The Portion of the Leviim
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The Portion of the Leviim
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The Lord told Aaron, “You will not have an inheritance in their Land; there will be no portion among them for you. I am your portion and your inheritance among the Israelites.”
The entire tribe of Levi is commanded against receiving an inheritance in the land of Canaan, and they were commanded against receiving a share in the spoil when the cities are conquered, as [Devarim 10:9] states: “The priest and the Levites - the entire tribe of Levi - should not have a portion and an inheritance among Israel.” “A portion” (refers to a portion) of the spoil; “an inheritance” refers to (a portion of) the Land. And Scripture states: “You will not have an inheritance in their Land; there will be no portion among them for you.” If a Levi or a Kohain takes a portion of the spoil, he is punished by lashes. If he takes an inheritance in Eretz [Yisrael], it should be taken from his possession.
[Rambam: Laws of Shemitta and Yovel 13:10]
At times there are apparent conflicts between two mitzvot, arousing the obvious question of which is to be preferred.
The prohibition of Leviim (and Kohanim) receiving a portion of the Land, apparently negates the Torah’s command “You shall clear out the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to occupy it” [Bamidbar 33:53]. Rambam [Laws of Shemitta and Yovel 13:13] explains the reason the Tribe of Levi has no portion of the Land:
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 in His just paths and righteous judgments, as the verse states: “They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel.” [Devarim 33:10]
Torah study is definitely a great matter, as the Mishna [Pe’ah 1:1] states “And Torah study is equal to them all” (i.e., all other mitzvot). However, the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael is great as well, and it too is considered the equal of all other mitzvot. [Tosefta, Avoda Zara 4:3] Why does mitzva of the Leviim to study and teach Torah take precedence over settling the Land? Leviim are not exempt from the mitzva of lulav, or from the obligation to do gemilut cḥassadim, or to prepare for Shabbat because of their obligation to teach Torah. Chazal (Our Sages) taught that “The essential thing is not study, but deed” [Avot 1:17], and in the case of a mitzva which cannot be fulfilled by others, the obligation of Torah study is suspended. [Gemara Mo’ed Katan 9b]
Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) also teaches that settling the Land suspends the obligation of Torah study, and writes:
Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion that the posuk (verse) “You shall gather your grain” [Devarim 11:14] obligates one to work the fields applies only in Eretz Yisrael when the majority of Jews are within her, for then working the fields itself is an aspect of the mitzva to settle the Land and bring out her holy fruit, and thus the Torah commands “You shall gather your grain.” “Boaz is winnowing the threshing-floor of the barley tonight …” [Ruth 3:2] – because it is a mitzva. Just as one does not say “I will not put on tefilin because I am engaged in Torah study,” one may not say “I shall not gather my grain because I am engaged in Torah study.” It is possible that other professions which contribute to settling the world are included in this mitzva (of gathering grain), however, due to our sins, when we are scattered among the nations, Rabbi Yishmael accepts the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai that “If a man ploughs in the ploughing season, sows in the sowing season, reaps in the reaping season, threshes in the threshing season and winnowing in the winnowing season, what is to become of Torah?” (See the Talmudic discussion, Berachot 35b.) On this basis, we accept the approach of Rabbi Nehorai “I abandon every trade in the world and teach my son Torah only.” [Kiddushin 82a]
This being the case, why did the Torah suspend the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael in face of the obligation of the Leviim of Torah study?
First Level: Respectable Livelihood for the King’s Servants
In explaining the underlying reasoning behind the mitzva prohibiting giving Leviim a portion of the Land [Mitzva 504], Sefer HaChinuch refers his readers to his comments on the mitzva of giving Ma’aser Rishon to Leviim [Mitzva 395], where he writes:
The roots of the Mitzva (i.e., the underlying concept) is that God chose the Tribe of Levi from among its brethren to serve in the Temple, therefore, in His grace, He grants them livelihood in a respectable manner, for it is appropriate for royal servants to have their meals readily available and prepared by others, so they not have to toil in anything except the precious royal service.
That is, after the sin of the golden calf, God chose the Leviim to serve in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), and in that choice, He exempted them from the need to work to support themselves. In ancient times, one who did not own a field could not work for his own sustenance. The Midrash [Bemidbar Rabba 1:12] expounds:
“The Leviim shall be Mine” [Bamidbar 3:12] – whoever brings God near to himself, God brings near to Him, as the verse states “And Moshe said: ‘Whoever is for the Lord, (come) to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.” [Shemot 32:26] They came close to me and I shall bring them close to Me, “The Leviim shall be Mine.”
The Leviim are the “King’s legion” whose function is to “teach Your judgments to Yaacov and Your Torah to Yisrael.” From the Tribe of Levi, God chose those who carried the Mishkan in the wilderness and the Kohanim who brought sacrifices to atone for Am Yisrael, and the Kohain Gadol, who entered the Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies) on Yom Kippur.
The Cities of the Leviim
The Leviim were given forty-eight cities throughout Eretz Yisrael, indicating that on some level they did fulfill the mitzva of settling the Land, yet they were not to take an inheritance (nacḥala) within the Land. Other than their cities, Leviim did not have a portion of the Land to give to their heirs or to consider their own. Ra’avad [Laws of Avoda Zara 4:4] goes so far as to write that the cities of the Leviim actually belonged to the shevatim (tribes) in whose territory they were located. The Leviim had no independent portion of the Land, merely the minimum for dwelling and to meet their basic needs. They had an area of 1000 amot (approximately 500 meters) surrounding their cities, to be used for their livestock and other needs. The Leviim had an additional 1000 amot (Rashi’s opinion; 2000 amot in Rambam’s opinion) for fields and vineyards. Almost nothing!
Though planting trees and working fields is part of the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael, as Rashbash notes in his responsa [Number 1], the mitzva has three components: aliya, building or buying homes within the Land and planting within her. As we noted, the Leviim were not able to fulfill these aspects of the mitzva.
It is not unique that a group within Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) was exempted from a particular mitzva and focused on others, since we find numerous mitzvot which apply to part of the nation, rather than its entirety, such as time-bound mitzvot from which women are exempt, while the mitzva to bring a sacrifice after giving birth [Number 168 in Sefer HaChinuch’s list] is unique to women. Thus, Leviim were designated to spread Torah throughout Israel and to serve in the Beit HaMikdash and they were correspondingly the privilege of building up the Land was taken from them.
Second Level: Leviim Must be Heavenly, While the Essence of Eretz Yisrael is Sanctifying the Mundane
In the early part of Sefer Kuzari [1:27], Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi presents a novel concept. Existence is to be divided not only into inanimate, plant, animal and man, who is capable of speech, but there is a fifth (and higher) level: Israel. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi adds that the level of Israel is that of angels. In support of this contention, Kuzari writes that Moshe endured fire at Mount Sinai without being injured, he neither ate nor drank for forty days on Sinai, his face shown with brilliance which the human eye could not tolerate [Shemot 34:29-30], he was never ill and never became weak [Devarim 34:7], and past and future were fully revealed to him. Kuzari’s comment is problematic: that Moshe had all these qualities seemingly does not prove the lofty level of all Israel; we must understand that Rabbi Yehuda haLevi’s point is that every individual within Am Yisrael has the potential to reach the level of angels.
Once the Levi’im were chosen, as it were, to be the connecting link between the Creator and His nation, He endowed them with these special qualities. Indeed, they have Divine assistance in Torah and in their holy work, as Chazal taught, and Abravanel comments [Bamidbar 2:1], the Camp of the Shechina in the wilderness was opposite the world of angels, the Camp of the Leviim was opposite the intermediate heavenly world and the Camp of Israel opposite the lower world.
Shem MiShmuel explains that the special quality of Kohanim is thought – improper thought of a Kohain invalidates his work in the Beit HaMikdash; for Leviim, the special quality is speech, since song was an essential part of their service; the trait of Israel is deeds. Shem MiShmuel posits that whoever is on a higher level raises others to his level. Thus, the portions given to Kohanim are not charity, in which the donor has a level of superiority over the recipient, rather a means of connecting to the higher level of Kohanim and drawing power from that connection. For this reason, the entire Tribe of Levi receives special portions without themselves being directly connected to the Land, whose earthly aspect is sanctified.
Thus, writes Rabbi Kook zt”l: “The sanctity within nature is the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael,” that is, the essence of Eretz Yisrael is to sanctify the mundane. Rabbi Kook writes further:
Great is the physical demand on us. We require a healthy body. Having devoted so much to spirituality, we have neglected the sanctity of the body. We have abandoned physical health and strength; we have forgotten that we have holy flesh, no less than holy spirit. We have left the practical life, developing our senses and the connection with physical – tangible reality due to failure of our belief in the sanctity of the Land. “Belief – this is the order of Zeraim (the order of Mishna which deals with planting in Israel and the halachot related to what is grown in the Land) – one who believes in worldly life and plants.” [Midrash Tehilim 19:14] We will achieve repentance only when, along with the full spiritual glory, our physical repentance creates healthy blood, healthy flesh, strong well-sculpted bodies, and with a fiery spirit shining over strong muscles. With the strength of flesh which has been sanctified, our souls which have been strengthened will shine, as a hint of the physical resurrection of the dead.
True belief in the sanctity of the Land strengthens the flesh which God has given us as well as our spiritual side.
We presented two explanations for the fact that Leviim were not given a portion of the Land:
1. They are the “King’s Legion” and it is therefore appropriate that their livelihood should be provided for them, without the need for them to work hard.
2. The Leviim have a higher level of ability to connect heaven and earth and to connect Am Yisrael and its Father in Heaven, thus they receive gifts of the fruit of the Land, which are earmarked for God, Who gives them to the Tribe of Levi. In this way, the Leviim connect to and raise the rest of the nation spiritually.
These points explain the necessity of the gifts to the Tribe of Levi as compensation for not having a portion of the Land.
The Economy of Eretz Yisrael
Chatam Sofer, cited above, expanded the concept of settling the Land from agriculture to all occupations which develop the Land, including all within the mitzva. Thank God, the economy of Eretz Yisrael is truly blossoming. Beyond agriculture, there are areas in which Israel competes for first place in the world. We may understand from Chatam Sofer’s comments that Chazals’ comment that the surest sign of the impending redemption is Eretz Yisrael producing its fruit abundantly [Sanhedrin 98a] applies also to all aspects of the Land’s blossoming.
May it be God’s will that we merit continued prosperity in our Land and the arrival of Mashiaḥ through the abundant blessings of the Land. Amen.