Thursday, May 9, 2013

Swapping The Holiness Of The Firstborns Of Israel To All The Levites

The swapping of holiness from the eldest children in Israel to all of the Levites is a very peculiar occurrence. In this week's Parsha, Bamidbar, we see G-D request this transference. The text tells us (Bamidbar 3:45)
45. Take the Levites instead of all the firstborns among the children of Israel and the Levites' animals instead of their animals, and the Levites shall be Mine I am the Lord. מה. קַח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֶּהֱמַת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת בְּהֶמְתָּם וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:
What is the purpose of this "transference" of holiness and how was it effective?

In order to give a possible answer we have to understand what this "transference" of holiness accomplished. The, apparent, reason for this holiness is the ability to perform the sacrificial service. This is seen from the Gemara in Zevachim (112b) where it describes the job of the firstborns before the transference of holiness.
The Ramban explains this idea very well, he says (ibid (3:45)
הנה הבכורים נתקדשו להיות לשם מעת שציוה (שמות יג ב): קדש לי כל בכור בבני ישראל באדם וגו'. והיו בכורים רבים בישראל, ולא נפדו עד הנה, שעדין לא נאמר למי יהיה הפדיון, כי עתה הוא שנתקדשו הכוהנים ועדין לא נצטוו במתנות הכהונה. והנה הם עומדים בקדושתן סתם, ויתכן שהייתה בהן עבודת הקורבנות כדברי רבותינו (זבחים קיב ב).ב).
Behold, the firstborns were made holy to G-D from the point when it was commanded (Shemos 13:2) "Make holy for me all of the male [human] firstborns of Israel etc." There were many firstborns in Israel and they were not redeemed (replaced) until now because it still was not said who it would be redeeming them. Even now that the Kohanim (priests) were sanctified there was still no commandment about the gifts that are given to the Kohanim. Behold, they (the firstborns) were standing with their simple holiness. It is possible that they (the firstborns) were performing the sacrificial service, like our Rabbis said (Zevachim 112b).  
The Ramban continues:
ועתה החליפם בלווים והם פדיונם, וציוה שיפדו הנותרים, ונתן הפדיון לאהרן ולבניו כאשר היא מצווה לדורות.
Now (in this Parsha) [the firstborns] were swapped with the Levites and they were redeemed and it was commanded that the remainders (the extra 273 that had no Levite counterpart) be redeemed [through money.] The money redemption was given to Aharon and his sons just like the [redeeming of the first born] commandment that was for the generations (in the future). 
The reason the firstborns had to have their holiness transferred to the Levites was because the sacrificial service had to be handed over to the Levites and the Kohanim. This transference was good enough to imbue holiness in the Levites for the present and the future. However, why does it seem like it did not work to remove the holiness from future firstborns? Levites can not be used to redeem firstborns nowadays, redemption of the firstborn is only possible through money given to a Kohain. Why is this so if redemption with a Levite worked during the time of the desert?

The answer can be found in the Chizkuni (ibid 3:45)
קח את הלוים תחת כל בכור בבני ישראל: מה שאין הלוים של עכשיו פודין את הבכורות הנולדים לישראל מכאן ולהבא היינו טעמא שהרי הלוים של עכשיו נולדו מאבותיהם הלוים שכבר פדו בכורי ישראל ואין הדין נותן שיהיה להם כח לפדות אותו יותר מפעם אחת וכל הבכורות של עכשיו אינם מבכורות שנפדו כבר בלוים במדבר אלא נולדים הם מפשוטי ישראל שלא נפדו מעולם והבכורות שנפדו בלוים במדבר אינן ידועין לפטור את הבאים מהן
Take the Levites instead of all the firstborns among the children of Israel: [The reason] the current Levites (In the time of Chizkuni) can not redeem (replace) the firstborns that are born to [regular] Israelites now and in the future is because the current Levites were born from their fathers, the Levites that already redeemed (replaced) the firstborns of Israel and the law does not give them the power to redeem more than one time. Also, all of the firstborns now are not from the firstborns that were already redeemed (replaced)  by the Levites in the desert, rather they are from regular Israelites that were never redeemed (replaced) and the firstborns that were redeemed (replaced) with the Levites in the desert did not know to permit (basically, redeem or replace the future firstborns with Levites) the [children] that came from them (the people that were not redeemed).     
This allows us to understand this transfer of holiness. The firstborns had a holiness (being designated by G-D) that set them aside to perform the sacrificial service. For some reason, it was decided that the Levites were to become the ones that would perform the sacrificial service in place of the firstborns. Hence, the holiness of the firstborns during the time of the "Generation of the Desert" was transferred to the Levites. The Levites acquired this holiness in such a way that it still carries on to their children today. However, the holiness in any firstborn that was born after this transference is still present  because, unlike being a Levi, being a firstborn is not inherited. Therefore, the original firstborns were not able to "give away" the holiness of future generations. This is why the firstborns continue to be redeemed even today. The Rambam even lists this as one of the 613 commandments (Positive commandment 80). He also lists it in his Mishna Torah (Bikkurim 11:1, Translation found here),
מצות עשה לפדות כל איש מישראל בנו שהוא בכור לאמו הישראלית שנאמר כל פטר רחם לי. ונאמר אך פדה תפדה את בכור האדם:
It is a positive commandment1 for every Jewish man2 to redeem his son who is the firstborn of his Jewish mother, as [Exodus 34:19] states: "All first issues of the womb are mine" and [Numbers 18:15] states: "And you shall surely redeem a firstborn man."
Now that it is clear there was a transference of holiness from the firstborns to the Levites, specifically so the Levites could replace the firstborns in the sacrificial service, we need to understand why the Levites replaced the firstborns. For this we have a Midrash Rabba on our verse (found here) that tells us:
תחת כל בכור פטר רחם בבני ישראל בתחלה היתה העבודה בבכורות ולפי שקלקלו בעגל, זכו לוים על שלא טעו בעגל ליכנס תחתיהם. כי לי כל בכור וגו' כמה דתימא: קדש לי כל בכור וגו', לי יהיו אני ה'. לפי שהוא אומר: ואני הנה לקחתי את הלוים מתוך בני ישראל תחת כל בכור שומע אני מיום ההוא ואילך לא יהיו הבכורות קדושים?! ת"ל: יהיו מלמד שהם צריכין פדיון
"[The Levites were chosen] in the place of every firstborn, opening of the womb, of Israel (Bamidbar 3:12)." In the beginning, the sacrificial service was done by the firstborns and because they became spoiled through the [sin of the Golden] Calf the Levites merited to take their place because they did not err with the [Golden] Calf. "Because every firstborn is mine etc (ibid 3:13)." It is like that which is said: "Make holy for me every firstborn...for me they will be, I am G-D(ibid)." Because He said: I, behold, I am taking the Levites from the midst of Israel in the place of every firstborn. Should I think that from that day and onward the firstborns are no longer holy? [The Torah] comes to teach us with the words "they will be" that they (the firstborns) need to be redeemed (because they are still holy).
We see that it was the sin of the "Golden Calf" that caused G-D to reject the firstborns from performing the sacrificial service and choose the Levites in their stead.

The final idea I want to delve into that will complete this discussion is why did the sin of the "Golden Calf" cause the firstborns to lose their right to serve in the sacrificial service? Why was it that the sin of the "Golden Calf," a sin that only a small minority of Jewish people participated in, was so detrimental to the firstborns that they needed to hand over their holiness to the Levites? For this, we have to understand the nature of the holiness of the firstborn. For this idea I will use a Sefer called Eretz Chemda (Bamidbar 3:12)
Just like the firstborn is the first for impurity so too he is the first for holiness. Meaning, if impurity occurs, it is an extreme occurrence of impurity (they are the leaders). [On the other hand,] if holiness occurs, it is an extreme occurrence of holiness (They are the leaders). This that is written (Shemos 13:3), "Moses said to the people, 'Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt,'" was stated because the firstborns of Egypt sinned because of the impurity that occurred in them. So too, the firstborns of Israel are sanctified because of the holiness that occurs in them (This is why the previous verse of Shemos 13:2 talks about the holiness of the first born of Israel)...Behold, before the sin of the "Golden Calf" the sacrificial service was done [by the firstborns] without [their] choice and their holiness came from above (the firstborns were imbued with holiness from G-D) and because of this the firstborns are holy. However, after the sin of the "Golden Calf" the holiness (for performing the sacrificial service) came from below (the people had to imbue themselves with holiness)...And this that it says (Bamidbar 3:12), "As for Me I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of all firstborns among the children of Israel, who have opened the womb,"  The reason for "the Levites shall be Mine" is because they chose to be (the Levites imbued themselves with holiness). [However, when the verse says (Bamidbar 3:13)] "For all the firstborns are Mine," that is because of the inherent holiness [they were created with.] For when all of the firstborns of Egypt were struck down, right then [G-D] sanctified the [Jewish] firstborns. However, once the sin [of the "Golden Calf" occurred] the sacrificial service was taken from the firstborns and given to the Levites.  
The Eretz Chemda teaches us an important aspect of firstborns. The reason the firstborns are holy is because G-D gives them a special characteristic of being zealous. This trait can either be used for purification or desecration. This is why the firstborns were so severely punished for the sin of the "Golden Calf," they were the ones held responsible because of their zeal. This is also why the firstborns of Egypt were the ones that were most severely punished, because this zeal leads to the firstborns being the leaders in either wickedness or righteousness. 

The firstborns, because of their zeal which caused them to become leaders of the sin, had to take responsibility for the "Golden Calf." This distanced them from G-D and forced G-D to choose someone else to perform the sacrificial service. The Levites were a perfect choice because they chose to imbue themselves with the same holiness as the firstborns by rising up. As the verse says (Shemos 32:26),
26. So Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: "Whoever is for the Lord, [let him come] to me!" And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. כו. וַיַּעֲמֹד משֶׁה בְּשַׁעַר הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר מִי לַיהֹוָה אֵלָי וַיֵּאָסְפוּ אֵלָיו כָּל בְּנֵי לֵוִי:
It is this zeal that the tribe of Levi displayed that allowed them to take the place of the firstborns. They showed their ability to lead in a holy way, unlike the firstborns that showed their ability to lead in a disgraceful way.

Thus, we see the original purpose of the firstborns was to perform the sacrificial services. The reason for this is because of their inherent holiness, as described by the Eretz Chemda. This holiness is a double edged sword because it can also lead to their downfall, which it did because it led to the sin of the "Golden Calf." This caused their holiness to be transferred to the Levites because the Levites showed self imbued zeal for G-D, which created their own holiness. This is why the Levites took over for the firstborns. Now, the Levites, because of inheritance, pass on their holiness, which allows them to perform the sacrificial services, to their children. However, the firstborns are still born with their holiness and that is why they must be redeemed.      

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