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09.05.2017 12:30    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  emor  gottlieb  

Giving Majesty to the Priests or the Torah



Parashat Emor begins with commandments pertaining to the sanctity of the priests.  One of these commandments addresses the Jewish community at large.  Specifically (Lev. 21:8):

And you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your G‑d; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy.

Maimonides, in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, counts this among the 613 commandments and adds to what is said in the Torah, as follows (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Kapah ed., pos. 32):[1]

The 32nd commandment is that we are commanded to exalt, honor, and elevate the descendants of Aaron; to treat them in a way of holiness and respect.  Even if they refuse to accept it, one should not listen to them.  All this is to honor G‑d (exalted be He), since He singled them out to serve Him and offer His sacrifices.

The source of this commandment is G‑d’s statement, “You must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your G‑d.”

Our Sages explained, “The word vekidashto (“you must treat them as holy”) refers to every matter of holiness:  he should be the first to read in the Torah; first to recite the blessing [after meals]; first to take the choicest portion.”

The Sifra also says, “The word vekidashto implies ‘even against his will.’”  This means that this commandment is given to us, and does not depend on the desire of the priest.

The most widespread practical implication of this commandment is the precedence given the priest in being called up to the Torah, as the Mishnah says (Gittin 5.8):

The following rules were declared in the interest of peace:  A priest is called up first to read [in the Torah] and after him a Levite and then, an Israelite, in the interests of peace.

The gemara wonders regarding this mishnah, if giving the priest precedence in all matters of holiness is a commandment from the Torah, why does the mishnah say it is “in the interests of peace”?  Abaye explains that the mishnah intended to say that even if a priest desires to give an Israelite the honor of reading first, he is not entitled to do so, since it might lead to quarrelling (Gittin 59b).[2]

Maimonides also says this and adds (Hilkhot Tefillah 12.18):[3]

In all of these [Torah] readings, a priest reads first; after him, a Levite; and after him, an Israelite.  It is common custom at present that even a priest who is a common person is given precedence and allowed to read before a wise man of great stature in Israel.

Whoever is greater than his colleague in wisdom is given precedence regarding the reading [of the Torah].

A close look at Maimonides’ writings, however, shows that what he calls here “common custom” is not consonant with his view of the Halakhah.[4] Moreover, Maimonides comes out forcefully against this practice.  In his commentary on the Mishnah (Gittin 5.8) he says:

You should know that this widespread practice—that the priest is first to read in the synagogue, whether or not he is a Torah scholar or a common person, whether or not there is a person of greater wisdom present—is something with no foundation in the Torah whatsoever, and it is not mentioned in the Talmud, and is not what this halakhah refers to.[5]

I am very surprised that even the people of Elrom [northern Mediterranean region] follow this practice, even though they have managed to escape the shortcomings of the latter’s customs, views, and rulings, and you find by them only that which goes along with the language of the Talmud; and I have no idea whence this fault came their way.

However, the matter as handed down in our tradition is as I shall set forth:  the priest takes precedence over the Levite, and the Levite over the Israelite.  The Lord said, “And you must treat them as holy, since…”  Received tradition then explains that this applies to every matter of holiness:  he should be the first to read in the Torah; first to recite the blessing [after meals]; first to take the choicest portion.

With respect to what is this said?  When a person of greater wisdom that him is not present, such as when a priest, a Levite and Israelites are present, and all are at the same level of wisdom, none greater than the others—then this sequence of precedence is followed, the Priest coming first, then the Levite and after him the Israelite.

And the following is said at the end of Horayot:  They said, when does this pertain?  When all are equal.  But if one had a learned bastard and an ignorant High Priest, the learned bastard would take precedence in every respect…And more regarding the general rule among us—if a priest who deserves to read first permits an Israelites who is similar or even lesser than him to be called up first, he is entitled to do so.[6]

Except that we have forbidden this in the interests of peace, because it might lead to quarrelling, since another person might say:  Why did he allow that person to be called up, but did not allow me?—since it is all at his discretion.  Therefore, we said that he himself should read first, and not allow another in his stead.  This is what the Halakhah intended when it said:  the priest reads first.  And thus the Talmud explains.

Maimonides was of the opinion that showing respect for Torah takes precedence over showing respect for the priesthood and overrides both the commandment “you must treat them as holy” and the argument “in the interests of peace.”  The majesty of the Torah is more important than the majesty of the priesthood.  Therefore, a Torah scholar who is an Israelite takes precedence over a priest who is not learned.  Moreover, even if the priest is a Torah scholar, but there is a more eminent scholar than him in the synagogue, the greater scholar reads before the priest.  Maimonides bases his argument primarily on the mishnah (Horayot 3.8):

A priest takes precedence over a Levite, a Levite over an Israelite, and Israelite over a bastard, a bastard over a natin, a natin over a proselyte, and a proselyte over a freed slave.  When is this so?  When they are all [otherwise] equal; but if there were a bastard learned [in the Law] and a High Priest who was an ignorant man, the bastard learned [in the Law] would take precedence over the High Priest who is an ignorant person.[7]

The gemara interprets the precedence of the learned bastard over the ignorant High Priest as derived from a play on words in the verse, “She [wisdom] is more precious than rubies (Heb. peninim)”:  “than the High Priest, who enters the innermost sanctuary (Heb. lifnei ve-lifnim)” (Horayot 13a).

The rabbis of Tyre, disciples of Rabbenu Ephraim, turned to Maimonides, asking him to explain the remark of Rav in the Talmud:  “Why does Torah not come forth from the children of Torah scholars?  Rabbi Judah said, quoting Rav:  Because they did not first recite a benediction over the Torah” (Nedarim 81a).

In his response, Maimonides explained what Rav meant:[8]

What they opposed was that an ignorant priest or someone of lesser learning would be given greater status and called to read the Torah first when a learned man was present.  Since they accorded the Torah less respect—not having the more learned read first but rather after those of lesser learning—they were punished by not having Torah come forth from their children.  For, as we said, the rule that “the priest reads first, etc.” only pertains if they are all equal.

Maimonides’ halakhic opinion fits his philosophy, which accords a person status according to his moral, intellectual and spiritual endeavors and achievements, and not according to his race and lineage.  This position finds expression in his attitude towards proselytes, as reflected in the responsum he wrote to Rabbi Ovadiah the Proselyte:  “Since you have entered under the sheltering wings of the Divine Presence and come to follow G‑d…there is no gap between us and you in any respect.”[9] Even the gift of prophecy Maimonides does not reserve for Jews alone, rather “it is one of the foundations of [our] faith that G‑d conveys prophecy to human beings” (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1).[10]

The relationship between spiritual qualities that stem from actions chosen by man and spiritual qualities of biological and tribal affiliation is treated by Maimonides at the end of Sefer Zera`im.  After defining the special status of the tribe of Levi, he concludes his list of rules of halakhah with a wonderful spiritual pearl.  He says (Hilkhot Shemita 13.13):[11]

Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G‑d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G‑d, proceeding justly as G‑d made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people see, he is sanctified as holy of holies.  G‑d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites.  And thus David declared [Psalms 16:5]:  “G‑d is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot.”

The perspicacious reader will note Maimonides’ expression, “any one of the inhabitants of the world,” while we might have expected him to say, “Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one from the people of Israel.”  Rabbi Rosenthal, z”l, in his book Mishnat Ya`akov, combines Maimonides’ remark with Rabbi Meir’s homily about the gentile who studies Torah (Bava Kama 38a):

Rabbi Meir used to say:  Whence can we learn that even where a gentile occupies himself with the study of the Torah he equals [in status] the High Priest?  We find it stated:…by the pursuit of which man shall live (Lev. 18:5); it does not say, “priests, Levites and Israelites,” but “man,” which shows that even if a gentile occupies himself with the study of the Torah he equals [in status] the High Priest.[12]

Maimonides teaches us that even the most elevated spiritual level, “holy of holies,” ostensibly reserved only for the High Priest, is accessible to any human being on the face of the earth.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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