The Torah delineates the duties of Israel’s leadership in creating Hashem’s society. The tribe of Levi plays a special role:
And if the Levi shall come from one of your gates (MEIACHAD SH’ARECHA), from all Israel, that he lives there, and he comes with all the desire of his soul (U’VA B’CHOL AVAT NAFSHO) to the place which Hashem shall choose; and he shall serve (V’SHEIREIT) in the name of Hashem, his G-d, like all his brothers the Leviim, who stand there before Hashem. One portion as another shall they eat (CHELEK K’CHELEK YOCHEILU); excepting his sales (LVAD MIMKARAV) concerning the fathers (AL HAAVOT) (Devarim 18:6-8).
The commentaries agree that this is a very difficult passage to translate and explain. Is it essentially permissive, or restrictive? In other words, does it entitle him to serve as he wishes (and he comes with all the desire of his soul) and accord him equal rights with his brethren (One portion as another shall they eat), or does it limit his service (excepting his sales concerning the fathers), and if so, how?
Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century) say that this verse refers to the Levi.
But, the Sifri (168) proves that our passage concerns the Kohanim, the priestly division of the tribe of Levi. This is derived from and he shall serve (V’SHEIREIT), a term more fitting for Kohanim. Moreover, as Rambam points out, One portion as another shall they eat (CHELEK K’CHELEK YOCHEILU) cannot apply to the Leviim, because their duties never included eating consecrated food. Rashi, in his commentary to the Talmud (Sukkah 55b) further points out that in 24 places in Scripture the term “Levi” refers to the Kohen.
A particularly difficult phrase is LEVAD MIMKARAV AL HAAVOT.
Rashbam (R. Shmuel b-Meir, c. 1080-c. 1160) says MIMKARAV derives from N-CH-R (LEHAKIR, to recognize); thus, MAKAR, is an acquaintance, i.e. relative. So, he translates this as “unless there is one of his paternal relatives [to exchange duties]”: then, he is allowed to offer that sacrifice evenif he is not part of that watch. But, Ibn Ezra defends the derivation from M-CH-R (LIMKOR, to sell); thus, MIMKAR, sale, or trade/ negotiation. The Sages (Bava Kama 109b, Sifri 168) understood this as “except that which was acquired by the ancestors.” But, how?
Clearly, there is an unspoken assumption here, that the Kohanim have come to an arrangement regarding the distribution of Temple rights and duties, and an “outsider” wishes to join in.
The “arrangement” spoken of is the division of the Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon, into 24 turns of duty called mishmarot, “watches,” based on families. Our Sages teach (Taanit 27a) that this system was developed gradually, beginning with eight mishmarot in the time of Moshe, and increased by Shmuel and David until 24 mishmarot were established; these are listed in Divrei Ha- Yamim (I 24:1-19; 25:9-31) and elsewhere (e.g., Ezra 6:18). The system was maintained by the exiles returning from Bavel (Nechemiah 7: 63-65; 12:1-7, 12-21) as well as throughout the Second Temple Period, including after the destruction (see Josephus, Antiquities VII, par. 367). There is evidence that these family divisions were used in prayers for the welfare of Kohanim up to the period of the Crusades (see Daat Mikra on Divrei HaYamim, loc. cit.).
According to Sefer HaChinnuch (ascribed to either R. Aharon HaLevi or R. Pinchas HaLevi of Barcelona, mid-13th Century) § 509, based on Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 36, our passage commands mishmarot: “That the Kohanim and the Leviim should serve at the Sanctuary in mishmarot – in other words, in known groups – and the hand of everyone should not be engaged at one in the service, except on the Festival days alone, when all would serve together: Everyone who came would set his hand to the work for the rejoicing of the Festival.”
The purpose of this mitzvah is to maintain order and dignity.
Ramban disagrees with this interpretation. The plain meaning of the text, he says, is that all Kohanim can serve at any time, unless they came to an agreement. This “leaves an opening” for mishmarot, it is true, but the actual system of mishmarot is a law taught orally to Moshe * As “Torah Insights” contains words and ideas of Torah, please treat with respect and dispose of properly. (halacha l’Moshe M’Sinai), but it should not be counted as a mitzvah.
Nevertheless, Rambam insists that the Sages’ reading is the primary meaning. In Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Sanctuary Utensils 4:1-7) however, he defines the mitzvah differently from the way he does in Sefer HaMitzvot: that all the mishmarot are to be equal during the Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), meaning that all Kohanim can serve then (see Divrei HaYamim II 5:11).
The basis of this is the phrase from one of your gates (MEIACHAD SH’ARECHA). Rashi (Sukkah 55b) explains that the verse is expounded as if it said B’ECHAD SHE’ARECHA, meaning “when all of Israel enters one gate,” that is to say, they are in one city [Jerusalem], during the Pilgrimage Festivals.
Based on Bava Kama 109b, a Kohen who visits Jerusalem during the festival is allowed to participate in the Temple Service, even if his watch is not on duty, but he may bring only those offerings necessitated by the festival.
This even includes the lechem hapanim (the “showbread,” which is divided up every Shabbat) and the two loaves brought on Shavuot, because they are eaten, but not offered on the altar. This is reflected in the words of the verse One portion as another shall they eat (CHELEK K’CHELEK YOCHEILU), which refers to sanctified food that is eaten only. All offerings not necessitated by the festival are brought by the Kohanim of that week’s mishmar.
In addition, any Kohen who is obliged to bring a sacrifice may be the officiating Kohen if he wishes to do so: and he comes with all the desire of his soul … he shall serve.