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Who Was Melchizedek?

Who Was Melchizedek?

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Question:

In this week's Torah portion, after Abraham's victorious return from battle, we read:"Melchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High God. And [Melchizedek] blessed him, and he said, "Blessed be Abram to the Most High God—Who possesses heaven and earth—and blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand." And [Abram] gave him a tithe from all."1

Who was this Melchizedek? What sort of priest was he, and why did Abraham give him a tithe?

Response:

Taken alone, this tiny anecdote does indeed seem strange. The Torah tells us nothing else about this man and his relationship to Abraham.

The ancient Targumim (Aramaic interpretive translations) identify Melchizedek as Shem—son of Noah. Shem was one of the links in the chain who transmitted the G‑dly traditions that originated with Adam. These traditions were carefully handed down from generation to generation, and Shem—who headed an academy—was a key conductor of these teachings. The Midrash tells us that he was so perfect and so spiritually advanced that he was born circumcised.2

So why did the priesthood pass from him to Abraham's children? The Talmud explains that this happened as a result of his having blessed Abraham before blessing G‑d in the verses above. This is reflected in the only other place in Scripture where Melchizedek is mentioned: in Psalms 110:4, where we read, ". . . you are a priest forever because of the speech of Melchizedek." Because of Melchizedek's ill-chosen speech, the priesthood was taken from him and given to the seed of Abraham forever.3

FOOTNOTES
1.

Genesis 14:18-20.

2.

Bereishit Rabbah 43:6.

3.

Talmud, Nedarim 32b.
At first glance it seems problematic to say that the priesthood was taken from the progeny of Shem and given to the seed of Abraham, as Abraham himself was a grandson of Shem.
Tosafot offers two possible explanations: a. The priesthood was taken from the entire clan of Shem and became the exclusive privilege of Abraham’s seed. b. Natural progression would have conferred Shem’s status on his firstborn descendants—not Abraham. Thus, it was only because of this encounter that the priesthood was given to Abraham specifically.
RaN explains that the intent of the Talmud here is that the priesthood of Abraham’s seed was now only by merit of the righteous Abraham and not due to their relation to Shem—which is why they are the only descendants of Shem deemed worthy of honor.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org. He lives with his family in Montreal, QC.
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Discussion (4)
December 25, 2013
comment on speech "ill-chosen" and priesthood "taken"
At the time of his blessing over Abraham, Shem was really starting to get on in years, having crossed the century mark about the time of the flood. Given a sign (Abraham's victory against overwhelming odds: the combined armies of four kings) and perhaps knowing full well that Abraham was of his blood, it would only have been natural for Shem to consider passing along the torch. Being one so keenly attuned to Hashem's will (as Shem was) the proper course of action should have been obvious. So, I can't agree that his words were necessarily "ill-chosen" (i.e. out of sequence) or that the priesthood was "taken" from him. As far as I can tell, Shem, King of Righteousness, confirmed, before One and all, the faith of Abraham.

But who am I to argue...?

\ :^)
Shai
Canada
November 19, 2010
To Jay and Bnei
It seems that both of you did not read footnote 4 where the author cites the explanations of this very point as given by the ancient rabbis who also noticed this issue.
Dudu Fisher
November 18, 2010
Melchizedek
Yes, he was Shem. But Avraham was adecendent of Shem, and so the priesthood never changes hands out of the family, because it passed from Shem to his chosen heir, out of all his many decendents. Andfrom Avraham it gooes to his son, then to Ya'ocov. Then to Levi and out of all the children of Levi, to Aharon.
Melichizedek's family doesn't lose the statis of Cohenim, because Avraham Aveinu is a son of Shem. A Semite. This is where the term comes from. From Righteous SHem.
Yehoiakin (Jay)
Carlsbad, New Mexico
October 20, 2010
Shem ben Noach is Abraham's Great Grandfather
The priesthood did pass down through the line of Shem since Abraham is Shem's Great Grandson. Am I correct?
Bnei Noach in Panama
panama, panama
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