Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Beha'alotkha 5762 /May 25 (Israel) June 1
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Beha'alotkha 5762 /May 25 (Israel) June 1
Priests, Levites, and Chieftains
Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Borgansky
Department of Talmud
The consecration of the Levites in the first part of Parashat
Be-ha'alotkha gives cause for question: Why did the Torah not present this
narrative earlier, considering that they were, after all, essential to the
Tabernacle - a subject that the Torah handled at great length in the previous
books of Exodus and Leviticus? Would it not have been more appropriate to
illustrate their consecration at the time that the Tabernacle was erected by
Moses, in Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 40), or at least along with the consecration
of the Kohanim (priests) in Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 8)? In fact, the
question is larger than that: not only is their consecration presented
relatively late, but also their entire role in Tabernacle ritual only comes up
in the book of Numbers; throughout the process of building the Tabernacle they
are not mentioned at all.
The Sages (see Gittin
60a) were aware of the
problematic placement of the Levites' consecration, and actually place this
event much earlier chronologically:
As Rabbi Levi said: Eight passages of the Torah were given on
the day the Tabernacle was erected, and these are they: the passage on the
Priests, on the Levites [our chapter], on the impure, on sending off the impure,
Aharei-Mot, on those drunken with wine, on mounting the lamps, and on the red
According to another approach, consecration of the Levites
began already on the second day of the Tabernacle's existence (Numbers
Rabbi Zeira said: On the day that Moses finished setting
up [the Tabernacle] - on the day that its erection was completed. On the
first of Nisan the Tabernacle was set up, on the second the red heifer was
burned, on the third he sprinkled of it on the Levites as it is written (Numbers
8) - Sprinkle on them water of purification (Num. 8:7). Instead of the
second sprinkling that the Levites were supposed to have, because they were all
impure due to contact with the dead from killing those who worshipped the Golden
Calf (as it is written in Exodus 32, Each of you ... slay brother,... and
the Levites did as Moses had bidden... - the Lord commanded shaving them,
instead of sprinkling on the fourth day.
Either way, the Rabbis situated the consecration of the
Levites in the context of the Tabernacle dedication. Given that, we must ask
why this passage was placed here in Numbers and not earlier.
In order to understand this, we must examine all the passages
in the Torah that deal with setting up the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-32, 35-40; Lev.
8-10; and Num. 7-8). In these chapters the Torah mentions the day the
Tabernacle was set up at least twice - in Exodus 40 and Numbers 7 - and
according to most traditional commentators, also in Leviticus
When we compare these passages, however,
we note that each one gives a different description of the day the Tabernacle
was set up. Exodus 40 says it was Moses
who erected the Tabernacle,
anointing all its implements as well as the priests, setting out the bread,
lighting the lamps, offering the incense, and giving the burnt offering and
meal-offering himself. Numbers describes the dedication of Tabernacle by the
, each bringing his own offering, over the course twelve
days from the day of its anointment. Leviticus describes how the altar was
dedicated by Aaron
It seems that these differences can be accounted for in terms
of the various aspects of the Tabernacle. In
the primary role of the Tabernacle is
to serve as a place set aside for the Divine Presence (Kevod Hashem
dwell on earth. Worshipping the Lord in the Tabernacle is only a function of
the fact that the Lord dwells there; consequently, He should be worshipped
wherever He dwells. It is Moses
who sets up the Tabernacle, and it is he
who is the principle beneficiary insofar as the Lord meets with Moses and the
Israelites in the Tabernacle.
In this respect the priests are not in the center of the
picture, since their function is not the principle focus of the Tabernacle but
only a consequence of its existence. Indeed, when Moses sets up the Tabernacle
(Exodus 40), he anoints the priests as part of the action of anointing the
implements of the Tabernacle. In other words, the priests are but one of the
tools of the Tabernacle that enable it to fulfill its greater purpose: the
Divine Presence dwelling among the Israelites. In sum, in Exodus the purpose of
the Tabernacle is the Tent of Meeting at its center, and, as the Torah describes
at the end of Exodus, the Cloud of the Lord which fills the tent.
There is another aspect to the Tabernacle-- to serve as a
place where any person can come worship the Lord. This function focuses around
the altar and Aaron and the priests
(and not Moses) are the ones who hold
center stage. The primary book describing this side of the Tabernacle is
Leviticus - Torat Kohanim
, the Priestly Code. Indeed, it is for good
reason that sacrificial worship holds such a major place in this book, in
comparison with the minor role it plays in
The Tabernacle of Exodus is intended
as a place for the Divine Presence to dwell; regular daily offerings suffice
for worshipping the Lord in this sanctuary. The Tabernacle of Leviticus, in
contrast, is primarily a place for worship of the Lord by human beings, and
therefore this book details the many sacrifices and laws comprising this
Hence when the dedication of the Tabernacle is described in
Leviticus, the focus is on the details of consecrating the priests, their
sacrifices, and their seven days of installation. The climax is when Aaron
offers his sacrifices on the altar and the Divine Presence is manifest in the
fire that comes out from the Lord, not directed toward the Tent of Meeting but
onto the altar.
The book of Leviticus describes the Tabernacle as it focuses
around the altar, the place where the Lord is worshipped by human beings. The
dedication of the Tabernacle is expressed by Divine fire descending on the altar
and consuming the sacrifices upon it.
These two depictions, however, do not give an exhaustive
portrayal of what the Tabernacle signifies. The Tabernacle does not exist in a
vacuum, nor is it the private domain of Moses or the priests. The Tabernacle is
part of the camp of the Israelites as they journey through the
wilderness, and even when it eventually comes to have a permanent location, the
Sanctuary is situated in the very heart of the Israelite camp dwelling in the
land of Israel.
Numbers is the book of the camp of Israel. It begins with a
census of the tribes and their formation into camps, and continues with an
account of their journeys through the wilderness in the second year and the
fortieth year. In this context, the book of Numbers treats the Tabernacle not
as the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, nor as the place of worship, but
as the hub and guide that shows the way for the camp as it moves through the
After taking the census and arranging the tribes in camps
(Numbers 1-2), the Torah sets forth the procedure for dismantling the Tabernacle
and carrying it while the people are journeying (Num. 4), describes its
situation among the encampments (Num. 10:17, 21) and explains its function in
leading the Israelites in the wilderness - for this week's reading reveals to us
that the journeys of the Israelite camp depended on the cloud lifting from the
Tabernacle and descending to rest on it again (9:15-23). It is interesting to
observe that the cloud resting on the Tabernacle, which is in Exodus an
indication of the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle so that "Moses could not
enter the Tent of Meeting" (Ex. 40:35), serves here as a signal for the camp to
set out on its travels or remain in place. This lends clear expression to the
distinction drawn above between the function of the Tabernacle in these two
The Tabernacle as part of the Israelite encampment is
dedicated by the tribal chieftains, in Parashat Naso. Having the
Tabernacle set up by Moses and even having the altar dedicated by Aaron do not
suffice. Rather, the Tabernacle must also be dedicated by the people of
Israel. The chieftains serve here as agents of the entire people, and the
dedication of the altar at their hands is what joins the Tabernacle to the
tribal camps as they organize for journey.
Now let us return to the Levites. The Levites are not part of
the Divine Presence resting on the Tabernacle, nor are they part of the worship
of the Lord in the Tabernacle. The Levites provide a service, carrying the
Tabernacle, dismantling it and setting it up during the people's travels through
the wilderness, and protecting it from outsiders when the people are encamped.
Thus the role of the Levites is integrally bound with Tabernacle of the desert,
dwelling in the midst of the Israelite camp.
Moreover, time and time again the Torah emphasizes that the
Levites are instead of the first-borns in Israel. While the priests are
appointed irrespective of being first-born, the Levites are given a charge that
originally was intended for the entire public. The Levites act as "agents" on
the people's behalf. The Torah stresses this both in its depiction of the
Israelites laying their hands on the Levites - a ritual not performed with the
priests - and in presenting them as performing the "service for the
This explains why consecration of the Levites comes at such a
late stage in the Pentateuch. The Levites are but a substitute for the
first-borns, and the service that they perform is "service for the Israelites."
Since Numbers deals with the relationship between the Israelites and the
Tabernacle, the Levites appear for the first time in the book of Numbers, and it
is here that they are consecrated.
Spreading descriptions of the Tabernacle over three different
books of the Bible is a work of great artistry, bringing out the different
facets of the Tabernacle, all of which exist side by side. It is precisely this
division into different accounts that brings out more sharply the full
complexity of the Lord's Tabernacle.
In the light of this homily
one should discuss the relationship between the timing of the Levites'
consecration, described here, and their census and redemption of the
first-borns, described in Numbers, chapter 3. There it appears that the
redemption took place after the census of the Israelites, i.e., after the first
day of the second month. If the passage on consecration of the Levites was
given on the day the Tabernacle was erected, namely on the first day of the
first month, then their consecration would have taken place before the census
was taken and the first-borns redeemed, but this raises extremely difficult
A well-known controversy
revolves around the reference in Leviticus to the "eighth day," whether this
meant the first or the eighth of Nisan. Cf., for example, Torat Kohanim-
11, and Numbers Rabbah, cited
above. Also see Nahmanides' commentary on Exodus 40:2, s.v.
," as well as his commentary on Lev. 8:2, s.v.
Cf. Exodus 25:8: "And let
them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Also see Ex. 29:42-46.
In this regard, see my article, "Bein Mizbah Adamah le-Kruvei ha-Zahav
published in the Hebrew Daf Shavua
Cf. Ex. 29:42-46; 30:6;
30:36. Also Num. 7:89 and elsewhere.
The sacrifices offered on
the altar in Exodus are only the regular daily offerings (cf. Ex. 29:38-42).
Sacrifices of well-being were commanded to Moses in Exodus 29, but their actual
execution is only described in Leviticus 8.