Shiur #18: Priestly Blessings

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 3:6 moves on to the next verses in the Torah, Vayikra 2:2-3:


And he shall bring it to Aharon’s sons the priests; and he shall take thereout his handful of the fine flour thereof, and of the oil thereof, together with all the frankincense thereof; and the priest shall make the memorial-part thereof smoke upon the altar, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto the Lord. But that which is left of the meal-offering shall be Aharon’s and his sons’; it is a thing most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire.


These verses discuss the role of the priests in the meal-offering. The midrash uses this as an occasion to launch into an extended celebration of the priesthood.


The midrash begins with analyzing each section of the verse separately.


“And he shall bring it to Aharon’s sons” (Lev. 2:2)

R. Chiyya taught: Even many.

R. Yochanan quoted: “In the multitude of people is the king’s glory” (Prov. 14:28).


This is an example of the Midrash’s style of hyper-literal reading of the biblical text. The verse says to give the offering to the sons of Aharon. The midrash takes this to mean all the sons of Aharon.  Even if all the priests were to show up to accept the sacrifice they would all take it together. R. Yochanan cites as a proof-text the famous line from Proverbs, berov am hadrat melekh, “In the multitude of people is the king’s glory." In citing this verse, R. Yochanan calls attention to the fact that the priests are God’s special servants whose job it is to bring God glory in His Temple.


The midrash then moves on to the next phrase of the verse:


“And he shall take thereout his handful of the fine flour thereof, and of the oil thereof” (ibid).

It says “Of the fine flour thereof” and not “All the fine flour thereof,”

“Of the oil thereof” and not “All the oil thereof.”


This is a classic example of the midrash simply stating the basic meaning of the verse. The verse clearly states that the priest is to take only a small portion of the flour and oil to offer on the altar. The midrash calls attention to this fact in order to introduce the following story:


There was a case of a man who brought his meal-offering from Gaul and Spain.

When he saw that the priest took off a handful and ate the rest, he said: ‘Woe unto me!  All this trouble I have gone to was for the benefit of this man.’

They all began pacifying him, saying: ‘Even though this man has gone to no more trouble than to take two steps between the Hall and the Altar,

he has, nevertheless, earned the right to enjoy [your meal-offering];

how much more so, then, will you, who have taken all this trouble

[receive for your merit the good that is treasured up].’


Gaul (present day France, though it was divided into three parts) and Spain represented the western-most reaches of the Roman Empire and, indeed, of the known world at the time. A Jew who came to Jerusalem from these places traveled about as far as anyone did to get to the Temple in those days. This Jew from the periphery was also apparently ignorant of the ways of the Sacrifices. He is shocked and dismayed to see that of his entire meal-offering only a small handful was actually placed on the altar. The rest was eaten by the priests. The other people at the Temple seek to comfort him. They argue that if the priest, who barely had to go anywhere, gets his reward, this pilgrim who traveled all the way from the ends of the earth, must certainly have a great reward.


This story picks up on one of the main themes of the parasha, that it is not so much the contents of one’s sacrifice that counts, but the devotion and commitment that come with it. Here the pilgrim’s sacrifice is judged not by its contents, which are minimal, but by the distance traveled to bring the sacrifice.


What I find so striking about this story is its ambiguous portrayal of the role of the priests. The pilgrim’s complaint seems most reasonable. Why should the priests and not the altar get the lion’s share of the sacrifice. What have they done to deserve it? The priests appear as unnecessary middle-men who take an exorbitant cut out of the transaction between God and the individual. It is not clear that that people’s answer is meant to be compelling. They “pacify” him. The term could well mean an answer which is merely meant to calm down the poor man in his rage, so he shouldn’t make a scene in the Temple, rather than to actually answer the charges. If this reading is correct, this story in fact questions the role of the priests in the Temple in direct opposition to the celebration of their role which dominates this section.


The Midrash now moves on the next phrase in the verse from Vayikra:


Moreover, [of the officiating priest it is here said], ‘That which is left of the meal-offering, shall be Aharon’s and his sons’ (Lev. 2:3).


R. Chanina b. Abba went to a certain place and found this verse at the beginning of the Sidra,

What text did he employ to open his discourse thereon?

“From men, by Your hand, O Lord, from men of the world, whose portion is in this life, and whose belly You fill with all Your treasure; who have children in plenty, and leave their abundance to their babes” (Ps.17:14).

‘Who are [mighty] men of Your hand, O Lord’ [means],

Who are the mighty men?

They who took their portion from beneath Your hand, O Lord.

And who is this?  This is the tribe of Levi

‘Who are the men without [a share of] the world?’

They who took no portion of the land.

‘They whose portion is in life’ [refers to] the holy things [to be eaten only] in the Sanctuary.

‘And they whose belly You fill with all Your treasure’

[refers to] the holy things [that may be eaten] in the [entire] territory.

‘They whose sons shall be satisfied’ [with food has reference to]

“Every male among the children of Aharon may eat of it” (Lev. 6:11).

‘And will leave that which remains over to their young’ [has reference to]

“And that which is left of the meal-offering shall be Aharon’s and his sons.’’


The midrash now focuses on the phrase, “and that which is left of the meal-offering shall be Aharon’s and his son’s." Of course, this verse already underlies the previous section, which dealt with the priest’s right to the main portion of the meal-offering. Now, however, the midrash will present a more celebratory interpretation of the verse.


Before examining this explication, we need to take a look at the narrative context in which it is presented. The reader will recall that scholars believe that petichta’ot were originally an oral form used to introduce the Torah reading. Immediately preceding the Torah reading, a darshan would get up before the congregation and present a derasha starting with a verse from the Prophets or Writings. The darshan would continue to interpret the verse until he segued into the first verse of the parasha that was to be read that day. Having cited that verse, the Torah reading would then commence.


The petichta’ot that we find in written midrashim like Vayikra Rabba are re-workings of these initially oral performances or they are stylized constructions created in imitation of the oral petichta. The story told here about R. Chanina b. Abba is a rare depiction of a petichta actually delivered in synagogue. The story tells of how R. Chanina came to a certain place and the Torah reading started with the verse that the midrash is discussing, “The remains of the meal-offering will go to Aharon and his sons." The Midrash then reports the petichta that R. Chanina said that day. From this brief account we can learn two things about Torah reading and derashot in the time of the amora’im. First, the story emphasizes that R. Chanina only learned what the Torah reading was when he arrived in that town. Unlike today, in which synagogues all over the world read the same parasha each week, in Eretz Yisrael in those days there were many different cycles used by different communities. What these cycles had in common was the fact that Torah reading was spread out over approximately three and one half years. The other thing that follows from this is that, at least in some instances, petichta’ot were not crafted in advance but were relatively spontaneous endeavors, in which the darshan only learned of the identity of the parasha verse shortly before delivering his derasha.


As for the petichta itself, R. Chanina chooses a particularly difficult verse from Psalms. Here is the JPS translation of the verse:


[Rescue us] from men, O Lord, with your hand,

from whose share in life is fleeting

But as to your treasured ones,

Fill  their bellies

Their sons too shall be satisfied,

And have something to leave over for their young.


R. Chanina understands the verse quite differently, interpreting each phrase as referring to the priests. The first clause reads mimtim yadecha Hashem, literally: “From men-your hand-God”. R. Chanina understands this phrase as meaning “[great] men [receive] from your hand.”  Who are these individuals? The Midrash states that they are the tribe of Levi. In what way do they receive from the hand of God?  This is clarified in the interpretation of the next phrase mimtim me-cheled. This is a particularly difficult phrase. R. Chanina apparently understands the term cheled as a poetic term for the earth. This would yield a literal translation of: “from men-from the earth." Counterintuitively, R. Chanina interprets this phrase as meaning “Men who have no share in the land.”  We can now understand the flow of this derasha.  The tribe of Levi receives its share directly from God. How is this so? Whereas all the other tribes received a portion in the Land of Israel from which to gain their sustenance, the tribe of Levi depended on portions from tithes, and, in the case of the priests, sacrifices, for their livelihood.


The Midrash interprets the next two phrases, chelkam ba-chayyim and u-tzefunkha temaleh bitnam, (“Their share is with the living” / “Your treasures shall fill their bellies”) as referring to the priest’s shares of the sacrifices and the tithes respectively. While the general gist of these derashot is clear, I am not sure how R. Chanina specifically links the sacrifices and the tithes to these specific phrases. Perhaps, as Maharzu notes, the sacrifices can be seen as a source of life.


Finally, R. Chanina links the last phrases of the verse, “Their sons too shall be satisfied, and have something to leave over for their young” as referring to the fact that the rights of the priestly gifts are passed down to the sons of Aharon from generation to generation. He ends with a note that even those sons of Aharon who are disqualified from Temple service can still eat from the sacrifices and the tithes.


As expected for a petichta, R. Chanina steers his discussion back to the parasha verse, which precisely speaks about the right of Aharon and his descendants to eat from the sacrifices.


The final part of this section consists of an extended explication of the famous passage in Malakhi which praises the priests of old. The full passage, 2:4-7 reads



Know then that I have sent this commandment unto you, that My covenant might be with Levi, says the Lord of hosts.

My covenant was with him of life and peace, and I gave them to him, and of fear, and he feared Me, and was afraid of My name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and did turn many away from iniquity.

For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.


What is most striking about this passage is that it does not mention the priest’s role in the Temple. Rather, it emphasizes his complete loyalty to God and his role as spiritual leader among the people. The midrash’s interpretation of this passage picks up on these themes:


“My covenant was with him of life and peace” (Mal. 2:5),

for he ensured peace in Israel.

“and I gave them to him, and of fear, and he feared Me” (ib.),

since he took upon himself the injunctions of the Torah, in awe, in fear, in trembling and quaking…

“The law of Truth was in his mouth,

and unrighteousness was not found in his lips" (Mal. 2:6),

in that he neither declared the permitted forbidden, nor declared the forbidden permitted.

"He walked with Me in peace and uprightness" (ib.),

since he did not entertain misgivings about the ways of the Allpresent, even as Abraham had not entertained misgivings.

“And did turn many away from iniquity” (ib.), in that he made transgressors turn to the study of the Torah.

And thus it says, “Sincerely do they love thee” (S.S. 1:4).

What is written in conclusion?

“For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth” (Mal. 2:7).


In particular, the midrash emphasizes the role of the priests as bearers and teachers of Torah. Hence, it equates fear of God with accepting the commandments. It portrays the priests as decisors who rule on issues of law. Finally, the midrash portrays the priests as turning people back from iniquity, specifically turning them to the study of Torah. Note also that the rabbis give a theological dimension to the priests’ loyalty to God by emphasizing that the priests did not question the ways of God.


In presenting this passage I have elided a significant portion of it which is a digression from the commentary on Malakhi. We will now turn to that section:


Why does Scripture say [in addition],

“And was afraid of My name” (ib.)?

at the time when Moses poured the oil of anointing on Aharon’s head,

he trembled and recoiled, and cried out,

‘Woe is me! Perchance I have made improper use of consecrated matter,

to wit, the oil of anointing?’

Whereupon the Holy Spirit answered, saying to him:

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard;

even Aharon’s beard, that comes down upon the collar of his garments;

like the dew of Chermon, that comes down upon the mountain of Zion’ (Ps. 133:1ff.).

Even as to dew the law of trespass does not apply, so does that law not apply to the oil.

‘It is like the precious oil upon the head,

coming down upon the beard, the beard of Aharon.’

Had Aharon then two beards, that it is said ‘The beard, the beard’?

[No], but when Moses saw the oil coming down on the beard of Aaron

he rejoiced as if it had been coming down on his own beard. 


This story is an explication of the first three verses of Psalm 133. The problem posed by these verses in the eyes of the midrash is: what is the connection between the famous description in the opening verse of brothers sitting together and the description of Aharon being anointed with oil? The midrash picks on the fact that it was Moshe who anointed Aharon with oil. Hence, the “brothers sitting together” are none other than Moshe and Aharon when the former anoints the latter. The midrash now proceeds to recreate this scene. The Psalms verse here refers to large amounts of oil flowing down Aharon’s head onto his beard. This raises a question, was not this sacred oil? Was it not a sin to use more than necessary? The midrash places this question in the mouth of Aharon. God answers him with the words of the Psalms verse itself. The verse compares the sacred oil to the dew of the Chermon. From this the midrash learns that just as dew is exempt from the laws of me’ila, of trespass, so too these laws don’t apply to the oil.  Finally, the midrash implicitly asks, what is so great about the fact that Moshe poured oil on Aharon’s head that it is celebrated in the Psalms? The midrash finds its answer in the repetition of the word “beard” in the verse. The midrash learns that, in fact, two beards are being referred to, Aharon’s and Moshe’s. Like a true brother, Moshe felt no jealousy of Aharon in his being anointed High Priest. Rather, it was just as if he himself were being anointed.  


In sum, this section of Vayikra Rabba praises the priests in three different ways. In the first part, the priests are shown as the beneficiaries of God’s sacrifices. In the second part they are praised for their loyalty to God and to the Law. Finally, the digression in the second part paints a celebratory portrait of one of the critical moments in the history of the priesthood: the anointing of Aharon.