We read in Numbers 4:3 the age of service for the Levites is set as a 20-year term, from ages 30 to 50. This age range is repeated quite a few times in chapter 4, but this week in chapter 8:24 we see something different. Suddenly, the term of service to serve in Tabernacle is 25 and up. Why the disparity? In the Talmud Hulin 24a the text resolves that the five year disparity was for training purposes. The Levites must have had Levitical school for five years, after which they commenced their service.
There is a darker proscript to this passage, implying that anyone who does not retain their learning after five years never will. I believe this means that you should try and keep trying to learn, but there may come a moment when it seems that nothing is sticking. I suppose that this is true—we have all tried various tasks that are resistant to our best efforts (my many years of tennis lessons did not yield a consistent serve!) and realize at some point that it is time to move on.
But can this be the case with Torah study? Is there a point to cease and desist? I think not—rather the five year term seems more connected to the famous statement of Yehudah ben Teima in Pirkei Avot 5:23 that at five we start study of Bible, at 10 of Mishnah, at 13 the responsibility for the Mitzvot, at 15 of Talmud, and so on. Read it; I think you will agree with the progression(s).
The Book of Numbers seems in general to give priority to Levites and less attention to Kohanim, so the training may have been more substantial than the supporting roles we usually associate with Levites. Was five years the time needed to learn specific skills, or was there something about training for such a substantial period that allowed a person to develop the emotional and spiritual qualities needed to lead the religious life of the nation? It is the latter perspective that resonates with me.
Rabbi Jacob Milgrom has a comment on this subject in the JPS Torah Commentary. He notes that the Qumram sect adopted the same standard of five years initiation prior to service. One additional insight that I share with Milgrom is that our verse differs not only in its earlier start of service—25 instead of 30—but also in its lack of a terminus. Whereas chapter 4 retires the Levites at 50, chapter 8 just says “25 and up.” Milgrom is merely puzzled by this, but that does not stop me from speculating.
Perhaps those who just commence service without prior preparation can be expected to function for just 20 years. But pausing to prepare appropriately with five years of education not only increases the quality of service but also gives us the opportunity to become lifelong learners. I mention this because of the importance for all of us to continue our Jewish educations.
If you are around this summer, we begin this coming Wednesday, June 13th at 7 PM with my class, “Sex, War, and Betrayal Based on the Neviim Rishonim (Former Prophets)”. We will be looking specifically at Samuel I and the David stories with David as a warrior, musician, poet, philanderer, shepherd, the King of Israel, and, as many hold, the progenitor of the Messiah. I hope you will sign up and join me on Wednesdays this summer. No prior knowledge is required, and if you miss a class I will happily help you catch up quickly.
I encourage you to deepen your Torah knowledge, your faith and practice. As we read in Psalm 36:6 attributed to David, “O Lord, your faithfulness reaches to Heaven, Your steadfastness to the sky, Your beneficence is like the high mountains”, testifying to God’s goodness.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham