What is the special role of the Tribe of Levi?
Table for Five: Bamidbar
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall assign the Levites to Aaron and to his sons: they are formally assigned to him from among the Israelites.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Valley Beth Shalom
On one hand, here in Numbers 3, the Torah describes a Jewish social hierarchical ritual system whereby the Levites are assigned to serve the Kohanim.
On the other hand, in Exodus 19, the Torah charges us all with being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
How do we reconcile these competing notions? Are we supposed to all live up to the standard of holiness, or relegate roles for specific individuals to carry extra responsibility?
In Ahad Ha’am’s essay “The Priest and the Prophet” (1893), the Zionist philosopher argued that within our people there exists a constant tension between the lofty ideals of justice and righteousness set out by our tradition of prophets, and the realistic practice of those principles within this world facilitated by our priests.
Jewish Prophecy was offered for the entire world, while Priestly Judaism was intended for our people. At the core of his writing, the only way to fulfill large societal goals alongside the dreams of the Jewish People was to harmonize them together into a Jewish national body. In this way, we can all contribute.
In our optimal self, we should all contribute to our communal holy purpose to live as a kingdom of priests. In reality, we need individuals to serve as leaders, and help guide our collective future. The Torah understood that at moments we live as our best selves and at moments we fall short. As Jews, even when we disappoint, we must strive to serve God and one another.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Author, “Why God Why?”
Moses and Aaron were Levites, descendants of Levi, son of Jacob, our ultimate patriarch. When the tabernacle was inaugurated, Aaron and his offspring were additionally designated as Kohanim, the priestly caste, who managed the formal service. Supporting them were the Levites who acted as the sanctuary’s custodians and musicians and served other spiritual roles for all of Israel as judges, scribes and teachers.
The Levites were unique among Israel’s 12 tribes. They did not go to war or share in its spoils nor receive an inheritance in the land nor acquire anything for themselves through their physical prowess. They were set aside to serve G-d and “teach G-d’s judgements to Jacob and His Torah to Israel.” They were G-d’s legion and “G-d blessed His legion” and provided for them saying, “I am your portion and inheritance.” G-d obligated the Israelites to tithe 10% of the annual harvests to them.
Maimonides asserts: “This arrangement is not exclusive for Levites. Any one of the inhabitants of the world (implying gentiles too) whose spirit motivates him can decide to set himself aside and stand before G-d, to know Him and to serve Him, proceeding to live justly as G-d made him. God will remove from his neck the yoke of the machinations which people seek, and he is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be his portion and heritage forever and G-d will provide what is sufficient for him in this world as He once provided for the priests and the Levites.”
Miriam Mill-Kreisman, President / Tzaddik Foundation
I heard this from Rabbi Hoffman of Denver many decades ago on Tisha B’Av in a cave near Tsfat after a group meditation. Some moments are unforgettable. To understand the relationship between the Levites, which include Moshe’s descendants and the Kohanim, Aaron’s descendants, we have to go way back to the first offerings to God, that of Cain and Abel. It was Cain’s idea to bring an offering to God, yet his was rejected and Abel’s accepted. Next, Abel meets Cain “in the field” and Cain kills him. For what? Maybe Abel gloated or said, “Next time bring your best.” Either way, he didn’t understand Cain’s pain of being rejected by God. That lack of sensitivity was his undoing. Could Abel have demanded that God accept Cain’s offering? Would that have brought peace? Maybe.
Fast forward to the Exodus. When God tells Moshe to go redeem the Jewish people, Moshe insists that God choose his older brother Aaron. So God reassures Moshe that Aaron will work with him. Even more than that, as this posuk states, the Levites (Moshe’s tribe) are formally assigned to the Kohanim (Aaron’s tribe). This time Aaron, as the soul spark of Cain, gets the honor of the sacrificial service. And this time, God is very specific how to bring the sacrifices to avoid any misunderstandings. And Moshe, as the soul rectification of Abel, insists that his older brother gets the honor. Now that’s brotherly love and is what builds the Beis HaMikdash, may it happen immediately.
Denise Berger, Miracles in Minutiae columnist and freelance writer
The phrase “formally assigned” is a streamlined translation of some awkward language in the Torah. The original Hebrew word used is “nitunim”, from the root “natan”, which refers to giving. The awkwardness is that it’s used twice in a row “nitunim nitunim”. This sort of double syntax occurs only a few times in the Torah, and always with the intention of making a major point. The translation to “formally assigned” suggests that the Torah wants to emphasize the strictly defined role of the Leviim, who were divinely designated to help the Kohanim carry out the work of holiness. The use of the specific word “netunim” however, suggests that the emphasis is really about how the priestly class should relate to their assistants.
When someone is formally assigned to a job, there is an inherent set of expectations. In the case of the Levites, being subordinate, it might be natural for the Kohanim to consider them as servants (since on some level they were). The Torah is cautioning against this human tendency. Even if G-d has determined the tribe of Levi to be cast in this supporting role, it is a gift to the priests and not an entitlement. A gift must be appreciated, and cherished, and held as precious. It’s stated twice, “nitunim nitunim”, perhaps to convey to the highly privileged descendants of Aharon that both in the realm of thinking and in the realm of behavior, they must always remain conscious of their gift.
Rabbi Dr. Janet Madden, Fountainview at Gonda Westside
Torah repeatedly singles out the tribe of Levi for spiritual leadership, the most recognizable example of which is the triad of Levite siblings: Miriam, Aaron and Moshe. Therefore, the “assignment” of the Levites to the recently-ordained Aaron and his sons carries deep and consistent meaning.
The Hebrew emphasizes the Levites’ value through our verse’s three-fold repetition of the root nun. tav. nun., intensifying the meaning “give,” to expanded meanings including “entrust” and “consecrate.”
Thus, we can understand the value of the Levites and their selection for this work: “You shall give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons: they are entrusted to him from among the Israelites.”
The meaning of “Levi”—“joined”—highlights the Levites’ union with the Kohanim in holy service, intimating the ultimate joining that is expressed in Numbers 3:45, when the Holy One states “Veyahu li ha Levi’im”—they, the Levites, will be for me,” an assertion that is repeated in Numbers 8:14: “the Levites shall be mine.”
In addition to the Levites’ selection for wholehearted, unwavering dedication to the Divine under the direction of the Kohanim, if we read “from among the Israelites” as “together with the Israelites,” we see the Levites as uniquely connected to the people, a foreshadowing of Deuteronomy 17:9-10, in which the Levites are designated as teachers of the Jewish people.
With thanks to Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Miriam Mill-Kreisman, Denise Berger, and Rabbi Dr. Janet Madden
Image: Allotment of town pasture to the Levites (Num. 35:4-5)
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.