The descendants of Levi were singled out for service in the Sanctuary, as [Deuteronomy 10:8] states: "At that time, God separated the tribe of Levi."1 It is a positive commandment2 for the Levites to be free and prepared for the service of the Sanctuary, whether they desire to do so or not,3 as [Numbers 18:23] states: "And the Levite shall perform the service of the tent of meeting." When a Levite accepts all the mitzvot of the Levites with the exception of one matter, he is not accepted unless he accepts them all.
Their service was to guard the Temple.4 Among [the Levities], there were gate-keepers5 who would open the gates of the Temple and close its doors. And there were singers who would accompany the sacrifices with song each day. [The latter concept is derived from the exegesis of Deuteronomy 18:7]: "And he shall serve in the name of God, his Lord, as all of his Levite brethren." Which service involves [invoking] the name of God? I would say: song.
When were songs recited? At the time all the communal burnt offerings,6 the peace offerings brought on Shavuous,7 and the wine libations8 were brought. Song was not recited over the freewill burnt offerings that the community would bring for "the dessert of the altar,"9 nor on the wine libations that are brought independently.10
A Levite who is in an acute state of mourning11 is permitted to perform his service and sing.12 There should never be less than twelve Levites13 standing on the duchan14 each day to recite the songs over the sacrifices and the additional offerings. The songs were song vocally without musical instruments, for the fundamental dimension of the song is vocalization. Others would stand on [the duchan] and play melodies with musical instruments: some of them were Levites and some of them were Israelites of distinguished lineage, fit to marry into the priesthood. For only a person of distinguished lineage was allowed to ascend to the duchan.15 The people who play musical instruments are not included in the number of the twelve singers [required].
On what instruments would they play? On lyres, flutes, harps, trumpets, and a cymbal.16 There should not be less than two lyres, nor more than six. There should not be less than two flutes, nor more than twelve. There should not be less than two trumpets, nor more than one hundred and twenty.17 There should not be more less than nine harps and there is no upper limit. There should only be one cymbal.
On all the days of the festivals and on the Rashei Chadashim, the priests would sound the trumpets while the sacrifice was being offered and the Levites would recite songs, as [Numbers 10:10] states: "On the day of your celebration, on your festivals, and at the beginning of your months, you shall sound the trumpets."18
Each trumpet was made from a block of silver.19 If it was made from scraps of silver, it is acceptable. If it is made from other metals, it is unacceptable.
The flutes on which they would play would have cane reeds, because they produce a sweet sound. The melody would always be played by a single flute, because it produces a pleasant sound.20
Twelve days a year, the flute would be sounded before the altar:21 During the slaughter of the first Paschal sacrifice,22 and during the second Paschal sacrifice,23 on the first day of Pesach, on the first day of Shavuot, and on the eight days of Sukkot. [The sounding of] the flute on these occasions24 supersedes the Sabbath [prohibitions],25 because it is associated with a sacrifice and the sounding of a flute associated with a sacrifice is an act of Temple service and supersedes the Sabbath prohibitions.
A Levite may not enter the Temple Courtyard to perform his service until he studied for five years beforehand. [This concept is derived as follows. Numbers 8:24] states: "This is [the edict] with regard to the Levites: From the age of 25..." and [ibid. 4:30] states: "From the age of 30...." How can [this apparent contradiction be resolved]? They study for five years and they do not enter the service until they fully mature and attain manhood [as ibid.:19] states: "Each man to his service."26
The Torah's statement [Numbers 8:25]: "At the age of 50, he will turn back from the ranks of the workers [of the Sanctuary]," applied only in the era when the Sanctuary was carried from place to place. It is not an [ongoing] mitzvah for future generations.27 For future generations, a Levite is not disqualified because of age or because of physical blemishes,28 only due to a change in voice,29 i.e., if his voice spoils because of his advance age, he is disqualified from serving in the Temple. It appears to me that he is disqualified only from serving as a singer, but he could become one of the doorkeepers.30
Samuel the Seer and King David divided the Levites into 24 watches.31Each week, a different watch would serve [in the Temple]. The head of the watch would divide all the men of the watch into different "clans." On each day of the week, designated men would serve.32 The heads of the clans would assign the workers on the day that they were designated to work, [allotting each] one appropriate tasks.
All of the Levites are warned [not to participate in] the service of the altar,33 as [ibid. 18:3] states: "But to the holy utensils and to the altar they should not draw close so they do not die." [This prohibition implies] that they should not draw close to the service [of the Sanctuary], but they may touch [the sacred utensils].34
Just as the Levites were warned not to perform the service of the priests,35so too, the priests are warned not to perform the work of the Levites, as [the above verse] states: "Also they,36 also you [shall not die]."37 Similarly, the Levites themselves were warned that each one should not perform the task incumbent on a colleague.38 Thus a singer should not assist39 a door-keeper, nor a door-keeper a singer, as [ibid. 4:49] states: "Every men, according to his service and his burden."
When Levites perform the service of the priests or one Levi assisted in a task that is not his, they are liable for death at the hand of heaven, for [ibid. 18:3] states: "shall not die."40 When, by contrast, a priest performs the service of a Levite, he is not liable for death. Instead, he violates merely a negative commandment.41
See also Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 13:12 which states:
Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments, as [Deuteronomy 33:10] states: "They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel." Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world.
See I Chronicles 9:17-26 which lists the Levites who served this function. The guards would serve as watchmen and not perform any physical work. The gatekeepers performed physical activities, opening the gates, closing them, and locking them.
As a prooftext for this concept, Arachin 11b cites Numbers 10:10: "And you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over peace offerings." The plural term implies offerings that are brought for the entire Jewish people.
With this phrase, Rambam is referring to both wine libations brought by individuals and those brought by the community but were not brought on the same day as the sacrifice with which they were associated. See Hilchot Temidim UMusafim 6:8.
The preceding verse speaks of sounding the trumpets as an outcry of distress. This mitzvah is described in Hilchot Ta'aniot, ch. 1. In his Sefer HaMitzvot (positive commandment 59), the Rambam writes that the two soundings of the shofar are considered as a single mitzvah.
Our translation follows the Rambam's Commentary to the Mishnah (Arachin 2:3). Rashi, Arachin 10a, offers a different interpretation, explaining that all melodies were concluded by a long note from a lone flute.
I.e., on Pesach Sheni, on the 14th of Iyar. Those who did not bring a sacrifice on the first Pesach had the opportunity to compensate by bringing the sacrifice a month later (Hilchot Korban Pesach,, ch. 5).
This also applies with regard to the sounding of the other musical instruments. A flute is mentioned, because a flute was also sounded in association with the water libation (see Hilchot Lulav 8:13) and the sounding of the flute at that time did not supersede the Sabbath prohibitions (Rashi, Sukkah 50b).
As evident from Chapter 5, Halachah 15, the attainment of manhood mentioned here apparently refers to reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah. Hence the commentaries question the Rambam's statements, for they apparently contradict his statement made previously, that a Levite must be 30 to begin his service. The Radbaz and Rav Yosef Corcus explain that the obligation to be 30 applied only when the Sanctuary was being transported. (Just as the disqualification at age 50 applied only in the era when the Sanctuary was transported [see the following halachah], so too, it is reasonable to postulate that the obligation to be 30 applied only then.) In other eras, all that was necessary was that the Levite study the necessary laws for five years.
Chullin 24a states that the Levites on the duchan must sing in a manner that their voices sound like one voice. If the voice of a particular Levite becomes spoiled and he is no longer capable of singing in this manner, he is unfit to perform this service.
This is derived from the law mentioned in Hilchot Mitamei Mishkav UMoshav 11:11 that when the table for the Showbread was displayed to the people, they were warned not to touch it lest it become impure. One can infer that there is no difficulty in touching it per se, only in making it impure (Har HaMoriah).
The commentaries have noted that Numbers 4:15 specifically mentions that the Levites should not touch the sacred utensils and that doing so was punishable by death. It is, however, possible to explain that this stringency only applied during the time the Sanctuary was transported through the desert and not in subsequent generations.
Sefer HaMitzvot (negative mitzvah 72) and Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 389) include the prohibition against performing service designated for someone else in their reckoning of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.
The Kessef Mishneh questions the Rambam's ruling, because according to Arichin 11b, the source for the Rambam's ruling, it would appear that someone who merely renders assistance is not liable for violating a Scriptural commandment.
The Ra'avad takes issue with the Rambam's ruling, maintaining that the priests are also liable for death, noting that this is stated in Arichin, loc. cit. The Or Sameach notes that the Sifri Zuta (which the Rambam quotes in Sefer HaMitzvot, loc. cit., also quoted by the Yalkut Shimoni) to the verse rules differently, distinguishing between the priests and the Levites, leaving room for the Rambam's decision.
Translated by Eliyahu Touger
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