5769 - #38


It is generally understood that the Kohanim and Leviim were given no inheritance in the Land of Israel1as their task was to focus on the spiritual ideals of the nation. As such, the nation was given the duty to share their produce and stock with these distinguished classes through the various tithes and gifts that were to be given to them. As Devarim 18:2 states Hashem Hu nachalato, God is their inheritance. The portion of the Kohanim and the Leviim was the Divine; His service was to be their vocation and through their service of Him was to emerge their sustenance.2 My thoughts regarding this concept, though, were somewhat questioned when I considered the case of the bechor, the first born son.

            Bamidbar 3:12 states that the Leviim were appointed to the service of God in lieu of the first born males who were originally given that duty. Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, after presenting the basic and classic reason for this exchange,3 adds that there was also an inherent difficulty in maintaining the first born in the Divine service -- they received a double portion of inheritance. Those who are in the service of God should only focus on this service and thus should not be bothered by property matters. As such, this duty of Divine service was passed to the Leviim who did not even have a nachala, even one portion. Why, though, according to this perception, was the right of Divine service originally given to the first born if they were to receive double portions of inheritance including land? This original designation would actually seem to support an opposite theory, that property inheritance should not be a bar to the proper service of God. 

            Chizkuni, Bamidbar 3:12, interestingly, maintains that it must be that the bechor was not originally intended to receive any portion of inheritance. If he was to be devoted to the service of God, he must have, theoretically and initially, been excluded from any nachala just like, eventually, the Leviim were. It was only after the exchange with the Leviim that the first born received the right to any portion and, specifically, a double portion. Many sources, however, point to the fact that even before Matan Torah at Sinai, the bechor was entrusted with the Divine service within the family and also received a double portion of inheritance.4 From the rules that surround the status of the Leviim, though, it would seem that the possession of these two rights should be, almost, mutually exclusive.  

            Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Devarim 21:17 attempts to find some resolution of this difficulty regarding the first born through the distinction that exists between the first born of the mother and the first born of the father.5 It is specifically the first born of the mother that must be redeemed from the Divine service and who thus is to be associated with the spiritual dimension. It is also specifically the first born of the father that is entitled to a double portion and who thus is to be associated with property and the material dimension. He compares this distinction between what he terms the ‘spiritual bechora’ and the ‘material bechora’ to the distinction, on the national level, between the kehuna, priesthood, and the melucha, kingship. The problem is, though, that in the majority of situations, the first born of the father is also the first born of the mother. The ‘spiritual bechora’ and the ‘material bechora’ merge. On the national level the kehuna and melucha are never to merge.6 For the Kohanim and the Leviim to function properly, though, they were to be removed from the land. Rabbi Hirsch’s presentation, while somewhat actually identifying the issue, would seem ultimately only to further the question rather than solve it.

            Within the words of Rabbi Hirsch, though, we may find a thought that may provide for us a basis for understanding what we must perceive as a fundamental distinction between the service of the Leviim and the service of the bechor. To accomplish his goals, the Levi had to have a separation from the land. To accomplish his goals, however, the bechor had to have what is effectively a greater connection to the land as evidenced by his double portion. The significance of the land, though, did not just arise from its materialistic nature. The land, the nachala, was a symbol of the family. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, the significance of the role of the bechor was in this familial context. The switch of the rite of the avodah, the service of God, from the first born to the Leviim, thus, also represented a fundamental change in the very nature of the avodah. With the bechor undertaking the duty of the service of God, the avodah is set within the context of the family. With the switch to the Leviim, the realm of the avodah is no longer the family. It is now set within the context of the society, the community. It is within an understanding of this realm that those doing the avodah, the Kohanim and the Leviim, are not given a nachala in the land.

            There is a disagreement among the commentators as to whether the command to build the Mishkan was in response to the Sin of the Golden Calf or whether it reflected its own inherent value.7 According to the view that it was a response to this sin, there would seem to be further support for this view that the transfer from the first born to the Leviim was part of a greater shift in the very essence of the avodah, from a familial activity to a societal activity. As a familial activity, it makes sense that those entrusted with this task would have a greater portion in the familial nachala for they were the prime representatives of the family. This, in fact, is the very essence of the role of the bechor as it surfaces in realms beyond the avodah and, so, even today, the right of the double portion continues. It also makes total sense that, with the avodah as a societal activity, those who perform this service should be excluded from the land and turn to the general population for their sustenance. In this way, the entire nation becomes connected to those who perform the avodah through the creation of a symbiotic relationship that binds the nation in the service of God.

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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 While the Leviim, of course, were still given numerous cities spread throughout the land, these cities were not considered a nachala, a territorial inheritance, within this context.

2 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shemittah v’Yovel 13:12,13 who articulates this principal and, furthermore, extends this idea of devotion, at least conceptually, to apply to any individual who wishes to accept this focus, responsibility and challenge.

3 The first born participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf while the Leviim did not.

4 See, further, Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, Devarim, Parshat Ki Teitzei 1, “Yerusha Pi Shnayim L’Bechor.

5 See, further, Encyclopediat Talmudit 3:276-283, Bechor Adam.

6 While the Chashmonaim dynasty presents itself as an exception to this rule, while originally looked upon favourably as a response to an emergency situation, the maintaining of this union of kehuna and melucha was looked upon most negatively by Chazal.

7 See, further, Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Terumah 1.

(c) Nishma, 2009


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