Between Yeshiva Students and the Tribe of Levi

One of the claims in the issue of recruitment of yeshiva students to the IDF is that according to Rambam, anyone who wants can be like a member of the Tribe of Levi, who did not participate in wars. But that entails definite responsibilities.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 21:59

Judaism Har Bracha yeshiva
Har Bracha yeshiva
פלאש 90

The Torah’s Position Regarding Recruitment of Yeshiva Students

In response to my previous column, I was asked: “What is the source for the claim that yeshiva students must respect and pray for the soldiers, and that the postponement of enlistment for yeshiva students is appropriate only for students whom the public needs to have study in yeshiva, so they can later become a teacher or rabbi?”

These questions are based on what Rambam wrote about the Tribe of Levi: “Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large … Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are God’s legion, as written: ‘God has blessed His legion’ and He provides for them, as stated: ‘I am your portion and your inheritance.’

"Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him… he is sanctified as holy of holies. God 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 (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 13: 12-13)."

Choosing the Tribe of Levi

In order to understand the Torah’s instruction, we must have another look at the Tribe of Levi and their intent. Since the Torah was given to all of Israel, at first, the roles of the Kohanim (Priests) and Levi’im (Levites) were intended to be entrusted to the bechor (firstborn male) of families in all tribes of Israel, so that in each family, there would be a bechor dedicated to Torah study, education, and service in the Mikdash (Holy Temple), and thus, the entire nation, including all its tribes, would be connected to Torah and the sacred service.

However, after the firstborn sons also participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf, they fell from their high spiritual level, and in their stead the Tribe of Levi who did not participate in the sin, were chosen and sanctified – they even assisted Moshe Rabbeinu in putting a halt to the sin, and punishing the sinners.

From this event one can deduce that the idea of the bechor​​a is too lofty for us, and as a result, instead of the firstborn acting as Kohanim and having a positive affect on their families and the public at large, they were influenced by the secular lifestyle of the general public and lost their uniqueness. Consequently, they failed to prevent the people from the sin of the Golden Calf.

Therefore, there was a need to dedicate an entire tribe, all of whose members would strengthen each other against the winds of time and various temptations, so they could fulfill their sacred mission.

The Role of the Tribe of Levi

Thus, God sanctified the entire Tribe of Levi, led by the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, “to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments to worship the Lord and to serve and teach his upright and righteous ways” as Rambam put it, and as written in the Torah (Deuteronomy 33:10): “They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel.”

They were also intended to serve in rabbinical and judicial positions, as written: “If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, or any other case where there is a dispute in your territorial courts …You must approach the Levitical priests and other members of the supreme court that exists at the time. When you make inquiry, they will declare to you a legal decision.” (Deuteronomy 17: 8- 9).

Likewise, the Prophet said: “And you will know that I have sent you this command so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace … True Torah was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. For the lips of a Kohen should safeguard knowledge, and people seek Torah from his mouth…” (Malachi 2: 4-7).

In order for the Kohanim and Levi’im to fulfill their duties, the Torah stipulated  they should not be given a portion in the Land, instead, all members of the tribe would be spread throughout all of Israel, and each and every tribe would assign them residential areas in their inheritance to dwell in (Numbers 35: 1-8). And this is what B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) did (Joshua 21: 3). We find then, that the Kohanim and Levi’im served the entire public, and in order for them to fulfill their duties, the Torah commanded that B’nei Yisrael support them with terumot and ma’asrot (tithes) (Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 7: 3).

Police Officers

Many perceive the members of the Tribe of Levi as being gentle and frail people – all talk, but no action. But, in fact, they also served as shotrim (police officers) intended to govern law and order in Israel, as written: “David had now grown old; he had lived many years; so he made Shlomo his son king over Israel…a census of Levi’im thirty years old and over was taken… of these, 24,000 were to oversee the work on the house of God, while 6,000 were officers and judges” (1 Chronicles, 23: 1-4).

It is also written: “From the family line of Yitzhar came Kenaniah and his sons. They were given duties that were away from the Temple. They were officers and the judges over Israel” (ibid. 26:29). And also in the days of Yehoshaphat: “The Levites will serve as your officials. Be brave. And may God be with those of you who do well” (2 Chronicles 19: 11). And also in the days of Josiah: “They supervised those carrying the loads and everyone doing any kind of work; and there were also Levi’im who were secretaries, officers, and gatekeepers” (ibid. 34: 13).

Our Sages said as well: “At first, (i.e., in the days of the First Temple) officers were appointed from the Levites only, for it is said, ‘And the officers of the Levites before you…” (Yevamot 86b). In addition, our Sages said that the Levi’im were the police officers who accompanied the judges to punish the sinners (Sifre, Deuteronomy 15). And Rabbi David Pardo explained that this role is ascribed to the Levi’im due to their spiritual root in the attribute of gevurah (strength) (Sifra debei Rav, Deuteronomy I: 15), and continued in this role in Egypt, and ever since stopping sinners and punishing them in the Sin of the Golden Calf (Meshech Chochma, Numbers 9: 9-10; Malbim, Exodus 32:27).

True, it appears that each and every tribe appointed officers (Deuteronomy 16:18), nevertheless, it is possible to say that it refers to the members of Levi who lived among that same tribe. And there are meforshim (commentators) who explained that in addition to police officers from members of a tribe, the Levi’im were also police officers, with judicial powers (Be’er Sheva, Sotah 42a; Aseh Lecha Rav, 3:48).

Police Officers as Fighters

Rashi wrote: “I found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (quoted in other Midrashim), when Aaron died, the clouds of glory withdrew, and the Canaanites came to fight against Israel. The Israelites set their hearts on returning to Egypt, and they went back eight stages of their journey from Mount Hor to Moserah… and the Levites pursued them to bring them back, killing seven of their families. The Levites lost four families in the battle” (Rashi, on Numbers 26: 13).

Encouraging the Army and the Fighters

The Tribe of Levi had another most venerable role, to encourage the Israelite fighters. To this end, in addition to the Kohen HaGadol (the High Priest) who was in charge of the service in the Holy Temple, there was an additional Kohen, who was anointed with the anointing oil, and called the “Kohen Mashuach Milchama” (the Priest Anointed for War). His job was to go out with the fighters, and before the battle, say to them: “Listen, Israel, today you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not break ranks before them. God your Lord is the One who is going with you. He will fight for you against your enemies, and He will deliver you” (Deuteronomy 20: 2-4).

And the Kohanim were commanded to blow the trumpets in order to encourage the warriors to prayer and heroism, as written: “The priests who are Aaron’s descendants shall be the ones to sound the trumpets… When you go to war against an enemy who attacks you in your land, you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. You will then be remembered before God your Lord, and will be delivered from your enemies” (Numbers 10:8-9).

War Officers

Along with the encouraging words of the Kohen Mashuach Milchama, in a milchemet reshut (optional war), the shotrim (police officers) would talk to the people, and exempt from enlistment the afraid and disheartened, vineyard-planters, home builders, and husbands in their first year of marriage.

After all those exempted had returned to their homes and the war had begun, the shotrim stationed brave guards amongst them to help those who fell in battle to rise, and break the legs of anyone who wanted to flee the battle, seeing as such a person was liable to endanger everyone, “because the beginning of falling in battle – is fleeing” (Mishnah Sotah 8:6).

The Carriers of the Holy Ark and the Prayers

The Kohanim also carried the Holy Ark that would go out with the fighters to war, to fulfill what is written in the Torah: “For it is the Lord your God that goes with you to fight” (Sotah 42b; Yeri’im 432; Binyamin Ze’ev 102, and others). And they did so also in Joshua’s war in Jericho, and Saul with the Philistines. The Tana’im and Rishonim disputed which ark went out with the fighters, but this is not the place to expound.

At the same time as the fighters went to battle, the Levi’im would sing and pray for the sake of the fighters armed for war, as was said in Yehoshaphat’s days: “Then some Levites from the Kohathites and Korahites stood up and praised the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice… as they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and
Is it conceivable that today there are Roshei Yeshivot (Heads of Yeshiva’s) who do not agree to pray for the peace of our soldiers?! And what’s more, in the name of the legacy of the Tribe of Levi?!
they were defeated” (2 Chronicles 20: 19-22). And some say that the Psalm “May Hashem answer you when you are in distress” in Psalms (Chapter 20) was written for the Levi’im praying for the warriors in battle (Meiri, Sotah 42b).

Is it conceivable that today there are Roshei Yeshivot (Heads of Yeshiva’s) who do not agree to pray for the peace of our soldiers?! And what’s more, in the name of the legacy of the Tribe of Levi?! And if they say that today the spiritual state of the leaders and soldiers is worse, then it is advisable for them to have a look at the Tanach and the words of the wicked kings of Israel, for all of these rules were valid in their days as well.

The Guard Corps of the King of Kings

We see then that the role of the Levi’im and Kohanim is to be the Guard Corps that secures Israel’s sanctity and nationalism. With courage and strength, they had to fulfill all policing duties, including standing up to criminals and violent people, as well as defecting soldiers. Therefore, in times of emergency, they were able to enlist in battle as elite combat fighters. This was the case during the times of shmad (apostasy), when the Greeks sought to turn Israel away from their religion – the Kohanim and the Levi’im were called to stand and fight valiantly to guard the Nation and the Land, and the Hasmonean Kohanim lifted the flag of rebellion against the Greeks, as we will relate during the coming days of Hanukkah – they should be for a blessing.

The Roles of the Tribe of Levi Today

In conclusion: Those who want to fulfill the roles of the Tribe of Levi nowadays, must serve the entire nation, by teaching Torah, educating, policing, service in the Military Rabbinate, and the corps responsible for the terms of service and exemptions from the army.

To do so, they must learn Torah diligently and be willing to devote their lives to Am Yisrael, and if an emergency arises – to join the campaign to protect Israel and its sacred ideals from the hands of our enemies.

From these pages, I wish to send a blessing to my nephew, a student of mine and a Kohen, who enlisted last week for an exceedingly elite and extended combat service. May he, along with all his friends, merit to protect the Nation and the Land, and may they all merit to establish glorious families, according to the law of Moshe and Israel.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.





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