Lecture 38: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XVIII) - "Those Who Stand Before the Lord" (Part III) - The Relationship Between the Priests and the Levites

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



            Now that we have completed our discussion of the Levites, I wish to examine the relationship between the priests and the Levites. This is a very broad topic, and we are forced to limit the discussion to some main headings.






            The primary difference between the priests and the Levites becomes evident when we compare the accounts of their respective selection and entry into service. With respect to the priests, time and time again Scripture emphasizes their sanctity. This is already the case in the initial command to bring Aharon and his sons into the priesthood and to fashion the priestly garments – the objective of which, according to the command, was to consecrate Aharon and his sons for the task:


And take you to you Aharon your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel that he may minister to me in the priest's office… And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother for honor and for beauty… That they may make Aharon's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me in the priest's office… And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to me in the priest's office…

And you shall put them upon Aharon, and his sons with him; and shall anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to me in the priest's office. (Shemot 28:1-4, 41)


            We see the same point in the next chapter, which describes the process of consecrating the priests during the days of milu'im: "And this is the thing you shall do to them to hallow them, to minister to me in the priest's office" (ibid., 29:1). After Aharon and his sons are washed with water, they are dressed in the priestly garments, and this is followed by the milu'im process, the command regarding which appears there in Shemot and its execution in Vayikra 8. This process was dealt with at length in last year's series (lecture no. 26).


            For our purposes, one point should be emphasized - the consecration of the priests and the consecration of the Mishkan are parallel and complementary processes that are carried out simultaneously: Aharon is anointed together with the Mishkan and its vessels (Vayikra 8:10-12), and all the priests are sprinkled with anointing oil together with the blood that was upon the altar – "And Moshe took of the anointing oil, and of the blood which was upon the altar, and sprinkled it upon Aharon, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon his sons' garments with him; and sanctified Aharon, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him" (ibid., v. 30). This means that the sanctity of Aharon, the High Priest, is part of the sanctity of the Mishkan – the High Priest is an integral part of the sanctuary, and the sanctity of all the priests is part of the sanctity of the altar. As the Meshekh Chokhma formulates it (in his commentary to Vayikra, ad loc.): "The priests are like the holy vessels in all ways – Aharon and his sons are consecrated through anointing, and all the priests through their dressing and service."


            In the case of the Levites, on the other hand, there is no mention of "sanctity," but only "purity" (Bamidbar 8:6-7; see previous lecture). There is also no mention in Scripture of special garments worn by the Levites.[1]




            The aforementioned difference is reflected in the distinction between the Temple Mount, which is the camp of the Levites, and the Temple courtyard, the camp of the Shekhina.[2] Most of the Temple service is performed in the Temple courtyard – including the offering of the sacrifices, meal offerings, and libations – and it is only there that eating of the holiest sacrifices is permitted. On the Temple Mount, on the other hand, there is no offering of sacrifices; in fact, offering sacrifices there involves a violation of the prohibition of offering sacrifices outside the Temple. Entry into the Temple courtyard in a state of ritual impurity is punishable by karet (excision), whereas entry onto the Temple Mount is permitted to those who are ritually impure owing to contact with a corpse, and forbidden only – and merely by an ordinary prohibition – to those who are ritually impure owing to emissions (zav, zava, a menstruating woman, a woman after childbirth, a man who experienced seminal emission, and a metzora). The guards in the Temple courtyard are priests, whereas those on the Temple Mount are Levites.


            The level of the Temple courtyard and the Temple itself is the level of sanctity, the level of the priests, whereas the level of the Temple Mount, the camp of the Levites, is the level of purity, which is preparatory to sanctity. Purity is what man must achieve in order to rise to sanctity, the source of which is God; God only grants sanctity to man if man is worthy. Purity, which characterizes the Levites and the Temple Mount, leads to the sanctity of the Temple and of the priests.




            At the beginning of Parashat Emor, the Torah lists the special laws applying to priests owing to their sanctity:


And the Lord said to Moshe, "Speak to the priests the sons of Aharon, and say to them, There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people. But for his kin that is near to him…

They shall not make baldness on their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh. They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God. For the offerings of the Lord made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer; therefore they shall be holy.

They shall not take a wife that is a harlot, or profaned, neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband; for he is holy to his God.

You shall sanctify him, therefore; for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you; for I the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy. (Vayikra 21:1-8)


            The sanctity of the priests expresses itself in their preserving the wholeness of their bodies and the impeccability of their marriages and in the prohibition to contract ritual impurity. The Torah explains: "For the offerings of the Lord made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer; therefore they shall be holy" – and as we saw, the sanctity of the priests is connected to the sanctity of the altar. In addition, all of Israel is commanded, "You shall sanctify him," that is to say, they must show preference to a priest in matters of sanctity (Gittin 59b, and elsewhere). Here, too, we find the explanation: "For he offers the bread of your God."


            In the continuation of that passage, the Torah lists the special mitzvot that apply to the High Priest:


And he that is the High Priest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not suffer the hair of his head to grow long, nor rend his clothes; neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother; neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God. For the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him; I am the Lord.

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or a profaned, or a harlot, these shall he not take. But he shall take a virgin of his own people as a wife. Neither shall he profane his seed among his people; for I the Lord do sanctify him. (Vayikra 21:10-15)


            The prohibition falling on the High Priest not to defile himself for his relatives, even his father and mother, is a striking expression of his being part of the Temple itself, as the Torah states: "Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God. For the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him; I am the Lord." The High Priest is part of the sanctuary, and he may not leave it for any reason.[3]


            The Levites, as stated above, have no intrinsic sanctity, and thus similar laws do not apply.




            The priests perform the entire service conducted at the altar and in the sanctuary: offering of the sacrifices, the meal-offerings, and the libations, burning the incense, lighting the menora, arranging the shewbread, and the like. We discussed the responsibilities of the Levites at length in the previous lectures, and we saw that God says to Aharon: "And they shall keep your charge, and the charge of all the tent. Only they shall not come near the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, that neither they, nor you, die" (Bamidbar 18:3); that is to say, they do not serve in the sanctuary.[4]


            For this reason, the priests must sanctify their hands and feet at the laver before beginning their service (Shemot 30:17-21), to sanctify their bodies as preparation for service. Similarly, there must be nothing intervening between them and the floor of the Temple courtyard (Rambam, Hilkhot Bi'at Ha-Mikdash 5:17), for they have the status of holy vessels, regarding which intervening substances disqualify the service performed with them.[5] Regarding all these laws, there is no parallel in the service of the Levites.




            In his commentary to the book of Bamidbar (3:45), the Meshekh Chokhma distinguishes between the gifts given to the priests (teruma being the classic example) – which, like the priests themselves, have sanctity and therefore the must be eaten in a state of ritual purity and only by priests – and the gifts given to the Levites (first tithe), which lack sanctity and therefore can be eaten by anyone and in a state of ritual impurity.


            Yedael Waldman[6] has demonstrated how this distinction expresses itself in the nature of terumot and ma'asrot. The giving of teruma and the rest of the priestly gifts is considered a commandment between man and God; the gift is given to God, and He gives it to the priest as His agent, owing to his selection and sanctity.[7] The Levites, on the other hand, are given ma'aser because of their shaky financial situation, which stems from their assignment to the service of the sanctuary and from their exclusion for that reason from those who inherit the land of Israel. The giving of ma'aser has, therefore, the character of a mitzva between man and his fellow,[8] and in effect, it is payment made to the Levites by the people of Israel for serving in the Temple on their behalf:[9] "And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the Tent of Meeting" (Bamidbar 18:21).[10]




In the blessing that Moshe gives to Levi, Aharon is called "your pious/gracious one (ish chasidekha)" (Devarim 33:8). Indeed, Chazal attribute to Aharon the priest the quality of chesed, loving-kindness, while Moshe the Levite is assigned the quality of din, strict law.[11]


Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them nearer to the Torah. (Avot 1:12)


Moshe would say: Let the law cut through the mountain. But Aharon loves peace and pursues peace, and makes peace between one man and his fellow. (Sanhedrin 6b)


"And he went and met him" (Shemot 4:27) – this is what it says: "Love and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Tehillim 85:11). "Love" – this is Aharon, as it is stated: "And of Levi he said, Let your Tumim and your Urim be with your pious one" (Devarim 33:8). "And truth" – this is Moshe, as it is stated: "My servant Moshe is not so" (Bamidbar 12:7)… "Righteousness" – this is Moshe, as it is stated: "He executed the righteousness of the Lord" (Devarim 33:21). "And peace" – this is Aharon, as it is stated: "He walked with me in pace and uprightness" (Malachi 2:6). (Shemot Rabba 5, 10)


            In accordance with this, the Zohar states in several places (see, for example, Zohar, Bamidbar 145b) that the priests come from the "side" of loving-kindness.


            This assertion finds many expressions in the service of the priests, and especially in the service of the High Priest: Aharon bears the names of the children of Israel on the choshen as he enters the holy (Shemot 28:12, 29); a person who inadvertently killed another person leaves his city of refuge when the High Priest dies (Bamidbar 35:25) because the High Priest should have petitioned for mercy on behalf of his generation but failed to do so (Makkot 11b); and on Yom Kippur the High Priest atones for himself and for his family and for the entire congregation of Israel (Vayikra 16:17). Similarly, the priests recite the blessing: "Who has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love."


            The Levites, on the other hand, serve as the Temple's guards. Their role is to keep strangers away from the Mishkan, and thus they represent the quality of setting limits, which characterizes the quality of gevura - strict law.




In the past (lecture no. 24 in last year's series), we discussed at length the disagreement between Rashi and the Ramban regarding the order of the selection of the priests and the Levites. According to Rashi, following the sin of the golden calf, the entire tribe of Levi - which had not participated in that offense - was selected. Later, Aharon and his sons were selected for the priestly service from among the Levites in the framework of the command regarding the Mishkan (Shemot 28a), which, according to Rashi, was given only after the sin of the golden calf. The Ramban, who maintains that the command regarding the Mishkan had been given prior to that sin, understands that the selection of Aharon and his sons in the framework of this command was not connected to the sin of the calf; the Levites were added to the Mishkan service at a later stage, after the sin, to join the priests[12] and assist them.[13] Indeed, there are views in Chazal according to which Aharon was selected for the priesthood already in Egypt[14] - for example, the midrash (Zevachim 102a) states that initially Moshe had been designated to be the priest and Aharon the Levite, but the tasks were reversed in the wake of God's anger with Moshe over his remark, "Send, I pray you, by the hand of whom You will send" (Shemot 4:13).[15]


In the previous lecture, we discussed at length the position of the Levites and we saw that it is comprised of three complementary components: their being "from among the children of Israel" – representatives of the people of Israel in the Mishkan service; their being taken to God in place of the firstborns; and their being given to the priests. Before concluding, I wish to discuss the relationship between the position of the priests and that of the Levites in light of the Ramban's approach and our discussion thus far.


The Mishkan was constructed on God's initiative: God wants to rest His Shekhina on the people of Israel, and to achieve that goal He commands them to build the Mishkan as His dwelling place. In order for the Mishkan to function, people must be appointed to be in charge of the day-to-day service of offering the sacrifices, lighting the menora, burning the incense, arranging the shewbread, etc. These people – the priests – are the Mishkan's primary workers, and they constitute an essential part of it, like the rest of the vessels. For this reason, their consecration for the priesthood takes place together with the consecration of the Mishkan and its vessels, and like the Mishkan itself, the priests have inherent sanctity – unconnected to their actions, but rather stemming from their unexplained selection by God.


Thus, the selection of the priests precedes in an essential way the selection of the Levites – a selection that does not involve sanctity, but merely separation. This separation is "from among the children of Israel," and the people's part in this is very striking: the Levites replace the firstborns – the people's previous representatives in the service of God; the people play an active role in the process of the Levites' entry into service; and even the giving of a tithe to the Levites "in exchange for their service" expresses the participation of the people as a whole in their service. In this sense, the essence of the Levites lies in their representing the people of Israel, and they therefore lack sanctity; they merely assist the priests, but do not actually participate in the holy service. On the other hand, through their separation and being taken to God, the Levites were drawn closer to the Mishkan than the rest of the people, and they pitched around the Mishkan and were responsible to guard it against strangers. In this way, the Levites created a border and framework for the holy; the abundance of inside, of essence, of sanctity, represented by the quality of chesed so characteristic of the priesthood was limited and defined by the gevura of the Levites.


We can summarize, then, by saying that the Levites are indeed separated from the people and they separate between them and the Mishkan, but they are found on the outskirts, on the outer side that faces the people, whose representatives and agents they are in the Mishkan. Just as the camp of the Levites (in the Mishkan – the camp of the Levites around the Mishkan, and in the Mikdash – the Temple mount) serves as the transitional link between the camp of Israel (in the Mikdash – the entire city of Jerusalem) and the camp of the Shekhina, so too the Levites serve as a transitional link between the people and the heart of the Mishkan.


What is the role and place of the priests? To what extent are they part of the people and its representatives, and to what extent are they part of the Mishkan? There is a famous question in the gemara (Nedarim 35b-36a; Kiddushin 23b) regarding whether the priests serve as "our agents" or as "God's agents," and without a doubt this uncertainty rises from the depths of the plain sense of the biblical text. As we have seen, the priests are, on the one hand, an inseparable element of the Mikdash itself, and it is also clear that in contrast to the Levites, the priests' place is not on the outskirts of the Mishkan, but at its very heart.


On the other hand, there are various expressions in the Torah of the fact that the priests, and especially the High Priest, are agents of the people of Israel. For example, the High Priest bears the names of the tribes of Israel on his shoulders (in the efod) and on his heart (in the choshen) before God; and of course, the priests in general, and the High Priest on Yom Kippur in particular, atone for the people of Israel. The phrase "from among the people of Israel" also appears in the command regarding the consecration of the priests – "And take you to you Aharon my brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel that he may minister to Me in the priestly office" (Shemot 28:1). But as opposed to the Levites, regarding whom this phrase appears over and over again, this is the only appearance of these words regarding the priests.


It seems that as opposed to the Levites who are clearly "our agents" (note that the gemara never had any doubts as to whose agents the Levites are), the priests play a double role. On the one hand, they are clearly part of the people of Israel, and they represent them and serve on their behalf in the Mishkan. On the other hand, their place is not with the people, but rather in the camp of the Shekhina; they are part of God's Mishkan, and God is their lot and inheritance.




In this lecture, we focused on the differences between the priests and the Levites. In conclusion, it must be noted that the Torah also demonstrates the opposite tendency – one that stresses the unity of the tribe of Levi and the common denominator between the priests and the Levites.


This tendency is particularly striking in the book of Devarim, and especially in the phrase, "the priests the Levites," which repeats itself several times in the book (Devarim 17:9, 16; 18:1; 24:8; 27:9).[16] Even the verse in the book of Devarim that deals with the selection of the tribe of Levi – "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to Him, and to bless in His Name, to this day" (Devarim 10:8) – joins together the two parts of the tribe, as Rashi explains (ad loc.): "'To bear the ark' – the Levites; 'to stand before the Lord, to minister to Him, and to bless in His name' – the priests."[17]


The most important role shared by the priests and the Levites according to the book of Devarim is that of teaching Torah to the people of Israel. They are part of the great court in Jerusalem (Devarim 17:8-9); the king writes his Torah scroll "which is before the priests the Levites" (ibid., v. 18); they fill a central role at the assembly involving the blessing and the curse which are set on the mountains of Gerizim and Eival when Israel enter into the Land (27:9, 14); and it is into their hands that Moshe deposits the Torah after he finishes writing it (31:9, 25-26).


Scattering the Levites among the forty eight cities (Bamidbar 35:1-8) that were assigned to them in the territories of all the tribes of Israel is, on the one hand, a fulfillment of Yaakov's words about the tribe, "I will divide them in Yaakov, and scatter them in Israel" (Bereishit 49:7), while on the other hand, it allows for the realization of Moshe's blessing of the tribe,[18] "They shall teach Yaakov Your judgments, and Israel your Torah" (Devarim 33:10).




            In this lecture, we concluded our examination of those who served in the Mishkan. In the upcoming lecture, we will consider the journey of the People of Israel in the wilderness, the manner in which they journeyed and camped, and the significance of the fact that the Mishkan was located in the heart of the camp.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In his article, "Bigdei Sarad Le-Kohanim Ve-La-Leviyim," Ma'alin Be-Kodesh 5 (Av 5762), Rav Yisrael Ariel argues that the bigdei ha-serad (mentioned in Shemot 31:10; 35:19; 39:1, 41) were the levitical garments. As stated above, however, the Torah does not mention that the Levites had special garments for performing their service. Only at the dedication of the Temple is it mentioned that they were "clothed in white linen" (Divrei Ha-yamim 5:12).

[2] This comparison was taken from the book of Y. Shapira and Y. Peli, El Giv'at Ha-Levona (Yitzhar, 5759), pp. 24-26.

[3] In the mishna (Sanhedrin 2:1), the Tannaim disagree about whether the High Priest is absolutely forbidden to participate in a funeral, or if he perhaps may go to the funeral, and he is only forbidden to come into contact with the corpse and contract ritual impurity. "If a relative died, he may not follow after the bier, but rather when they disappear, he may show himself, and when they appear, he must hide himself. And he goes out with them until the entrance of the city; these are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehuda says: He may not leave the Temple, as it says: 'He shall not go out of the sanctuary' (Vayikra 21:12)." The Gemara (ad loc. 19a) explains the position of Rabbi Meir: "This is what it says: 'He shall not go out of the sanctuary' – out of his sanctity."

[4] This difference also finds expression when the Mishkan is transported (Bamidbar 4:5-20). First, the priests cover all the holy vessels. "After that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die" (ibid., v. 15). Here, too, the Levites do not come into direct contact with the holy, and they are only permitted to carry the vessels after they have been covered by the priests.

[5] See Yoma 58a: "Rami bar Chami asked Rav Chisda: A fibrous substance - regarding blood, it is valid; regarding the handful of a meal offering, it is disqualified," and Rashi ad loc., and Rambam, Hilkhot Pesulei Ha-Mukdashin 1:21.

[6] In his article, "Kehuna U-Leviya, Kedusha Ve-Havdala," Ma'alin be-Kodesh 7 (Av 5763), pp. 65-82.

[7] See note 8 in previous lecture.

[8] Waldman notes that in several places in the book of Devarim (14:29; 15:11, 14; 26:12-13), the Levi is mentioned together with the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow.

[9] Waldman adds an important point that is relevant to our discussion: The biblical passage dealing with the priestly and levitical gifts (Bamidbar 18) connects both types of gifts to the fact that the tribe of Levi does not receive land in Eretz Israel, but only Aharon is told that God is his inheritance – "You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any part among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel" (ibid., v. 20), while the inheritance of the Levites is the tithe itself – "But the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer as a gift to the Lord, I have given to the Levites to inherit" (ibid., v. 24).

[10] E. Sternberg, "Ha-Kohanim, Ha-Leviyim, Ve-Ha-Bekhorot," Megadim 47 (Tishrei, 5768) sees (in a way that slightly differs from our approach) the gifts as a model for the unique qualities of each group. The firstborn is connected to the gifts of "first," which express the recognition that everything comes from God: "For all things come of You, and of Your own have we given You" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:14). The tithe, which is given to the Levite, symbolizes man's partnership with God: the Levites serve in the Temple on behalf of Israel, and in exchange for their service, Israel gives them the tithe. Teruma – giving the most select portion of the crop to God – expresses man's love for God, and the priests who are the select portion of the people of Israel are similar to it.

[11] What follows is based on Rav Moshe Odes, Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evneh, (Jerusalem 5766), pp. 327-329. See also Sefat Emet on Parashat Tetzaveh, 5662 (s.v. be-pasuk hakrev eilekha) and 5647, and Maharal, Gevurot Ha-Shem, p. 113.

[12] As Scripture reinterprets the name of the tribe: "And your brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, bring you near with you, that they may be joined (ve-yilavu) to you, and minister to you… And they shall be joined to you (ve-nilvu)…" (Bamidbar 18:2, 4).

[13] In his article, "Mifkad Ha-Leviyim U-Bechirat Ha-Leviyim," mentioned in the previous lecture (notes 2 and 10), Rav Tamir Granot sees in the views of Rashi and the Ramban an expression of the two selections of the Levites which he discusses there: the selection of the Levites as ministers to Aharon the priest is based on the assumption that they were added at a later stage, after the earlier selection of the priests, as argued by the Ramban, whereas their selection as replacements for the firstborns accords with the view of Rashi.

[14] The idea that Aharon and his family were selected for the priesthood in Egypt may possibly be based on the prophecy of the man of God to Eli at the beginning of the book of Shmuel: "And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, 'Thus says the Lord, Did I not appear to the house of your father, when they were in Egypt in the house of Pharaoh? And did I not choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer upon My altar, to burn incense, to wear an efod before Me? And did I not give to the house of your father all the offerings made by fire of the children of Israel?'" (I Shmuel 2:27-28). Of course, this understanding of these verses is not necessary – it is very possible (and so was it understood by most of the commentators) that the content of the revelation to Aharon in v. 27 is not the selection mentioned in v. 28, and that the two verses note different points: 1) the prophecy to Aharon in Egypt (identified by Chazal and many commentators with the prophecy mentioned in Yechezkel 20:5-9); 2) the selection of Aharon and his house for the priesthood – which occurred at a later stage.

[15] The fact that Rashi brings this midrash in his commentary to Shemot 4:13, even though, on the face of it, it contradicts his own view regarding the order of the selection of the tribe of Levi and of the priests, requires further study (see note 10, in the article of E. Sternberg).

[16] See Bekhorot 4a: "For Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: In twenty four places the priests are called Levites, and this is one of them: 'And the priests the Levites the sons of Tzadok' (Yechezkel 44:15)."

[17] The blurring in this verse between the priests and the Levites might be the basis for the lack of clarity regarding the identity of those who bore the ark. In the book of Bamidbar, it says that the sons of Kehat bore it, whereas the book of Yehoshua implies that this was the one of the functions of the priests (see lecture no. 36, note 5).

[18] This blessing is itself an example of the blurring between the priests and the Levites and their presentation as a single framework. The blessing relates to the entire tribe, even though part of it clearly relates exclusively to the priests ("Let your Tumim and your Urim be with your pious one… they shall put incense before you, and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar").