Class Notes - Class #5

This set of mitzvot adds to what we already know about the roles of the cohanim and levi’im in the Temple.

            Some of the work in the Temple was done by cohanim and some was done by levi’im.  Mitzvah #390 prohibits ordinary Jews from doing the work designated for the cohanim and levi’im.  Mitzvah #389 prohibits the cohanim from doing the work designated for the levi’im and prohibits the levi’im from doing the work designated for the cohanim. 

            The author explains a very practical shoresh for these mitzvot.  Tasks assigned to committees often fail to get done, as each person thinks that ultimately someone else will take responsibility for the task at hand.  If you want something done, be very clear about who is responsible for doing it.  In mitzvah #394 the author adds that having groups specially designated to serve in the Temple reflects the awe of God the Temple was intended to impart.  Just as royalty has specially designated household staff, God has the cohanim and levi’im.

            The author also explains the basic administrative organization of the Temple.  The cohanim and levi’im were divided into 24 groups, each called a mishmar.  Each mishmar would serve in the Temple one week in turn.  The head of each mishmar would divide the mishmar into family sub-groups, each called a beit av, and the head of each beit av would assign specific tasks to specific individuals. The mitzvah that prohibits cohanim from doing the jobs of levi’im and levi’im from doing the jobs of cohanim also prohibits individual cohanim and levi’im from doing jobs assigned to other individual cohanim and levi’im. There were also 24 mishmarot of ordinary Jews who, as representatives of the people, observed the Temple functions, although the author does not say how they were chosen or what they did.  

There were also fifteen department heads each responsible for a certain administrative function.  For example, one would make sure the sacrifices happened at the proper times and make sure everyone got up and working at the proper time.  Another department head made sure the Temple was locked at night and opened in the morning.  Another department head supervised the sentries and another supervised the singers.  When we studied the geography of the Temple we speculated that there had to have been an administrative staff, and now we get a little more information about that staff.

Some Temple tasks could be done by ordinary Jews, for example slaughtering the animals for sacrifices and bringing the wood for the fire on the altar.  If a cohen trimmed the lamps for the menorah and brought them out of the heichel and into the ezrat yisrael an ordinary Jew could light the lamps. As a sacrificial animal is slaughtered, though, the job of collecting the blood and the remaining tasks of processing the sacrifice, have to be done by cohanim.  If an ordinary Jew did one of the tasks reserved for the cohanim the sacrifice was disqualified and the person who did it was punishable. Four of those actions are particularly serious; if an ordinary Jew sprinkled the blood, burned the sacrifices on the altar or poured libations of water or wine, that person was subject to “death at the hand of heaven.”

            Although this mitzvah is focused on Temple practice, the author says the mitzvah still applies.  If an ordinary Jew would come to the place where the Temple stood and processed a sacrifice by doing acts reserved for cohanim, that person would violate this mitzvah and would be potentially punishable. 

            Mitzvah #394 mandates the responsibilities of the levi’im.  They were part of the guard patrol (more on that shortly), they were in charge of locking the gates, and they provided the chorus and orchestra to accompany certain communal sacrifices.  A levi who was qualified to take part in the Temple ritual and chose not to would violate this positive mitzvah.

            The levi’im would sing while the daily communal olot and the shlamim on Shavuot were processed on the altar. They would also sing hallel on days when that was required. The choir consisted of a minimum of twelve levi’im but could be much larger. 

The orchestra consisted of levi’im and ordinary Jews of distinguished descent.    The orchestra consisted of at least nine lutes, reed flutes, but only one cymbal lest the cymbal mask the sound of the rest of the orchestra.  The orchestra played at least twelve days a year, but it’s not clear whether they played at other times.

Musicians apprenticed for five years before they were allowed to perform.  Musicians had to be adults, but there was no upper age limit; as long as the musician did quality work the musician could participate.  A musician was not disqualified if he had a mum.

This mitzvah has a wonderful personal note. Recall that our author and his son are levi’im.  Our author says he has gone into detail about this mitzvah because, should the Temple be restored, this is material he and his son will need to know.

Mitzvah #379 requires that when the ark was moved it was to be carried by qualified people, cohanim and possibly levi’im. (We will untangle exactly who is qualified shortly. Until then we will assume the ark was carried by the cohanim.) The ark had carry-bars permanently installed so it could be moved without preparation.  The cohanim would carry the ark by hoisting the carry-bars on their shoulders.

Cohanim who had a mum were disqualified from carrying the ark.  Cohanim who were over 50 years old were disqualified from carrying the ark but were not disqualified from bringing sacrifices solely because of age over 50.

The shoresh relates to having a plan for how to take care of things we value.  One way we treated the ark with respect was by having the most respected people carry it. The ark might be moved at the direction of the king or in time of war. 

Although we no longer have an ark we can move and protect, we do sometimes carry a Torah scroll to greet a king or other important person.  This mitzvah does not apply to that situation, but the author suggests that it might be better if a levi carried the Torah in that situation. 

Most of this mitzvah/essay focuses on whether the levi’im are qualified to carry the ark, or whether only the cohanim are qualified.  Rambam thinks only the cohanim are qualified, and Ramban thinks the levi’im are qualified.  The author marshals arguments for each position based on close reading of Biblical verses and on narrative descriptions in the Bible of the ark being carried.

            Consider a sampling of the evidence.  Num.7:9 specifies that when the Tabernacle in the desert was inaugurated the sons of Kahat were to carry the ark.   Kahat was Aaron’s grandfather, so he had descendants who were levi’im and descendants who were cohanim.  Joshua commanded the cohanim to take up the ark as the Jews entered Israel.  Jos. 3:6.  In II Sam. 15:25 King David tells Zadok, who is a cohen, to take the ark back to Jerusalem.   I Chron.15:15 and 15:26 describe the levi’im carrying the ark during King David’s reign.  This is a confusing picture.

            Rambam understands that when the Jews were in the desert and the only cohanim were Aaron and his sons, there were not enough cohanim to carry the ark so other levi’im were also allowed to carry it.  Later, though, as the group of cohanim grew, only the cohanim could carry the ark.  Rambam’s theory explains the verses in Joshua and Samuel but does not explain the verse in I Chronicles.

            Ramban understands that cohanim and levi’im could all carry the ark.  Ramban objects to the notion that a mitzvah in the Torah could change. Ramban’s opinion explains the verses in I Chronicles.   The verses in Joshua and Samuel are no problem since the cohanim and the levi’im were allowed to carry the ark.  Ramban also relies on the Talmud Sotah 33b which explains that when Joshua and the people entered Israel the levi’im carried the ark up to the border of Israel and the cohanim carried the ark into Israel.

            Both Rambam and Ramban rely on Jos. 3:3, but they apparently had different texts of what that verse says.  According to Rambam, Joshua, in describing what was going to happen as the people entered Israel, tells the people the ark will be carried by “hacohanim halevi’im,” “the cohanim the levi’im.”  Rambam interprets that verse to mean that the cohanim should carry the ark but that the cohanim are a sub-group of the levi’im.  Ramban cites the same verse as saying the ark will be carried by “hacohanim v’halevi’im,”  “the cohanim and the levi’im.”  That supports the notion that members of either group could carry the ark.  This dispute is striking because it is based on differing texts of the book of Joshua.  Our standard text of Joshua has Rambam’s reading.

            David brings the ark to Jerusalem by loading it on a cart.  The author notes that David was violating this mitzvah and should have known that since the mitzvah is explicit in the Torah.

            Our author concludes with Ramban, but apparently he changed his mind in the act of writing this passage.  At the beginning of the essay, the author says the mitzvah is for the cohanim to carry the ark.  By the end of the essay, though, the author says the mitzvah is for the levi’im to carry the ark.

            Mitzvah #378 requires the cohanim to bless the Jews each day.          In discussing the shoresh, the author returns to the theme of God creating mechanisms by which people will deserve good reward.  Here, the cohanim, who work diligently in the Temple for the spiritual benefit of the people, ask God to bless the people.  Through their merit the blessing would be effective.  But our author wonders why, if God wants to reward the people, God doesn’t just do that and dispense with the intervening ritual. But God wants to create opportunities for us to earn that good reward and this ritual is an example.  This is a special opportunity God provides to the Jews, as other people have many fewer mitzvot and therefore many fewer such opportunities.

The priestly blessing in the Temple worked much as it does now and the author describes the process clearly and in detail. The priestly blessing requires the presence of a minyan of adult Jewish men, counting the cohanim.  The cohanim were barefoot, as everyone in the Temple was.  As the hazan recited the “r’tzei” blessing of the amidah, the cohanim would go to the appropriate place in the Temple and face the heichal.  When the hazan finished the “modim” blessing the cohanim would turn and face the people, holding their hands out opposite their shoulders and the fingers of each hand held in a characteristic pattern. The hazan would prompt the cohanim with each word of the blessing as specified in the source verses, Num. 6:23-26.  They would pause after each verse and the people would respond by saying amen.  When the priestly blessing was done the cohanim would turn again to face the heichal until the hazan concluded the amidah.

 In the Temple it took place daily in conjunction with the amidah in the morning prayers.  The exact form of the amidah is attributed to the time of Ezra or possibly later, and our author does not discuss how the priestly blessing worked before the text of the amidah was fixed in its current form.

The author also discusses how the practice in the Temple differs from later practice.  Now the cohanim stand in front of the ark.  The author specifies that now the cohanim recite the appropriate blessing before blessing the people.  That would seem to imply our author thinks that practice developed after Temple times. Most striking is that the author does not mention some customs common now during the priestly blessing.  Specifically, he does not mention avoiding watching the cohanim during the blessing, the custom of men who listen to the blessing with heads covered by a tallit, or the recitation of Torah verses that appear in our siddur.  Silence is ambiguous, and so we are left wondering what our author would think about these practices.

The author says the cohanim are obligated to bless the people during shacharit, the morning prayers, during mussaf, prayers that accompanied the mussaf sacrifice, and during the ne’ilah prayer on Yom Kippur.  They would not bless the people during minchah, the afternoon prayers, since cohanim who had already eaten during the day might have consumed alcohol and would therefore be disqualified from participating.  The cohanim did not bless the people at minchah of a fast day even though they had not eaten.  The author cites the Talmud, Ta’anit 26b, for the notion that cohanim now do bless the people at minchah of a fast day because of the similarities to ne’ilah.  Here again the author does not seem to be concerned with how the historic development of the liturgy impacted Temple practice.  Nor does he discuss current practice, which varies among different Jewish communities.  Ashkenazi communities outside of Israel generally include the priestly blessing only during mussaf of Biblical holidays.

This mitzvah obligates cohanim to participate in the priestly blessing, but in Temple times cohanim might be disqualified for several reasons: speech impediment, certain physical defects, having committed certain sins including murder, idolatry, idol worship or conversion to an idolatrous religion, tumah of the hands, consumption of alcohol, or being so young that the cohen has not yet begun to grow a beard.  (I relied on the translator for these interpretations.)


            Mitzvah #384 requires blowing shofarot and silver trumpets at times of alarm and also to accompany the daily morning and evening olah sacrifices and the mussaf sacrifices. The author focuses his discussion on the instruments played in the Temple.

            The cohanim were responsible for playing instruments in the Temple while the levi’im sang. (The author says that Rambam thought the levi’im could blow the trumpets on ordinary days but the cohanim would blow the trumpets on days when a mussaf sacrifice was brought.) Each day they played between 21 and 48 blasts on at least two but not more than 120 silver trumpets. Each blast consisted of a “t’kia, t’ruah, t’kiya,” a long unbroken sound followed by a series of short sounds and ended with another long unbroken sound. The cohanim playing the trumpets would stand near the butchering tables.  When the cohen gadol offered the wine libation for the sacrifices mentioned earlier, an assistant would wave a flag to signal the cohanim to play.

            According to our author, the trumpets were intended to help those in the Temple focus on the sacred tasks at hand.  People involved in bringing sacrifices ideally should have perfect concentration.  Similarly, when we pray in times of trouble we should do so with full concentration. 

            This is also another aspect of the multi-sensory experience of the Temple.  Along with the grandeur of the building, the crowds of people and animals, the costumed cohanim, the preparation needed to be tahor to come to the Temple, the aroma of the incense, and the sacrificial ritual, there was instrumental and vocal music as well.  It must have been overwhelming.            


            Mitzvah #388 requires the cohanim and levi’im to guard the Temple.  The cohanim guarded the interior of the Temple and the levi’im guarded further out.  As the author mentioned earlier, we carefully guard what we value.  The Temple might be guarded to protect it from enemies, but our author shudders at even considering that possibility. 

            Our author provides a vivid picture of how this mitzvah was carried out.  There were 24 sentries, three cohanim and twenty-one levi’im.  A head sentry, the “ish har habayit,” the man of the Temple Mount, would patrol the Temple all night, carrying a torch and going from one sentry post to another.  Each sentry was required to rise and greet the patrolling sentry, saying “shalom l’cha ish har habayit.”  If a sentry was asleep and failed to respond as the patrolling sentry went by, the patrolling sentry would hit him with a stick or even set his clothes on fire.  The cries of pain could be heard all over Jerusalem, where people would recognize the sound.

            Mitzvah #391 is a corresponding negative mitzvah that requires the cohanim and levi’im not to desist from patrolling the Temple each night.  It is hard to see how the source verse, Num. 18:5, generates a prohibition. The author quotes the midrash halachah which explicitly says this verse is the source of a negative mitzvah.  It relies on the presence of the term “shmartem,” “you shall guard;” the rabbis generally interpreted that term as a source of a negative mitzvah.   Of course, a variation on that term appeared in the source verse for mitzvah #388, where it generated a positive mitzvah. 


            Passages in these mitzvah/essays suggest a new pedagogic phase for our author.  In the first half of the work the author emphasized the process of making close logical distinctions and following up the implications of those distinctions.  He will continue to give us practice for those skills.  More recently we saw him quote famous Talmudic passages at greater length, perhaps to help us become familiar with key texts.  Now the author adds another agenda.  He quotes selectively from halachic sources that, earlier on, he might have paraphrased.  The sources he quotes tend to be forms of argument very common to a given type of halachic literature.  If we can follow a particular form of argument when our author quotes it, we will be able to recognize and follow that form of argument wherever we encounter it.  These mitzvot contain several examples.

Look at the second full paragraph in mitzvah #389 (p. 122/123 in the Feldheim translation.)  Mitzvah #389 prohibits cohanim from doing the tasks of levi’im and levi’im from doing the tasks of cohanim.  Our author typically explains the scope of the mitzvah at the beginning of the essay, but here he does it by quoting the midrash halalchah.  As we go through this passage we need to note the content, but also note how the midrash halachah expresses that content.  The content is unique to this mitzvah, but the mode of expression is common in midrash halachah.

Start with the source verse, Num. 18:3.  God tells Aaron that he and his sons will bear responsibility for the sanctuary with the help of the levi’im, but that each group has different jobs.  Referring to the levi’im, the verse says, “but they shall not come near the holy vessels or the altar lest they die, also them and also you.”

Now look at the midrash halachah our author quotes in the second full paragraph of #389.  It starts by identifying the prohibition clause and the punishment clause.  Our author told us many times that the rabbis identify those two clauses, but this time instead of just explaining the author quotes.  “’To the holy vessels and the altar,’ is the “azharah,” prohibition; ‘lest they die,’ is the “onesh,” punishment.”  The midrash halachah’s explanation is cryptic, but because our author taught us the concept earlier we are prepared to understand.

The midrash halachah then asks another question: the verse says the levi’im may not do the jobs of the cohanim, but how do I know the cohanim may not do the jobs of the levi’im?  The midrash halachah expresses that in classic form.  It begins “ain li elah,” “I only have.”  That says one concept is obvious from the words of the source verse and implies some other concept which I know to be true is not obvious from the source verse.  The next key term is “minayan,” “from where do I know.”  That identifies the other concept I know to be true but do not yet have a source for.  Here, how do I know that the cohanim may not do the jobs of the levi’im.  The next phrase identifies the answer with the phrase “talmud lomar,” which introduces a term in the source verse that will be the source for the other concept.  The source verse says, “also them,” a phrase that seems superfluous and so can serve to support the idea we need.  The midrash halachah goes on with a second round of parallel argument, but this time in shortened form.  It says  minayan, how do I know that one cohen or levi may not do a job assigned to another cohen or levi.  And it answers “talmud lomar,” to identify words that could be the source for this rule, specifically “also you.” 

The call and response format of “ein li elah,” “minayan” and “talmud lomar” is a trope that appears often in midrash halachah.  Now that our author have given us the content background and has given us practice in how midrash halachah works by paraphrasing midrash halachah, we are ready to follow the midrash halachah in its original formulation and learn to recognize common patterns.

The author does something similar with the second paragraph of mitzvah/essay #384.  The content is a bit of a tangent but it is a direct quote from the Talmud Rosh haShannah 29a. 

            The Talmud quotes a b’raita (tanaitic halachic statements not included in the Mishnah) that says that everyone is required to hear the shofar on Rosh haShannah.  The b’raita then lists categories of people who are required to hear the shofar, some categories we would expect and several categories of people we might not be sure about.  Conspicuously absent from the list is women, as women are not required to hear the shofar.  Our author quotes the beginning of the list in the b’raira: cohanim, levi’im and ordinary Jews. 

The Gemara then objects that it is “p’shita,” obvious that cohanim are required to hear the shofar on Rosh haShannah.  If the cohanim are not required to hear the shofar, who is? The assumption is that there is no need to formulate and preserve a b’raita that tells us something we would have known anyway.  The Talmud then asserts that the statement is “itztaricha,” necessary. Obviously the next step is to explain why it is necessary.  That step is identified with the opening phrase “salka datach amina,” “without it I might have said.”  Thus, the Talmud is trying to justify why we might have thought that cohanim need not hear the shofar.  The source verse for the mitzvah to blow the shofar on Rosh haShannah, Num. 29:1, refers to the “day of blowing the shofar.”  Since the cohanim blew instruments in the Temple every day, perhaps the obligation for one distinct day does not apply to them.  That argument justifies the b’raita specifying that cohanim must hear the shofar on Rosh haShannah since otherwise we might have thought they were exempt.

But the Talmud is not satisfied.  The cohanim playing instruments in the Temple every day were blowing silver trumpets, not shofarot.  This distinction would have prevented our thinking that the cohanim were exempt.  And that is where the author leaves the Talmud’s discussion.  The Talmudic passage makes one more try at explaining why we might have doubted that cohanim are required to hear the shofar on Rosh haShannah, and then goes on to other categories of people mentioned in the b’raira.

Our author has chosen to quote a passage with a very specific outline. It starts with a b’raita about which it raises a question. The question follows the “p’shita,” “itztaricha,” “salka detach amina,” pattern that appears often in Talmudic argument.  What follows is a predictable delicate dance, with the Talmud searching for an argument just strong enough to necessitate the b’raita mentioning the case but not strong enough to convince us that the b’raita is wrong.  I think the point here is to introduce us to that format.

It is hard to know why our author chose to include any specific passage.  But these two passages illustrate techniques common in Talmudic argument.  They help us develop an ear for how Talmudic texts typically play out an argument so that the forms are familiar when we go on to further halachic study. We will see more such quoted passages as we proceed.  We may not untangle all of them, but we will do enough to serve what I think our author’s purpose is.