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A. Avreich





The Kohanim the Levi’im





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A. Avreich





The Kohanim the Levi’im








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The Kohanim the Levi’im

Are Levi’im considered Kohanim, with all the accompanying mitzvot and benefits, or not? Apparently it depends which book in the Torah you are reading, Deuteronomy or Leviticus-Numbers.


The Kohanim the Levi’im

Moses and Aaron with the Tablets of the Law (adapted), artist unknown, 1692. Jewish Museum London - Wikimedia.

Note: The pseudonymous author of this essay is an avreich learning in a Chareidi kollel. The essay is written in yeshivish style, with Hebrew terms (written out in Ashkenazi pronunciation) glossed only once per term if at all. We hope that with the aid of honest discussions about Torah held at TheTorah.com, people like A. Avreich will in the not-so-distant future feel comfortable writing in their own name without fear of communal repercussions. Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5773/2013

Opening Remark

The tension between modern scholarship and our Torah as we understand it has recently been thrust into the limelight. Unfortunately, most of the conversation consists of accusations of kefira, with little to no acknowledgement that a problem even exists. It is my conviction that this issue is real, and whatever the resolution is, we do ourselves no good by ignoring it. In this article, I will attempt to articulate just one of the challenges put forth by modern academic study. I hope this will foster constructive dialogue, and pray this will not damage anyone’s emuna.


The reality that the Torah contains numerous contradictions has never bothered religious Jews. Chazal (our Sages) were well aware of them, and our ancient traditions guide us, teaching us how to reconcile apparent contradictions into a grand, complex, larger picture. As a result, we view the Torah as an intricate, multicolored tapestry. Yet analysis by academic critical[1] scholars has revealed something shocking: The Torah more resembles a patchwork quilt. It can be divided into sections which are internally consistent yet contradict each other, in both history and halacha. This seems to indicate that instead of coming from one Author, they actually come from various different sources, each one possessing its own unique vocabulary and world view.

Consider this example: Are Levi’im (Levites) considered Kohanim (Priests), with all the accompanying mitzvos and benefits, or not? Can Levi’im offer korbanos (offerings) on the mizbe’ach (altar)? Can they rule on tzara’as (ritual skin disease)? Can they bless the nation from the duchan (podium)? ‘Preposterous!’ you say. ‘Of course not! The Torah clearly says that Kohanim and Levi’im are two entirely different categories!’ And you are partially correct. The bulk of Vayikra and Bamidbar are quite clear about that. But Devarim is not, not at all. In fact, it implies the exact opposite.

To demonstrate this fact, this article will simply go through the relevant portions of each sefer (book), letting the pesukim (verses) speak for themselves. To avoid lengthy repetition, only the most important clauses will be translated. After the various difficulties are presented, I will bring Chazal’s answers, and why I feel they are not sufficient. I invite the reader to follow along with a Chumash, or better yet, a Tikkun.

Vayikra and Bamidbar

Sefer Vayikra is aptly called Toras Kohanim. Perek (chapter) after perek detail the roles of the Kohanim in bringing the various korbanos. In many places[2], Vayikra unequivocally states who these Kohanim are: בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים (the sons of Aharon, the Kohanim) or בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן (the sons of Aharon the Kohen). Both mean the same thing: Only a descendant of Aharon is a Kohen.

The laws of tzara’as continue this theme. In Vayikra 13:2, we find:

אָדָם כִּי יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת וְהָיָה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת וְהוּבָא אֶל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים.
(A man who has…tzara’as shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen or to one of his sons the Kohanim.)

Again, the Kohanim are the sons of Aharon.

Continuing on to Bamidbar 6:23, the blessing given by the Kohanim to the nation is prefaced with:

דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמוֹר לָהֶם…
(Speak to Aharon and his sons saying: “Thus shall you bless…”)

Levi’im, on the other hand, are in a completely different category, subservient to the Kohanim. Earlier on in Bamidbar 3:5-9, Moshe is told to take the Levi’im and separate them from Bnei Yisrael, to assist the Kohanim.

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר הַקְרֵב אֶת מַטֵּה לֵוִי וְהַעֲמַדְתָּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְשֵׁרְתוּ אֹתו וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת מִשְׁמַרְתּוֹ וְאֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת כָּל כְּלֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְנָתַתָּה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו נְתוּנִם נְתוּנִם הֵמָּה לוֹ מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו תִּפְקֹד וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת כְּהֻנָּתָם וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת.
(Draw the Levi’im near, and stand them before Aharon the Kohen, and they shall serve him…
Give the Levi’im to Aharon and his sons…)

In relation to the Aron (Holy Ark), their roles are again clearly defined: The Levi’im may not approach the Aron when it is exposed, on penalty of death. First the Kohanim cover it, and then the Levi’im (specifically the sons of Kehas[3]) shall carry it. From Bamidbar 4:5, 15, 18-20:

וּבָא אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו בִּנְסֹעַ הַמַּחֲנֶה וְהוֹרִדוּ אֵת פָּרֹכֶת הַמָּסָךְ וְכִסּוּ בָהּ אֵת אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת… וְכִלָּה אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו לְכַסֹּת אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת כָּל כְּלֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּנְסֹעַ הַמַּחֲנֶה וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ בְנֵי קְהָת לָשֵׂאת וְלֹא יִגְּעוּ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ… אַל תַּכְרִיתוּ אֶת שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי מִתּוֹךְ הַלְוִיִּם וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְאֶל מַשָּׂאו וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ.
(Aharon and his sons…should cover the Ark… When Aharon and his have completed covering the holy…afterwards the sons of Kehas shall come to carry. Let them not touch the holy and die.)

After Korach’s rebellion against the differences between Kohanim and everybody else, these differences are reaffirmed (18, 1-7):

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ וּבֵית אָבִיךָ אִתָּךְ תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲו‍ֹן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲו‍ֹן כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם. ב וְגַם אֶת אַחֶיךָ מַטֵּה לֵוִי שֵׁבֶט אָבִיךָ הַקְרֵב אִתָּךְ וְיִלָּווּ עָלֶיךָ וִישָׁרְתוּךָ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת. ג וְשָׁמְרוּ מִשְׁמַרְתְּךָ וּמִשְׁמֶרֶת כָּל הָאֹהֶל אַךְ אֶל כְּלֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא יִקְרָבוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ גַם הֵם גַּם אַתֶּם. ד וְנִלְווּ עָלֶיךָ וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְכֹל עֲבֹדַת הָאֹהֶל וְזָר לֹא יִקְרַב אֲלֵיכֶם. ה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֵת מִשְׁמֶרֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֵת מִשְׁמֶרֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְלֹא יִהְיֶה עוֹד קֶצֶף עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. ו וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת אֲחֵיכֶם הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֶם מַתָּנָה נְתֻנִים לַיהוָה לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. ז וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתְּךָ תִּשְׁמְרוּ אֶת כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם לְכָל דְּבַר הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וּלְמִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת וַעֲבַדְתֶּם עֲבֹדַת מַתָּנָה אֶתֵּן אֶת כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת.
(God said to Aharon: You and your sons bear responsibility for the Temple…
The Levi’im…shall serve…
but they may not approach the sacred vessels or the altar…)

After this distinction, the Torah spells out the gifts only Kohanim receive in 18:8-20:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל אַהֲרֹן וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לְךָ אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת תְּרוּמֹתָי …וּלְבָנֶיךָ לְחָק עוֹלָם… וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל אַהֲרֹן בְּאַרְצָם לֹא תִנְחָל וְחֵלֶק לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּתוֹכָם אֲנִי חֶלְקְךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
(Hashem said to Aharon: “I have given you and your sons as an eternal law… Teruma, etc…” Hashem said to Aharon: “In their land you will not inherit, and you will not receive a portion. I am your portion and inheritance…”)

Following this, in 18:21-24, the Levi’im are given a second gift, ma’aser (a tithe):

וְלִבְנֵי לֵוִי הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי כָּל מַעֲשֵׂר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לְנַחֲלָה חֵלֶף עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר הֵם עֹבְדִים אֶת עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וְלֹא יִקְרְבוּ עוֹד בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לָשֵׂאת חֵטְא לָמוּת. וְעָבַד הַלֵּוִי הוּא אֶת עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהֵם יִשְׂאוּ עֲו‍ֹנָם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם וּבְתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יִנְחֲלוּ נַחֲלָה. כִּי אֶת מַעְשַׂר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ לַה’ תְּרוּמָה נָתַתִּי לַלְוִיִּם לְנַחֲלָה עַל כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יִנְחֲלוּ נַחֲלָה.
(And to the sons of Levi I have given all ma’aser…among the Children of Israel they shall not inherit, for I have given them ma’aser… as an inheritance. Therefore I have told them that among the Children of Israel they shall not inherit.)

Notice that when Aharon is informed he will not receive an inheritance in the land of Israel, Hashem says, “I am your portion and inheritance.” The Levi’im are told no such thing. Instead, they are merely told that the ma’aser compensates for their lack of inheritance.

Vayikra and Bamidbar have spoken. Chazak Chazak V’nischazek. Let’s move on to Sefer Devarim.


Sefer Devarim mentions Kohanim many times. While mentioning that after Aharon’s death, he was replaced by his son Elazar (10:6), it nowhere indicates that only Aharon’s descendants may be Kohanim. Not once does Devarim use the words בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים. Instead, different expressions appear, ones that have not previously appeared in the Torah even once: הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם (the Kohanim the Levi’im) and הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי (the Kohanim, sons of Levi). This stands in stark contrast with Vayikra and Bamidbar’s frequent mention of the Kohanim being from Aharon.

If someone unfamiliar with the previous sefarim read Devarim, he or she would think that all the male members of the tribe of Levi are Kohanim. All of them may bring korbanos, bless the people with Hashem’s name, and rule on tzara’as, as seen from 21:5 regarding Egla Arufa (the calf ritual for an unsolved murder):

וְנִגְּשׁוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי כִּי בָם בָּחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בְּשֵׁם ה’ וְעַל פִּיהֶם יִהְיֶה כָּל רִיב וְכָל נָגַע.
(The Kohanim, sons of Levi shall approach, for Hashem your God chose them to serve him, and bless in the name of Hashem. By their word shall be every dispute and every affliction [referring to tzara’as]).

This trend is consistent throughout the entire Devarim. See, for example 24:8:

הִשָּׁמֶר בְּנֶגַע הַצָּרַעַת לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד וְלַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּ אֶתְכֶםהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם תִּשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת
(Be vigilant regarding the tzara’as affliction…to do all that the Kohanim the Levi’im rule…)

Chazal / Mefarshim

Chazal, aware of this discrepancy, explain that הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי and הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם mean ‘the Kohanim, who are part of the larger tribe of Levi:

אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי בעשרים וארבעה מקומות נקראו כהנים לוים
(R. Yehoshua son of Levi says: In 24 places Kohanim are called Levi’im).[4]

Nevertheless, it’s downright unsettling that this label appears nowhere in the rest of the Torah, and descriptions such as בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים appear nowhere in Devarim.

Some have suggested that this may be just because Devarim is the words of Moshe. But these phrases are used even when Moshe is not speaking! See, for example, Devarim 27:9:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם לַה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
(Moshe and the Kohanim the Levi’im spoke to all Israel, saying…)

Carrying the Aron

Devarim blurs Kohanim and Levi’im into one category. While in Vayikra and Bamidbar, the Kohanim service the Aron and the Levi’im carry it, Devarim tells a very different story. After Moshe writes the Torah, whom does he tell to take it and place it by the Aron? The same ones who carry it! And who carries it? The Kohanim the Levi’im! In 31:9 we find:

וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וַיִּתְּנָהּ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי הַנֹּשְׂאִים אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה’ וְאֶל כָּל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
(Moshe wrote this Torah, and gave it to the Kohanim, the sons of Levi who carry the Ark…)

Then in 31:24-26,

וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לִכְתֹּב אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר עַד תֻּמָּם. וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם נֹשְׂאֵי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה’ לֵאמֹר. לָקֹחַ אֵת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֹתוֹ מִצַּד אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהָיָה שָׁם בְּךָ לְעֵד
(When Moshe was finished writing…this Torah…Moshe commanded the Levi’im who carry the Ark…, saying: Take this Sefer Torah and place it at the side of the Ark.)

The Levi’im carry the Aron! And they approach it, to place the Torah there! It’s as if the Levi’im are the ַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי! After all, when the king writes his own Torah, where does he get the text from? The ones who put it by the Aron!

וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם.
(When he sits on his royal throne, he shall write this…Torah in a scroll, from before the Kohanim the Levi’im.)

This theme of the Kohanim bearing the Aron continues through Sefer Yehoshua as well, in regard to both title and function. At the beginning of the 3rd perek:

וַיְצַוּוּ אֶת הָעָם לֵאמֹר כִּרְאוֹתְכֶם אֵת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה‘ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם נֹשְׂאִים אֹתוֹ וְאַתֶּם תִּסְעוּ מִמְּקוֹמְכֶם וַהֲלַכְתֶּם אַחֲרָיו.
(…when you see Ark…with the the Kohanim the Levi’im carrying it…)

Same expressions, same roles! Two pesukim later, they’re called Kohanim, just like in Devarim:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים לֵאמֹר שְׂאוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן הַבְּרִית וְעִבְרוּ לִפְנֵי הָעָם וַיִּשְׂאוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן הַבְּרִית וַיֵּלְכוּ לִפְנֵי הָעָם.
(Yehoshua said to the Kohanim, saying: Carry the Ark…and they carried the Ark…)

This continues multiple times throughout the perek! In the 6th perek too, regarding the conquest of Yericho, again the Kohanim carry the Aron, just like Devarim. Intriguingly, the language and style of Yehoshua closely parallel Devarim in many other ways as well.[5]

Chazal / Mefarshim

Interestingly, the mefarshim (Chizkuni, Sforno) use these very pesukim to answer the other pesukim regarding the Aron. Why does Devarim sometimes say the Kohanim carry the Aron? Because on special occasions of great significance (such as every time the Aron appears in Sefer Yehoshua), they do!

תנו רבנן: כיצד עברו ישראל את הירדן? בכל יום ארון נוסע אחר שני דגלים והיום נסע תחילה, שנאמר: ‘הנה ארון הברית אדון כל הארץ עובר לפניכם.’ בכל יום ויום לוים נושאין את הארון והיום נשאוהו כהנים, שנאמר: ‘והיה כנוח כפות רגלי הכהנים נושאי ארון ה’ וגו’.’ תניא רבי יוסי אומר: “בשלשה מקומות נשאו כהנים את הארון: כשעברו את הירדן, וכשהסיבו את יריחו, וכשהחזירוהו למקומו” (סוטה לג:).
(R. Yosi says: The Kohanim carried the Aron three times. When they crossed the Yarden, when they circled Yericho, and when they returned it to its place.)

While evading all the direct kashyas, this doesn’t even begin to address the main problem: The division of the Torah into fully-formed units which are internally consistent yet present things very differently.

The Egel’s Aftermath

In Devarim 10:8 we also find the entire tribe of Levi, without the added description “The Kohanim,” doing a variety of things that Vayikra/Bamidbar divide between Kohanim and Levi’im!

בָּעֵת הַהִוא הִבְדִּיל ה’ אֶת שֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לָשֵׂאת אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה’ לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי ה’ לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
(At that time, Hashem separated the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark…to stand before Hashem to serve him and bless in His name, until this day.)

While carrying the Aron was the Levi’im’s task, “to bless in His name”ֹ is clearly a reference to birchas Kohanim (So shall you bless…and they shall place my name…).

In the next pasuk, the reason for their lack of inheritance is same one given to Aharon and his sons alone, except that here the entire tribe of Levi is included:

עַל כֵּן לֹא הָיָה לְלֵוִיחֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִם אֶחָיו ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לוֹ.
(Therefore there was no portion or inheritance for Levi among his brothers. Hashem is his inheritance as Hashem your God said to him.)

Chazal / Mefarshim

The mefarshim are aware of these issues, of course, and explain some of the clauses as discussing Kohanim, and others as referring to Levi’im. But the problem is, nowhere in the entire Sefer Devarim is such a distinction made. In fact, the pesukim just mentioned begin with בָּעֵת הַהִוא (at that time), which seems to be describing the Egel (sin of the golden calf)[6].

There, in Shemos 32:26-28, we find:

וַיַּעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה בְּשַׁעַר הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר מִי לַה’ אֵלָי וַיֵּאָסְפוּ אֵלָיו כָּל בְּנֵי לֵוִי. וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימוּ אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ עַל יְרֵכוֹ עִבְרוּ וָשׁוּבוּ מִשַּׁעַר לָשַׁעַר בַּמַּחֲנֶה וְהִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו וְאִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת קְרֹבוֹ. וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי לֵוִי כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּפֹּל מִן הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ.
(Moshe said…whoever is for Hashem, [come] to me! All the sons of Levi gathered unto him. Moshe said: So says Hashem…each man shall kill…his brother, his friend, his relative [who had sinned]. The sons of Levi did what Moshe said…)

After the sons of Levi—all of them—show their dedication to Hashem, and have no mercy even on their relatives, Moshe says:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מִלְאוּ יֶדְכֶם הַיּוֹם לַה’ כִּי אִישׁ בִּבְנוֹ וּבְאָחִיו וְלָתֵת עֲלֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה.
(Fill your hands for Hashem, for each man has killed his son and brother…)

The expression מִלְאוּ יֶדְכֶם (fill your hands) is one of miluim, inauguration into sanctity, an expression used in Vayikra (and the parallel pesukim in Shemos) uniquely for Kohanim.

For example, in Vayikra 8:32, Moshe commands Aharon and his sons:

וּמִפֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא תֵצְאוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים עַד יוֹם מְלֹאת יְמֵי מִלֻּאֵיכֶם כִּי שִׁבְעַת יָמִים יְמַלֵּא אֶת יֶדְכֶם
(You shall not leave the entrance way of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day your miluim are complete, because for seven days He shall fill your hands.)

Levi’im just don’t get a miluim in Vayikra and Bamidbar. But by the Egel they do, and the Torah describes it there, and in Sefer Devarim, as sanctifying them.

בָּעֵת הַהִוא הִבְדִּיל ה’ אֶת שֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לָשֵׂאת אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה’ לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי ה’ לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
(At that time, Hashem separated the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark…to stand before Hashem to serve him and bless in His name, until this day.)

When Moshe blesses the tribes at the end of Devarim (33,8), he seemingly blesses all of Levi with the service of ketores (incense) and olah (elevation offering), as a reward for their dedication at the Egel. In Vayikra/Bamidbar, these are the exclusive domain of the Kohanim, sons of Aharon.

וּלְלֵוִי אָמַר תֻּמֶּיךָ וְאוּרֶיךָ לְאִישׁ חֲסִידֶךָ אֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתוֹ בְּמַסָּה תְּרִיבֵהוּ עַל מֵי מְרִיבָה. הָאֹמֵר לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לֹא רְאִיתִיו וְאֶת אֶחָיו לֹא הִכִּיר וְאֶת בנו [בָּנָיו] לֹא יָדָע כִּי שָׁמְרוּ אִמְרָתֶךָ וּבְרִיתְךָ יִנְצֹרוּ. יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַעֲקֹב וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל יָשִׂימוּ קְטוֹרָה בְּאַפֶּךָ וְכָלִיל עַל מִזְבְּחֶךָ.
(And to Levi…He said of his father and mother, “I acknowledge them not,” and didn’t recognize his brothers nor know his sons… They shall teach Your laws to Yaakov, and your Torah to Yisrael. They shall place incense…and burnt-offering on your altar.)

Again, the mefarshim (e.g. Ramban) divide the pasuk between Kohanim and Levi’im, with the sacrificial portions referring to Kohanim (from Aharon!) and “They shall teach Your laws…” going on all of Levi. But in the Torah they’re interspersed

Even worse, in Devarim 17:8-9, that role itself is ascribed to the ֹּKohanim the Levi’im:

כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט בֵּין דָּם לְדָם בֵּין דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. וּבָאתָ אֶלהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט.
(When you are unsure of a matter of law…You shall ascend to the place Hashem your God shall choose. You shall come to the Kohanim the Levi’im, and to the judge who will be in those days. You shall inquire and they shall tell you the matter of law.)

Nowhere, in Vayikra or Bamidbar, is a reason given for the selection of the Kohanim or the Levi’im. The Kohanim are designated because Hashem said so, and the Levi’im are given to them as helpers. However, the way Devarim tells the story the Levi’im—the Kohanim HaLevi’im—were elevated above the rest of Bnei Yisrael to serve in the Temple and bless in Hashem’s name because they were faithful by the Egel. Nothing in all of Devarim mentions Aharon’s descendants as being any more privileged than that the other Levi’im. To bring out this point, from Devarim’s perspective: Korach, who argued that all Levi’im should be Kohanim, was right!

In fact, look how Devarim 11:6 tells the Korach story:

וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד בֹּאֲכֶם עַד הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה. וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב בֶּן רְאוּבֵן אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵם וְאֶת בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֶת אָהֳלֵיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶם בְּקֶרֶב כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל. כִּי עֵינֵיכֶם הָרֹאֹת אֶת כָּל מַעֲשֵׂה ה’ הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.
(…what He did to Dasan and Aviram… the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, their households, their tents…)

What happened to Korach? It seems that Devarim has no room for Korach, as he sought the Priesthood, וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה, something that in Devarim would have already been his! Instead, only Dasan and Aviram rebel, as their problems were with Moshe in general.[7]

A Distinction between Kohanim and Levi’im in Devarim?

Thus far, although Devarim sometimes says Kohen, sometimes Levi, and sometimes Kohanim HaLevi’im, nowhere does a single pasuk in all of Devarim differentiate between Kohanim and Levi’im.

But what about the first eight pesukim in Shoftim, perek 18?

לֹא יִהְיֶה לַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם כָּל שֵׁבֶט לֵוִי חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל אִשֵּׁי ה’ וְנַחֲלָתוֹ יֹאכֵלוּן. וְנַחֲלָה לֹא יִהְיֶה לּוֹ בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לוֹ. וְזֶה יִהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט הַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת הָעָם מֵאֵת זֹבְחֵי הַזֶּבַח אִם שׁוֹר אִם שֶׂה וְנָתַן לַכֹּהֵן הַזְּרֹעַ וְהַלְּחָיַיִם וְהַקֵּבָה. רֵאשִׁית דְּגָנְךָ תִּירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ וְרֵאשִׁית גֵּז צֹאנְךָ תִּתֶּן לּוֹ. כִּי בוֹ בָּחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִכָּל שְׁבָטֶיךָ לַעֲמֹד לְשָׁרֵת בְּשֵׁם ה’ הוּא וּבָנָיו כָּל הַיָּמִים. וְכִי יָבֹא הַלֵּוִי מֵאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הוּא גָּר שָׁם וּבָא בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשׁוֹ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’. וְשֵׁרֵת בְּשֵׁם ה’ אֱלֹהָיו כְּכָל אֶחָיו הַלְוִיִּם הָעֹמְדִים שָׁם לִפְנֵי ה’. חֵלֶק כְּחֵלֶק יֹאכֵלוּ לְבַד מִמְכָּרָיו עַל הָאָבוֹת.
(1 The Kohanim, the Levi’im, all the tribe of Levi shall not have a portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the fire-offerings of Hashem and His inheritance. 2 And he shall have no inheritance among his brothers. Hashem is his inheritance, as He said to him. 3 And this shall be the lawful [portion] of the Kohanim from the people, from those who slaughter whether ox or sheep: He shall give the Kohen the forearm, the cheeks, and the stomach. 4 The first of your grain, grapes, and olives, and the first of your sheep’s shearings give to him. 5 For Hashem your God has chosen him from all of your tribes, to stand to serve in the name of Hashem, he and his sons, for all the days. 6 And when the Levi comes from one of your gates, from all of Israel, for he lives there, he shall come as his soul desires, to the place where Hashem will choose. 7 He shall serve in the name of Hashem his God, like all his brothers the Levi’im, who stand there before Hashem. 8 They shall eat equal portions, except for what their ancestors established.)

At first glance, it seems we finally found Devarim straight out talking about Kohanim and then Levi’im. But let’s inspect these pesukim closely. The first two are about the ַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, concluding with Hashem’s statement to Aharon. The next three refer to plain Kohanim, allotting them various gifts. But they’re mentioned as being chosen מִכָּל שְׁבָטֶיךָ (from all your tribes), seemingly implying an entire shevet.

Additionally, the closing words לַעֲמֹד לְשָׁרֵת בְּשֵׁם ה’ (to stand to serve in the name of Hashem) clearly parallel the last three pesukim, which talk about the Levi! ְוְשֵׁרֵת בְּשֵׁם ה’ אֱלֹהָיו כְּכָל אֶחָיו הַלְוִיִּם (He shall serve in the name of Hashem his God, like all his brothers the Levi’im). And that last section, וְכִי יָבֹא הַלֵּוִי (When the Levi comes), ends with חֵלֶק כְּחֵלֶק יֹאכֵלוּ (They shall eat equal portions), which is clearly describing the eating of korbanos, the domain of Kohanim alone! So even though these three sections seem to be distinguishing between Kohanim and Levi’im, their content belies such a distinction.

Chazal / Mefarshim

So how do Chazal learn this last parsha? It’s actually a machlokes between the Midrash and the Gemara. Sifri (quoted by Rashi there) explains it to be discussing Kohanim, based on the lashon of שירות, service. But the Gemara (Arachin 11a) clearly learns this parsha as discussing Levi’im, with the service being shira (song). The Gemara there proves from here that shira is an integral part of the avoda (service).

It even goes as far as to say,

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל מנין לעיקר שירה מן התורה שנאמרושרת בשם ה’ אלהיו איזהו שירות שבשם הוי אומר זה שירה ואימא נשיאות כפים מדכתיב לשרתו ולברך בשמו מכלל דברכת כהנים לאו שירות היא.
(What service is with the Name? Song. Couldn’t it be the Priestly blessing? No, it says “to serve Him, to bless in His name,” showing that the Priestly blessing is not “service.”[8])

Yet as the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) in Ha’amek Davar points out, even the Gemara must admit that the last pasuk refers to Kohanim alone, חֵלֶק כְּחֵלֶק יֹאכֵלוּ (they shall eat equal portions). Chazal have evaded these problems by saying, “these few words are going on Kohanim, and these few words are describing Levi’im,” ignoring the introduction to each set of pesukim. Their approach resolves differences between the leaves, but not between the trees, kal v’chomer the whole forest![9]

Rav Hirsch

The only traditional approach I have found which tackles these difficulties head-on is that of Rav Samson Refael Hirsch. He suggests that whereas in Vayikra/Bamidbar the roles of Kohanim and Levi’im are quite distinct, Devarim by definition must be different. For Devarim is the sefer which addresses life in Eretz Yisrael, where most people would not live in proximity to the Mikdash. In Devarim, only the descendants of Aharon who live in the environs of the Mikdash are called Kohanim. Those who live in the periphery are called Kohanim HaLevi’im, because even though they are technically Kohanim, their de facto role will be that of their broader shevet, to represent the Torah and its teachings among the people.

When addressing this specific point, that they are fit for service in the mikdash even though they spend their lives fulfilling the role of the Levi, the Torah uses the specific term Levi for them. Hence,

וְכִי יָבֹא הַלֵּוִי מֵאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הוּא גָּר שָׁם וּבָא בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשׁוֹ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’. וְשֵׁרֵת בְּשֵׁם ה’ אֱלֹהָיו כְּכָל אֶחָיו הַלְוִיִּם הָעֹמְדִים שָׁם לִפְנֵי ה’. חֵלֶק כְּחֵלֶק יֹאכֵלוּ לְבַד מִמְכָּרָיו עַל הָאָבוֹת.
(And when the Levi comes from one of your gates, from all of Israel, for he lives there, he shall come as his soul desires, to the place where Hashem will choose. He shall serve in the name of Hashem his God, like all his brothers the Levi’im, who stand there before Hashem. They shall eat equal portions, except for what their ancestors established.)

At first glance, his approach seems incredibly geshmak (delightful), lucidly explaining why Vayikra/Bamidbar and Devarim employ such different expressions. But upon closer inspection, I feel it breaks down in the details. If Kohanim HaLevi’im refers to Kohanim in their secondary, Levi role, why does the king copy his Torah מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם (from before the Kohanim the Levi’im, clearly referring to the Torah in [or next to] the Aron, as Rav Hirsch himself explains there)? Vayikra makes it quite clear that access to the Aron itself is the domain of Kohanim alone![10] When a halachik question arises, why does the Torah say (Devarim 17:8.9):

כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר…וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט.
(When you are unsure of a matter of law…You shall ascend to the place Hashem your God shall choose. You shall come to the Kohanim the Levi’im, and to the judge who will be in those days. You shall inquire and they shall tell you the matter of law.)

If they are in the Mikdash, shouldn’t they be called Kohanim? Rav Hirsch, attuned to this problem, explains that this too is part of their Levitical function, representing Torah to the people. But the follow-up pasuk (17:12) says,

וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה בְזָדוֹן לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ אֶל הַכֹּהֵן הָעֹמֵד לְשָׁרֶת שָׁם אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אוֹ אֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט.
(And the man who willfully refuses to listen to the Kohen who stands there to serve Hashem your God, or to the judge…)

Rav Hirsch is then forced to explain that pasuk as referring to a theoretical head of the Beis Din who is a Kohen, with the Torah stressing his Temple status to give weight to his words. Not only is this forced, but the pesukim seem to equating the Kohen with the Kohanim HaLevi’im (as both are mentioned with the judge). Additionally, the main problem still remains: Why doesn’t Sefer Devarim ever say anything about Kohanim being the sons of Aharon? There are enough places in Devarim where Kohanim appear “as themselves,” in their primary role, but still no mention of Aharon! e.g. Bikurim(26:3), וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֵן אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, Temple service (17:12), לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ אֶל הַכֹּהֵן הָעֹמֵד לְשָׁרֶת שָׁם, the Kohen’s due (18:3) וְזֶה יִהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט הַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת הָעָם.

More to the point, Rav Hirsch contends that the Kohanim Bnei Aharon are called Kohanim HaLevi’im when they serve as Levi’im in decentralized Eretz Yisrael. This ought to apply in Vayikra/Bamidbar as well. Yet while in Devarim the Kohanim HaLevi’im rule on tzara’as,[11] in Vayikra it is always just the Kohen, even when Vayikra addresses the same demographic as Devarim (e.g. Vayikra 14:34-57)!

כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם וּבָא אֲשֶׁר לוֹ הַבַּיִת וְהִגִּיד לַכֹּהֵןלֵאמֹר כְּנֶגַע נִרְאָה לִי בַּבָּיִת וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵןוּפִנּוּ אֶת הַבַּיִת בְּטֶרֶם יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַנֶּגַע וְלֹא יִטְמָא כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת וְאַחַר כֵּן יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַבָּיִת… וְיָצָאהַכֹּהֵן… וְשָׁב הַכֹּהֵן… וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן… וּבָאהַכֹּהֵן… וְאִם בֹּא יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן
(When you come to the land of Canaan…and I place the tzara’as affliction in a house…the owner shall come to the Kohen… The Kohen shall order that they empty the house before the Kohen comes…then the Kohen shall come…)

Why would Devarim always call Kohanim “Levi’im” when they see tzara’as, but Vayikra doesn’t, even once?[12]

A Simple Resolution

It seems unavoidable. Sefer Devarim’s view of kehuna is altogether different than that of Vayikra/Bamidbar. In Devarim, a Kohen is not just someone born into the family of Aharon. Neither are all Levi’im considered Kohanim. Rather, all Levi’im are potential Kohanim. How does a Levi become a Kohen? By choosing to be one, by leaving the far-flung city he lives in and coming to the Temple, deciding to dedicate his life to Hashem and His Mikdash.

Conjecture? Not really. Devarim 18 itself describes this transition.

וְכִי יָבֹא הַלֵּוִי מֵאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הוּא גָּר שָׁם וּבָא בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשׁוֹ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’. וְשֵׁרֵת בְּשֵׁם ה’ אֱלֹהָיו כְּכָל אֶחָיו הַלְוִיִּם הָעֹמְדִים שָׁם לִפְנֵי ה’. חֵלֶק כְּחֵלֶק יֹאכֵלוּ לְבַד מִמְכָּרָיו עַל הָאָבוֹת.
(And when the Levi comes from one of your gates, from all of Israel, for he lives there, he shall come as his soul desires, to the place where Hashem will choose. He shall serve in the name of Hashem his God, like all his brothers the Levi’im, who stand there before Hashem. They shall eat equal portions, except for what their ancestors established.)

This then, is the peshat in those first eight pesukim in Devarim 18. They open by saying that both the general Shevet Levi and the Kohanim HaLevi’im have no portion in Eretz Yisrael. Then the gifts allocated to Kohanim are detailed. Then Devarim says that any Levi can become a Kohen.

There’s even a story in Tanach describing a Levi getting this “upgrade.” Shoftim 17 tells of a man named Micha, who builds an idolatrous shrine. Having nobody else to run it, he makes his son the “Kohen” there. But soon he comes across someone much better – a Levi.

וַיְהִי נַעַר מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת יְהוּדָה וְהוּא לֵוִי וְהוּא גָר שָׁם. וַיֵּלֶךְ הָאִישׁ מֵהָעִיר מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בַּאֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא וַיָּבֹא הַר אֶפְרַיִם עַד בֵּית מִיכָה לַעֲשׂוֹת דַּרְכּו.ֹ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מִיכָה מֵאַיִן תָּבוֹא וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לֵוִי אָנֹכִי מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה וְאָנֹכִי הֹלֵךְ לָגוּר בַּאֲשֶׁר אֶמְצָא. וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מִיכָה שְׁבָה עִמָּדִי וֶהְיֵה לִי לְאָב וּלְכֹהֵן וְאָנֹכִי אֶתֶּן לְךָ עֲשֶׂרֶת כֶּסֶף לַיָּמִים וְעֵרֶךְ בְּגָדִים וּמִחְיָתֶךָ וַיֵּלֶךְ הַלֵּוִי. וַיּוֹאֶל הַלֵּוִי לָשֶׁבֶת אֶת הָאִישׁ וַיְהִי הַנַּעַר לוֹ כְּאַחַד מִבָּנָיו. וַיְמַלֵּא מִיכָה אֶת יַד הַלֵּוִי וַיְהִי לוֹ הַנַּעַר לְכֹהֵן וַיְהִי בְּבֵית מִיכָה. וַיֹּאמֶר מִיכָה עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יֵיטִיב ה לִי כִּי הָיָה לִי הַלֵּוִי לְכֹהֵן.
(There was a lad from Bethlehem of Judea, from the family of Yehuda. He was a Levi, and lived there. He left his city…and came to Mt. Efraim, to Micha’s house… Micha said to him, “Where are you coming from?” He said to him, “I am a Levi from Bethlehem of Judea, and I am going to dwell wherever I find [proper].” Micha said to him, “Stay with me, and be a leader and a Kohen, and I will pay you…The Levi agreed to stay…Micha filled the hand of the Levi, and the lad was a Kohen for him…Micha said, “Now I know that Hashem will be good to me, for I have the Levi as a Kohen!”)

To summarize: The Torah’s view on whether Kohanim are just the Bnei Aharon or they could even come from the entire Shevet Levi seems sharply divided between various portions of the Torah. Vayikra, Bamidbar (and Teruma to Pekudei, minus the Egel) all seem to be cut from one roll of cloth, one unambiguously declaring that only Aharon and his descendants are Kohanim, and all other members of the tribe of Levi are only Levi’im.

On the other hand, there seems to be a different roll of cloth, one which extends the Kehuna to any member of Levi who seeks it. Sefer Devarim, the beginning of Yehoshua, and the story of the Egel seem to cut from this roll (or ones quite similar). The Torah, stitched together from these differing perspectives is more quilt than tapestry, comprised of multiple smaller units, with differing perspectives.

This divide is far more profound than described in this article, which only focused on one specific example. There are many, many different areas where these “rolls of cloth” contradict each other — but within themselves are perfectly consistent.

One small example: In Devarim, and the main body of the Egel story, the mountain is called Chorev. On the other hand, in Vayikra and Bamidbar, it’s called Sinai.[13] That wouldn’t be worth very much on its own, but it joins this larger picture.

Religious Responses

So now what? Who do we turn to now? Well, usually when it comes to problems like these, the go-to men are the two great parshanim, R’ Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Moshe Dovid(Umberto) Cassuto. They dedicated much effort toward addressing the challenges posed by modern Biblical scholarship. Unfortunately, neither one addresses this specific issue. M. D.Cassuto passed away, pen in hand, in the middle of writing his commentary to Shemos. R’ Dovid Tzvi completed his peirush on Devarim, but on these pesukim, he says “See what I write in the introduction to this sefer.” A footnote at the sefer’s beginning informs the reader that he too passed away before writing this introduction.

Another approach was developed by Rav Mordechai Breuer, a true believer in the unity of the Torah. He accepted the mentioned distinctions, but recognized them as Hashem speaking in different voices and from different perspectives. Here he would say that there are two aspects at play, the selection of the Levi’im (and thereby the Kohanim as well) because of their conduct at the Egel, and the selection of the Kohanim (and by extension the Levi’im to assist them) because Hashem said so. See here[14] for an article elaborating on this point. To fully grasp his approach, see his introduction to his Pirkei Bereishit, or read one of his many (lengthy!) maamarim.

This approach or Rav Breuer is not adequate in my eyes. It fully accepts the methodology and discoveries of modern Biblical scholarship, acknowledging that the Torah looks like it was patched together from differing sources, yet says that Hashem deliberately composed his Torah that way. Why? Why?


It is therefore with a heavy heart that I admit that the secular scholarly approach seems more truthful. As Rabbeinu Hakadosh said in Pesachim 94b, נראין דבריהן מדברינו, their approach seems more accurate than ours.[15] Devarim appears to emanate from a different source than the previous Chumashim.

Does that mean I accept this as truth? Not necessarily. There is still room for belief. Perhaps if R’ Tzvi Dovid and M.D. Cassuto had lived longer, they would have shed new light on this topic. Can I judge those who do accept the secular conclusions? I feel the answer here too, is no. Rav Mordechai Breuer himself never doubted the unity of the Torah. Still, he urged those who felt they cannot accept it in light of modern scholarship to at least believe that אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים, that ultimately Hashem wanted things to be this way.

Here Rav Breuer parts ways from certain secular scholars, who envision the author of Vayikra/Bamidbar as being a descendant of Aharon, emphasizing his superiority over those mere Levi’im, with Devarim representing an angry Levi’s response (chas veshalom!) Rather, he suggests that these different perspectives are both true, both dvar Hashem, revealed gradually to different prophets before being combined into the Torah as we know it (at Hashem’s command). If that’s utterly unacceptable to you, I understand. I don’t love it either. But instead of just yelling “kofrim!” can we try to address, or at least acknowledge, these issues?


Reflections on Source Criticism and A. Avreich’s “Levi’im and Kohanim

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler

I have read A. Avreich’s posting, several times, with awe. Although I have not met the author, I know that he is committed to Torah and full time learning in Kollel, yet he feels deeply compelled to follow logic and truth where ever it may lead. In this case, A. Avreich’s learning has brought him face to face with one of the basic pillars of Pentateuchal source criticism.

Two strong features favor source criticism: (1) the fact that unlike other texts I know from the ancient world, the narrative sections of the Torah can be broken down into several intertwined, more or less complete documents, each with a different vocabulary and theology; and (2) the fact that the legal collections in the Bible are each internally consistent, but differ strongly one from another. Thus, source criticism was developed to solve certain textual problems. It remains a theory, though a very robust one, that to my mind does a better job of accounting for the evidence of the Torah than any other theory. Stated differently, source-criticism takes the Torah very seriously, and tries to understand why it seems to contain certain problems.

Source criticism has a long history, though it is most associated with the name of the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, who in 1878 wrote a book eventually translated in English as Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Wellhausen was Protestant, and he, like many of the academic biblical scholars of his time, shows a strong anti-Jewish (and anti-Catholic) bias in how he frames many issues. That does not mean, however, that all of his conclusions are incorrect.

In developing his theory, Wellhausen offered four pillars that helped to distinguish and date various biblical texts: where God could be worshipped, sacrifices, the festivals, and the Priests (kohanim) and Levites (Levi’im). Much of what the author says about the differences between Deuteronomy versus Leviticus and Numbers (Priestly material) is found in Wellhausen, and in more recent expositions on the development of the priesthood, such as the article “Levites and Priests” by Merlin D. Rehm in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, pp. 297-310. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, published in 1992, is the standard academic reference book in biblical studies.

To highlight one example referenced briefly in Avreich’s article: Judges 17:12-13, a very strange story that few people know (since the study of nevi’im [Prophets] and ketuvim [Writings] is absent from the curriculum of most Jewish schools), notes:

וַיְמַלֵּ֤א מִיכָה֙ אֶת־יַ֣ד הַלֵּוִ֔י וַיְהִי־ל֥וֹ הַנַּ֖עַר לְכֹהֵ֑ן וַיְהִ֖י בְּבֵ֥ית מִיכָֽה׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מִיכָ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־יֵיטִ֥יב יְ-הוָ֖ה לִ֑י כִּ֧י הָיָה־לִ֛י הַלֵּוִ֖י לְכֹהֵֽן׃
Micah inducted the Levite, and the young man became his priest and remained in Micah’s shrine. ‘Now I know,’ Micah told himself, ‘that the Lord will prosper me, since the Levite has become my priest.’

Here a Levite who is not descended from Aaron becomes a Kohen, a Priest, something unimaginable in Leviticus or other Priestly writings. The Bible, it seems, has several different perspectives on as crucial an issue as who can become a Kohen. The Bible often is multi-perspectival, if we are willing to look.


August 22, 2013


Last Updated

July 9, 2024


View Footnotes

A. Avreich is a pseudonym for a man learning in a Haredi kollel.