- LEVI (Heb. לֵוִי), third son of Jacob and Leah, born in Paddan-Aram (Gen. 29:34); father of the tribe named after him. The name Levi is explained in the Pentateuch by Leah's words at his birth: "Now this time my husband will become attached to me (Heb. yillaweh)." -The Man In the affair of dinah (Gen. 34), Levi and Simeon took the chief part in the slaying of the men of Shechem and the plunder of their city, an act that aroused Jacob's anger against them (Gen. 34; cf. 49:5–7). The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Ex. 6:16), from whom stemmed the families of the tribe of Levi. Nothing further is recorded of Levi the man. -The Tribe According to the censuses of the Levites in the wilderness which covered – exceptionally – "all the males from the age of one month up," Levi was the smallest tribe, comprising 22,000 or 23,000 males (Num. 3:39; 26:62). The tribe was singled out during the wanderings in the wilderness for the service of the tabernacle, carrying the Ark and attending to the duties of the sanctuary. Supervising them were descendants of their tribe, the aaronides (Num. 1:48–53; 3:5–40). The census of the Levites was conducted separately from the general census of the Israelites in the wilderness (Num. 1:47–49), and it is stated that they were chosen for their service "in place of all the firstborn among the Israelite people" (see firstborn ), the number of the firstborn being practically identical with that of the Levites (3:40–43). The story of the golden calf emphasizes the loyalty of the tribe to Moses. In this affair, too, as in that of Dinah, the Levites stand out as men of zeal who do not spare brother, friend, or kin (Ex. 32:25–30). On the other hand, note should be taken of the rebellion of korah and his company, who were Levites, against Moses (Num. 16; the non-Levites in this pericope are followers of dathan and abiram ). A reflection of Levi's closeness to the tribe of Judah is to be found in the juxtaposition of the two in the Blessing of Moses (Deut. 33:7–9) as well as in the genealogy of the Levite youth from a Judahite family in Beth-Lehem (Judg. 17:7), and in the story of the Levite from the other end of the hill country of Mt. Ephraim who took a concubine from Beth-Lehem of Judah (19:1). These reports testify to this connection with Judah, as well as to the Levite's lack of a fixed territory, as stated in the Pentateuch (Num. 18:23b). The Levite youth from Beth-Lehem became a priest in the House of Micah on Mt. Ephraim, and Levite priests also served in Dan in the era of the Judges (Judg. 17:10–11; 18:19–30). THE SERVICE According to Numbers, the Levites were in attendance upon the priests in the service of the Tent of Meeting, carrying it and its appurtenances. This service was divided between the three families of the tribe – Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Num. 3–4). The Levites were also entrusted with the task of serving the priests, performing duties for them and for "the whole community before the Tent of Meeting" (3:7). This apparently consisted of guarding the Tent and its furnishings against the laity. It was also their duty to provide a barrier between the tabernacle and the people (1:50–54; 18:22–3). In the course of their work, the Levites were subject to the priests appointed over them and they were not permitted to witness the dismantling of the sanctuary (4:20). The superiority of the Aaronide priests of the tribe of Levi to the Levites is expressly stressed in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and the division of functions between them is clearly defined (see priests and levites ). The Levites were also assigned instructional responsibilities, and it was they who bore the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 10:8; 31:9), but these functions were primarily intended for the priests, the most select of the Levites (Mal. 2:4–8; 3:3). According to the view of Deuteronomy, all the Levites are fit to serve in the sanctuary, even such as do not have permanent duties in the sanctuary (Deut. 18:6–9). In return for their service they are entitled to receive tithes (Num. 18:21). This appointment of the Levites as ministers of God resulted in their becoming wanderers during the period of the Judges, without any permanent possession in the country. They are reckoned in the Bible among those needing support, such as the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. It seems that even at the time of the monarchy the Levites at the gates of the cities still did not possess their own territory but this is explained as a sign of a superior status: "the Lord is their portion" (10:9; 18:2). MONARCHICAL PERIOD Possibly, the Levites became state officials in the time of David and Solomon when the cult itself was transformed into an instrument for state influence. Chronicles relates a great deal about the high status of the Levites in the time of David, even in the administration of government (I Chron. 23–27). According to Chronicles, Levites were among those who came to transfer the monarchy to David at Hebron (I Chron. 12:27), and their loyalty to the kings of the dynasty of David continued until the destruction of the Temple (II Chron. 23:2–9, 18–19; 24:5–15, et al.). The story of the migration of the Levites from Israel to Judah after the division of the kingdom may reflect a real historical situation that is alluded to in Kings (I Kings 12:31; 13:33; cf. II Chron. 11:13–17; 13:9–12). According to I Chronicles, the Levites took a leading part as overseers in the work of the House of the Lord (23:4), as choristers, musicians, gatekeepers, and guardians of the threshold (9:14–33). Among the choristers mentioned are Heman, Asaph, and Jeduthun, who are also referred to in Psalms. The sons of Korah are also connected with psalmody (cf. Ps. 42:1; 44:1; et al.) and are so mentioned incidentally in II Chronicles 20:19, though they are mostly reckoned in this source among the gatekeepers. The Levites also functioned as officials, judges, craftsmen for the Temple service, supervisors of the chambers and the courts, overseers of the Temple treasuries, and officers in charge of the royal service (I Chron. 9:22, 26–27; 23:4, 28; et al.). The special status of the Levites in the time of Jehoshaphat as disseminators of the Torah and as judges in the towns of Judah and in Jerusalem is understandable in the light of the above (II Chron. 19:8, 11). It would also seem possible from many passages that the Levites mainly ministered alongside the priests, and that the priests were appointed over them (I Chron. 6:31ff.; 23:27–32; et al.). Hence, it seems that in the time of the First Temple the demarcation between Levites and priests was not clearly preserved, and that even among the Levites themselves there existed a certain grading. The incorporation of the Levites into the monarchical system of Israel found its expression in the setting aside of special towns from the territories of the tribes as levitical towns of residence. According to Numbers (35:1–8), the Israelites were commanded, while still in the plains of Moab, to set aside 48 towns from their territory for the Levites (see levitical cities ). In Joshua 21, lists are cited which apparently originated in the same tradition, and current research inclines to regard them as a reflection of a real situation that existed at the time of the First Temple. There is no contradiction between the principle of no territory and the allocation of towns of residence, since these were merely towns and fields for the raising of cattle without agricultural settlement. The houses in the levitical towns were regarded as a substitute for territory, and the laws of the jubilee applied to them as to land, in contrast to dwellings in walled cities. Their adaptation to a monarchical regime brought about the fact that the priests did not forbid themselves the ownership of agricultural land too (I Kings 2:26; Jer. 32:7–16; et al.). However, the principle remained in force for many generations, so that even Ezekiel, who says that in the time to come the Levites will no longer be scattered throughout the country but gathered into Jerusalem, outlines for them an area beside the Temple (Ezek. 45:4–5; 48:11–15). From the time of the return to Zion the boundaries between priests and Levites were firmly established. The Levites acquired an honored status, and even their small number in comparison with that of priests (Ezra 2:40–42) added to their importance in the eyes of the people. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah it was necessary to bring Levites to Jerusalem from the exile and from the rural towns. From this time on the division between priests and Levites remained permanent. Concerning the special status of the Levites as well as their functions, see also priests and priesthood . (Samuel Abramsky) -In the Aggadah Rabbinical aggadah greatly expanded the biblical material, sometimes to Levi's detriment, but more frequently it reversed the picture. At the births of Simeon and Levi, Leah prophesied that Simeon would produce an enemy of God (Zimri), but from Levi would come Phinehas and heal the wound inflicted through Zimri (Gen. R. 71:4). The proposal to kill Joseph (Gen. 37:20) came from Simeon and Levi and it was they who sold him. When the brothers came to Egypt, Joseph separated them by imprisoning Simeon (Gen. 42:24), for together they would have destroyed Egypt; the separation caused Levi's strength to ebb away (Gen. R. 97, ed. by Theodor-Albeck, p. 1216). To Levi's credit is the story of the Shekhinah ("Divine Presence"), which originally dwelt in the lowest sphere, but seven wicked persons or generations drove it ever further away to the highest (seventh) heaven. Seven righteous men brought it progressively back to earth, from the highest sphere to the next; one of these was Levi (Gen. R. 19:7; PdRK 2). The name Levi was prophetic: his tribe would lead (laveh; "to escort," "accompany") the Israelites to their Father in Heaven (Gen. R. 71:4). When Phinehas argued before the Almighty that the sin of Zimri did not warrant the condign punishment of the whole nation (Num. 25:9), the angels sought to repel him, but God said to them, "Let him be: he is a zealot and the descendant of a zealot (Levi, who was zealous to defend his sister's honor, Gen. 34:25f.), a wrath-appeaser and a descendant of a wrath-appeaser" (Sanh. 82b; Lev. R. 33:4). The tribe of Levi was the only one that practiced circumcision in Egypt and did not lapse into idolatry (Sif. Num. 67; Ex. R. 15:1; 19:5). On the other hand, it was the only tribe not enslaved and put to degrading work (Ex. R. 5:16). Whereas the Israelites in general were liberated from Egypt for their prospective (but not present) merit in making the tabernacle, the tribe of Levi was liberated for its own immediate merit (Num. R. 3:6), for the whole tribe was righteous in Egypt (ibid. 15:12). Scripture gives the genealogy of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi only in Exodus 6:14ff. for three reasons: because they meekly accepted their father Jacob's rebuke; to lead up to Moses and Aaron; they were the only ones who preserved their family trees in Egypt and did not worship idols (this is one of the few places where this is said of Reuben and Simeon too). These three exercised authority (as individuals) over all the Israelites in Egypt consecutively, but at Levi's death the authority did not pass to Judah (Song. R. 4:7 no. 1). The children of the other tribal ancestors did not uniformly produce righteous descendants, but the descendants of Levi's three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, were all righteous (Num. R. 3:7). This tribe did not participate in the sin of the golden calf, and taught the Israelites to serve only the one God in Ereẓ Israel (ibid.). Several reasons are given why Levi was not numbered together with the other tribes: one is because they were not doomed to die in the wilderness, but entered the Promised Land (Num. R. 1:11 and 12). As against this it is pointed out that the tribe of Levi was considerably smaller than the other tribes, because its numbers were depleted through their being grazed by fire when they carried the Ark (Num. R. 5:1; 6:8). For this reason God associated His name with Kohath to save them from being entirely consumed (Num. R. 6:8). Jacob predicted of Simeon and Levi, "I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel" (Gen. 49:7); this was fulfilled by their becoming teachers in the schoolhouses everywhere (Gen. R. 97, ed. by Theodor-Albeck, p. 1207). The tribe of Levi would teach sinners that sacrifice without true repentance does not constitute atonement (Lev. R. 9:5). Originally shoterim (officials of the bet din) were appointed only from the tribe of Levi (Yev. 86b). When the Almighty purifies the tribes, He will purify the tribe of Levi first (Kid. 71a). Greece (one of the powers that traditionally enslaved Israel) would fall through the Hasmoneans, members of the tribe of Levi (Gen. R. 99, ed. by Theodor-Albeck, p. 1274). Every tribe described as "Mine" will exist for ever and to all eternity – and of the Levites it is said, "the Levites shall be Mine" (Num. 3:12; Yal. I Sam. 124). (Harry Freedman) -BIBLIOGRAPHY: IN THE BIBLE: See priests and priesthood . IN THE AGGADAH: Ginzberg, Legends, 2 (19466), 194–8; 5 (19476), 380.
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.