Lecture 36: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XVIII) - "Those Who Stand Before the Lord" (Part II) The Levites (Part I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



            In the previous lecture, we discussed the replacement of the firstborns with the Levites; let us now consider the service of the Levites itself.


I.            The Chronology of the Selection of the Priests and the Levites


We have studied at length in the past (lecture no. 24 in last year's series) the disagreement among the Rishonim about how to understand the relationship between the various sources that discuss with the selection of the priests and the Levites. According to the Ramban, the selection of Aharon and his sons for the priesthood, which first appears in the command regarding the Mishkan (Shemot 28-29), was an independent selection, unconnected to the sin involving the golden calf; the Levites were later joined to them in the aftermath of that sin (Shemot 32:29). Rashi, on the other hand, maintains the entire tribe of Levi was first chosen in the wake of the sin, and at a later stage Aharon and his sons were chosen from among the tribe for the priesthood (this is in accordance with Rashi's position that the command regarding the Mishkan was given after the sin of the golden calf).


In any event, all agree that in practice the separation of the priests preceded that of the Levites. The priests had to be set apart before the days of milu'im began – whether this happened on the 23rd of Adar of the first year after the exodus from Egypt or on the 1st of Nisan of the second year (see lecture no. 25 in last year's series) – whereas the Levites were only set apart to replace the firstborns in the month of Iyar of the second year (see Bamidbar 1:1; 3:5 and on). Furthermore, at the time that the Levites are set apart, God asserts that their role is to minister to Aharon and his sons, and He gives the Levites to the priests (ibid. 3:6-9). Similarly we find that in the Levites' inaugural ceremony, it is Aharon who offers them before God (Bamidbar 8:11, 21); Aharon was clearly already serving in the priesthood.[1] So writes the Ramban in his commentary to Bamidbar 3:1:


For on the day that God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai they [the priests] were chosen to be anointed so that their anointing should be an everlasting priesthood, but regarding the rest of the tribe he was not commanded about its selection until now.


            Elsewhere (in his commentary to Devarim 10:8) the Ramban writes according to the position of Rashi:


He would say that from that time [of the sin of the golden calf] they [the Levites] were set apart before Him, blessed be He, for in practice they were not set apart until the second month of the second year.


            The Chizkuni (ibid.) writes similarly: "The decree was issued at Mount Sinai, but Moshe did not set them apart until the erection of the Mishkan." In other words, according to Rashi and his company, a distinction must be made between the separation of the Levites in theory, which took place already at the time of the sin of the golden calf, and their actual selection and appointment, which occurred only in the second year in the month of Iyar.


            This chronology raises questions about how things were managed in practice: Who performed the work of the Levites from the time that the Mishkan was erected until the Levites assumed their positions? The Torah does not relate to this issue, nor is it discussed by the commentators. Theoretically, two approaches are possible: 1) Initially, the priests performed all of the service in the Mishkan, and the Levites were only added at a later stage; 2) Initially, the firstborns filled the roles of the Levites, until they were replaced by them. The second possibility seems unlikely, for as we saw in the previous lecture, according to many opinions, the firstborns were barred from further service at the time of the sin of the golden calf. The first approach is possible, although, as stated, there is no hint to it in Scripture itself. Thus, the matter requires further study.[2]


II.         The Responsibilities of the Levites


While the book of Vayikra focuses on the service of the priests in the Mishkan, the book of Bamidbar relates primarily to the service of the Levites. Several parashiyot are devoted to different aspects of this issue, some of which we will relate to in these lectures.[3]


Chapter 1


            The role of the Levites is already described in chapter 1, even before Moshe is commanded to appoint them to their office. At the end of the chapter, following the census of those who go out to war, about which it is stated that "the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them" (1:47), God instructs Moshe as follows: "Only you shall not number the tribe of Levi, nor take the sum of them among the children of Israel" (ibid. v. 49). Why?


But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, and over all its vessels, and over all things that belong to it. They shall bear the tabernacle, and all its vessels; and they shall minister to it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle. And when the tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death.

And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard, throughout their hosts. But the Levites shall pitch around about the tabernacle of testimony, that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel. And the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle of testimony. (ibid. vv. 50-53)


            This short account summarizes many of the functions of the Levites, which will be explained later in the book. Whereas the rest of the people of Israel pitch their tents by their camps and by their banners around the Tent of Meeting but at a distance from it – "far off about the Tent of Meeting shall they pitch" (2:2) – the Levites pitch their tents in close proximity to it, "around about the tabernacle of testimony," because they are "the king's legion" (as Rashi puts it, 1:49). They disassemble the Mishkan and carry it while it is in transit, and they reassemble it and serve in it when it is stationary. Moreover, their pitching around the Mishkan separates the rest of Israel from it, thus preventing "wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel," for "the stranger that comes near shall be put to death." The Torah closes with, "and the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle of testimony" – a command which is, according to the Ramban (ad loc.), the first source for the mitzva to guard the Mikdash.[4]


Chapters 3-10


            As stated above, the command appearing at the beginning of chapter 1 is spelled out in detail in the continuation of the book. Following the census of those who go out to war in chapter 1 and the command in chapter 2 regarding the division into banners and the order of encampments around the Mishkan that was to be maintained in the camp and while in transit, the Torah commands in chapter 3 a census of the Levites. It opens with a general description of their responsibilities:


And they shall keep his charge (mishmeret), and the charge of the whole congregation before the Tent of Meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. And they shall keep all the instruments of the Tent of Meeting, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. (3:6-8)


            The word "mishmeret" is used here in the sense of "charge, post," as Rashi explains (v. 7): "Any post to which a person is appointed and the duties of which he is bound to carry out is everywhere in Scripture and in the Mishnaic idiom called mishmeret." On the one hand, the Levites are subject to the charge of Aharon – roles cast upon them inasmuch as they minister to and assist the priests. On the other hand, they are given "the charge of the whole congregation before the tent of Meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle… the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle." That is to say, the Levites serve as the agents of the entire people in the service performed in the Mishkan. We shall expand upon this duality in the standing of the Levites in the next lecture.


            We learn about the roles of the Levites in greater detail in the account of the two censuses. In chapter 3 we read of the census of all the Levites, from one month and up, in anticipation of their replacement of the firstborns; in chapter 4 we learn about the census of those who will serve in the Mishkan, those between the ages of thirty and fifty. These passages focus on the responsibilities of the Levites regarding the disassembly and transportation of the Mishkan, and they reflect the clear hierarchy that was maintained within the tribe. Whereas in chapter 3, in the first census, the three houses of the tribe are listed in the order of the births of their founders – first Gershon the firstborn, then Kehat, and finally Merari, the youngest of Levi's sons – the order in the second census is determined by the importance of the respective service of each house.


            The first house is that of the sons of Kehat, "those who keep the charge of the sanctuary" (3:28, 32); they are in charge of carrying the holy vessels: "the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service" (v. 31). The most important vessel that the sons of Kehat carry is, of course, the ark,[5] and because of the ark they are also called "bearers of the sanctuary" (Bamidbar 10:21).[6] Nevertheless, the sons of Kehat are only permitted to approach the holy vessels after they have been covered by the priests:


And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die… And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, "Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kehati from among the Levites. But thus do to them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach the most holy things: Aharon and his sons shall go in, and appoint them every one to his service and to his burden. But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die." (4:15-20)


            In other words, just as the Levites separate between the people of Israel and the Mishkan, lest a stranger enter and become liable to the death penalty, the priests similarly separate between the highest level among the Levites – the sons of Kehat – and the "holy things,"[7] lest they become liable for the death penalty if they see them, and all the more so if they touch them, while they are being covered (see Rashi 4:15, 20).


            After the sons of Kehat come the sons of Gershon and Merari. The sons of Gershon are in charge of "the tabernacle, and the tent, its covering,[8] and the screen for the door of the Tent of Meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it for all its service" (3:25-26) – in short, the fabrics that comprise the Mishkan and the Tent.[9] The sons of Merari, the youngest son of Levi, are in charge of what may be called the Mishkan's skeleton: "The boards of the tabernacle, and its bars, and its pillars, and its sockets, and all its vessels, and all that belongs to it. And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pegs, and their cords" (ibid. vv. 36-37).


            This hierarchy has several other expressions:


1)            The order of pitching around the Mishkan (3:23, 29, 35, 38): Near the door of the Mishkan, on the east side, are camped "Moshe and Aharon and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the children of Israel" (ibid., v. 38); they are located on the same side as the leading banner – the camp of Yehuda, including Yissachar and Zevulun, the sons of Leah. It is the priests who cover the vessels and prepare them for the journey; the sons of Kehat, who bear the vessels on their shoulders, pitch close to the priests, to the south of the Mishkan, next to the banner of the camp of Reuven, which includes the rejected sons of Leah – Reuven the firstborn and Shimon – as well as Gad, the firstborn of Zilpa, maidservant of Leah. Next to the sons of Kehat, toward the west of the Mishkan, are pitched the sons of Gershon, the firstborn of Levi, near the banner of the sons of Rachel: Efrayim, Menashe, and Binyamin. Toward the north are pitched the sons of Merari, the youngest of Levi's sons, near the banner of the rest of the sons of the maidservants – Dan, Asher and Naftali – which is "the rearward of all the camps throughout their hosts" (10:25).


2)                 The order of setting out and camping:


And the tabernacle was taken down; and the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari set forward, bearing the tabernacle… And the Kehati set forward, bearing the sanctuary: that they might set up the tabernacle before their arrival. (Bamidbar 10:17, 21)


            The first to set out are the sons of Gershon and Merari, so that they should arrive first at the site of the new camp and erect "the tabernacle" – that is, the basic structure, the boards and the curtains – before the arrival of the Kehati. The basic structure should already be reassembled, so that the ark and the rest of the vessels could be brought in immediately and the Shekhina would once again reside therein.


3)            The division of the wagons (7:2-9): On the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, the tribal princes brought "six covered wagons" (ibid. v. 3), and God commanded Moshe, "And you shall give them to the Levites, to every man according to his service" (ibid. v. 5). The sons of Gershon, who bore the curtains received two wagons; the sons of Merari, who bore the heavy frame of the Mishkan received four wagons; "but to the sons of Kehat he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders" (ibid. v. 9).


Chapter 18


            In chapter 18, following the violation of the separation between the camp of Israel and the camp of the Shekhina during the rebellion of Korach and the incidents that occurred in its wake,[10] God once again appoints the Levites to serve in the Mishkan, emphasizing their role in this separation:


And the Lord said to Moshe, "You and your sons and your father's house with you shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary; and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood. And your brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, bring you near with you, that they may be joined to you, and minister to you; but you and your sons with you shall minister before the tent of the Testimony. 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. And they shall be joined to you, and keep the charge of the Tent of Meeting, for all the service of the tent, and a stranger shall not come near to you. And you shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar, that there be no wrath[11] any more upon the children of Israel. And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel; to you they are given as a gift for the Lord, to do the service of the Tent of Meeting. Therefore, you and your sons with you shall keep your priest's office for everything that concerns the altar, and within the veil, and you shall serve. I have given your priest's office to you as a service of gift. And the stranger that comes near shall be put to death. (18:1-7)


            Scripture emphasizes several times the role of the priests and the Levites in keeping "the charge of all the tent," preventing strangers from among the people of Israel from coming near. On the other hand, emphasis is placed on the priests' responsibility to prevent the Levites from "coming near the vessels of the sanctuary, and the altar." As Rashi, for example, explains verse 1:[12]


"And God said unto Aharon" – i.e., He said it to Moshe that he in turn should speak to Aharon to admonish him regarding the precautions to be taken for the benefit of the Israelites in order that they might not enter the sanctuary. "You, and your sons, and your father's house" – this refers to the sons of Kehat the father of Amram. "Shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary" – upon you I impose the punishment for any strangers who may inadvertently sin in respect to the sacred objects which are entrusted to you, which are the tent, the ark, the table and the holy vessels; you must sit and give warning to any stranger who may be about to touch the holy articles. "And you and your sons" – the priests. "Shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood" – for it is not a charge given to the Levites; you must therefore warn the Levites who might do so inadvertently not to come near to you while you perform your service.


            It should be noted that a halakhic midrash (Sifrei Zuta, piska 18, s.v. ve-nilvu alekha, cited in note 4) learns from these verses the duty to guard the Mikdash,[13] in which the separation between the realms of the priests and the Levites is also evident: "The mitzva of guarding it is that the priests guard from the inside and the Levites from the outside" (Rambam, Hilkhot Bet ha-Bechira 8:3).


Divrei Ha-yamim


            In the genealogical list of the Levites in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, additional roles of the Levites are noted:


And the gatekeepers… they were gatekeepers for the camp of the children of Levi…

For these Levites, the four chief gatekeepers, were in an office of trust, and were appointed over the chambers and treasuries of the house of God. And they lodged round about the house of God, because the charge was upon them, and they had the duty of opening it every morning.

And certain of them had the charge of the vessels of service, that they should bring them in by number and out by number.

Some of them also were appointed to oversee the vessels, and all the instruments of the sanctuary, and the fine flour, and the wine, and the oil, and the frankincense, and the spices…

And Matitiya, one of the Levites, who was the firstborn of Shallum the Korchite, was entrusted with that which was prepared in the pans.

And other of their brethren, of the sons of the Kehati, were over the showbread, to prepare it every Sabbath.

And these were the singers, chiefs of the fathers' houses of the Levites…. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 9:17-33)


            A similar account is given toward the end of the book, in the framework of the list of watches of Levites prepared by David:


For by the last ordinances of David the Levites were numbered from twenty years old and above. Because their station was at the side of the sons of Aharon for the service of the house of the Lord, in the courts, and in the chambers, and in the purifying of all holy things, and the work of the service of the house of God; both for the showbread, and for the fine flour for a meal offering, and for the unleavened cakes, and for that which is baked in the pan, and for that which is fried, and for all manner of measure and size; and to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord, and likewise at evening; and whenever burnt sacrifices are offered to the Lord on the Sabbaths, on the new moons, and on the appointed seasons, by number, according to the order commanded to them, continually before the Lord. And that they should keep the charge of the Tent of Meeting, and the charge of the holy place, and the charge of the sons of Aharon their brethren, for the service of the house of the Lord. (ibid. 23:27-32)


            Among the various responsibilities listed here, two appear to have primary importance: "singers" and "gatekeepers." This is implied later in the book (chapters 25-26), where the Levites are divided into watches according to the basic division between these two positions. Thus, we find in a baraita in Arakhin:


For it was taught: It once happened that Rabbi Yehoshua bar Chananya went to help Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgeda with the closing of the doors. He said to him: My son, go back, for you are one of the singers, and not one of the gatekeepers. (Arakhin 11b)


            We see, then, that during the days of the first and second Temples, it was possible to distinguish between two main groups among the Levites: the gatekeepers and the singers.


            The responsibility of the gatekeepers clearly followed from the characterization of the Levites as keepers of the charge of the Mishkan, as was explained at length above. Chazal, however, also based the responsibility of the singers on the words of the Torah:


Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: From where do we derive the principle of singing from the Torah? As it is stated: "He shall minister in the name of the Lord his God" (Devarim 18:7) – what is ministering by way of the name? Say: this refers to singing. (Arakhin 11a)[14]


            Chazal also found a general source in the Torah for the other realms of responsibility cast upon the Levites according to the book of Divrei Ha-Yamim: "'That they may be joined to you, and minister to you' (Bamidbar 18:2) – in their service, and appoint from among them managers and trustees" (Sifrei Bamidbar, sec. 116).




            In general, the Torah relates primarily to the role of the Levites during Israel's sojourn in the wilderness: disassembling the Mishkan, transporting it from one station to the next, and reassembling it, and pitching their tents around the Mishkan and guarding it – both as a display of honor and to prevent the entry of unauthorized strangers.


            In the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, we find additional responsibilities of the Levites, first and foremost the division between gatekeepers and singers. Without a doubt, the gatekeepers are a later version of the keepers of the Mishkan mandated by the Torah, but Chazal also saw the singers as performing a service rooted in the Torah. In addition, Divrei Ha-yamim details other realms of levitical responsibility: the offices, the storehouses and the key; the service vessels and the holy vessels; the preparation of the showbread and that which is baked in a pan; and the overseeing of the fine flour, the wine, the oil, the frankincense and the spices. It is possible that these, too, fall under the general command regarding the service of the Levites.




            The next lecture will focus on the status of the Levites within the people of Israel.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Rav Moshe Odes cites these sources in his book: "Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evneh: Iyyunim Be-Korbanot, Bi-Kehuna, U-Be-Vatei Ha-Mikdash (Jerusalem, 5766), pp. 306-307.

[2] Similarly, it may be asked: Who served at the bamot from the time of the sin of the golden calf until the days of milu'im and the consecration of the priests? Is it possible that the firstborns, who sinned with the calf, continued in their service until the erection of the Mishkan? It might perhaps be suggested that sacrifices were not offered during this period.

[3] From now on, unspecified references to verses relate to the book of Bamidbar.

[4] As the Ramban notes there, the essence of this mitzva is that the Temple guards be "like a king's bodyguards." And as the Sifrei Zuta states (sec. 18, s.v. ve-nilvu alekha): "There is no comparing an unguarded palace to a guarded palace." And as the Rambam (Hilkhot Bet ha-Bechira 8:1-2) writes: "Guarding the Temple is a positive commandment, even when there is no fear of enemies or bandits, for the guarding is a show of honor to it; there is no comparing a guarded palace to an unguarded palace. The mitzva of this guarding is all night, and the guards are comprised of the priests and the Levites." According to these sources, the mitzva of guarding the Mikdash is directed "inwards:" to fashion the Mikdash as the palace of the King of kings. In the context of our discussion, however, it may be proposed that the guarding is directed "outwards," that is to say, towards the people of Israel, lest they draw near to the holy and become liable for the death penalty. See below.

[5] The book of Yehoshua (chapters 3-4; 6:6, 12), however, states that the priests bore the ark. We shall discuss this point when we deal with Israel's entry into the Land.

[6] The use of the words "mikdash" and "kodesh" in the sense of "ark" was discussed at length in lecture no. 9 in last year's series.

[7] It is absolutely clear that the "holy" that the sons of Kehat must not touch or even see lest they die is the ark, as we learn from the description of the ark's being brought to Bet-Shemesh from Sedeh-Pelishtim and from the story of Peretz Uza (II Shmuel 6:19; II Shmuel 6:6-7; I Divrei Ha-yamim 13:9-10).

[8] "The tabernacle" refers to the inner curtains of the Tent of Meeting (see Shemot 26:1); "the tent" refers to the outer curtains of goat-hair (see ibid. v. 7); "its covering" refers to the covering of rams' skins dyed red, and a covering above of tachash skins (see ibid. v. 14).

[9] To the exclusion of the parokhet, which was carried by the sons of Kehat; see 3:31, and Rashi, 4:5.

[10] We cannot discuss this story in this framework. Rav Yair Kahn has already discussed it at length in his shiur on Parashat Korach available at the VBM site (http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/10-parsha/38korach.rtf). I wish merely to note the clear correspondence between the Torah's admonition cited above, "that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel," and what happened in the course of that incident – "For wrath is gone out from the Lord, the plague has begun" (17:11).

[11] See the previous note. These are the only three places where the word "ketzef" appears in the book of Bamidbar.

[12] See also the rest of his comments and those of the other commentators on these verses.

[13] This provides additional support to our proposal in note 4.

[14] See also the continuation of that passage, where the gemara adduces ten sources to prove that the singing of the Levites is by Torah law.