Part Two: The Significance of Each Tribe

The Relevant Role of the Levites!


Dear Friends,


The Book of Exodus opens with a list of the names of the twelve sons of Yaakov who became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Exodus 1:1-5). The Midrash Tanchuma, in its commentary on this list of names, cites the following teaching:


The root meaning of each name alludes to a future stage of Israel’s redemption. (Midrash Tanchuma, Parsha Sh’mos, Section 3)


For example, the root meaning of “Levi” is: “to join, to be attached” (Genesis 29:34).    The Midrash Tanchuma teaches that the root meaning of Levi’s name alludes to a future stage of Israel’s redemption which is described in the following prophecy regarding the dawn of the messianic age:


“Many nations will join themselves to Hashem on that day” (Zechariah 2:15).   


According to the above teaching, the name of the Tribe of Levi alludes to the universal enlightenment of the nations during the messianic age, when they will “join themselves to Hashem” – a form of spiritual redemption. This teaching leads to the following question: The Midrash Tanchuma introduced this teaching by mentioning that each tribal name alludes to a future stage of Israel’s redemption. The verse which is cited for Levi, however, does not seem to refer to Israel’s redemption, as it refers to the spiritual redemption of the nations. Why, then, does the Midrash cite this verse?


I would like to suggest the following answer: Through citing this verse, the Midrash is revealing that the final stage of Israel’s redemption is the spiritual redemption of the nations, for the very raison d’etre of Israel is to become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).


Our redemption will therefore be complete when the nations are spiritually redeemed.  


How do we become a light to the nations and thereby inspire them to join themselves to Hashem? The light that we are to bring to the world is the light of Torah – the Divine Teaching, as it is written:

“Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).


We become “a light to the nations” through serving as a social model of the light-giving Divine Teaching. We will then merit the fulfillment of the following prophecy:


“Nations shall go by your light” (Isaiah 60:3).


The name of the Tribe of Levi alludes to this universal goal, for the role of the Tribe of Levi is to help all the Tribes of Israel become a social model of the Divine Teaching and thereby serve as a light to the nations. This idea is expressed in the following Divinely-inspired blessing that Moshe gave to the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon, who are a family within the Tribe of Levi who have a special role as ministers of Hashem:


“They shall teach Your social laws to Jacob and Your Teaching to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence, and whole offerings upon Your altar.” (Deuteronomy 33:10)


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the above verse, writes:


“Their role is to be the promoters and guardians of God’s covenant, and they shall fulfill this role by promoting knowledge of the Torah and observance of the Torah.  As teachers of the Torah, they shall promote knowledge of the Torah; and as servants in the Sanctuary of the Torah, they shall promote observance of the Torah.”


The Tribe of Levi is to be totally dedicated to this Divine service; thus, when each of the other tribes received a portion of the Land where its members would engage in agriculture, the Tribe of Levi was not given a portion of the Land to farm (Deuteronomy 18:1). The Levites were instead given cities throughout the Land in which to dwell (Numbers 35:2), and these cities served as spiritual centers of Torah for the nation. One of the Torah’s references to the separate and sacred role of the Levites is found in the following verse:


“Therefore Levi did not have a share and an inheritance among his brethren; Hashem is his inheritance, as Hashem your God, has spoken of him.” (Deuteronomy 10:9)


In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “The entire tribe was required to devote its life to service for the sake of the Torah.” As a compensation for their service, they were given various tithes from the people (Numbers 18:21); in other words, the members of the Tribe of Levi were supported by the other tribes.  


The Torah describes the various tithes which were given to the members of the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim, and this support is considered crucial for the welfare of our people in the Sacred Land. We were therefore given the following mitzvah –Divine mandate:


“Take heed to yourself that you do not forsake the Levi, all your days on your Land.” (Deuteronomy 12:19)


The “Sefer Ha-Chinuch” is a classical work on the 613 mitzvos of the Torah. It begins its discussion on the above mitzvah with the following reminder about how the People of Israel are to fulfill their universal mission: Hashem desires that the People of Israel study and fulfill the Torah in the Sacred Land in order that they become recognized among the peoples of the earth as a wise and understanding people (Deuteronomy 4:6).  The Sefer HaChinuch adds:


“One of the statutes which upheld and maintained wisdom among them was that one complete tribe among them should be without any share or inheritance of the landed properties. It was not to go into the field to plow and sow, dig pits, and irrigate the land – and all this should be the cause of it to spend its time, under all circumstances, to learn wisdom and understand the upright ways of God. They were therefore to teach His laws to their brethren in every region and city.” (Mitzvah 450)


The Sefer Ha-Chinuch adds the following message which is also relevant for our age:


“Through this mitzvah, it is for every understanding person to learn to sustain and to do good for all those who strive continually for the wisdom of the Torah.”


Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on the above mitzvah, explains why there is a repeated Divine warning not to neglect the support of the Tribe of Levi – a tribe that is dedicated to the study and teaching of Torah. Rabbi Hirsch writes:


“The people are likely to consider the Levites a burden to the community, and fail to appreciate their vital importance to the spiritual and moral welfare of the nation. There is therefore the repeated admonition not to neglect the Levite “all your days on your land.” How long you will be permitted to dwell on your own soil will depend on whether you will appreciate the Levite and enable him to influence your moral and spiritual development.” (Commentary on Deuteronomy 12:19)


Maimonides, in his monumental work on Torah law, the Mishneh Torah, discusses the separate role of the Levites, including the Kohanim, and he writes:


“Therefore they were set aside from the affairs of the world; they do not go to war as do the rest of Israel, they do not inherit a portion of the Land, and they do not gain for themselves acquisitions by their physical efforts. Instead, they are the host of Hashem, as it is said, “Bless, O Hashem, his substance’ (Deuteronomy 32:11); and He, blessed be He, provides for them, as it is said (regarding Hashem’s message to the Kohanim): ‘I am your portion and your inheritance’ (Numbers 18:20).”


Maimonides adds:


“And not just the Tribe of Levi, for this applies to every human being from among humanity whose spirit prompts him and whose knowledge affords him the understanding to separate himself to stand before Hashem, to minister unto Him and to serve Him, to attain knowledge of Hashem and conduct himself in an upright manner as Hashem made him, and to divest himself of the yoke of the proliferating reckonings that people desire. Such a person becomes sanctified with the utmost holiness, and Hashem will be his portion and his inheritance forever and ever, and will grant him in this world whatever will suffice for his needs, even as He did for the Kohanim and the Levites.” (Laws of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year 13:12, 13)


The above teachings can give us a deeper appreciation of those groups within our nation that are fully devoted to the study and teaching of Torah. Like the Tribe of Levi, these groups remind our nation of the “soul” of Zion – the inner spirit which reveals the higher purpose of our life in the Land of Zion.


May we respect the role of each of our tribes, and may all our tribes be blessed with Shabbat Shalom.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:



1. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimondies cites the following tradition about the early role of the Tribe of Levi:


“Yaakov, our father, taught all of his children. He set apart Levi and appointed him as the head teacher, and he placed him in a yeshiva to teach them the way of Hashem and observe the mitzvos of Avraham. He commanded his children that the positions of the appointed head teachers should not depart from the descendants of Levi, so that the lessons would not be forgotten. This concept proceeded and gathered strength among the descendants of Yaakov and those who joined them, until there became a nation within the world that knew Hashem.”  (The Laws Regarding Idolatry 1:3)


2. As mentioned above, the following is the root meaning of the name given to Levi at his birth: “to join, to be attached.” In the spirit of this definition, the Midrash Rabbah cites the following teaching in the name of Rabbi Yudan: “This Levi will in the future cause the children to join with their Father in Heaven.” (Genesis Rabbah 71:4)


3. In the messianic age, the People of Israel will assume the role of Kohanim – ministers – among the nations.  In this way, they will fully fulfill the Divine call at Mount Sinai, when Hashem proclaimed to our people, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). A reference to this idea is also found in the following prophecy regarding the role of our people during the messianic age:


“You shall be called ‘Kohanim of Hashem’; ‘ministers of our God’ will be said of you” (Isaiah 61:6).


Radak, in his commentary on the above prophecy regarding our role as Kohanim, explains this message in the following manner: 


“You will be free from the affairs of the world and be engaged in the Divine Teaching and words of wisdom in order to know Hashem.”


Regarding our role as a nation of Kohanim in this new age, Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah: “The People of Israel will be great sages and know hidden matters, attaining knowledge of their Creator to the full extent of human potential.” (The Laws of Kings 12:5)

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