The Musical Role of the Levites

In the previous letter, we began to discuss the spiritual role of the Tribe of Levi. In this letter, we shall discuss the musical dimension of this role:


Dear Friends,


In order to understand the musical role of the Levites, we first need to have a general awareness of how the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim, served in the Sanctuary which was built during our journey to the Land of Zion. We also need to be aware that this service continued in the Holy Temple which was later built in Jerusalem.


As we discussed, the Kohanim are a family of ministers within the Tribe of Levi. They are the descendants of Aharon, who was the first “Kohen Gadol” – Chief Minister. It was the Kohanim who performed the daily service of the offerings in the Sanctuary, while the other members of the Tribe of Levi were given different Sanctuary-related tasks. As the Sefer HaChinuch, a classical work on the Torah’s mitzvos, explains, the Levites served as the gatekeepers of the Sanctuary and as singers who sang when the daily offerings were being offered by the Kohanim; however, their main service was the singing (Mitzvah 394).

There is a verse in the Torah which refers to a certain service of the Levites as, “service of the service” (Numbers 4:47). The commentator, Rashi, explains that this is referring to the Levites’ service of song which accompanied the service of the Kohanim who were involved with the offerings. This explanation of Rashi is cited in the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan (Arachin 11a).


The commentator, Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, refers to the songs of the Levites in his essay on “joy” which appears in his classical collection of Torah Teachings, Kad Hakemach. In this essay, he comments on King David’s call, “Serve Hashem with joy; come before Him with joyous song” (Psalm 100:2). Rabbenu Bachya writes:


“He (David) thus explained that joy is the perfection of Divine service. Accordingly, there was singing and instrumental music in the Tabernacle and Sanctuary because these induce joy.”


The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides is a classical work on the “halacha” – the detailed steps of the Torah path. This work offers the following information about the singing of the Levites:


The choir of Levites needed to have a minimum of twelve members; however, more could be added without limit. The Levites did not play musical instruments while they sang, as they were accompanied by musicians who played the instruments. (The Book of Service, the Halachos of the Temple Vessels, 3:3)


The Mishneh Torah also teaches that before a Levite could sing in the Temple, he would study the art of sacred song for five years. He would begin to study at age 25, and at age 30, he would start his Temple service. (Ibid 3,7)


 The name “Levi” is derived from a word which means “to join, to cling” (Genesis 29:34). The name “Levi” therefore alludes to the role of the Levites in helping our people to cling to Hashem. A source for this idea is found in the Zohar, the great classic on the secret wisdom of the Torah. The Zohar reminds us that the name “Levi” is associated with clinging, and it states that one of the reasons for this name is because the soul of the one who heard their special singing cleaved to Hashem. (Zohar 2:19a)


The Kohanim are a special branch of the tribe of Levi, and they too helped the Children of Israel to cling to Hashem through their service with the offerings. In addition, they were given the mitzvah to blow the trumpets during the daily communal offerings, as well as on Festivals and on the days of the New Moon. The Sefer HaChinuch discusses the mitzvah of the Kohanim to blow the trumpets, and it states that the trumpets served as a spiritual wake-up call, as the human being, who has a physical body, requires a great arousal to spiritual matters. It adds:


“And nothing will stir him like the sounds of melody – it is a known matter – and all the more certainly the sound of trumpets, which is the strongest sound among all musical instruments.” (Mitzvah 384)


Most important of all, the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim, enabled the Children of Israel to cling to Hashem through teaching them the precepts and principles of the Torah – the Divine Teaching (Deuteronomy 33:10).



And may we be blessed with a Chodesh Tov – A Good Month!

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Insights and Comments:


1. According to the Mishnah (Tamid 7:4), each day of the week had its own special psalm which was sung by the Levites in the Temple. We therefore have a custom to chant at the end of our daily morning prayers the special psalm for the day which the Levites sang.
2. As mentioned above, the following is the root meaning of the name given to Levi at his birth: “to join, to cling.” 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. Song is an important part of our Divine service, and the Talmud (Arachin 11a) mentions various verses within our Sacred Scriptures which refer to this idea. For example, the Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak that the following verse refers to this idea:
“Raise up the song and sound the drum, the sweet harp with the lyre.” (Psalm 81:3).  
Within our daily prayers, there are also references to song, and the following quote can serve as an example: “Sing to Hashem a new song” (Psalm 149:1).
4. Rebbeinu Bachya’s Kad HaKemach has an English translation by Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel, which is titled, “Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts” (Shilo Publishing House).
5. I wish to thank Hazon participant, Yiftach Paltrowitz, for helping me with the above teaching from the Zohar.


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