Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedCourtesy

The Role of the Tribe of Levi

Q: Some say that yeshiva students who do not enlist in the army are like the members of the tribe of Levi who studied in yeshivas and kollelim, and did not participate in the wars of Israel. According to them, the Rambam wrote this as well. Are their words correct according to the Torah?

A: There is no basis for their words. On the contrary, the members of the tribe of Levi were dedicated to public affairs, and were committed to this. In times of peace, their role was to go out to the nation and teach Torah, instruct in Jewish law, and serve as police officers for all matters of law and order regarding interpersonal matters, and matters between man and God.

And in times of war, their role was to strengthen the spirit of the fighters, like the Military Rabbinate and the Education Corps, and to serve as military police enforcing the draft laws on the entire nation, severely punishing deserters and those fleeing from the battlefield.

They also guarded the Holy Ark that went out with the fighters and the senior command that was close to it, in the capacity of the “king’s legion” (like a Special Forces Unit). And anyone who remained without a specific role was among the first to go out to battle with the other soldiers, as befits public servants of the highest echelons.

After defining all their roles, I will briefly explain each detail.

The Role of the Tribe of Levi to Teach the Ways of God to Israel

God sanctified the members of the tribe of Levi, led by the Priests, to perform the service of the Temple, and teach Torah to all of Israel. In practice, the work in the Temple was only about two weeks a year, according to the rotation of priestly and Levite shifts, and for the rest of the year, they taught Torah to all of Israel, as it is stated:

“They shall teach Your judgments to Jacob, and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10).

They also served in rabbinical and judicial roles, as it is stated:

“If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault—matters of dispute in your courts—you shall promptly repair to the place that your God will choose, and appear before the Levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem, and they will tell you the word of judgment” (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).

The prophet Malachi also said about the sons of Levi:

“I had with him a covenant of life and well-being…Proper rulings were in his mouth, and nothing perverse was on his lips; he served Me with complete loyalty, and held the many back from iniquity. For the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and rulings are sought from his mouth; for he is a messenger of GOD of Hosts” (Malachi 2:5-7).

In order for the Priests and Levites to be able to fulfill their role, the Torah decreed that no portion in the Land would be given to them. Instead, they would be spread throughout all the borders of Israel, and each tribe would allocate cities for them to live in its portion (Numbers 35:1-8). And so the Children of Israel did (Joshua 21:3).

The Tithes and Terumah for Torah Teachers

The Torah commanded the Children of Israel to provide for the Levites and Priests through tithes and terumah (great offering) so they would not need to engage in earning a livelihood, and could be Torah teachers and Jewish law instructors. The intention was not for them to study in yeshiva halls for years, but rather to study Torah in order to teach it to the public. As the general commandment of Torah study is mentioned in the Torah as a commandment to teach one’s students and children (Deuteronomy 6:7, 11:19, Sifri there, Kiddushin 31a).

They were called the “upholders of the Torah.” As King Hezekiah instructed:

“And he said to the people, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to give the portion for the Kohanim and the Levites, so that they could strengthen themselves in the Torah of Hashem” (II Chronicles 31:4). Our Sages said:

“Whoever upholds the Torah of Hashem has a portion, and whoever does not uphold the Torah of Hashem does not have a portion” (Chullin 130b).

According to Rabbi Samson ben Abraham ((ר”ש and Rabbeinu Asher ((רא”ש, it is forbidden to give gifts to an am ha’aretz (ignorant person). In contrast, according to the Rambam, it is permitted to give gifts to an am ha’aretz, but the primary mitzvah is to give to Kohanim and Levites who teach Torah. And the halakha follows the majority of the Rishonim, that the obligation is to give the priestly gifts specifically to Torah teachers, and only if there is no Torah scholar present, are they given to an am ha’aretz (Tosafot, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Meiri on Chullin 130b; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 61:7. See Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 7:3:1).

Police Officers

The members of the tribe of Levi also served as the police officers who enforced law and order in Israel (I Chronicles 23:1-4, 26:29). So too, in the days of Jehoshaphat:

“And the Levites, from the sons of the Kehathites and the sons of the Korachites stood up to praise Hashem, the God of Israel, with an exceedingly loud voice” (II Chronicles 20:19).

And in the days of Josiah:

“And from the Levites, scribes and officers and gatekeepers” (II Chronicles 34:13).

Our Sages also said (Sifrei Devarim 15) that the Levites were the police officers who accompanied the judges to punish sinners.

Our Sages also said:

“Originally (in the times of the First Temple), they would not appoint police officers except from the Levites, as it is stated: ‘And the Levite officers before you’” (Yevamot 86b).

In the times of the Second Temple, since few Levites ascended from Babylon, the officers were from all the tribes.

Encouraging the Army and the Fighters

The tribe of Levi had another important role – to encourage the fighters of Israel. For this purpose, in addition to the High Priest who was responsible for the Temple service, they would anoint another priest with the anointing oil, called the “anointed priest for war.” His role was to go out with the fighters and encourage their spirit to fight bravely (Deuteronomy 20:2-4).

It was also a commandment for the priests to go out with the fighters and blow the trumpets in order to express the sanctity of the fighters’ mission, as it is stated:

“And the sons of Aaron, the kohanim, shall blow the trumpets…And when you go into battle in your land against the adversary who oppresses you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, and you shall be remembered before Hashem your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies” (Numbers 10:8-9).

The Military Police

Along with the words of encouragement from the anointed priest for war, the police officers would determine who would go out to battle: In an optional war, they would exempt those who planted vineyards or built homes or were newlyweds in their first year, as well as the fainthearted.

In a milchemet mitzvah (a mandatory war) – that is, a defensive war against an enemy, they would not exempt any fighter except for those who were truly unable to fight. This is what our Sages said in the Mishnah:

“In a milchemet mitzvah, all go out, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her chuppah” (Sotah 8:7).

After the war began, the officers would stand like brave heroes in order to revive those who fell in battle, and to severely punish those fleeing from the front. As the Mishnah states: “And they had iron spikes in their hands, and anyone who tried to go back (flee), the officer had permission to amputate his legs, for the beginning of fleeing leads to downfall” (Sotah 8:6). That is, if they allow soldiers who are afraid to flee, eventually all of Israel will fall to the enemy.

Rashi wrote:

“And I found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (quoted in other Midrashim), that when Aaron died, the Clouds of Glory departed, and the Canaanites came to wage war against Israel. And [the Jews] lost heart and wanted to return to Egypt, and they retreated eight journeys from the Mount Hor to Moseroth…And the sons of Levi pursued them to return them, and they killed seven families from them, and four families fell from the sons of Levi” (Rashi on Numbers 26:13).

Bearers of the Ark and the Prayers

The Priests also carried the Holy Ark that went out with the fighters to war, fulfilling what is stated:

“For Hashem your God is the One who goes along with you, to fight for you” (Sotah 42b, Sefer Yereim 432, and others).

In parallel to the fighters going out to battle, there were Levites who stood in song and prayer on behalf of the fighting vanguard, as it is stated in the days of Jehoshaphat:

“And the Levites, of the sons of the Kehathites and of the sons of the Korahites, stood up to praise Hashem, the God of Israel, with an exceedingly loud voice…and when they began with praise and thanksgiving, Hashem set ambushes against the sons of Ammon, Moab, and the dwellers of Mount Seir who had come against Judah, and they were struck” (II Chronicles 20:19-22).

And some say that Psalm 20 “May Hashem answer you on a day of distress” was written for the Levites praying for the fighters in battle (Meiri on Sotah 42b).

The Tribe of Levi Fought on Behalf of All Israel

After the Priests and Levites fulfilled all their special roles – encouraging the fighters, military police, singers and prayers – many served as brave soldiers. And so we find that when they came to anoint David as king, the number of elite troops

“From the sons of Levi was 4,600″, and from the Priests “3,700“. From Judah there were 6,800, Shimon 7,100, and Ephraim 20,800 (I Chronicles 12:25-28).

Based on all this, we can understand the words of the Rambam:

“And why did Levi not merit a portion in the Land of Israel and in its spoils along with his brothers? Because he was set apart to serve Hashem, to minister to Him, and to teach His upright ways and His righteous ordinances to the multitudes…Therefore, they were set apart from the ways of the world (they do not engage in earning a livelihood, but in public service), they do not wage war like the rest of Israel, they do not inherit or acquire for themselves by their physical strength, but they are the legion of Hashem, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 33:11): ‘Bless, Hashem, his legions,’ and He, may He be blessed, is the One who provides for them, as it is stated (ibid. v. 9): ‘For they observed Your word and kept Your covenant’” (Rambam Hilchot Shemittah V’Yovel 13:12-13).

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook explained that they were spread throughout all the borders of Israel, and therefore they did not fight to conquer their own tribal portion, but fought in the wars of the entire nation of Israel. Meaning, “When all of Israel goes out to war, they [the Levites] are also obligated to go out. And the war of the entire nation of Israel is also the service of Hashem, to which whoever is more dedicated to the service of Hashem is more connected than the rest of the nation.”

The Rambam added that anyone who wishes to be like the tribe of Levi can dedicate themselves, but the intention is not that they are then exempt from military service – on the contrary – they become even more devoted to serving the nation and the army.

The soldiers fighting in the Israel Defense Forces are fighting for the honor of Heaven and the honor of Israel, as the Rambam wrote about all fighters who must gird themselves with bravery:

“He should rely on the Hope of Israel and its Savior in time of distress, and know that he is waging war for the Unification of the Divine Name, and place his soul in his hand, and not fear, nor dread” (Hilchot Melachim 7:15).

Just like the Levites, who did not fight for their own tribal portion, but for the honor of Hashem, and His nation.

In Summary

The role of the Levites and Priests was to serve the public, to teach Torah, and serve as judges and police officers, for the sake of the entire nation of Israel. In this role, they had to act bravely against criminals and violent people, as well as against deserting soldiers. For this purpose, many of them had to be trained as fighters, and therefore, in times of war, they were drafted into the front lines of the most elite combat units. '

In the days of the Hasmoneans, when the Greeks tried to force Israel to abandon their religion, the Priests and Levites were called upon to stand up and bravely fight to guard the nation and the Land, and the Hasmonean Beit Din (Court of Jewish Law) ruled that it is a mitzvah to fight even on Shabbat, and they restored the kingdom of Israel to its place for over two hundred years, which is why we celebrate Hannukah to this day (see Ramban on Numbers 8:2).

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