Levite Privilege

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Korach

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Are the Levites inherently holy? 

Now Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi, and Dasan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Peles, of the sons of Reuven, took men: and they rose up before Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown: and they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord? And when Moshe heard it, he fell on his face: and he spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near to him: even him whom he has chosen will he cause to come near to him. (Numbers 16:1-5)

Since Korach’s rebellion sought to deny the unique nature of both the Levites and, more specifically, the Priests (who are part of the tribe of Levi), it was important for Moshe to address both of their claims. Rashi (Num. 16:5) explains that the words “Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is his” refers to the designation of the Levites, and “who is holy” refers to the special nature of the priests. 

However, it would seem that the test described in the ensuing verses only demonstrated how Aharon and his line were chosen to serve as priests, but does not offer any indication regarding the elevated holiness of the rest of the tribe of Levi in contrast to the Jewish nation. The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Num. 6:5, s.v. Avodas HaLeviyah) explains that while Korach did not focus his campaign against the primacy of the Levites as a whole, by challenging the Priesthood he was in effect undermining the significance of the entire tribe of Levi. This is because the tribe of Levi does not possess inherent holiness but rather derives its significance from facilitating the Priesthood which emerges from it. Thus, to undermine the institution of the Priesthood is to undermine the uniqueness of all Levites.

Is it really true that the Levites possess no innate sanctity?

In general the order of precedence for Torah reading goes: Priest, Levite and Israelite (i.e. a man from any other tribe). The Talmud (Gittin 59b), however, relates an important exception to this sequence:

Abaye said that we have a tradition that if there is no priest there [in the synagogue at the time of the Torah reading,] the bundle is separated. And Abaye said that we have a tradition that if there is no Levite there [in the synagogue], a priest reads [in his place].

The simple reading of the passage above indicates that in the absence of a priest the Levite does not bear any elevated status vis-a-vis another Jew. This would support the Maharal’s assertion that the Levites only derive their significance by association with the Priestly line.

However, the Chasam Sofer (Gittin 59b) cites the Mordechai who holds that the honor due to Levites does not derive from their connection to Aharon and the priestly line but to Moshe, who himself was a Levite. And since Moshe’s special quality was serving as the teacher of Torah, it would make sense that in the absence of a priest we would defer the honor to an Israelite Torah scholar over a Levite who is not a Torah scholar. (See also the position of the Rosh as presented in Aruch HaShulchan O.C. 135:11.)

Moreover, the Mishnah in Horiyos (13a) openly indicates that a Levite is categorically superior to the common Jew. Regarding a triage situation in which one must choose whom to prioritize, our Sages tell us:

A priest precedes a Levite. A Levite precedes an Israelite. An Israelite precedes a son born from an incestuous or adulterous relationship [mamzer], and a mamzer precedes a Gibeonite, and a Gibeonite precedes a convert, and a convert precedes an emancipated slave. When [do these laws of precedence take effect?] When they are all equal [in terms of wisdom]. But if there were a mamzer who is a Torah scholar and a High Priest who is an ignoramus, a mamzer who is a Torah scholar precedes a High Priest who is an ignoramus.

The Magen Avraham (201:4) initially cites the Jerusalem Talmud (Horiyos 3:5) which indicates that a Levite would only be prioritized over an Israelite during the times of the Temple when they were needed for their expertise in signing and liturgy. However, he then cites the Beis Yosef (Y.D. 251) who did not accept this distinction, but rather maintains that Levites possess inherent superiority to the common Israelite. Consequently, one would also be required to honor the Levite with leading Birchas HaMazon (“Grace After Meals”) in the absence of a priest. And should the circumstances be that an Isralite is leading, he should state “b’reshus hakohanim v’ha’leviim” (with permission of the Priests and Levites).

At this point, we appear to have two contradictory statements from our Sages. The standard reading of the Gemara in Gittin indicates that Levites possess no inherent sanctity, while the Mishnah in Horiyos teaches us that a Levite is superior to an Isralite. Perhaps these two teachings are not at odds but actually point to two different facets of the laws governing the category of Levites.

R. Carlebach explains that the Levites already earned their own inherent sanctity, irrespective of association of priesthood, after they collectively refrained from worshipping the Golden Calf.  Thus, the Mishnah in Horiyos gives preference to Levites over Israelites as it is laying out a general religious hierarchy. Whereas the Gemara in Gittin is determining whom to honor. While there is a specific mitzvah of v’kidashto, to honor Priests, the Levites only enjoy such privileges as a byproduct. Thus, in the absence of Priests there is no distinct imperative to honor the Levites.

Furthermore, while the status of sanctity is built-in to the personage of each Priest or Levite, the mitzvah of v’kidashto is incumbent upon the Isralites rather than an innate entitlement that a Priest may claim. To illustrate this distinction, the Maharam Schick (O.C., no. 159), based on Tosafos (Chullin 87a, s.v. V’Chaivo), explains that an Isralite who wrongfully deprives a priest of the first Torah reading slot would not be liable to provide monetary restitution, as the Israelite only neglected to fulfill his mitzvah rather than depriving the Priest of a personal entitlement. 

As we have seen, there is significant ambiguity in determining the nature of the holiness of the tribe of Levi. While there are ramifications regarding when and what additional privileges they receive, we should remember that we all possess some form of inherent sanctity, kedushas yisrael, and that all humans are made in the image of God.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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