Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Number 128

Parashat Shmini

"That You May Teach the Children of Israel"

Dr. Meir Gruzman

Department of Talmud

In our Parashah, after relating the story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the Lord instructed Aaron as follows: "Do not drink wine or strong drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may differentiate between the holy and the profane, between the unclean and the clean, and that you may teach the Children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses" (Lev. 10:9-11).

This commandment prohibits Aaron and his sons from entering the Sanctuary after having consumed intoxicating beverages. Two reasons are given for this rule: First, so that they will be capable of distinguishing between the Holy and the profane, between the unclean and the clean; second to enable them to teach the laws of God to the Children of Israel.

The two words lehavdil (to differentiate) and lehorot (to teach) were commented upon in detail in a baraita (a Tannaitic source) as follows: "That you may differentiate between the holy and the profane - this refers to vows of worth or valuation or to things dedicated or consecrated; between the unclean and the clean - refers to the laws of uncleanliness and purity; that you may teach (lehorot) - refers to rendering decisions (concerning forbidden things); all the statutes - refers to expositions of the law; which the Lord hath spoken - refers to traditions passed on (from Sinai) ; by the hand of Moses - refers to the Gemara (Talmud). Might it also include the Mishnah? (i.e., could there be a prohibition even of simply studying the Mishnah when one is intoxicated?) for this reason it says - and to teach" (Kritoth 13b).

According to this Baraita the priests (kohanim) are required to abstain from drinking which dulls their senses so that they should be able to distinguish between property which is secular and that which was dedicated to God, or to make halachic decisions about that which is impure and that which is pure. Secondly, they must remain sober in order to be able to teach the Children of Israel the halachic rulings and customs based on the Midrash interpretation of the Torah passed down by Moses. In other words, the word "to teach" (lehorot) does not mean to teach Torah in the broad sense of that term, as a teacher to a student, a task assigned by the Torah not to the priests but to the father in the command: "and you shall teach them diligently to your children". Lehorot here means to give halachic instruction to one who comes to ask a question and requests a halachic decision.

This task of the priests is clarified more extensively when Moses speaks to the people in Parashat Shoftim: "If there arise a matter too difficult for you to decide, in a case involving homocide, litigation, damages gor injury, matters of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God shall choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the (supreme) judge who will officiate in those days and inquire and they will tell you a legal decision"(Deut.17:8-9). True, in this assemblage there is also a "judge" who is not a priest, but in the opinion of our Sages "there is an apriori commandment that in a court of law there should be priests and Levites" and they are the ones who should deal with the solution of halachic problems brought before them (see Sifri Deuteronomy 17:8).

Elsewhere, in the discourse on the "heifer whose neck was broken" (Parah Adumah) the Torah reiterates the instructional role of the priests: "And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall draw near for the Lord your God has chosen them to serve Him and bless in the name of the Lord and by their words every quarrel and plague will be (decided)" (Deut. 21:5). Obviously the priests were given the task of making halachic decisions - in courts of law as well as in private circumstances, (see Bechorot 35b and Niddah 50a on the role of priests as Judges; and Chronicles 19:5-9 where King Yehoshafat included priests and Levites in the judiciary system).

In this light we can understand Moses' blessing to the sons of Levi: "They will teach (yoru) Your judgment to Jacob and your Torah to Israel" (Deut. 33:10). One might think that Moses blessed the Levites as the teachers of Israel. This is the basis for the commonly held opinion that the educational system in Biblical times was the responsibility of the tribe of Levi. However, it may be possible that there is no difference between what Moses said to Aaron and his sons after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and his blessing to them before his death. In both cases the subject is halachic decision-making and not teaching the Torah in general.

The following quotation from our Sages may clarify the point. "'They will teach your judgement to Jacob' - this teaches us that all instructions must come from them alone, as it is said 'and by their words every quarrel and plague will be (decided)'; 'and your Torah to Israel' - this teaches that two Torahs were given to Israel - one oral and one written" (Sifri Deuteronomy 33.10). According to this Midrash the verse contains an incomplete parallel and the verb yoru applies to both halves, namely: the Levites are to give halachic instruction based on both Torahs, the oral and the written. Once again we arrive at the conclusion that there is no reference in the Torah to the idea that the Levites engaged in teaching of a pedagogial or educational nature.

The instructional role of the priests did not end with the death of Moses but continued into the monarchical period. Evidence of this can be found in the rebuke by the prophet Michah to the leaders of Jerusalem: "Her leaders judge for bribery and her priests teach for a price and her prophets divine for money" (Michah 3:10-11). The complaint is not the fact that the priests are paid to teach Torah, but that their halachic decisions are not objective. The parallelism of "her leaders" and "her prophets" indicate that the "customer" is able to influence judgment, halachic decisions, and divination in whichever direction he desires.

Similarly it is possible to interpret the words of the prophet Malachi who prophesied in the beginning of the second Temple period. Desiring to criticize the priests of his own time he describes, by way of comparison the greatness and the faith of the priests in previous generations. "I had a covenant with him (Levi)... the Torah of truth was in his mouth and iniquity was not found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and righteousness and turned many away from sin. For the lips of the priest guard knowledge and Torah is sought from his mouth for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts" (Malachi 2:5-7). The verse "And Torah is sought from his mouth" does not necessarily refer to the study of Torah. More probably this is a description of an individual who is ignorant of a particular halachah seeking out a priest who will instruct him as to the halachic ruling.

This perception of the "instructional" role of the priests and Levites is reiterated once again in a later period - that of the Babylonian Talmud. "Rava said: You will not find a young Torah scholar as a halachic decision-maker unless he comes from the tribe of Levi or the tribe of Yissachar" (Yoma 26a).

Consequently one may ask, what is the source of the commonly held opinion that the priests and Levites taught Torah publicly? Why did the Ba'al Haturim commentary interpret: "They shall teach Your judgements to Jacob" - 'they should be dispersed throughout all Israel to teach Torah'? On that question - at another opportunity.






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