Following the establishment of the cities of refuge for unwitting killers (Joshua ch 20), the next step in laying the foundations for a truly Godly society in the Holy Land was to set aside special cities up and down the country for the Levites and the Priests, as God had commanded Moses (Numbers 35:1-8).

Under Torah law, those who had a special responsibility for maintaining the spiritual bond of the people as a whole with God were not a group of democratically-elected or self-selecting religious leaders. Rather they were a hereditary caste consisting of the entire tribe of the Levites, of whom one family in particular - the descendants of Aaron - were set aside as Cohanim, the priests.

The Torah had provided a unique system of tithes of produce and other vital necessities to be given by all the people in order to provide the Cohanim and Levites with their livelihood so as to leave them free from the need to earn a living in order not only to serve in the Temple but also to be able to teach the people Torah and minister to their spiritual needs. The Cohanim were to receive Terumah (about 2% of a farmer's crops) together with the first-fruits and first of the dough (CHALLAH), gifts of wool for their clothing, choice parts of animals slaughtered for regular consumption, portions of sacrificial animals and certain other gifts. The Levites were to receive Maaser (10% of the crops) for their livelihood, out of which they were to contribute one tenth as their own TERUMAS MAASER to the priests.

Our present chapter (Joshua 21) gives an account of the cities set aside from the territorial portions of the other tribes in order to provide the Levites and Priests places for their residence and for their livestock and other needs. (It was not forbidden for the Levites and Priests to work the land, but their main task was to serve in the Temple and to teach and minister to the people.) The account in our chapter parallels the account of the cities of the Priests and Levites given with their genealogies in Chronicles I, 6:39:66.

Altogether the Priests and Levites received 42 cities of their own together with the 6 cities of refuge for unwitting killers (who needed the presence of spiritual ministers to help them in their repentance) making a total of 48 cities, corresponding to the 48 ways in which the Torah is acquired (Avot 6:6). Of these 13 were for the Cohanim-Priests and the remaining 35 for the Levites.

From the accounts here in Joshua and in Chronicles it emerges that the different tribes did not contribute equal numbers of cities. Judah contributed the most - 8 cities - while Shimon gave only one. Naftali gave 3 and all the other tribes gave four, "each according to his inheritance" (Numbers 35:8).

The Cohanim were all concentrated in the territories of Judah (9 cities including that given by Shimon, who lived in Judah ) and Benjamin (4). This made sense since the Cohanim were required to serve regularly in the Sanctuary / Temple -- in Shilo, Nob, Giv'on and finally Yerushalayim - all of which were in or adjacent to the territories of Benjamin and Judah.

The giving of Hebron - the outstanding jewel in the crown of Judah - to Aaron and his sons - signifies the close alliance between the tribe of Judah and the priesthood ever since Aaron the Priest had taken for his wife Elisheva, sister of Nachshon, Prince of the Tribe of Judah (Exodus 6:23). The royal tribe of Judah took particular responsibility for the establishment of the Temple , which was built through the efforts of David - from the tribe of Judah -- and his son Solomon. It would be David's songs that were sung by the Levites in the Temple as the Cohanim offered the sacrifices.

The dispersal of the Priests and Levites in cities up and down the Land served a vital function in bringing the Torah and its spiritual message to the people. The Torah's unique method of giving the Priests and Levites their livelihood ensured that they were in constant contact with the Israelite population of independent farmers, who could never separate their business affairs from their religious obligations because the Priests and Levites would come to their very barns and threshing floors in order to collect their tithes and gifts. This was how the Torah to which the Priests and Levites were particularly devoted percolated to the entire nation.

Today the majority of Jews do not live in agricultural societies and in any case cannot give TERUMAH to the Priests, since it may only be eaten in a state of ritual purity which today's Cohanim are unable to attain in the absence of the ashes of the Red Heiffer to purify them from defilement from the dead. Unless a Levite can PROVE his pedigree, there is no obligation to give him MAASER. Thus although there is still today an obligation to separate TERUMAH and MAASROS from the produce of Eretz Yisrael, the separation is largely symbolic as we cannot give the gifts to their intended recipients.

The contemporary equivalent of tithes for the Priests and Levites is the charity money given to TORAH SCHOLARS to enable them to pursue their profession of studying and teaching the Torah. Rambam (Maimonides) was strongly opposed to the scholars' relying on charity rather than working to make their living and supporting themselves to study Torah (Laws of Torah Study 3:10-11). However in Rambam's time it was possible to earn sufficient to live off in about three hours work a day (ibid. 1:12). This would probably still be possible today were it not for the extravagances of contemporary "civilization", whose obscene military budgets and many other excesses result in heavy taxation and all kinds of other expenses that eat away at people's income, leaving the majority enslaved to their work for many hours every day. Without the generosity of the brave few who provide financial support for Torah scholars, the Torah would be in danger of being entirely forgotten by the people. Charity support for Torah scholarship is intended not to allow lazy layabouts to smoke and drink coffee all day in front of an open SEFER. It is intended to enable truly sincere and devout seekers to discover and internalize God's Torah and prepare themselves to practice it and teach it to others. In our times of spiritual darkness and confusion there is no worthier charitable cause than that of the Torah institutions that are genuinely and seriously pursuing the study of the Torah as it applies practically in our time and spreading that knowledge among the wider population. Let us pray that as more and more BAALEY BATIM (working householders) make their way to the true Torah scholars to study, the overall level of Torah knowledge among the people will increase to the point where we will be ready to return to the Temple system with its Priests and Levites speedily in our time. Amen.


With the Cities of Refuge and those of the Priests and Levites established, the people were ready to settle down to their intended life of Torah, Mitzvos and devotion to God in the Holy Land , "each under his vine and each under his fig tree". The Canaanites had been largely subdued, though not completely defeated, and with the entire Land apportioned to the Tribes, the period of conquest had come to an end. Thus the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh that had taken their territories east of the Jordan were ready to return to their homes, having fulfilled their undertaking to Moses not to do so until they had fought with their brothers for the conquest of the Land west of the Jordan (Numbers ch 32).

The building of an Altar by the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menasheh close to the Jordan river near the boundary between the Land of Israel west of the Jordan and their territories to the east set off a confrontation with the other tribes of Israel that was an ominous precursor of what was to come in the times of the Judges and almost led to a terrible internecine war.

With the building of the Sanctuary at Shilo, it was strictly forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere else (see Rashi on Joshua 22:12). Torah law explicitly prohibited offering sacrifices on a "private" altar (BAMAH, "high place") once the Sanctuary was at rest in the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 12:6; 12:11). The penalty for violating the prohibition is KARET (spiritual excision), the most severe punishment in the Torah (Leviticus 17:4). The unity of God was to be affirmed through the choice of one and only one place in the whole world for the offering of animal sacrifices by the Cohanim. It was forbidden for each individual to set up his own personal Temple ritual, which could lead to the development of weird and alien cults that would quickly turn into the very opposite of what the Torah intended.

This was why the 10 Tribes in Israel proper sent Pinchas the Priest with a delegation of tribal representatives ready to make war against Reuven, Gad and half Menasheh. (Pinchas had shown himself the nation's outstanding "zealot" in the time of Moses, thereby earning the priesthood for himself, Numbers 25:7-13.)

When the three tribes answered and defended themselves against all misconceptions, they invoked three names of God twice over: KEIL ELOKIM HASHEM. (v. 22). The Midrash (Shochar Tov 3) comments: "What did the children of Gad and Reuven see to invoke these three names twice over? For through them He created the world (see Psalms 50:1) and through them He gave Israel the Torah ("for I am the Lord - HASHEM - your God - ELOKIM - a jealous God - KEL"). These three names correspond to the three attributes through which the world was created, with Wisdom (KEL, column of CHESSED, kindness), Understanding (ELOKIM, column of GEVURAH, might) and Knowledge (HASHEM, center column, TIFERET, beauty and harmony) - (see Proverbs 3:19).

The reason why they built the Altar was not to sacrifice on it but as a sign that they too were Israelites like their brothers east of the Jordan , so that nobody should come along in the future and say they had nothing to do with the people of Israel . They were appealing to their brothers not to drive them away.

This is a message that could today be addressed to those who consider themselves to be the "mainstream" of Jewry: Do not push away those who are earnestly and sincerely seeking God's true Torah, even if at times they do things that are not comprehensible to you and even seem like verging on the forbidden. A similar message could be addressed to those in Israel to keep their arms open to their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. Before you jump to conclusions, first ask, enquire and listen carefully.

Pinchas' mission was a successful exercise in conflict resolution and the Talmud comments, "And Pinchas THE PRIEST heard." (ch 22 v 30) - "Pinchas was not inaugurated as a Cohen until he made peace among the tribes" (Zevachim 101b). May Pinchas in his incarnation as Eliahu HaNavi come soon to make peace among us all! Amen.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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