Leviticus and the Rest of Us

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I. A Strange Ending

Leviticus is a very technical book with little narrative. Yet when the opportunity arises to end with a bang, with a compelling passage that grabs the reader’s attention and leaves a lasting impression, the book instead chooses to close with additional laws. This anticlimactic final chapter deserves more careful attention to understand its literary purpose.

Lev. 25 teaches the laws of the jubilee year, when slaves go free, houses return to their original owners and other related laws. Chapter 26 dramatically describes the blessings attendant on Torah observance and the curses resulting from disobedience. These graphic descriptions serve as a fitting closure to a book of laws. Follow these rules, offer the right sacrifices, maintain proper purity, and this will be your reward. Otherwise, here is your fate. But the book does not end with chapter 26.

Chapter 27 discusses the laws of objects consecrated to the Sanctuary. If you pledge this or that object, here is how you must donate it. Why teach this here? Why end the book on this specific note?

II. Explanations

Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible, Leviticus vol. 3 pp. 2408-2409) offers five suggestions from various commentators:

  1. R. JH Hertz (Pentateuch and Haftarot, p. 263) explains that Leviticus ends as it began, “with a chapter of Sanctuary regulations.” This is hardly convincing because the first chapter discusses the “olah” sacrifice, the first of five consecutive chapters about different sacrifices. While technically about the Sanctuary, this chapter differs greatly from the final of the book. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (Commentary to Leviticus, intro to ch. 27) suggests a slightly different approach. It is appropriate to conclude a book full of so many laws (chukim – does he mean laws with no apparent rationale?) with more laws.
  2. Baruch Levine (JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus, ch. 27 intro) suggests that since the focus of Leviticus is the Sanctuary, the book concludes with an explanation of its finances. The nation could not operate the Sanctuary’s vital functions without private funding. Therefore, the book ended with an appeal, or at least an explanation of this essential element.

    Milgrom rejects this approach because the amounts discusses in this chapter are insufficient to support the extensive Sanctuary operations. However, he cannot know that. If these donations were commonplace, then they would add up to a large sum. Additionally, this is only about supplemental funding, in addition to the half shekel obligation imposed on every male Jews. Milgrom also objects that there is no mention of direct monetary donations, as described in 2 Kings (12:5). If it were mentioned elsewhere in the Pentateuch, he might have a point. But since it isn’t, this is the central Pentateuchal passage of monetary donations to the Sanctuary.

  3. Gordon Wenham (NICOT, Leviticus p. 336) offers what Milgrom calls a theological explanation. The Torah calls donations to the Sanctuary “vows” (Lev. 27:2). Therefore, after discussing how God fulfills His vows in the blessings and curses, the book moves to how we must fulfill our vows. To elaborate, these types of vows offer us an opportunity to act more God-like and, perhaps, to further prod God to keep his end of the covenant.

    Milgrom objects that less than half of ch. 27 deals with vows. We will return to this later.

  4. Milgrom suggests that chapter 27 is a literary filler. Chapter 26 ends with curses. In order to avoid ending on a negative note, chapter 27 was added to lift the tone. This suggestion is problematic because chapter 26 itself already solves that problem. The last three verses turn positive so the chapter ends on a positive note, not negative as Milgrom suggests.
  5. Milgrom quotes Mary Douglas who groups chapters 25-27 into one unit, attempting to show parallels between chapters 25 and 27. These two chapters serve as bookends for the blessings and curses of chapter 26. R. Elchanan Samet (Iyunim Be-Parashos Ha-Shavu’a, first series, vol. 2 pp. 139-142) also adopts this approach.

III. Israelites and Animal Tithes

Returning to Wenham’s “theological” solution that man fulfills his vows like God rewards the faithful, we can respond to Milgrom’s objection that only the first 13 verses of chapter 27 deal with vows. This objection is overstated because arguably all of chapter 27 except the last four verses discuss the rules of objects consecrated to the Sanctuary. Wenham’s explanation of why chapter 27 follows chapter 26, that it is a continuation of the same theme, remains viable. However, he has failed to explain why the final four verses, which discuss animal tithes, end the book. What connection exists between the blessings and curses on the one hand and the animal tithes on the other?

I suggest that these last few verses, the passage about animal tithes, is a theological answer to the primary problem of Leviticus. The Sanctuary’s servants are the priests and, to a lesser extent, the Levites, priests being a clan within the tribe of Levi. They receive special rights and responsibilities in this book. While we have argued that the true focus of Leviticus is the entire nation (link), any reader will inevitably ask, “Why them?” What distinguishes the priests from everyone else that they are entrusted with this sacred role? The answer, I suggest, lies with the animal tithe.

Every tenth animal must be set aside for the Sanctuary. The Torah’s language in teaching this law is unusual. “Every [animal] that passes under the rod” (Lev. 27:32). Rather than focusing on the owner’s obligation to relinquish one of his animals, the Torah emphasizes the animal itself. Many years ago, in the context of a lecture by my teacher, R. Mayer Twersky, attempting to identify the theoretical locus of the animal tithe obligation — is it on the gavra (person, owner) or the cheftza (object, animal) — I suggested that we can prove from this verse’s language that the animal is the law’s focus. He responded that the proof is insufficient because if the animals organize themselves and march under the rod without the owner’s participation, the tenth is not sanctified. However, that leaves unexplained the Torah’s unusual wording.

IV. Tithes and Roles

Perhaps the Torah is emphasizing the seeming randomness of sacred roles in answer of the priest’s selection. The tenth animal did nothing to earn his sanctity; there is no fairness involved. He merely passed tenth under the rod. Yet despite this happenstance, he was assigned a role of significance. Some animal has to be the tenth, with all the weight it entails, and this animal was selected.

Similarly, any specific priest was merely born to his family. He did nothing to deserve his sacred role, even if thousands of years ago his family merited this honor. The lesson of the animal tithe is that the accident of passing tenth is similar to the accident of birth. Leviticus is not merely a book for Levites. But even the rest of us, with all we can learn from the book, must recognize that different roles are assigned, sometimes with great import, due to necessity and not necessarily fairness. However, the lack of fairness, the seeming randomness, does not detract from the seriousness of these assignments. You can’t switch the tenth animal with the ninth, even if it is more fitting for the Sanctuary (Lev. 27:32). Sacred roles are given, not taken.

Despite all this, there are three crowns: the crown of kingship, for royal descendents; the crown of priesthood, for members of the priestly clan; and the crown of Torah, open to all who wish to seize it (Avos 4:13; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 3:1).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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