Tag Archives: Tetzave

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).

Should You Wear a Red String on Your Wrist?

Vestments of the kohen and kohen gadol

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?

The First Red String

The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:

And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.

Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.

Temple Rituals

In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.

The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.

Red in Kabbalah

In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.

The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)

So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.

Bringing Back Shani

The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?

A female and male cochineal bug.

Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.

While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.

In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.

Imitating Pagans

Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.

The Hindu kalava looks suspiciously similar to the “kabbalah” red string.

In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.

The Mysterious Urim and Thummim, and the Dome of the Rock

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzave, which focuses on the holy vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Perhaps the most enigmatic of these vestments is the choshen hamishpat, the “breastplate of judgement”. This breastplate was embedded with twelve different precious stones, each symbolizing one of the Twelve Tribes. Housed within the breastplate were the Urim v’Tumim, mysterious objects whose nature has been speculated upon for centuries.

The Torah itself does not elaborate on what the Urim and Tumim are. The Talmud (Yoma 21b) states that they were one of the five things that were in the First Temple but missing in the Second Temple. Many believe that these were a couple of stones used to communicate with God. Unseen and unused for some two and a half millennia, it isn’t surprising that the Urim and Tumim are clouded in mystery.

Guilty or Innocent?

Some scholars see urim rooted in the root arur, “cursed”, and tumim from tam, “innocent”. Thus, these stones were used to figure out if a person was guilty or innocent, or if a certain decision was right or wrong. We read in I Samuel 14:36-44 how King Saul debated whether to pursue the Philistines in battle or not, so the High Priest addressed the question to God. God does not respond, so Saul concludes there must be a guilty person among them causing God to turn away. He then separates the people into groups to see which group contains the guilty party. It turns out that it is Saul’s son Jonathan who erred. This passage highlights the use of Urim and Tumim in divine communication, both in finding whether an action is right or wrong, and in determining guilt and innocence.

How did the stones communicate this? The word urim can mean “lights”, so it is thought that the stones glowed: one stone for yes/innocent, and the other for no/guilty. Others hold that the Urim and Tumim gave power to the Breastplate itself, causing the letters engraved upon it to glow. Each of the twelve stones on the Breastplate was engraved with the name of the corresponding tribe. However, the twelve names do not include all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet! The missing letters—Chet, Tet, Tzadi, Kuf—are in the names of the patriarchs, which were also engraved onto the plate, together with the phrase shivtei yeshurun, “Tribes of Jeshurun”. (Jeshurun was an ancient name for Israel.)

Interestingly, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that this is how the Arizal could “read” people’s faces, by seeing a sort of Breastplate on their forehead. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, he explains that each person’s forehead has the twenty-two letters mystically engraved upon it, and the letters glow allowing the adept to penetrate into one’s soul and fortune. Each letter symbolizes different things. If no letters at all are shining, the person is nearing their death!

The Foundation Stone

Meanwhile, Targum Yonatan comments (on Exodus 28:30) that the Urim and Tumim were themselves inscribed with the alphabet, through a mystical name of God—“the name through which He created all three hundred and ten worlds”. Again, the letters would glow in sequence to provide the answer to one’s question. Targum Yonatan appears to suggest that the Urim and Tumim were special stones formed from the great Even HaShetiya, the Foundation Stone. According to tradition, this is the Stone from which Creation began, some seeing it is the very centre of the universe. Targum Yonatan says the Foundation Stone was placed by God to “seal up the mouth of the great deep at the beginning”.

This refers to the account of Creation, where it is stated at the beginning that everything was “chaos and void, with darkness upon the deep” (Genesis 1:2) before God said, “Let there be light.” Looking at these verses carefully, we see that the Torah uses the word tehom for the great deep, before the introduction of light, or. It isn’t difficult to see a connection between or v’tehom and urim v’tumim. The Urim and Tumim are meant to be conduits for communicating with the Divine, while the Foundation Stone has traditionally been seen as the very link between the Heavens and Earth.

Where is this Foundation Stone? The Talmud (Yoma 53b) tells us that the Even Shetiya is precisely the site of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple, where the High Priest entered just once a year on Yom Kippur. The Stone served as the foundation for the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, too, was a means of Divine Communication, with a Heavenly Voice emanating from between the Cherubs on the Ark’s Cover. We therefore see a link between the Ark and the Urim v’Tumim. The Talmud tells us that both the Ark and the Urim were missing in the Second Temple, together with the Shekhina and the spirit of prophecy. In short, the Second Temple era was devoid of any real divine communication.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. Some believe the Temple was located right in front of the Wall, in the forested area pictured above.

So, what stood instead of the Ark in the Holy of Holies of the Second Temple? The Foundation Stone! It protruded “three fingers above the ground” and it is on this Stone that the High Priest would place the burning coals and incense on Yom Kippur (Yoma 53b). It is atop this Stone that the Muslims built the famous gold-topped Dome of the Rock (hence the name).

The Rabbis debate whether the Rock inside the Dome really is the Foundation Stone or not. The Arizal is among those who believed it is not, suggesting instead that the Temple was built right in front of where the Western Wall is today. Meanwhile, the Radbaz and Rav Ovadia of Bartenura maintained that it is indeed the Stone. They are supported by an ancient Midrash which prophesies that the Ishmaelites will do fifteen things in Israel, one of which is building a shrine atop the Holy of Holies (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30). The midrashic passage concludes by presciently saying the Ishmaelites will instigate three great wars at the end: one in Arab lands, one in the Sea, and one in the West. It is in the midst of these wars that Mashiach will come.

Top view of the Stone housed in the Dome of the Rock.

When that time comes, the Ark of the Covenant—which many believe is currently hidden under the Foundation Stone—will be restored, together with the Priestly Vestments. In light of the fact that we are now quite clearly living out the final verses of that midrashic passage, it seems we shall soon be able to finally unravel the mystery of the Urim v’Tumim.

A picture from beneath the Rock, the area known as the “Well of Souls”

Israel and Amalek: The Cosmic Struggle

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzave, primarily focuses on the make-up of the Priestly Garments worn by the Kohanim, and some of the sacrificial services in the Tabernacle. In addition to this parasha, we read an additional portion called Parashat Zachor. This extra section recounts how the nation of Amalek attempted to destroy the Jewish people after their Exodus from Egypt:

“Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way as you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you on the way, and smote your hindmost, all that were enfeebled in your rear, while you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God… you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

The Torah commands us to never forget what Amalek did to us in the Wilderness all those many years ago. It commands us to ‘blot out’ Amalek’s existence. Who is Amalek? And why is the Torah so adamant about getting rid of them?

The Origins of Amalek

According to the Torah’s genealogical record (Genesis 36), Amalek was the son of Eliphaz, who was the son of Esau. A famous Midrash (partially quoted by Rashi on Genesis 29:11) recounts that when Jacob fled his parents’ home to go to Charan, Esau sent his son Eliphaz to kill him. However, Eliphaz did not find it in him to kill Jacob, and instead robbed him of all his possessions. On his deathbed, Eliphaz regretted not fulfilling his father Esau’s wishes, and thus commanded his son Amalek to finish the job. (Alternatively, it was Esau himself who commanded Amalek before his death to destroy Israel.) Henceforth, it became Amalek’s mission to combat the Jews whenever he had a chance.

Very shortly after the Israelites left Egypt, an Amalekite army attacked them, unprovoked (Exodus 17:8-10). The Amalekites preyed on Israel’s weak and tired, as the passage quoted above states. While the other nations in the region all heard the news of the miracles of the Exodus and were in awe, Amalek had no “fear of God”.

The Cosmic Nature of Amalek

Though Amalek was once its own tribe and nation, made up of the descendants of Amalek, the grandson of Esau, they have ceased to be a coherent people long ago. There hasn’t been a trace of Amalek for over two thousand years—since the story of Purim, in fact. The last recorded Amalekite is Haman, the villain of Purim. He, too, tried to exterminate the Jewish people. This is precisely why we read Parashat Zachor—and its command to forever remember Amalek—right before the week in which we celebrate Purim.

Having said that, how can we keep remembering Amalek, and combatting its forces, if Amalek no longer really exists?

The reality is that Amalek does still exist, if not physically, then certainly spiritually. The Sages tell us that Amalek refers to all the forces that have no “fear of God”, that constantly work against the Divine and the Godly. While the mission of the Jews is to bring godliness into the world, Amalek’s goal is to do the very opposite. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that God took us out of Egypt so that He could dwell among us (Exodus 29:46). It is our mission to bring “Heaven down to Earth”, so to speak, and create a perfect, holy world. Amalek represents all those forces that prevent this from happening.

The very letters that make up the two names—Israel and Amalek—hint to the cosmic battle between them. Israel (ישראל) starts with the Divine letter Yud, which also begins the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name. It ends with the letter Lamed, the only letter in the Hebrew alphabet which stretches above the line, reaching up towards the Heavens. Amalek (עמלק), on the other hand, begins with the letter Ayin, which literally means “eye”, typically representing our physical world, together with all the lusts that are inspired by what the eyes see. Appropriately, it ends with the letter Kuf, the only letter in the Hebrew alphabet that stretches below the line, going down into the netherworld. Whereas Israel can be broken down into yashar-el (ישר-אל), “straight to God”, Amalek can be broken down into “amal” (עמל), which means labour, and the letter Kuf, which literally means “monkey”. Israel represents the Heavenly mission, while Amalek represents the futile work of monkeys, animals that are physically very much like humans, yet without the Divine spirit and higher purpose.

Zachor for Today

Therefore, this week’s reading of Parashat Zachor is absolutely relevant, and even more so today. In our modern world, physicality has trumped spirituality; children are taught that they are simply products of billions of years of random mutations, with no higher meaning; success is defined by how much money one has; the public mind is kept occupied with endless ‘entertainment’ that is violent and vulgar, immodest and immoral; and despite all of our progress, the world is still mired in greed, corruption, and suffering. We are reminded to never forget the forces of Amalek, and to continue our work in combatting these influences.

The best way to do this is to focus on bringing more godliness into the world, at every possible opportunity. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, “Fighting evil is a very noble activity when it must be done. But it is not our mission in life. Our job is to bring in more light…”