Lecture 200: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (VI) – The Covenant at the Foot of Mount Sinai (IV)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
 
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This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Henry Lehmann z”l
by Richard Lehmann
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            In this shiur, we will discuss the identity of the "young men of Israel" who offered sacrifices at the foot of Mount Sinai. We will then consider the question of how and at what stage the sacrificial service was transferred from the firstborns to the priests.
 

The Young Men of Israel

 
The Torah reports:
 
And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings, and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen to the Lord. (Shemot 24:5)
 
Who are these "young men of Israel"?
 
1. Onkelos translates the phrase as "the firstborn of the children of Israel." Saadya Gaon, Rashi, the Rashbam, and others follow in his footsteps. Ibn Ezra explains:
 
These were the young men among the firstborns, as they had the strength to offer the burnt-offerings, for the elders rose to a higher station than the young men. (s.v. na’arei)[1]
 
2. The Ramban (s.v. na'arei) attempts to explain why the firstborns of the children of Israel are referred to here as "the young men," and he then offers another explanation:
 
Perhaps because he mentioned the elders, who were "the nobles of the children of Israel," he called the firstborns "young men," as they were young men in comparison to them. He thereby alludes that it was not because of their high rank in wisdom that he sent them, as they were not elders, but only because they were the firstborns, as it was they who were sanctified to bring offerings.
According to the plain meaning, the young men of Israel were the young lads of Israel, who had not tasted sin, since they had never been with women, as they were the select and the holiest among the people. This is like what they said (Berakhot 43b): The young men in Israel who have not tasted sin are destined to emit a sweet fragrance like Lebanon.
 
Thus, the dominant approach among the Biblical commentators is that the young men of the children of Israel were the firstborns; the approach that the Ramban presents as the plain meaning is that the reference here is to the young lads of Israel who had never tasted sin, as they had never been with women.
 
In light of what has been said here, I wish to examine how and when the transition from firstborns to priests took place. We will elaborate on this issue because up until this point, the people of Israel had no part in the sacrificial service, and it was Moshe as their representative who built the altar. Here for the first time we encounter an altar, pillars, and the offering of sacrifices by the young men of Israel, sent by Moshe to offer burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. It was not Moshe who actually offered the sacrifices, but rather the young men of the children of Israel.
 
            We must first understand the relationship between the young men of Israel mentioned here and the priests mentioned above:
 
And let the priests also, who come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. (Shemot 19:22)
 
And in the continuation:
 
And you shall come up, you and Aharon with you; but let not the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break forth upon them. (Shemot 19:24)
 
Another issue that must be clarified is the relationship between the firstborns, on the one hand, and the priests and the Levites, on the other, as it would appear that it is the latter who in practice replaced the former.
 

The Transition to Service Performed by the Priests and Levites

 
Ostensibly, starting with the creation of the world, the sacrificial service was performed by the firstborns, until it passed over to the priests. When precisely did this happen?
 
According to the plain sense of Scripture, the priests began their service at the dedication of the Mishkan, on the eighth day, after seven days of being initiated into the service. This is what it says in the command regarding the building of the Mishkan:
 
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, Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar. (Shemot 28:1).
 
Later, Moshe is commanded about the priestly garments – "to consecrate him, that he may minister to me in the priest's office" (Shemot 28) – and about the consecration of the priests during the days of consecration (chapter 29). The practical application of these commands is described in the book of Vayikra (chapters 8-9). This is also the plain meaning of the mishna in Zevachim:
 
Before the Mishkan was set up, bamot were permitted and the service was performed by the firstborns; after the Mishkan was set up, bamot were forbidden and the service was performed by the priests. (Zevachim 14:4)
 
The gemara cites a dispute concerning this matter, one that is connected to our passage mentioning the sacrifices brought by the young men of the children of Israel:
 
R. Huna son of R. Katina sat before R. Chisda and recited [the text]: "And he sent the young men of the children of Israel [who offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen unto the Lord]." He said to him: Thus said R. Asi: And then they ceased. (Zevachim 115b)
 
Rashi (ad loc.) offers two explanations of the words of R. Asi. According to the first explanation, the firstborns served on that day at Sinai, but then their service ceased;
 
On that very day, the service of the firstborns ceased, for at Sinai they were commanded about the priesthood, as we learn below. And Nadav and Avihu served that whole first year until the Mishkan was set up and they died.
 
According to Rashi's second interpretation, the service already passed over to the priests on that day at Sinai:
 
Another explanation: Thus said R. Asi: Cease it – you must cut [the verse] here with the cantillation note etnachta, and not read it with a pashta, the way we read it. For when it is read with a pashta, it implies that "the young men of Israel" is connected to "and they offered burnt-offerings," implying that it was they who offered them.
But when you read it with an etnachta, the word stands on its own, and it is not connected to "and they offered." And you can say that [Moshe] only sent them to bring the offerings and stand by them. [But] "and they offered burnt-offerings" – those who were fit to offer them, that is, Nadav and Avihu, for the priests had been set aside from the time that they had arrived at Sinai, as we learn below.
 
Later in the passage, R. Huna son of R. Katina raises an objection against R. Asi, and the gemara concludes that R. Asi's position is subject to a Tannaitic dispute:[2]
 
It is subject to a dispute among the Tannaim. For it was taught: "And let the priests also, that come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves." R. Yehoshua ben Korcha said: This refers to the separation of the firstborns. R. [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] said: This refers to the separation of Nadav and Avihu.
 
According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the priests already began to serve in place of the firstborns on that day at Sinai, whereas in the opinion of R. Yehoshua ben Korcha, it was the firstborns who served on that day.
 
Most of the Rishonim adopted the opinion of R. Yehoshua ben Korcha; the term "priests" mentioned at Mount Sinai (Shemot 19:22-24) refers to the firstborns.[3] Similarly, according to the plain meaning of Scripture, they identified "the young men of Israel" who offered sacrifices on that day with the firstborns.[4]
 
Is it possible to learn from here when the sacrificial service was removed from the firstborns? According to the opinion of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi that the priests began to serve at the assembly at Sinai or immediately thereafter, it seems that the answer to this question is yes, and all the more so according to Rashi's second explanation of the words of R. Asi.
 
According to R. Yehoshua ben Korcha, who maintains that the priests began their service only later, presumably it was at the dedication of the Mishkan, as is indicated by the plain meaning of the passages in Shemot and in Vayikra; we thus have no real idea as to when the firstborns ceased serving. It is possible that between the assembly at Mount Sinai or the command regarding the building of the Mishkan and the time that the Mishkan was set up, there was no service at all, neither that of the firstborns nor that of the priests.
 
It is important to note that all the passages mentioned here (according to the various interpretations) deal solely with the selection of the priests, without any connection to the firstborns. Not only do they not mention when the service performed by the firstborns ceased, nowhere do they say that the firstborns were replaced by the priests. As we shall see below, the firstborns were not replaced by the priests, but rather by the Levites. The Torah discusses this topic in an entirely different place.
 

The Selection of the Tribe of Levi and the Replacement of the Firstborns with Levites

 
The primary source dealing with this issue is the book of Bamidbar, which focuses on the service of the Levites (as opposed to the book of Vayikra, which emphasizes the service of the priests). The issue is mentioned for the first time in chapter 3, which describes the second census – the census of the Levites one month and older and the census of the firstborns – and the replacement of the firstborns by the Levites:
 
“Bring the tribe of Levi near and present them before Aharon the priest, that they may minister to him. And they shall keep his charge and the charge of the whole congregation before the Ohel Mo'ed, to do the service of the Mishkan… And you shall give the Levites to Aharon and to his sons; they are wholly given to him out of the children of Israel.
And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore, the Levites shall be mine; because all the firstborn are Mine, for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed to Me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. Mine shall they be: I am the Lord…”
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle; and the Levites shall be Mine: I am the Lord.” (Bamidbar 3:6-9, 12-13, 44-45)
 
            This took place in the month of Iyar in the second year following the exodus from Egypt – that is, about a month after the dedication of the Mishkan.
 
It should be noted that the book of Bamidbar does not explain why the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn, but it is the only source to make explicit mention of the fact that the Levites replaced the firstborns. This is emphasized a second time in the account of the purification of the Levites and their entry into their office in Bamidbar 8:
 
And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the Ohel Mo'ed; and you shall cleanse them and offer them for an offering. For they are wholly given to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of such as open every womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel, have I taken them to Me. For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are Mine, both man and beast; on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself. And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 8:15-18)
 

The Background for the Selection of the Tribe of Levi

 
            As stated above, the book of Bamidbar does not explain why the Levites were chosen. We find an explanation in the book of Shemot, which connects the selection of the tribe of Levi with their conduct at the time of the sin of the golden calf:
 
Then Moshe stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: Put every man his sword by his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moshe… For Moshe said, “Consecrate (mil'u yedkhem) yourselves today to the Lord, even every man against his son, and against his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.” (Shemot 32:26-29)
 
The term “milui yadayim” usually means consecration for service and entry into an office.[5] So explains Rashi (ad loc.):
 
With this will you be dedicated to be priests for God.
 
This is also alluded to in Moshe's blessing of the tribe of Levi before his death:
                                                                                                                       
And of Levi he said: Let your Tumim and your Urim be with your pious one… Who said of his father and of his mother, I have not seen him; nor did he acknowledge his brothers, nor knew not his own children; for they have observed your word, and kept Your covenant. They shall teach Yaakov your judgments, and Israel your Torah; they shall put incense before You, and whole burnt sacrifice upon Your altar (Devarim 33:8-10)
 
            According to many Rishonim, the reference here is to the conduct of the Levites in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, when they killed the sinners without giving any preferential treatment to family members over strangers.[6] It should be noted that Rashi connects this event to yet another verse:
 
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. (Devarim 10:8)
 
According to Rashi (ad loc.), "at that time" refers to the time of the sin of the golden calf.[7]

 

Why Were the Firstborns Replaced?

 
We have seen thus far that the source for the replacement of the firstborns by the Levites is the book of Bamidbar, but that no reason is offered there as to why the firstborns were replaced by the Levites. On the other hand, the book of Shemot connects the selection of the tribe of Levi to their conduct at the time of the sin of the golden calf (and according to Rashi (Devarim 10:8), the Levites were separated for their new role in the aftermath of that sin).
 
In light of this, some midrashim and commentators completed the argument: Just as the Levites were chosen because of their cleaving to God at the time of the sin of the golden calf, so too the firstborns were rejected because of their participation in that sin.
 
Thus, for example, we find in Bamidbar Rabba (4:8; see also 6:2), which deals with the replacement of the firstborns by the Levites:
 
"Take the Levites, etc." Our Rabbis said: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, command that the firstborns of Israel should be redeemed with Levites? For at first the firstborns performed the service, before the tribe of Levi…
 
The midrash continues its account of how the firstborns served as priests, but it concludes with their replacement by the Levites:
 
When Israel performed that act [worshipping the golden calf], they said: Let the firstborns come and offer sacrifices before Him, as it is stated: "And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings" (Shemot 32:6). God said to them: I gave the firstborns a high position and made them the most distinguished in the world, but they denied Me and stood up and offered the [golden] calf before Me. I will therefore remove the firstborns and bring in the children of Levi.
 
            When the firstborns sinned, they lost their ability to represent their people and their families[8] in the holy service, and they were replaced by the Levites, who proved at that very same time that they were fit to perform the service.
 
R. Chayim Sabbato formulates this as follows:
 
The firstborns, whose sanctity is from the womb and whose sanctity is due to the miracle that was performed for them, that they were redeemed from death to life, lost their privileged status because of their sins and evil deeds. The Levites, whose sanctity is not from the womb, and for whom no miracle was performed, rather they of their own choice dedicated themselves to God and His service, merited and became sanctified. This is because the sanctity that is given to man is removed from him if he is not worthy, whereas sanctity that a man merits by virtue of his deeds and because of his own choice is enduring sanctity.[9]
 
This continues the principle that we saw in the chain of priests prior to the giving of the Torah, which included people who were not actually firstborns, but rather the people who were most worthy of the role.
 
The Levites not only replaced the firstborns because of the sin of the golden calf, but they also atoned for them and redeemed them from the punishment of obliteration which they deserved. The midrash there continues:
 
Even so, the firstborns deserved obliteration. God said: Let the sons of Levi come and redeem them. Therefore, you find the Levites redeeming the firstborns. This is what is written: "Take the Levites instead of all the firstborns among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle" (Bamidbar 3:45).
 
In similar fashion, Rashi comments on the purification process of the Levites:
 
I have found in the work of R. Moshe the Preacher the following: Because they brought atonement for the firstborns who had worshipped the idol, and it [idolatry] is called "offerings of the dead" (Tehillim 106:28), and the leper is also called dead (Bamidbar 12:12), [Scripture] requires them to shave their bodies like lepers. (Bamidbar 8:7)
 
We can now return to the question discussed above: When did the firstborns cease performing the service? According to this midrash, which apparently reflects the dominant opinion among Chazal and the commentators, the firstborns' role in the sacrificial service was cut off at the time of the sin of the golden calf. It turns out, then, that in practice, the firstborns of Israel served as priests for only a very short period, from the exodus from Egypt until the sin of the golden calf – that is, from the middle of Nisan to the seventeenth of Tamuz of the first year following the exodus from Egypt.[10]
 
Before concluding, we must add that the discussion thus far was only according to the opinion of R. Yehoshua ben Korcha. From the words of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, it appears that the role of the firstborns ended at Mount Sinai, independent of any sin. It is possible that the transition from the service of the firstborns of each and every family to the service of one tribe that represents the entire people reflects, according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the transition from the service of individuals to the service of the entire community. It therefore takes place specifically at Mount Sinai, where the people of Israel reached a much higher spiritual level, giving a new and totally different character to their identity as a people.
 
Another explanation that fits in with the opinion of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi is the original proposal of the Chizkuni in his commentary to the following verses:
 
And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel… to do the service of the children of Israel in the Ohel Mo'ed… that there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come near to the sanctuary. (Bamidbar 8:18-19)
 
According to the Chizkuni, the transition to the service of the priests and the Levites was intended to allow for greater professionalism among those who served in the Mishkan, as it would now be transferred from father to son:
 
"And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn" – For if all the firstborns would serve, there would be plague among them, for the father of this firstborn might not have been a firstborn, nor his father's father, and they would not be trained in the service, and when he comes to serve he would not be proficient and careful about it, and he would act inappropriately and be smitten by plague, as we find with Nadav and Avihu.
But the Levites, once they were chosen, they and their children and their children's children for generations, were trained and admonished regarding their service that it be performed properly. Therefore, Scripture says: "The Levite shall have no part" (based on Devarim 18:1), that they should not be involved in any work, but only in the holy service, lest their hands become used to mundane work, and thus their arms and fingers will become heavy and hard, and they will not be able to bend them for the harp and the lyre, and the song [of the Levites] will be ruined.
 

The Standing of the Firstborns in the Future

 
Is it possible that the service will return to the firstborns sometime in the future? The Or Ha-Chayim writes as follows (Bamidbar 3:45, s.v. ve-hayu):
 
The words, "I am the Lord," come to teach that even though Chazal have said that the service will eventually return to the firstborns, the Levites will not cease from being God's. This is what it says: "And the Levites shall be mine; I am the Lord." Just as My name is forever, so too the Levites shall be Mine.
 
According to the midrash, the Levites will continue to serve in the sanctuary, but the service will return to the firstborns. The midrash does not explain how this will work out in practice.
 
R. Kook writes as follows in his Machbarot Ketanot (I:8, pp. 15-16):
 
It could be that the service will return to the firstborns by the word of the Sanhedrin and on the word of the prophets. Since an explicit verse in the Torah will be found for this, this will not be uprooting something from the Torah, but rather upholding the Torah. Since the firstborns were disqualified because of the sin of the golden calf, this matter of sin cannot endure forever, seeing that repentance preceded the world. Therefore, when all trace of the sin of the golden calf will be repaired, the service will return to the firstborns. The priests will certainly not be disqualified; since they had been promoted, they will not be demoted.
It should be expounded that the obligation to bring animal sacrifices only applies as long as those offering the sacrifices are only the priests. Therefore, it is written: "And he shall slaughter it… and the sons of Aharon the priests shall sprinkle its blood." But when also the firstborns will be fit, then owing to the elevated status of the animals and all of reality, animal sacrifices will not be brought, but rather meal offerings, as a sign of gratitude and uplifting.
Whenever a verse is found in the Torah and there is a cogent argument, the Great Sanhedrin is authorized, and certainly together with the prophets, to issue such rulings. This is the vision for very distant days, and it is possible that the world will be repaired with the resurrection of the dead before that, and then certain matters will certainly change in accordance with the times. Only the wicked eat unripe fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as they don't understand the great value of everything in its due time.
 
There are several important points to note in these wonderful words of R. Kook. First, we have here a bold and novel vision, which admittedly pertains only to the distant future, but it is nevertheless exceedingly novel. The innovators, according to Rabbi Kook, will at that time be the Sanhedrin and the prophets, as it is not written or alluded to in the Torah.
 
The return of the service to the firstborns is based on the understanding that sin will not endure forever, and the return of the service to the firstborns is part of the repair of the sin. On the other hand, since the priests were promoted to perform the service, they will not be demoted.
 
Animal sacrifices accord specifically with the period during which the service is performed exclusively by the priests. When the firstborns will once again be fit for service, only meal-offerings will be brought. In the future, owing to the elevated status of the animals, offerings will be brought exclusively from the plant world, as in the Garden of Eden. At that same time, the service will return to the primal and natural framework of service performed by the firstborns.
 
The service will be in the Temple, and there will not be a renewed allowance of bamot; once the service was designated for performance in Jerusalem, there can be no allowance for bamot anywhere outside of Jerusalem.
 
According to this explanation, the service performed by the firstborns has greater spiritual meaning than the service performed by the priests. This bold vision allows each and every family to be connected to the service in the Temple, while lifting up all of reality through offerings brought from the plant world.
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 

[1] The difficulty with this interpretation is that nowhere do we find that firstborns are called “ne'arim.” The word na'ar has various meanings in Scripture: child, young man, servant, soldier.
[2] It should be noted that the Mekhilta on this verse (Mekhilta Yitro, massekhta de-ba-chodesh 4) brings the opinion of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Korcha.
[3] See Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Chizkuni there. The Chizkuni in his first explanation adds that the seventy elders mentioned in Shemot (24:1) were firstborns (and so writes the Ibn Ezra on that verse). In his second explanation, he writes: " 'The priests' – officers and judges… You cannot say priests literally, as they had not yet been made priests."
[4] See Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon, ad loc., as well as the opinions mentioned above of Onkelos, Saadya Gaon, and Rashi; see also Ibn Ezra in his short commentary and Ramban in his commentary ad loc., for why they were called young men.
[5] See Shemot 29:9, 35; Bamidbar 3:3; Yechezkel 43:26; II Divrei Ha-Yamim 13:9, 29:31.
[6] On the face of it, the blessing focuses on the selection of the priests, and not on the selection of the entire tribe.
[7] In contrast, the Ramban understands that the reference is to the time of the fashioning of the second set of tablets. This disagreement is part of a broader disagreement regarding the relationship between the selection of the priests and the selection of the Levites. According to the Ramban, the selection of Aharon and his sons was not connected to the sin of the golden calf, and the Levites were joined to them in the wake of that sin. Rashi disagrees and says that initially the tribe of Levi was chosen in the aftermath of the sin, and at a later stage Aharon and his sons were singled out from the tribe to serve as priests.
[8] The transition from the service of families, whereby the firstborn represented the entire family, to service in which one tribe represents the entire people, was a very essential change.
The Ramban notes the significance of this change in his commentary ot the people's complaint after the death of Korach and his company (Bamidbar 17:7): "What is correct in my opinion is that the people now believed in the priesthood of Aharon, as a fire already issued forth from before God and consumed his sacrifices. But they wanted the firstborns to serve in the Mishkan in place of the Levites, as they were not pleased with the substition that took place, since they wanted all the tribes to have a part in the service in the house of God."
[9] Ahavat Torah (Tel-Aviv, 2000), pp. 262-263.
[10] According to the rabbinic tradition regarding the date of the sin of the golden calf; see Ta'anit 4:6.