chronology, it makes far more sense that Shimon haTzadik was Shimon Thassi—“Simon Maccabeus”—who died in 135 BCE. This fits neatly with Shimon ben Shetach and Salome Alexandra being active a few generations later, in the 60s BCE as the historical record attests. It also makes sense that Shimon haTzadik’s student is Antigonus, who carries a Greek name, just as we saw earlier that following Shimon the leaders of Israel were adopting Greek names.

Thus, of the three main versions of Shimon haTzadik in the Talmud, it is the one in Avot that is historically accurate, and not the one in Yoma (where he is placed nearly three centuries before Shimon ben Shetach) or the one in Sotah (where he is in the future Roman era).

‘Mattathias of Modi’in killing a Jewish apostate’ by Gustav Doré

Furthermore, we must not forget that Shimon the Maccabee was one of the instigators of the revolt against the Greeks and their Hellenism. He was the son of Matityahu, a religious, traditional priest, who fled Jerusalem when it was taken over by Hellenizers (as we quoted above, I Maccabees 2:1). Shimon was certainly aligned with the traditional Pharisees, and it was only his grandson Alexander Yannai who turned entirely to the more Hellenized Sadducees and began persecuting the Pharisees. As Rabbinic Judaism comes directly from Pharisee Judaism, it makes sense that the tradition begins with Shimon the Maccabee, or Simon Thassi, ie. Shimon haTzadik.

Interestingly, the Book of Maccabees states that Matityahu was a descendent of Yoariv. This name is mentioned in the Tanakh. I Chronicles 24:7 lists Yoariv as the head of one of the 24 divisions of kohanim, as established in the days of King David. The same chapter states that Yoariv was himself a descendent of Elazar, the son of Aaron the first kohen. Thus, there is a fairly clear chain of transmission from Aaron, all the way down to Matityahu, and his son Shimon.

Shimon continued to pass down the tradition, not to his son Yochanan—who was swayed by the Greeks and became John Hyrcanus—but to his student Antigonus. (Depending on how one reads Avot, it is possible that Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan were also direct students of Shimon haTzadik.) It appears we have found the historical Shimon haTzadik, and closed the gap on the proper chronology of the Oral Tradition dating back to Sinai.

If this is the case, then Chanukah is a celebration of not only a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greeks, but of the very beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, with one of Chanuka’s central heroes being none other than history’s first rabbi.

Chag sameach!

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.

Purim: The First Jewish Holiday

The festive holiday of Purim is the last in the Jewish calendar year. Most have heard the basic story: the Jewish people are dispersed across the vast Persian Empire, where an evil minister (Haman) has devised a plot to exterminate them all on one fateful day. Mordechai and the secretly-Jewish Queen Esther save the day. The whole narrative is recorded in Megillat Esther, a short text at the end of the Tanakh. While every Jew (and most gentiles) have heard of Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah, Purim remains among the lesser-known Jewish holidays. And yet, in several places across our holy texts, Purim is recognized as being essentially the greatest of holidays, and the only one to remain following the coming of Mashiach. For example, the Midrash of Yalkut Shimoni (in Passage 944) states:

…כל המועדים עתידין ליבטל וימי הפורים אינן בטלים לעולם

“All the holidays are destined to be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified for eternity…”

An 18th-Century Megillah

An 18th-Century Megillah

Purim is not only the last holiday on the Jewish calendar year, but the last to remain in the future. What are we to make of such statements? What makes Purim so special that it stands alone among holidays that will be commemorated by Jews for eternity?

To properly answer this question requires first answering a more fundamental question: When did Judaism begin?

The First Jew

What is the starting point of Judaism? When can we say for sure that the Jewish people had their beginning? Who was the first Jew?

Some erroneously believe that Adam and Eve were the first Jews. This is, of course, grossly incorrect, as the Torah views Adam and Eve simply as the first civilized humans. More commonly, people point to Abraham as the first Jew. Though he is certainly the first of the forefathers, and the point at which the tradition – in some shape or form – begins, it is very hard to describe him as “Jewish”. After all, the Torah in its full form wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later. So, it must be Moses and the Israelites, who received the Torah at Sinai following the Exodus. Surely, they were the first Jews! Indeed, most people would pick that moment as the official start of the Jewish people.

Yet, the truth is that those Israelites were practicing a very different religion. There were no synagogues in those days, no amidah prayer and no tehillim, no volumes of Talmud to study, and the events of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Chanukah, Purim, and Tisha b’Av (among others) wouldn’t happen until far in the future. This was a religion whose rituals mostly centred on sacrificial offerings.

Today, we have no korbanot, no pilgrimage festivals, no Temple or Mishkan, no death penalties, no polygamy, no prophecy, no slavery, no tithes, no priests, no Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites, or Amalekites. Although we read parashat Zachor to remember the evil Amalekites and remind ourselves to destroy them, we have no idea who the “Amalekites” actually are in our times!

The Judaism of today – focused on Torah study, prayer, and halakhah – is completely different than the ancient Israelites’ religion of sacrifices, agricultural laws, and priestly laws. And, of course, those Israelites certainly weren’t known as “Jews”.

Having said that, we are undoubtedly bound by a chain of tradition, and there is a clear evolution from ancient Israelite to modern Jew. At which point did everything change?

The Birth of the Jewish People

Some 2500 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, together with its Holy Temple. While the previous destruction of the Kingdom of Israel resulted in most of its populace being scattered across the Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Judah did not suffer the same fate. Instead, the people of Judah (among them many Benjaminites and Levites, as well as refugees from the other Israelite tribes which fled to Judah when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed) were taken captive to Babylon.

The Temple, with all of its sacrifices and offerings, was gone, and so were the priestly rituals. The people were no longer farmers on their own lands; the many agricultural laws of the Torah no longer applied. Pilgrimages festivals in Jerusalem were no longer possible either. To survive, the religion had to undergo a major transformation.

In Babylon, offering sacrifices was not possible, so the people began to offer prayers instead. Making pilgrimages was not possible, so people gave the festivals new meanings, and celebrated them with feasts at home. In Babylon, observing the Torah’s laws directly was not possible, but studying the laws was, so this is what the people did, preserving the law in their hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, those who best knew the law were most respected. The priest gave way to the rabbi. And perhaps most importantly, across the Babylonian domain, as the various Israelite tribes blended together and assimilated, ancestral history became blurry, and everyone simply became known as a “Yehudi”, from the name of the most populous of the tribes, and the last surviving kingdom, Judah.

Thus, it is really at this point, in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples, where Judaism as we know it is born. And this is precisely the time of Purim.

The First Rabbi

Purim takes place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, and shortly before the construction of the Second Temple. It is in Megillat Esther that we are first introduced to the “Jews”:

There was a Yehudi man in Susa the capital city, and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (Esther 2:5)

'The Triumph of Mordechai' by Pieter Lastman (1624)

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

Mordechai is from the tribe of Benjamin, yet he is described as a Yehudi. As we continue reading, we see no more mention of any specific tribes of Israel. Rather, the text always refers to the people, wherever they were across the 127 territories of the empire, as Yehudim. They had now officially become, not Israelites or Hebrews, but Jews.

Their leader is Mordechai: not a priest, not a Levite, not a king, and not a prophet (at least, not according to the plain text, though later traditions suggest that he really was a prophet). Back in the land of Israel, the leadership used to be held firmly by the Kohanim in the Temple, and by the royal family in the palace. In Babylon, none of that mattered. Mordechai was simply a wise man, a respected communal leader and advisor. One may even argue that Mordechai is history’s first “rabbi” in the proper sense of the term.

Purim as Independence Day

By the time the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, and finally rebuild the Temple, they had become accustomed to their new religious ways. Soon, the Great Assembly compiled the Tanakh, and laid down the first texts of prayer and blessing. The Second Temple was not nearly what the First Temple had been; it was devoid of the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Tumim. The age of prophecy had ended, too, as did the monarchy. Though there was a return to Torah law, the law was superseded by imperial law, now that Israel was a vassal of the Persian Empire, and then the Greek, and finally the Roman.

A split among the Jewish people was slowly developing: There were those who wanted to return to the ways of ancient Israel, centred on the Temple, together with its priestly and agricultural laws. And then there were those who wanted to maintain the ways that had developed in Babylon. Ultimately, they would form two groups: the Tzdukim, or Sadducees, and the Perushim, or Pharisees. Their names reveal much:

Though it is thought that “Tzduki” comes from the name of their founder, Tzadok, it nonetheless shares a root with tzedek, as this group thought they were the correct ones, following the proper ancient way. Meanwhile, “Perushi” literally means “separatist”, as these were the “reformers” trying to change the ancient system. Not surprisingly, the Tzdukim were primarily composed of the priestly classes, who wanted to restore their central role among the people, while the Perushim were composed primarily of the scholarly class. Perhaps to distance themselves from the Perushim, the Tzdukim rejected any concept of an “Oral Tradition”, and stuck firmly to what is written in the Torah. The Perushim, meanwhile, maintained that there is an ancient tradition dating back to Moses. (Click here to read about the validity – and necessity – of the Oral Tradition.) 

As the priests, the Tzdukim controlled the Temple, and relegated the Perushim to the sidelines. Ironically, this sealed their doom, for when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Tzdukim and their faulty ideology collapsed with it. Not dependent on a Temple, the Perushim survived. Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah thrived along with them. And here we are today.

This entire chain of events was set in motion with the story of Purim, which describes the rise of the Jewish people, and their salvation from the brink of destruction. Had it gone another way, Haman would have finished off what Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar started; the Israelites would have perished, and Judaism as we know it would have never emerged. And so, Purim is a sort of “Independence Day” for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes Purim as the last of Jewish holidays because, ironically, it is really the first of Jewish holidays!

We can now better understand, beyond the chronological reasons, why the short Megillat Esther was included in the last sections of the Tanakh. What began at the birth of humanity with Adam and Eve, then progressed through Abraham and the start of monotheistic faith, and was propelled onwards by Moses and the prophets that followed, culminated with the final formation of the Jewish nation. The Tanakh thus presents us with a clear, sequential evolution from start to finish. Abraham was called Ivri, a Hebrew, and Jacob became Israel, with his twelve sons founding twelve tribes that ultimately came out Egypt. Those tribes settled in the Holy Land, but were later scattered across the successive Assyrian-Babylonian-Persian Empires. And it was in the Persian Empire that we truly became Jews. The Tanakh essentially ends on that note, its central narrative having been completed.

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

Sefer Yetzirah famously states the principle that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning is wedged in the end.” Based on this, we can see a far more profound reason for why Purim alone will be celebrated in Messianic times. As the story of the Jewish people’s official beginning, Megillat Esther also encodes within it the secret of the end.

The Megillah describes a world where Jews are scattered from East to West, fractured apart, assimilating. God is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Megillat Esther is unique in that it makes no explicit mention of God anywhere in the text, as if everything is simply up to chance, hence the name Purim, literally “lotteries”.

Indeed, the world we see today is a mirror of that described in Esther: Jews are once again scattered all over the world, fractured and assimilated, living in a seemingly Godless universe. Once again, we are confronted with intense hatred, and many seek our extermination. The rest of the world is blind to this, appeasing those very people who openly state their aims of annihilating the Jews. It goes without saying that, once again, Persia is at the centre of this threat. With everything that’s going on in the world, there seems to be little hope.

But Purim comes along and reminds us that God is with us, as hard as it might be to see. Salvation will surely come, and from the unlikeliest of places. In the final moments, everything will flip upside down. Just as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordechai, those who seek to eliminate the Jews will succumb to their own evil devices. And the Jewish people will once again have, to quote the Megillah (8:16), “light, joy, happiness, and honour.”

Why is Rosh Hashanah The New Year?

This Sunday evening is the start of Rosh Hashanah. It is well-known that this day, the first of the month of Tishrei, is the Jewish New Year. It is also well-known that Rosh Hashanah is “Judgement Day”, when everyone’s merits and sins are placed on a scale and each person is written into the Book of Life, or the Book of Death. What’s amazing is that neither of these ideas are actually recorded in the Torah!

The Torah does not describe the first day of the month of Tishrei as either “Rosh Hashanah”, a new year, or as a “judgement day”. All that the Torah states is that this day is a yom teruah, a day to blow the shofar (Numbers 29:1), and a day of zikhron, “remembrance” (Leviticus 23:24). More puzzling is that Tishrei is the seventh month on the Jewish calendar, and not the first (which is Nisan). So, where does the idea of the first of Tishrei being a new year come from? And why is it a day of judgement?

'Hasidic Jews Performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah' by Aleksander Gierymski (1884)

‘Hasidic Jews Performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah’ by Aleksander Gierymski (1884)

Four New Years

The Talmudic tractate of Rosh Hashanah begins by stating that there are actually four new years on the Jewish calendar. First of these is Nisan, the first month of the calendar, and “the new year for kings and festivals”. Elul, the sixth month, is the new year for cattle tithes. Tu B’Shvat is the new year for trees. And the first of Tishrei is the “new year for years”, as well as for Jubilees and vegetable tithes.

The Talmud goes on to debate why the first of Tishrei is the new year of years. Some argue that the years should start in Nisan, while others suggest it may even be in Iyar or Sivan (the second and third months of the calendar). Based on an analysis of a number of Torah verses, the conclusion is that the new year should be in Tishrei, for this ensures the best Torah chronology.

The Talmud then suggests that Nisan is the new year for Jews, while Tishrei is the new year for all of mankind. This makes sense in light of the tradition that Adam and Eve were created on the first of Tishrei. As they are the ancestors of all human beings, their birthday is the new year for all of humanity. The new year for Jews specifically, though, is in Nisan, since it is in Nisan that the Jews were taken out of Egypt and headed towards Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and officially become a nation.

Judgement Day

According to tradition, Adam and Eve ate of the Forbidden Fruit on the very same day that they were created. After partaking of the fruit, they were judged by God, and exiled from Eden. Not surprisingly, then, that same day became associated not just with a new year, but with judgement, too. By consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve brought death into the world (Genesis 2:17). It is therefore appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah, the books of life and death are opened, and each person is inscribed therein.

Based on Deuteronomy 11:12, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8a) concludes that one’s entire forthcoming year is set on Rosh Hashanah. The verse states that God’s “eyes”, so to speak, are set mereshit hashanah v’ad acharit hashanah, “from the beginning of the year, and to the end of the year”, and so, the Sages interpret that the entire year is already pre-destined from the start of the year.

The Sages then ask: how do we know that this judgement day is on the first of Tishrei? Psalms 81:4-5 states, “Blow the shofar on the new moon; at the full moon is our festival. For it is a statute for Israel, a sentence of the God of Jacob.” This verse just about ties it all together. It tells us that the day of shofar blowing is on the new moon (the first of the month), and on the full moon is the festival. This festival is Sukkot, which is celebrated on the 15th of Tishrei – a full moon. The Psalm continues by saying it is a mishpat, literally a court ruling or a sentence, a clear allusion to judgement.

[Although the verse in Psalms specifically refers to Israel and Jacob, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) assures us that all of mankind is judged, and the verse in Psalms simply means that Israel is judged first.]

The Last Piece of Evidence

There is one more verse that can be used to conclude that the first of Tishrei is a new year, and is tied to the day of judgement. The term Rosh Hashanah is, in fact, mentioned in the Tanakh, just once, in the Book of Ezekiel. Chapter 40 begins by stating, “In the twenty-fifth year of our captivity, in the beginning of the year [b’Rosh Hashanah], in the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was smitten, on that day, the hand of Hashem was upon me, and He brought me there…”

Ezekiel writes that on the tenth day into the new year he received a prophecy from God. As explicitly recorded in the Torah, the tenth of Tishrei is Yom Kippur. On this day, and this day alone, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and receive a divine revelation. Ezekiel himself was a priest, but in his day the Temple was already destroyed (as the verse above tells us, it was fourteen years after Jerusalem’s destruction). If there was ever an auspicious time for a priest to receive a prophecy, it would be Yom Kippur – the tenth of Tishrei. Thus, it is highly probable that the Rosh Hashanah that Ezekiel refers to is the first of Tishrei.

And so, although the Torah does not explicitly say so, a careful analysis of Biblical and Talmudic verses reveals that the first of Tishrei – the day of shofar blowing – is indeed a new year, and a day of judgement.

Wishing You a Shana Tova v’Metuka!