Lecture 37: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XVIII) - "Those Who Stand Before the Lord" (Part II) - The Levites (II)
In the first part of this lecture, we discussed the responsibilities of the Levites; I now wish to focus on the second part on their position.
III. The Position of the Levites
A number of expressions that repeat themselves several times in the biblical passages discussing the Levites teach us about their position.
1) "Then shall you separate the Levites from among the children of Israel"
In several places, the Torah states that the Levites are separated from the rest of the people: "Then shall you separate the Levites from among the children of Israel" (8:14); "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi" (Devarim 10:8). So, too, Moshe says to Korach and his company: "Is it but a small thing to you, that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel?" (16:9). This separation expresses itself in the fact that the Levites are not counted together with the rest of the people of Israel (1:49) and they do not pitch their tents among them, but rather camp around the Mishkan and separate between it and the rest of the people of Israel (as was discussed at length in the previous lecture).
Nevertheless, Scripture emphasizes all along that the Levites come "from among the children of Israel." This is already stated in the first command regarding their selection for service and their replacement of the firstborns (3:9), and the Torah mentions this again when they are appointed once more following Korach's rebellion (18:6). However, the most striking expression of this idea is found in the passage discussing the purification of the Levites and their entry into service. In that context, the phrase "from among the children of Israel" is repeated four times (8:6, 14, 16, 19); the event takes place in the presence of the entire congregation of the children of Israel (ibid., 9) and with their active participation – "And the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites… And Moshe, and Aharon, and all the congregation of the children of Israel did to the Levites according to all that the Lord commanded Moshe concerning the Levites, so did the children of Israel to them" (ibid., 10, 20); and when Aharon offers the Levites at that ceremony, it is stated: "of the children of Israel" (ibid., 11).
That same passage offers an explanation for this emphasis: "And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aharon and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel in the Tent of Meeting, and to make atonement for the children of Israel" (ibid., 19). In other words, the people of Israel's full participation in the Levites' entry into service expresses the fact that the Levites were chosen from among the people of Israel in order to represent the entire nation in the Divine service conducted in the Mishkan.
2) "And the Levites shall be Mine"
On the other hand, the Torah emphasizes in several places that the Levites were taken to God in place of the firstborns. We see this in the command regarding the replacement of the firstborns with the Levites:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, "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 you shall take the Levites for me, I am the Lord, instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel…
Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel… and the Levites shall be mine; I am the Lord. (3:11-13, 41, 45)
The Torah repeats this idea in the passage describing the Levites' entry into service:
And the Levites shall be mine… 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. (8:14-18)
Scripture explains the significance of the repeated emphasis of the fact that Levites were taken to God. Just as the firstborn belong to God in the wake of the smiting of the firstborn in Egypt (see lecture no. 35), their replacements - the Levites - similarly belong to Him.
3) "And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aharon and to his sons"
Thus far, we have noted two aspects of the Levites' position: on the one hand, we see their fundamental connection to the people of Israel, and on the other hand, we see their belonging to God. A third dimension of their position is their having been given to Aharon and his sons; this point is also repeated by the Torah several times. Thus, it is already stated in the initial command regarding the selection of the Levites:
Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aharon the priest so that they may minister to him. And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the Tent of Meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle… And you shall give the Levites to Aharon and to his sons; they are wholly given to him out of the children of Israel. (3:6-9)
Like the first two aspects of the Levites' standing – their being from among the children of Israel and their belonging to God – their being given over to the priests plays an important role in the Levites' process of purification and in their entry into service:
And Aharon shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel… And you shall set the Levites before Aharon and before his sons and offer them for a wave offering to the Lord…
And Moshe and Aharon and all the congregation of the children of Israel did to the Levites according to all that the Lord commanded Moshe concerning the Levites… and Aharon offered them as an offering before the Lord; and Aharon made atonement for them to cleanse them. And after that, the Levites went in to do their service in the Tent of Meeting before Aharon and before his sons. As the Lord had commanded Moshe concerning the Levites, so they did to them. (8:11-13, 20-22)
Once again, God explains: "And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aharon and to his sons" (ibid., 19).
The Torah also repeats this idea in the aftermath of Korach's rebellion:
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… And they shall keep your charge, and the charge of the entire tent. Only they shall not come near the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, so that neither they, nor you, die. And they shall be joined to you, and keep the charge of the Tent of Meeting… 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. (18:2-6)
This is the most detailed description in the Torah of the roles of the Levites from the perspective of having been given to the priests; they are joined to the priests and minister to them. That is to say, they assist the priests in the day-to-day running of the service in the Mishkan (but not in the sacrificial service or the service in the sanctuary themselves); they also keep the charge of the priests –they are their partners in guarding the Mishkan.
4) "From among the children of Israel to you they are given as a gift for the Lord"
Thus far, we have discussed three aspects of the Levites' standing: First, they represent the people of Israel; second, they belong to God; and third, they are given over to Aharon and his sons the priests. What is the relationship between these three dimensions?
This is explained in the passage dealing with the Levites' entry into service:
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. (8:16-19)
In other words, God took the Levites to Him from among the people of Israel to replace the firstborns; after He took them to Himself, He gave them over to the priests.
Of course, the various stages in the process do not contradict each other, but rather are built one upon the other. Separating the Levites to God from among the people of Israel does not sever them from the people, but rather turns them into a select group that represents the rest of the nation. And giving them over to Aharon does not remove them from God's possession, but rather constitutes the practical expression of their belonging to Him. We are dealing, then, with three complementary components in the Levites' position, as God says to Aharon:
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. (18:6)
This complexity in the identity of the Levites finds expression in their service. They are commanded to keep at the same time "his [Aharon's] charge and the charge of the whole congregation" (3:7) – an inward dimension (the charge of Aharon and his sons) and an outward dimension (the charge of the people of Israel). When they pitch around the Mishkan, they separate between it and the rest of the people, but they also connect the people of Israel to the Mishkan and represent them inside. They minister to the priests in the outer service in the Mishkan, but they do not have intrinsic sanctity, and they are therefore forbidden to draw near to the holy vessels or the altar and they do not take part in the main service performed in the Mishkan. The Levites' complex position – their service as the representatives of the people of Israel inside the sanctified districts – places them close to the outer perimeter of the Mishkan. They are part of the Mishkan, but they are found at its outer edge – at the point of contact between the people outside and the heart of the Mishkan, the place of the priests.
IV. The purification of the Levites and their entry into service
Over the course of this lecture, we have learned much about the position of the Levites from the ceremony of their purification and entry into service. Let us conclude the discussion about the service of the Levites with a short analysis of this process, described in Bamidbar 8:5-22.
The first stage in this process was the purification of the Levites, which included three actions:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, "Take the Levites from among the children of Israel and cleanse them. And thus shall you do to them, to cleanse them:  Sprinkle water of purification on them,  and let them shave all their flesh,  and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean. (8:5-7)
Two of these actions – sprinkling purifying water and washing clothes – are familiar to us from the purification process of one who contracted ritual impurity through contact with a corpse (see 19:17-19). Indeed, these actions were meant to fill the need for the purification of the Levites from such impurity. As the Chizkuni writes:
Since from now on it will fall upon them to take apart and erect the Mishkan, they needed a sprinkling on the third and seventh day, for it would have been impossible for them not to have contracted ritual impurity from a corpse in the past.
Shaving the entire body, on the other hand, is found only one other place: the purification process of a metzora (leper) (Vayikra 14:8-9). Thus writes Rashi:
I have found in the work of Rabbi Moshe the Darshan: Because they atoned for the firstborns who had worshipped the idol, and idolatry is called "offerings of the dead" (Tehillim 106:28), and a metzora is called dead (Bamidbar 12:12), it requires them to shave their bodies like a metzora.
This midrash is part of the larger set of explanations and midrashim that revolve around the widespread understanding that the firstborns were replaced by the Levites because of the part that they played in the sin of the golden calf and that the Levites atoned for this sin when they were used to redeem the firstborns (as was discussed at length in lecture no. 35).
The Levites are now commanded to prepare two bullocks, which will later be offered as a sin offering and a burnt offering:
Then let them take a young bullock with its meal offering, even fine flour mingled with oil, and another young bullock shall you take for a sin offering… and the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks. And you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites. (8:8, 12)
What is the nature of these bullocks, and for what do they to atone? It is difficult not to remember the calf brought as a burnt offering and the calf brought as a sin offering among the sacrifices of the eighth day, which came to atone for the sin of the golden calf (see lecture no. 26 in last year's series). So explains Rashi (ad loc.):
"Then let them take a young bullock" – And this was to be a burnt offering… and it was the communal offering prescribed in case of idol worship committed by the community.
"And anther young bullock shall you take for a sin offering" - … I, however, say it that it was an exceptional decision (hora'at sha'a), for [if his view is correct] they would have had to offer a goat as a sin offering to expiate for idolatry together with a bullock for a burnt offering mentioned here.
The sacrifices that the Levites brought on the day that they entered into service were, then, another expression of atonement for the sin of the golden calf.
Laying of Hands
After preparing the sacrifices, Moshe is commanded:
And you shall bring the Levites before the Tent of Meeting; and you shall gather the whole assembly of the children of Israel together. (8:9)
This was a public event, conducted in the presence of the entire congregation of Israel; once again, there is a similarity to the eighth day, when the entire congregation drew near to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting following the preparation of the sacrifices (Vayikra 9:2-5). The people also take an active role in this ceremony:
And you shall bring the Levites before the Lord; and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites. (8:10)
What is the nature of this laying of hands? According to the plain sense of Scripture, it signifies substitution; by laying their hands on the Levites, the people of Israel demonstrate that from now on the Levites will serve in the Mishkan in their place and represent them. The Chizkuni describes this in more graphic terms:
"And the children of Israel shall put their hands" – these are the firstborns of Israel, for whom the Levites atoned. Each firstborn put his hands on his own Levite.
This is the simple meaning of the laying of hands, although we might argue that this was done by representatives of the people, and not necessarily the firstborns.
Rashi, however, understands that we are discussing the laying of hands connected to sacrifices: "Because the Levites were made, so to speak, an expiatory offering in their stead, let them come and stand at their offering and put their hands upon them [the Levites, as is prescribed in the case of an offering]." The Maharal explains (Gur Aryeh, ad loc.):
The Levites were given on behalf of Israel, for Israel had sent their firstborns to worship the golden calf, and therefore they now sent the Levites to serve God… For the Levites are an expiatory offering for Israel… And the Levites stand in place of the firstborns themselves, and therefore they had to stand at their offering.
Thus, Rashi continues the approach that he had taken the length of this passage, according to which the entire process was intended to atone for Israel's sin of the golden calf, to the point that the Levites themselves serve symbolically as Israel's expiatory offering.
After the people of Israel laid their hands on the Levites, the time came to offer them as a wave offering. The command about this appears three times in the passage, along with the commands regarding the other actions that completed the process – the Levites laying their hands on their offerings, the offering of those sacrifices, the setting of the Levites before Aharon and his sons, and bringing them to serve in the Tent of Meeting.
And Aharon shall offer the Levites before the Lord for a wave offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord. And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks. And you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites. And you shall set the Levites before Aharon and before his sons and offer them for a wave offering to the Lord. Thus shall you separate the Levites from the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be mine. And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the Tent of Meeting; and you shall cleanse them, and offer them for a wave offering. (8:11-15)
What is the significance of this wave offering, and why does Scripture mention it three times? Rashi (v. 11) explains, in accordance with his own approach, that the Levites were waved like a sacrifice: "'And Aharon shall offer the Levites' – just as the guilt offering of the leper required waving while alive." On the level of the plain sense of the text, we prefer the explanation offered by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (ad loc.), according to which this wave offering was an "expression of consecration, dedication, and turning" to God.
These verses are followed by an explanation of the entire process – taking the Levites in place of the firstborns and giving them to the priests (vv. 16-19) – which was discussed at the beginning of this lecture. The passage ends with a description of the actual ceremony:
And Moshe and Aharon and the entire congregation of the children of Israel did to the Levites according to all that the Lord commanded Moshe concerning the Levites, so did the children of Israel to them. And the Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes; and Aharon offered them as a wave offering before the Lord; and Aharon made atonement for them to cleanse them. And after that, the Levites went in to do their service in the Tent of Meeting before Aharon, and before his sons. As the Lord had commanded Moshe concerning the Levites, so they did to them. (8:20-22)
I wish to dwell upon one particular point in the ceremony. How was the wave offering of the Levites actually executed?
We saw earlier that the command about the offering of the Levites appears three times. The first time (v. 11), Aharon is commanded to offer them after the people of Israel lay their hands on them. The second time (v. 13), after the Levites lay their hands on the heads of their sacrifices, Moshe is commanded to set them before Aharon and his sons, and he is told, "and offer them for a wave offering to the Lord" – implying that it is Moshe who must offer them. The third time (v. 15) follows the words, "and after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the Tent of Meeting," that is, after the ceremony appears to have ended; here, too, it says, "and you shall offer them for an offering." In the execution, on the other hand, only one wave offering is mentioned, and it is performed by Aharon (v. 21). Essentially, then, there are two questions: how many wave offerings were there and who offered them – only Aharon, or perhaps Moshe as well?
Rashi (v. 11) explains that the three wave offerings correspond to the three houses of fathers of the Levites:
Three times is the command of waving the Levites mentioned in this section. The first refers to the sons of Kehat; therefore Scripture adds with respect to them, "that they may execute the service of the Lord," for it was upon them that the service of the most holy objects, the ark, the table, etc., devolved. The second refers to the sons of Gershon; and therefore Scripture adds with regard to them, "a waving for the Lord," for upon them devolved the service of the holy objects, the hangings and the catches which were visible in the Holy of Holies. The third refers to the sons of Merari.
Rashi seems to be saying that, in fact, there were three separate wavings, one waving for each family. The fact that in the execution only one waving is mentioned does not pose a difficulty, for the bottom line is that each house of fathers was waved only once. Rashi does not address the issue of the identity of the waver, but he can easily resolve the difficulty similarly to the Ibn Ezra (vv. 13 and 15): "'And you shall wave' – by command." That is to say, the words, "And you shall wave" do not mean that Moshe himself must wave, but rather that he must command Aharon to wave.
As we saw above, Rav Samson R. Hirsch understands that the waving is an "expression of consecration, dedication and turning" to God, and accordingly he explains the three wavings as follows:
Now the dedication of the Levites is accomplished in a threefold presentation, as is explained in vv. 16-19. Israel dedicates them to God, God presents them to Aharon and his sons, and Aharon and his sons dedicate them to the service of the sanctuary. So that it is in the name of God, in the name of the nation, and in the name of Aharon that the Levites take up their position and have to carry out their mission, and these three relationships of their future profession were brought to their minds by the three wavings. Here we first have the Levites being dedicated to God by the nation: "And Aharon shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord."
In accordance with the approach adopted in the first half of the lecture, I wish to propose a similar explanation, according to which the three wavings correspond to the three aspects of the Levites' standing. The waving in v. 11 corresponds to the giving of the Levites to Aharon and his sons, and therefore the wave offering is done by Aharon; v. 13 speaks of "a wave offering to the Lord," corresponding to the taking of the Levites by God, and therefore the wave offering is performed by Moshe as God's representative; and the wave offering in v. 15 – closely following "Thus shall you separate the Levites from among the children of Israel" (v. 14), and preceding the explanation, "for they are wholly given to me from among the children of Israel" (v. 16) – corresponds to the Levites' being taken from among the people of Israel, and is performed by Moshe as Israel's representative.
Thus far we have dealt with the opinions that maintain that there were, in fact, three wavings. The Abravanel and the Malbim (ad loc.) take a different approach. According to them, there were only two wavings – one by Aharon and one by Moshe – and the waving mentioned in v. 15 is a repetition and summary of what was stated earlier.
As for how to understand these two wave offerings, the two commentators follow a similar, but not identical, approach. The Malbim writes that the two wave offerings represent two stages in the process of the selection of the Levites: the wave offering in v. 11 represents the taking of the Levites to God in place of the firstborns, and this was done by Aharon; and the wave offering in v. 13 symbolizes their being given to the priests, and they therefore must first be made to stand "before Aharon and before his sons." It is Moshe who performs the wave offering, for the Levites must be given to Aharon by someone else.
The Abravanel formulates this in a slightly different manner. The two wave offerings correspond to the two different obligations that are cast upon the Levites: the first wave offering corresponds to the Levites' obligation to the Mishkan and its service, and is performed by Aharon as representative of the Mishkan; the second wave offering corresponds to the Levites' obligation to the priests, and is performed by Moshe for the same reason mentioned above.
As for the relationship between the commands regarding the wave offerings and the account of the execution – where Aharon's wave offering is explicitly mentioned ("And Aharon offered them as a wave offering before the Lord"; v. 21), while Moshe's wave offering is not – the Abravanel explains that the latter wave offering is alluded to by the words, "as the Lord had commanded Moshe concerning the Levites, so they did to them" (v. 22). The two wave offerings do, indeed, appear in the account of the execution according to this reading.
The two parts of this lecture dealt with the selection of the Levites and their service. We examined the timing of the selection, the responsibilities of the Levites, their position, and the process of their purification and entry into service.
In the next lecture, we will discuss the selection of the priests and compare the priests with the Levites.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 There are primarily three passages in the book of Bamidbar on this matter: the initial command that the Levites should be brought near to the service and that they should replace the firstborns (chapter 3); the command about their purification and appointment (8:5-22); and God's words to Aharon following Korach's rebellion (18:1-7).
As in the previous lecture, unless specified otherwise, scriptural references are to the book of Bamidbar.
 We have not dealt here with the two censuses of the Levites (3:14-39; chap. 4). The differences between the censuses were well explained by Rav Tamir Granot in his VBM lecture on Parashat Naso 5767, "Mifkad Ha-Leviyim U-Bechirat Ha-Leviyim": The census in chapter 3, which included all Levites from a month old and up, was intended to establish the special standing of the Levites as substitutes for the firstborns, whereas the census in chapter 4, which included Levites from thirty years and up, was part of the organization of the camp and a continuation of the census of the entire people.
 Indeed, the passage repeatedly mentions the selection of the firstborns and their replacement by the Levites in order to teach us that just as the firstborns represented all of the families of the people of Israel, the Levites will represent them from now on (in a similar, although not identical, manner). As the Seforno (v. 19) explains: "'To do the service of the children of
 The redemption of the 273 firstborns in excess of the number of Levites proves beyond all doubt that the Levites served as actual one-for-one substitutes for the firstborns.
 There is, however, also a difference. While firstborns are sanctified with sanctity from the womb, Levites have no sanctity. That is to say, the Levites belong to God, but they have no intrinsic sanctity. (In this sense, the Levites are also different than the priests; this point will be discussed at greater length in the next lecture.)
 Bamidbar 1:48-53 deals with the Levites' role in the framework of the structure of the Israelite camp (as was explained in the previous lecture), but it does not include an explicit command to bring the tribe of Levi near for service.
 The specific practical applications of these fundamental formulations were discussed in the first part of this lecture.
 We are familiar with this model –something is given to God, and God then gives it to the priests – from other places. A striking example of this phenomenon is found in the priestly gifts (which are also mentioned in the commands given to Aharon following Korach's rebellion): "This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs, and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons… All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the first of them, which they shall offer to the Lord, them have I given you. The first ripe fruit of all that is in the land, which they shall bring to the Lord, shall be yours" (18:9, 12-13; see also the rest of that passage). Chazal formulated this principle as follows: "The priestly gifts are different, for when they acquire [them], they acquire them from the heavenly table" (Bava Kama 13a and similar formulations elsewhere in the Talmud).
 The barrier that they form is directed both inwards and outwards. Directed inwards, it is necessary to protect the holy from the damage that would be sustained through constant contact with the profane (ritual impurity, me'ila and derision). Outwardly, it is necessary to protect the profane world from the destructive consequences of uncontrolled contact with the holy – "that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of
 In this presentation, I have emphasized the continuity between the taking of the Levites to God from among the children of
 The word "ve-hiteharu," "and so make themselves clean," may refer to ritual immersion, which is also one of the components of purification from impurity contracted through contact with a corpse (ibid.). This may be the understanding of the Chizkuni (ad loc.). The Ibn Ezra explains: "And let them wash their clothes – and afterwards they shall be clean when they purify themselves with water of purifying."
 The Chizkuni expands upon this idea: "'Then let them take a young bullock' – to consecrate their service. Another explanation: 'Then let them take a young bullock' – because the firstborns worshipped idols at the command of others at the sin of the golden calf, as it is written: 'And they said, These are your gods, O Israel' (Shemot 32:4), and we find that the community brings a bullock as a burnt offering in the case of an unwitting transgression committed by the community, as it is written: 'Then it shall be, if it be committed by ignorance without the knowledge of the congregation, etc.'" (Bamidbar 15:24).
 As opposed to Rashi, the Chizkuni argues that the second bullock was not brought to atone for the sin of idol worship, but rather "through it, the Levites became consecrated." He adds that bringing a bullock as a sin offering, rather than a goat, was meant to emphasize that this sacrifice was not brought to atone for the sin of the golden calf: "Scripture showed honor to the Levites, who did not bring a goat as a sin offering, for had they done so, it would have appeared as if it came to atone for idol worship; but they did not commit that sin."
 While it is true that laying hands on a sacrifice also signifies substitution, as a person who brings a sacrifice indicates that the animal substitutes for him and that everything done to it should really be done to him (see Ramban, Vayikra 1:9), understanding this laying of hands as the laying of hands on a sacrifice gives it specific meaning and adds a new dimension to the role of the Levites in the entire process.
 The term "consecration" is used here in a strictly figurative sense (see above, note 5).
 Once again, the wave offering of a sacrifice also denotes directing it to God, but understanding the offering of the Levites as the offering of a sacrifice provides it with more specific meaning.
 The Ibn Ezra adduces proof from v. 12, where Moshe is told: "And you shall offer the one as a sin offering, and the other as a burnt offering" –it is clear that Moshe will not offer the bullocks himself, but that he will rather tell the priests to do so.