Tag Archives: Priesthood

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).

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

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

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

The Torah’s Eternal Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minimal Torah

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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