By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
May 25, 2002
The G-d-centric, Torah-centric, Mishkan-centric Israelite camp described in
the opening section of the Book of Bamidbar is ordered, sanctified and serene.
A census of the population is taken. The tribe of Levi is counted separately,
and their holy tasks in the Mishkan are assigned:
All those that were numbered, whom Moshe and Aharon and the princes of
Israel counted of the Levites according to their families and according to
their fathers’ houses; from thirty years old and upward, until fifty years
old, all those who come to perform service to a service (AVODAT AVODAH) and
the service of carrying in the Tent of Meeting. Their accounts were 8,580.
According to the word of Hashem through Moshe did he appoint them, each one to
his service and to his burden, and those that were numbered constituted that
which Hashem had commanded Moshe (Bamidbar 4:46-49).
The Levites’ duties fall into two distinct categories of Service. The service
of carrying is obviously the transporting of the parts of the Mishkan from place
to place in the desert, a responsibility that would become superfluous once the
people would enter the land of Israel. But, what is service to a service (AVODAT
This is not the first time such a dichotomy has been employed by the Torah.
Verse 24 speaks of the service of the families of the Gershon-division of the
tribe of Levi:
to serve(LA’AVOD) and to carry(L’MASAH).
There, Ibn Ezra says that, while “to carry” refers to transporting the
Mishkan from one encampment to the next, “to serve” refers to all the duties of
the Levites at the place of encampment. These duties include setting up the
Mishkan, baking the show-bread, slaughtering the sacrifices and guarding the
Mishkan. The distinction between the two lies in the place where the duties are
Rashi, based on the Talmud (Arachin 11a) and the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 6:10),
sees in the phrase “service to a service (AVODAT AVODAH)” an allusion to the
Shirah, song and instrumental music produced by the Levites. During the
wine-libations of certain obligatory sacrifices, the Levites would sing and play
musical instruments as an accompaniment to the sacrificial service.
From the age of 25, Levites would begin training in instrumental and vocal
music. After age 50, when a Levi is disqualified from many duties, he may
continue to function as a musician.
According to Rashi, the phrase service to a service refers to music because it
is the service to that is to say, accompanying another service, namely the
sacrifices. A fuller treatment of the musical duties of the Levites is found in
Divrei HaYamim. For example,
And he [King Chizkiyahu] set up the Levites in the House of Hashem with
cymbals, with harps and with lyres by the command of David and Gad, the king’s
seer, and Natan the prophet, for in the Hand of Hashem is the command by the
hand of His prophets (Divrei HaYamim II 29:25).
In the Rashi commentary on that verse, it says that the service of music is
not explicitly stated in the Torah, but is communicated via the prophets. At
best, it is hinted at in the Torah.
In the passages cited in Arachin and Bamidbar Rabbah the Sages search for a
Torah hint for the institution of music during the sacrifices. The verse, “all
those who come to perform service to a service” is one of many suggested, but it
seems to be the most persuasive source, according to Rashi.
Rabbeinu Bachya (ben Asher ben Hlava, 13th Century) further defends identifying
the Levites’ music as a service from the following verse:
And the musicians the children of Asaf upon their positions . . . they must not
depart from upon their service (AVODATAM) (Divrei HaYamim II 35:15).
In contrast, Rambam (Laws of the Sanctuary Utensils 3:2) quotes a different
verse suggested by the Sages:
And he will serve with the Name of Hashem his G-d as all his brethren, the
Levites (Devarim 18:7), for which Rambam quotes the
reasoning of the Sages: What type of service is “with the Name of Hashem”? We
must say it is song.
All these commentaries agree that the Levites’ music is a service. But, while
Rambam focuses on the fact that it is a service performed with the voice,
uttering the Name of Hashem, Rashi defines it as the only service that is not
performed alone, but as an adjunct to another service.
Haketav V’hakabbalah (R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865) has a different
approach to the essence of the Levites’ music as service. He quotes the same
verse as Rabbeinu Bachya, and he accepts Rashi’s use of “service to a service (AVODAT
AVODAH)”, but says that music is so called because it expresses joy:
In the same way as a commandment is service to Hashem, may He be blessed,
so is the joy of the commandment called service, as it is written, “because
you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy” (Devarim 28:47).
Behold, joy is the completion of the service. Therefore, the music that the
Levites would produce to arouse joy for the commandment of offering sacrifices,
so that the performance of the commandment will be with joy, is called service
to a service.
Music expresses wholeness (an idea that is found in the writings of the Maharal,
R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c. 1525-1609). Haketav V’hakabbalah argues that
music is service to a service because it makes the service of sacrifices into a
total service to Hashem by completing it through joy.
Perhaps, more than other commandments, sacrifice requires joy because it has the
greatest potential for confusing the means with the ends: We may mistakenly
think that Hashem is “appeased” through our sacrifice, regardless of our
emotional state. The Levites’ song teaches that Hashem wants not only obedience,
but devotion as well.
The Zohar (III:223b) says that music has the same spiritual source as prophecy.
Prophecy is the joyful fulfillment of the human personality.
When we serve Hashem in joy, we complete ourselves. Then, Hashem’s camp is truly