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October 29, 2010

The origins of the Priesthood

Every person who studies Torah is aware the priesthood in ancient Israel was divided into an upper and lower classes. This division is also referred to in Christian Scriptures. The man who, in the parable of the good Samaritan, fell into the hands of robbers, was left in the lurch by a priest and by a Levite (Luke 10:31,) The origin of the institution of “Priest” and “Levite is described in the Torah when God chooses the tribe of Levi to be priests, and the sons of Aaron to carry out the central cultic duties.

This morning we begin a brief series designed to either empower our Levite cousins or to make them so angry that they will insist upon being joining an egalitarian minyan.

The sources that describe the role of the Levite are not consistent. Three different interpretations are found in our holy texts. The Priestly code, Deuteronomy and Ezekiel each understand the priesthood differently. What we can agree upon is that the Torah informs us that Aaron became a priest by God's commandment through Moses (Ex. 28:1) and the Levites were separated from the rest of Israel instead of the first born, by a commandment through Moses (Numbers 3:12).

The Priestly code divides the priesthood into two ranks: the sons of Aaron (Ex.28-39) and the Levites (Numbers 3:13:8). The Aaronites belong to the tribe of Levi but Aaron and his sons determined the priestly line (Cohanim) while the Levites were never referred to as “priests” in the Priestly code.

Deuteronomy doesn't divide priests into two groups. The priests are simply called (HaCohanim Halivi'm).

Ezekiel, written much later, envisions two groups of priests, but the priesthood of the higher rank is ascribed to the sons of Zadok and the position of the Levites is clearly second-class. The diminishment of the Levites is explained as a punishment for their apostasy. (What apostasy?) Ezekiel explains that the sons of Zadok are called (HaCohanim Ha Levi'im (Levitical priests), and the Levites are forbidden to act as priests.What apostasy?

We can agree that Aaron is not introduced in the Torah as a priest. In Ex. 19:24 God tells Moses and Aaron to ascend Mount Sinai but forbids priests (Cohanim) and the people to do so. Obviously, at this point, Aaron could not have been considered a priest but because it is mentioned, priests must have existed. According to Exodus the priests have secondary access to God and are told to consecrate themselves. Aaron is presented as the elder brother and acts side by side with Moses as a leader. However, by the time we arrive at the story of the golden calf some kind of connection between Aaron and the priesthood has been established.

The commandments concerning the installation of Aaron and his sons as priests (Cohanim) ex 28-29 are given in close connection with those concerning the manufacturing of the tabernacle. (Ex. 25-27; 30-31). The order is simple. First the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle then those for fabricating the priests' garments, and finally Moses is told how they are to be ordained.

Is it surprising that the Levitical offices of lower rank are not described in connection with the Tabernacle? These commandments are given within the context of the census report in the introduction to Numbers where it states that all firstborn men and animals belong to God. The Levites become God's property (instead of the firstborn) among the rest of Israel, given as gifts to Aaron and his sons. It appears that the Levites position from the outset is secondary. If the Cohanim were responsible for worship then the Levites were the vehicles through which the people's duties were carried out.

What allegedly occurred in the Chumash doesn't necessarily tell the entire story. It could it be that the Levites' secondary status was a result of the politics of a later period and transferred backward into the text. Could it be that the tension in the Chumash between the Levites and the Cohanim are hinted at in the rebellion of Korah? Could this tension between Aaron and the Levites be part of a larger conflict between distinct two clerical groups?

The sources are not in agreement. In order to unravel the mystery of the Levites second class status we must understand the Historical Backround as it is described in Joshua through the second book of Kings and that dear reader will be addressed in the near future.

This week's commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing

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