Back to Blogs

From Parsha to Halakha Shlach: The give and take between Priests, Levites, and Israelites

Tammuz 5784 | July 2024

The perks of being a Kohen

It seems ironic that Parshat Korach begins with Korach and his assembly’s challenge of Moshe’s authority and Aharon’s Kehuna (Priesthood): “the entire congregation is sanctified and the Eternal is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves about the congregation of the Eternal,” and ends with a lengthy list of gifts the Israelites are commanded to give to the priests.[1]

Indeed, Yalkut Shimoni relates that Korach used these many gifts to turn the Israelites against Moshe and Aharon.[2] Korach gathered the people to tell the story of a poor widow and her two daughters who were forced to abandon all sorts of profitable enterprises by a combination of Moshe’s mitzvot and Aharon’s mandatory “gifts.” At the end of the story Aharon walks away with the last of the widow’s slaughtered animals, leaving the widow and her daughters crying, destitute and disconsolate.

If the Written Torah wanted us to understand this is the basis of the insurrection it would have reversed the order and listed the gifts first. Yet this midrash is still important, as it gives credence to the complaints of the rebellious mob, based on a simple truth. The mitzvot in general and the priestly gifts in particular are easily portrayed as a caste system that benefits those in power.

Like so many politically and religiously motivated speeches, Korach’s truth also conveniently leaves out relevant context. Beyond his omission of all the service Aharon and Moshe provide for the people, Korach also fails to mention that as a Levite he also profits from this system.  Moshe and Aharon make demand after demand, but no Levite comes to claim his tithes, although this is one of the more significant “gifts” discussed at the end of this week’s parsha.

And he could have easily used the tithe system to criticize Moshe and Aharon’s authority as well. The Israelite separates teruma for the Kohen and ma’aser (tithes) for the Levite, but then the Levite must separate a further teruma, so the Kohen gets a cut of his cut.[3] Indeed, if the Levites are already sanctified to serve God and the Kohanim, why must they give a teruma from the one gift they receive?

Quid pro quo

To understand the reason for Terumat Ma’aser, the percentage of the tithes the Levites must give the Kohanim, we must understand the system the Torah sets up – the one that Korach claims is a hierarchal caste system.

The Torah mentioned many of the Matanot Kehuna, Priestly Gifts, previously. When read in context there is generally a clear quid pro quo. We already know the Kohen gets some meat from every animal that is not completely burned on the altar.[4] The Kohen is the expert on sacrifices, he knows all the laws and serves in the Temple at the beck and call of every pilgrim bringing all sorts of offerings. It’s logical for him to get a cut of anything that is not an “olah temima,” a burnt-offering wholly consumed on God’s altar.

The Kohen also serves as the proxy for the firstborns that are consecrated and either given to Divine service or redeemed.[5] The Israelites were originally supposed to send their firstborn sons to serve God in the Temple.[6] The traditional understanding is that they forfeited this duty when they sinned with the Golden Calf; the Levites who did not sin were entrusted with the responsibility.[7] As the Levites assist the Kohanim in their service, any firstborn not consecrated must be “redeemed” by giving money to the Kohen.

In context, scattered throughout the Torah, these gifts may not seem like much. But a little here, a little there adds up and the cumulative effect is significant, for the giver and the receiver. According to Yalkut Shimoni, this is precisely Korach’s complaint.[8] So why does the Torah list them like this and highlight the burden?

Context is everything

In the midrash, it’s interesting to note that Korach never claims Moshe gets any material benefit from the mitzvot. As Moshe himself testifies, “I have not taken a single donkey from them and have not harmed any of them.”[9] The complaint about Moshe is not perks, it is power. So much authority concentrated in one person.

The Torah contextualizes this power. The height of Moshe’s prophecy, the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, is bookended by stories that clearly show the people chose this form of leadership and that Moshe attempts to distribute the power. Prior to the revelation at Sinai, Parshat Yitro relates that the Israelites lined up to seek Moshe’s counsel and Moshe initiated a court system that diffused his power.[10]

During the revelation at Sinai, the people flee in awe of God and plead with Moshe to act as their intermediary: “You speak to us and we will listen, and God should not speak to us, lest we die.”[11] Moshe did not seize authority, the people ceded authority to him.

What about Aharon’s authority?

Aharon does receive something in return, but it’s interesting that immediately prior to the list of his “perks” the people make a request startlingly similar to the one they made at Mount Sinai:

“The Israelites said to Moshe, saying, ‘Behold, we are dying, we are lost, all of us are lost. Anyone who nears the Tabernacle of the Eternal will die, will we ever stop dying?”[12]

Mere days after people were clamoring for Aharon’s job and demanding to offer incense in the Sanctuary, they quake in fear of coming anywhere near. The men who approached God to offer incense were burned: “Each man took his pan and put fire upon them and placed incense on them and stoof in front of the Tent of Meeting… A fire went out from the Eternal and consumed the two hundred fifty men who offered the ketoret.”[13] The Divine Presence is manifest by fire, those who are not careful are burned.[14]

The following day the people gather against Moshe and Aharon and complain they killed “God’s people.” God sends a plague and Aharon stops it progression by offering the same incense, in the aim to teach the people that God was responsible for the deaths, Moshe and Aharon saved them. A less painful lesson of Aharon’s chosenness follows, when representatives from each tribe place a staff before the ark, and Aharon’s is the only one to bloom. Once again, Aharon facilitates life, protects the people from death.

The back and forth of a burning desire for closeness to God that results with fleeing in fear or awe, only to approach again is beautifully articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s book “And From There You Shall Seek.” Throughout the Tanakh we are told stories of those who came too close or didn’t have the proper reverence, and it cost them their lives. A desire to be close to God is a good thing, and over-familiarity that breeds disrespect is not.

Indeed, the only time the Torah alludes to the firstborns performing sacrificial service – the covenant at Sinai – it also insinuates the mortal danger involved: “He sent the sons of the Israelites and they offered burnt-offerings and slaughtered peace-offerings to the Eternal, bulls… And [God] did not set His hand against the nobles of Israel, and they behind God and they ate and they drank.”[15]

The context to the priestly gifts is not Korach’s rebellion, nor is it the sanctification of the Tabernacle. Throughout these stories there is interplay between the nearness to God – k.r.v. (near, also the root of korban, a sacrificial offering) – and the fire of the altar or the Divine Presence. This service is dangerous. And the people don’t want it, any more than they want prophecy.

In response God tells Aharon:: “You and your sons and your father’s household with you shall bear the iniquity of the Mikdash, you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity of your Priesthood.”[16]

For the Kohanim to stand before God, they must observe laws of Kehuna, beyond the duties of other Israelites. They incur greater risk. Most of their gifts must be eaten in a state of Tahar, ritual purity, which involves exacting laws that other Israelites may not have observed on a regular basis.

The greater access is dependent on added responsibility. It does not mean they are a higher caste of Jew, it means they are a distinct sort of Jew. The Kohanim were taken to serve God in the Sanctuary, but they do so as representatives of the Israelite People. Since they serve God and they serve the people, they get gifts from both – some of the gifts are from God or from God’s altar and must be consumed in tahara, others are portrayed as direct gifts from the Israelites, and can be enjoyed even when not in a state of purity.

The Levites and teruma from ma’aser

The choice of the Levites is somewhat different: “And also your brothers the Tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, you shall bring near with you and they will accompany you and serve you, you and your sons with you before the Tent of Meeting. And they will observe your duties and the duties of the entire tent, but they shall not come near to the sanctified vessels and the altar, so they won’t die, also them and also you… and a foreigner will not come close to you… and there will not be another angry plague upon Israel…”[17]

At first it seems the Levites are there to serve Aharon and his sons, almost like their personal servants. Indeed, several commentaries note that this is not the case and that Kohanim may not take Levites to serve them in their homes, citing the phrase “they will serve with you before the Tent of Meeting” and not in your homes.[18]

The Levites are “from among the Israelites” but “they will accompany you.” Traditionally, Levites are supposed to be more learned and serve as religious instructors, but they don’t have added prohibitions like the Priests and they don’t need to be ritually pure to enjoy their tithes. They are also more connected to the people – they live in cities scattered among the tribes, they do not have their own portions and rely on the Israelites to sustain them. Since the Israelites can choose which Levite receives their tithes, it’s likely the Levites had to clearly and consistently show their usefulness to the Israelites.

The description of the Levites as serving the Kohanim and accompanying them makes sense, yet verse 6 adds a much more convoluted relationship: “And behold I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the Israelites, for you as a gift, they are given to the Eternal to serve in the service of the Tent of Meeting…”

The Levites are a gift from the Israelites “given to the Eternal,” yet unlike the incense offered by the two hundred fifty men, this gift is accepted by God, “I have taken” and then dedicated to serve. It’s not enough to desire to serve God and to give to God, it must be a service God desires to receive.

Chazal teach us that not only is a Levite prohibited from performing the service of the Kohanim, the Kohanim may not perform the service of the Levites – opening the doors of the Temple, singing songs during the sacrifices, and playing music. If this was a caste system surely the Kohen could do the jobs of one below him? But this is not a caste system, it is a division of labor.

And this is the reason the Levites must also give teruma to the Kohen, because the Kohen also provides service to the Levite, performing the duties that require the most meticulous observance and protecting them from danger.

Chazal state that a Kohen that does not accept every law of Kehuna and every gift is not allowed to serve. Why? Just as the Israelite must understand that the Kohen is performing a service for them, acting as an intermediary, so too the Kohen must realize that they don’t only work for God, they work for Israel as well, standing between life and death. Each group, Kohen, Levite, Israelite, must understand their place in the system. It is only once the full extent of these interdependent relationships is understood and internalized that the full extent of the Priestly Gifts is revealed.

[1] Tradition counts twenty-four gifts, but there are several possible ways to arrive at this number, much like the count of 613 mitzvot. See TB Bava Kama 110b; Chullin 133b; TY Challah 4:4; Tosefta Challah 2:8; Rambam Hilkhot Bikkurim u’Sha’ar Matanot Kehuna b’Gvulin, Chapter 1.

[2] Yalkut Shimoni al Nach (Tehillim) 614:6

[3] Bamidbar 18:25-31.

[4] For example Vayikra 6-7

[5] For example Shemot 13:11-15; Bamidbar 3:12, 44-51; Bamidbar 18:15-16.

[6] TB Zevachim 112b; Bereishit Rabba 63.

[7] Rashi Bamidbar 3:12; Meshekh Chochma ibid.

[8] Yalkut Shimoni explains how this is also the basis of Korach’s challenge to Moshe’s authority. Some gifts to the poor and laws regulating farming may not seem like much, but the cumulative effect can be crippling.

[9] Bamidbar 16:15.

[10] Shemot 18

[11] Shemot 20:16.

[12] Bamidbar 17:27-28

[13] Bamidbar 16: 18, 35

[14] Like Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu in Parshat Shemini.

[15] Shemot 24: 5, 11

[16] Bamidbar 18:1

[17] Bamidbar 18:1-5

[18] See Rashi ibid.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.