Kohanim and Levi’im, Staying in Their Lanes

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

A question I suggest sit in the background as we study this mitzvah, to return to once we are done: what is a mitzvah? What criterion did Hashem use in deciding what would make it into the 613? I ask it here because the mitzvah we are about to discuss might seem nitpicking, and I believe any time we see the Torah descend into picking nits, we must be missing something.

So, three framing questions: 1) What is this mitzvah really about? 2) Why was that worth inclusion in the 613? 3)What does that tell us about the 613?

Kohanim and Levi’im, Separate and Apart

The basic mitzvah, recorded by Rambam as Prohibition 72 in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, warns Levi’im against performing any of the kohanim’s services, and vice verse. (The latter is perhaps the more surprising, since verses in Tanach refer to them as Levi’im, sometimes, and tanna’im debate kohanim’s right to receive agricultural gifts designated for Levi’im.)

For now, the basic rule says the two groups have their separate roles, and never the twain may meet. Earlier in Bamidbar, 4;19, Moshe and Aharon had been told to place the Levi’im at their specific job, and in our parsha, 18;3 warns the Levi’im—who had just been assigned to help guard the Mishkan—against going closer than allowed.

The end of the verse says the arrangement is made to be sure they not die, not them and not atem, you, the kohanimSifrei says the first part of the verse establishes the prohibition, the threat of death tells us the punishment, and the phrase gam hem gam atem, also them also you, tells us kohanim may not do Levi’im’s jobs, nor one Levi (or kohen) do another Levi (or kohen)’s job.

Types of Levi’im, Separate and Apart

We can say one Levi cannot do another’s job because they were divided by types of labor as well. Rambam repeats Arachin 11b, where R. Yehoshu’a b. Hananya attempted to help R. Yohanan b. Gudgeda close the gates of the Temple, only to be admonished to stay away, as he was one of the singers, not the gate-keepers. [Of my few certainties about myself, one is that I will be among the gate-keepers of the Temple and not the singers.]

Rambam understands the story to tell us the punishment for willful violation there, too, brings mittah bidei shamayim, death at the hands of Heaven, strange because Arachin 11b seems to treat helping as a rabbinic issue. Or Ha-Hayyim on the Torah (not a common source for Meshech Hochmah, as far as my memory goes) gave an answer Minhat Hinuch accepts, the Torah prohibited helping where the original Levi could not have done some job on his own. The Rabbis prohibited even superfluous help.

[Courts would often avert the full punishment by lashing the sinner, where possible, but I hope the idea strengthens our background question: of all the prohibitions in the world, what is so significant here to justify mittah bidei shamayim? I ask it both to understand this mitzvah better and-for some other time–because it is an example of how we today consider life more sacrosanct than does the Torah, if this sin could render one’s life forfeit.]

Minhat Hinuch wonders about Rambam treating the inter-Levi prohibition as the ancillary one. He thinks the main point of the verse is this idea, Levi’im do only their Levi jobs, not other Levi jobs. True, they also may not do kohen jobs, but he thinks that secondary.

Different Rules for Kohanim

Kohanim who do Levi service do not incur Heavenly death, only lashes, Rambam says, an idea he found in Mechilta, which also distinguished performing a service from touching what they may not; only service incurs full punishment. Too, since kohanim are sort of thrown in at the end of the verse, with the words gam atem, also you, Mechilta thought they had “only” a prohibition, not the kohen’s life being forfeit.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch does not address that last point, but he does explicitly say a kohen who does a service not his own is liable for death at the hands of Heaven as well, where Rambam accepted Mechilta’s view (Ra’avad disagrees with Rambam, too, Minhat Hinuch tells us, Rambam’s position the surprising one). Minhat Hinuch further lauds Sefer Ha-Hinuch’s including in the prohibition a kohen who helped another kohen.

Designate a Task Specifically, To Be Sure It Gets Done

At the beginning of our discussion, I asked why the Torah would find this worthy of being one of only 613, and also why it could justify a death penalty. Sefer Ha-Hinuch offers reasons for every mitzvah, but his suggestion here seems to me to exacerbate rather than alleviate my previous questions. He says the importance and sanctity of these services necessitates special care against treating them lightly, being lazy or careless about them, God forbid forgetting to do them.

He declares his certainty (I always pause to notice when someone has no doubt because matters are often not as clear as the person asserts) a job designated to two people is more likely to be neglected than one designated only to one. It’s psychological—if I know there is someone else who has to take care of this, I am more likely to let myself off the hook, to assume the other will step up. As might s/he.

Baba Batra 24b expresses it (in a different context) by saying a pot with two cooks will be neither hot nor cold, since either both or neither will get involved. [Modern psychology has documented this as well, I think; I remember once being told that saying “call 911” in an emergency is significantly less effective than pointing to a specific person.]

True as the principle is, I am not convinced it does the work we need for our mitzvah. As soon as the Torah invested group with the responsibility to ensure the service is performed, allowing others to do it too does not obviously take away from the first person or group’s core job (for example, each week there was a group of kohanim responsible for the Temple service, but other kohanim were allowed to perform sacrificial service as well). Also, of course, here we are talking about tribes, thousands if not millions of people, so whatever the danger of broad assignments seems still present.  Let’s look at the laws of the mitzvah for further ideas.

The Division of Responsibilities in the Mikdash

Sefer Ha-Hinuch quotes Shekalim 5;1, there were fifteen department heads (my term, but it’s the right idea) in the Mikdash, in charge of matters such as timing of sacrifices, locking the gates, arranging the guards, the singers, etc. From the time of Moshe, through to David, a mishmarot system developed, the kohanim and Levi’im were divided into twenty-four mishmarot, responsible for a week at a time. Every day of the week was covered by a beit av, a family clan.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch assumes the head of those batei av assigned people specific jobs; once assigned, our prohibition came into play for them, too, similar to how the singing Levi’im could not help the gate-keeping ones.

[I have not seen any one discuss how long these assignments lasted: if I spent years on voice lessons, could I re-classify? Could it be changed each time a group came to the Mikdash, this time I would do x, next time y, or did I take on a role during basic training and kept it throughout my time in milu’im, my three weeks a year of service? They do not say.]

Ba’alei Mum and the Lottery

Minhat Hinuch assumes this prohibition would include ba’alei mumkohanim with physical issues the Torah deemed significant enough to exclude them from service [including, for example a unibrow; good thing Anthony Davis isn’t a kohen]. If we assume he is right—rarely a bad bet—we still need to explain why the Torah would add another prohibition to his already excluded state [we are about to see that we do not include ordinary Jews in this prohibition, for contrast].

The idea of the lots in the Beit Ha-Mikdash raises similar problems. If the heads of batei av were assigning jobs, why was there also a lottery system (a question Kessef Mishneh raised)? For this, the answer seems to be that some jobs had higher value than others, or were known to confer certain blessings, so the lottery was to avoid griping about the decision of the head of the clan.

Still, until a job is assigned, our prohibition is not a concern.

But Regular Jews…

Minhat Hinuch brings up a surprising aspect of this prohibition, complicating any attempt to give a reason for our mitzvah: Ordinary Jews are not included! If a non-kohen or Levi sings or closes the gates of the Temple, he has not run afoul of this prohibition (Minhat Hinuch says it’s gezerat ha-katuv, Scriptural fiat, the way the Torah decided it).

For priestly service, non-kohanim Jews were defined by the Torah to be zarim, strangers, excluded for that reason. This does not quite cover it, though, because zarut is fully violated only with an avodah tamah, a complete aspect of the service, where the Levi issues we are discussing apply to any act of a service not theirs.

A Levi who does a complete priestly service will thus have violated two prohibitions, where an ordinary Jew only one (and none if he does a Levitical service, a conclusion I find suspect, since the Torah assigned these services to Levi’im; I would think there should be at least an issur aseh, a prohibition inferred from the Torah’s command to the Levi’im to do this. It’s not the focus of this mitzvah, though, so I will leave it for another time.).

Keeping Track of Tracks of Sanctity

I think this last piece reveals an important element of the mitzvah. In terms of breach of sanctity, do any of us think a Levi doing another Levi’s job is worse than a regular Jew doing it? Yet the Levi has a possible death penalty and the regular Jew does not.

I suggest the answer lies in a Talmudic phrase, de-minah mahariv bah, de-la minah lo mahariv bah, sometimes being in the realm of possibility makes matters more sensitive. The Torah is telling us to keep the kohanim and Levi’im’s jobs separate and distinct, between the two groups and within them.

A regular Jew who gets involved in Temple service commits a well-known wrong, one we know from the whole idea of Levi’im being given a special job. Regardless of the technicalities, we all know an ordinary Jew should not be doing Temple service. When kohanim or Levi’im blur the lines, the Torah reacted, because clarity of the service, delineating its pieces clearly, is important to the Torah.

[I have thoughts about why, but they would need proofs and take us too far afield. Briefly, though, I assume the Torah thought a well-ordered service did a better job of what Temple service was about than if it was the kind of thing random people could jump in and do at will.]

Ba’alei mum might seem to challenge my claim, because they are included in the prohibition. I counter that they were involved in non-sacrificial parts of Temple service [as my Meshech Hochmah column for next week will notice] and could also give the wrong impression the service in question was open to them.

Many things happened in the Beit Ha-Mikdash; I think the details of our prohibition teach us the importance of clarity of what was going on and who was doing it. Even if someone always does the work, even if it is never neglected, it will not have been accorded the respect it deserves.

And that opens a partial window on the 613 as a whole: they make points that rose to a certain level of importance. If the same point had already been made, even if in a lesser way, the Torah could plausibly decide to make it again, for some reason, or not to. Here, the Torah’s point is the value of staying clear on who is empowered to do which service, not just making sure it gets done.

About Gidon Rothstein

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