Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion (Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32), God assigns Aaron the priest responsibility for divine worship in the sanctuary and for the sanctuary’s tools and utensils: “I give you the priesthood as a service that is a gift” (Numbers 18:7). The priests’ work in the Temple is deemed a “gift” rather than a burden that they must assume, explain Rashi and Nahmanides in their commentaries on the verse. The following midrash, however, finds another meaning for it.
“It is written, ‘I give you the priesthood as a service that is a gift,’ to teach us that the consumption outside the Temple of the sacred food that priests are entitled to eat can be considered equivalent to sacred worship within the Temple itself. Just as handwashing is required before divine service in the Temple, it is required before the consumption of sacred food outside the Temple” (Sifre Numbers, Section 116). Certain kinds of food were presented to the priests that could be consumed outside the Temple; these so-called priestly gifts had to be eaten after preparation.
The midrash deduces from this verse that consumption of the priestly gifts is called avoda (service) – the same term used to refer to divine worship in the Temple, and which means making a sacrifice in this context. This semantic shift, argues the midrash, enables priests to worship God even where there is no Temple.
The practical outcome of this shift is to recognize a semantic parallel between the consumption of priestly gifts and divine worship in the Temple. Thus, priests who consume gifts outside the Temple must wash their hands just as all priests who are about to engage in divine worship in the Temple must wash theirs.
After the second Temple was destroyed, in the first century C.E., the sages had to find alternatives to divine worship there to preserve the connection between God and Israel. An important step in this process is presented in the above midrash: namely, the idea that consumption of priestly gifts outside the Temple could also be termed “sacred worship,” and that priests must wash their hands before the consumption of such gifts, even though the Temple no longer exists.
Naturally, not all Talmudic scholars accepted this radical change, as can be seen in the following story, which appears immediately after the above homily: “Rabbi Tarfon was late for class in the Talmudic academy. Rabban Gamliel asked him: What delayed you? Rabbi Tarfon replied: I was worshiping God by means of sacrifice. Rabban Gamliel retorted: Your answer puzzles me. Can divine worship be carried out today when there is no Temple? Rabbi Tarfon answered: It is written, ‘I give you the priesthood as a service that is a gift,’ to teach us that the consumption outside the Temple of sacred food that priests are entitled to eat can be considered equivalent to sacred worship within the Temple itself.”
As a member of a priestly family, Rabbi Tarfon took the semantic shift proposed by the midrash very seriously. When Rabban Gamliel requests an explanation for his lateness, Rabbi Tarfon replies, “I was worshiping God,” clearly referring, in the terminology of the sages, to a form of divine worship in the Temple.
The Rabban Gamliel referred to in this midrashic passage is Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, son of the president of the Sanhedrin at the time of the Temple’s destruction, Rabbi Simeon, son of Gamliel the Elder, and the great-grandson of Hillel the Elder. Tension could be felt in the era of Rabban Gamliel’s grandfather between the members of the priestly class and the Talmudic scholars. Traveling from Babylon to Palestine and observing the priests who were working in the Temple, Hillel pronounced the famous dictum, “Be a disciple of Aaron: Love peace, pursue peace, love everyone and bring them closer to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). Hillel is careful to use the word “disciple” rather than “son”; it can therefore be deduced that the priests whom Hillel observed and who were the sons, rather than the disciples, of Aaron, did not meet the high moral standards of their calling.
Rabbi Tarfon, a scion of a respected priestly family and a descendant of Ezra the Scribe, engages in a dispute with Rabban Gamliel, a scion of a highly esteemed line of Sahhedrin presidents who were not members of the priestly class. Although the midrash does not include Rabban Gamliel’s response to Rabbi Tarfon, it does present the words of Rabban Gamliel’s grandson, Rabbi Judah the Prince, who responds to Rabbi Tarfon’s statement with a competing homily:
“Rabi [that is, Rabbi Judah the Prince] says: It is written, ‘I give you the priesthood as a service that is a gift,’ to teach us that consumption outside the Temple of the sacred food priests are entitled to eat can be considered similar to sacred worship within the Temple itself. Just as handwashing is required before divine service in the Temple, it is required before the consumption of sacred food outside the Temple. Can it then be said that, just as priests must wash their hands and feet before engaging in divine worship in the Temple, they must do the same before consuming priestly gifts outside the Temple?
“No, replies Rabbi Judah: When there is a need for the washing of both hands and feet, then one must do that, but when there is no need for the washing of both, then one need not do that. We can thus deduce from this verse that handwashing before a meal is a commandment that comes directly to us from the Torah’” (Sifre, Numbers, Section 116).
Whereas Rabbi Tarfon argues that the consumption of priestly gifts, whether inside or outside the Temple, is equivalent to divine worship in the Temple, Rabbi Judah claims it is only similar to divine worship in the Temple in a formal way. In short, Rabbi Tarfon believes that only priests may wash their hands (and worship God), whereas Rabi says every man can do so, presaging a more democratic atmosphere after destruction of the Temple. Moreover, feet washing is necessary only when stepping into that holy place; today we indulge only in hand washing.
Rabbi Judah’s polemical intentions can be detected in his conclusion: “We can thus deduce from this verse that handwashing before a meal is a commandment that comes directly to us from the Torah.” Now that we have removed the verse from the priestly context proposed by Rabbi Tarfon, we can now also remove, argues Rabbi Judah, the ritual itself of the washing of hands from that context.
“What does the above verse from Numbers teach us?” asks Rabbi Judah. We can deduce from it, he replies, that just as the priests washed their hands before engaging in divine worship in the Temple, we – who are not priests – must wash before a meal. In his homily, Rabbi Judah refers to the historical importance of the verse as a reminder of the divine worship in the now-ruined Temple, but also advocates its democratization.
The custom of handwashing even among those who are not priests was regarded as an integral part of Jewish law by the Pharisees, as attested to by Mark in the New Testament: “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). Further testimony regarding this custom is provided by Rabban Gamliel himself.
“Why did Rabban Gamliel eat non-sacred food only after first washing his hands? He argued: “Sacredness was transmitted not only to the priests but to all three classes in Israel – Priests, Levites and Israel, as it is written, ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ [Leviticus 19:1-2]” (Tana De-Vai Eliahu, Chapter 15).