The Levite’s Role in Priestly Hand-Washing

The Levite’s Role in Priestly Hand-Washing
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Ki Tisa – פרשת כי תשא
March 6, 2021 – כב אדר תשפא
The Levite’s Role in Priestly Hand-Washing
Scripture mandates the manufacture of a bronze laver to be placed in the Tabernacle courtyard between the outer altar and the Tent of Meeting. Aaron and his sons were commanded to wash their hands and feet from the laver’s sanctified waters whenever they entered the Tent of Meeting or approached the altar to fulfill their cultic responsibilities. Failure to properly wash one’s extremities was to invite death at the hands of Heaven (Exodus 30:17-21).
The Talmud clarifies the procedure for the priestly washing ritual. The kohen would place his right hand on top of his right foot and his left hand on top of his left foot and allow the laver’s waters to flow over all four limbs simultaneously (Zevahim 19b). The Talmud is silent about who opened the spigot to release the laver’s waters, but it can safely be assumed that a fellow kohen did so. Non-priests were generally barred from entering the area west of the outer altar where the laver was located (Mishnah Keilim 1:8).
In the post-Temple era, priestly hand-washing -- only hands, not feet -- is still observed in connection with the priestly blessing made in the synagogue. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi ruled that any kohen who did not wash his hands may not raise his palms, the standard rabbinic euphemism for offering the priestly blessing (Sotah 39a). He mustered Scriptural support for this ruling from the verse “Lift up your hands in holiness, and bless ye the Lord (Psalms 134:2).”
The Rishonim disagreed about the nature of priestly hand-washing. Tosafot ruled that early morning hand-washing in advance of the Shacharit service did not suffice to prepare a kohen for making the priestly blessing. Rather, the kohen must again wash his hands shortly before ascending the platform to bless the congregation. In this view, Psalms 134:2 calls for the sanctification of one’s hands and the uttering of the blessing to happen in quick succession. Tosafot first cites a version of Rashi’s commentary that states that the early morning hand-washing does suffice, and then rejects that recension of Rashi, claiming it to be the product of an errant disciple. The version of Rashi that appears in the standard editions of the Talmud is consistent with Tosafot in requiring a special act of hand-washing that must immediately precede the making of the priestly blessing.
Maimonides codified the law of priestly hand-washing, but ambiguously: He forbade a kohen to bless the congregation with impure hands, but did not explicitly state when the act of washing of the hands had to occur (Hilkhot Tefillah 15:5). Rabbi Joseph Caro understood Maimonides to mean that if a kohen washed his hands early in the morning and was then careful to avoid defiling them he need not wash a second time in preparation for bestowing the priestly blessing. R. Caro cited Abraham ben Ha-Rambam, who wrote that his father had issued practical guidance to kohanim who find themselves in the midst of prayer and unable to leave in order to wash that they could properly rely upon their earlier morning ablutions (Kesef Mishneh). In his Bet Yosef commentary on the Tur, Caro noted that in Egypt the custom was for kohanim not to wash especially for the priestly blessing. In the Shulhan Arukh, however, Caro ruled strictly, requiring kohanim to wash specifically for, and immediately in advance of, the priestly blessing (Orach Chaim 128:6).
In contemporary Judaism, it is common practice for Levites to wash the hands of the kohanim before the latter ascend the platform to bless the congregation. The stations for that washing are generally set up outside the sanctuary proper. Many Jews erroneously believe that this practice dates back to Temple days. It does not. The earliest literary source for the practice is the 13thcentury Zohar (Naso 146a-b), more than 1,100 years after the Second Temple was destroyed. The Zohar insists that in order for a kohen to sanctify his hands through an act of ritual washing, the waters must be poured by someone who himself is sanctified -- specifically, a Levite. The Zohar cites the verse וקדשת את הלוים “and you shall sanctify the Levites,” as proof that the Levites are themselves sanctified. There is a slight problem with that reasoning and that citation: Such a verse does not exist.[i] Likely, the author of the Zohar meant to cite והבדלת את הלוים “and you shall separate the Levites (Numbers 8:14).” Alternatively, Scripture regards all Israelite first-born as being sanctified unto God ever since the Plague of the First-born in Egypt (8:17), and regards the Levites as heirs to the special status formerly held by those first-born (8:18).
The Zohar also cites the verse “And your brothers, too, the tribe of Levi, your father’s tribe, bring forward with you, and they will be levied with you and serve you… and they will keep your watch, the watch of all the tent (18:2).” The Levites were underlings to an upper ecclesiastical caste of priests. Levites served as sentries protecting the Temple complex, as well as gatekeepers and choristers. The Zohar extended the notion of the subordinate Levites’ ministering to the practical needs of their priestly superiors to a facet of ritual life – ritually washing the hands of the kohanim -- to which it had not previously applied.
Over the years, the idea of the washing of priestly hands by Levites made its way from Kabbalistic literature into mainstream rabbinic writings. R. Caro noted that he heard about the existence of such a custom in Spain, but admitted that he did not know a source for it until he came across the pertinent passage in the Zohar. In the Shulhan Arukh, Caro codified the practice as halakhah (Orach Chaim 128:6). Questions them emerged about what to do if no Levite were present in the synagogue when it came time for the kohanim to make the priestly blessing. Who should wash their hands? Among Ashkenazic Acharonim, it was commonly accepted that, in the absence of a Levite, a first-born Israelite should wash the kohen’s hands. And if a bechor (first-born) is also unavailable, the kohen should wash his own hands (Chayyei Adam 1:32:8).
The Zohar mandates that the Levite who pours water over the hands of the kohen must first wash his own hands. The Rema, however, noted that it was not common practice in 16th century Poland for Levites to do so; instead, the Levites relied upon their own early morning hand-washing. Mishnah Berurah advised that a Levite ought to wash his hands before assisting the kohanim, especially if his mind had wondered or his hands had touched a covered part of his body since his morning ablutions (Mishnah Berurah 128:23).
In the Ashkenazic diaspora, where the priestly blessing is given only on each of the three pilgrimage holidays and High Holy Days (in contrast to Eretz Israel, where it is made daily), the opportunities for Levites to exercise the prerogatives of their special status are infrequent. When, upon the conclusion of the Musaf Kedushah, the rabbi announces from the pulpit “Will the kohanim and Levi’im please proceed to the lobby to prepare for Birkat Kohanim,” both of those groups proceed with enthusiasm to the washing stations. However, in Israel, some Levites might be disinclined to disrupt their prayers, every day, to play the subservient role of water pourer. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein recognized this phenomenon and reminded Levites not to be negligent in their responsibilities (Iggeroth Moshe Orach Chaim 4:127).
In the centuries after the custom first developed, the association of Levites with hand-washing led to iconographic depictions of pitchers, ewers, and bowls on Levite tombstones. This tradition dates back to the early 19th century and possibly earlier. While some Levite tombstones depict musical instruments and hark back to the days of the Levitical choir and orchestra of the Holy Temple, the far more prevalent design invokes the hand-washing theme and complements kohanic tombstones depicting raised hands and V-shaped finger positioning.
We are left to wonder why the kabbalists and halakhists initiated and popularized the custom of Levites’ washing the hands of priests. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein suggested that the custom is a means of memorializing the Holy Temple: In Temple times the Levites ministered to the priests; and they do so today (Arukh Ha-Shulhan 128:15). Another possibility is that the rabbis wanted to affirm the importance of a person’s Levitical status, lest he see no purpose in sustaining his tribal identity or passing it along to subsequent generations. Were that to happen and then the messianic era arrive and the Temple be rebuilt, Jewry would be bereft of Levites, as indeed occurred in the early Second Temple period (Ezra 8:15).
For contemporary Levites, the task of pouring water on the hands of the priests is regarded not as a menial act but, on the contrary, as a cherished responsibility. And, for many, it is the source of inter-generational bonding and family pride.