by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
The Kohanim are a family of ministers within the Tribe of Levi, and they are the descendants of Aharon, who was the first “Kohen Gadol” – Chief Minister – to serve in the Sanctuary which was built in the wilderness during our journey to the Promised Land. 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 tasks within the Sanctuary.
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; 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 in the Sanctuary as, “service of the service” (Numbers 4:47).
The commentator, Rashi, cites the tradition that this is referring to the Levites’ service of song which accompanied the service of the Kohanim who were involved with the offerings. Rashi mentions that the songs of the Levites were accompanied by cymbals and harps. According to the Mishnah (Tamid 7:4), the Levites sang a special psalm for each day of the week. (1)
Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher refers to the songs of the Levites in his essay on “joy” which appears in his collection of Torah Teachings, Kad Hakemach. In this essay, he offers the following comment on David’s call, “Serve Hashem with joy; come before Him with joyous song” (Psalm 100:2):
“He 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, written by Maimonides, is a classical work on “halacha” – the detailed steps of the Torah path. In this work, Maimonides explains 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. Maimonides also explains that the Levites did not play musical instruments while they sang, as they were accompanied by others who played the instruments. (2)
Rashi, in his above explanation, mentioned that the singing of the Levites was accompanied by cymbals and harps. Maimonides mentions that there were other instruments used in various parts of the Temple service, such as trumpets, lyres and flutes. (3)
Maimonides states that the singing of the Levites accompanied the communal elevation offerings and the peace offerings of the Festival of Shavuos, during the libation of the wine. The Chassidic commentary, Maor V'Shemesh. states that the singing of the Levites would also accompany the individual elevation offerings which atoned for negative thoughts.
When an individual brought such an offering, explains the Maor V'Shemesh, the Kohanim would signal to the Levites to begin their beautiful singing in order to awaken the heart of this individual. The Maor V'Shemesh offers a detailed explanation of how the singing of the Levites would help this individual to engage in the process of “teshuvah” – returning to Hashem. (4)
The name “Levi” is derived from a word which means “to cling” (see Genesis 29:34). The name “Levi” therefore alludes to the role of the Levites in helping the Children of Israel 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 why the Levites were selected to sing in the Temple 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 laws and principles of the Torah. Moshe, our Teacher, referred to this role in the following blessing that he gave to the Tribe of Levi:
“They shall teach Your social laws to Jacob and Your Teaching to Israel ” (Deuteronomy 33:10).
When the Children of Israel chant the words of the Torah, they are chanting the words of the highest song, for the Torah – the Divine Teaching – is also a Divine song, as it is written:
“And now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19).
According to the simple meaning of the verse, they were to write down a specific song that Moshe would teach the people (32:1-43); however, the Talmud cites the tradition that the “song” mentioned in this verse also refers to the entire Torah (Nedarim 38a). The commentator, Rebbeinu Levi Ben Gershom, finds a source for this tradition in the following verses which make a connection between writing the song and writing the Torah:
“Moshe wrote this song on that day…So it was that when Moshe finished writing all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31:22,24).
May all of us cleave to the Compassionate and Life-Giving One through singing the song of Torah. We can then merit to experience the age when the song of Torah will go forth from the rebuilt Temple to the entire world, as it is written:
“It will happen in the end of days: The mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem .” (Isaiah 2: 2,3)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Notes and Comments:
1. We chant at the end of our morning prayers the special psalm for the day which the Levites sang in the Temple .
2. The above comments of Maimonides and related comments are found in: Mishneh Torah, The Book of Service, The Halachos of the Temple Vessels and of Those Who Served in the Temple , Chapter 3.
3. The Mishnah states that the flutes were only played twelve times a year (Erchin 2:3).
4. The Maor V'Shemesh discusses the song of the Levites during the individual elevation offering in its commentary on Leviticus 9:8-12. The commentary of Maor V'Shemesh was written by Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Halevi Epstein.
5. The Torah is a song, and we therefore have a tradition to chant the words of Torah. There is a special nigun (melody) that is used when we read from the Torah scroll during the weekday, Shabbos, or Festival services, and there is a special nigun that is used when we read from the Books of the Prophets during these services. In addition, there are a few books within our Sacred Scriptures that have their own unique nigun, such as the Book of Lamentations and the Book of Esther.
When we study works that are based on the Oral Torah, such as the Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar, we also chant the words. One nigun that many people use for studying Talmud and other related works is similar to the traditional nigun that many children use for chanting “The Four Questions” during the Passover Seder.
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