“Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans. Record them from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty” (Numbers 4:22-23).
The tribe of Levi received special treatment, and therefore was counted separately from the rest of the Israelites, as written in Numbers 1:49, “The Levites, however, were not recorded…with the Israelites.” Once they were counted from the age of one month up and the author of the Torah dedicated the whole of chapter three to this counting. Now, in chapter 26:57, the tribe of Levi is counted once again, this time before the entrance to the Land of Israel. See an amazing thing–38 years have passed, and the number of Levites has hardly changed. They’ve only grown by 700 men, even though the tribe of Levi was not included in the punishment of dying in the desert, as brought in Tractate Baba Batra 121b: “R’ Hamnuna said, ‘this decree [“in this very wilderness they shall die to the last man” Numbers 15:35] did not fall upon the tribe of Levi’.” The other tribes, who were destined to die in the desert (the Scripture says in Numbers 26:64, “And in these [those counted at the end of their sojourn] there was no man of those counted by Moses and Aaron the priest, who counted the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.”), did not see their numbers reduced. In many instances, they increased quite a bit in number, as did the tribe of Menasseh: “The tribe of Menasseh was 32,200” (Numbers 1:35). After all the people had died, the Scriptures tell us: “These are the families of Menasseh and their count, 52,700” (Numbers 26:34). The tribe of Menasseh grew by more than 20,000. Ibn Ezra was puzzled by this in his commentary on Numbers 26:62: “The count of the Levites this time yields an increase of 700. It is puzzling why they increased by only 700, while the Israelites were sentenced to die from age 20 and up, yet their final number was higher than their earlier number, for the Levites were not included in the counting of Israel, and Elazar the priest is a witness.” Ibn Ezra kept the answer to himself; it is logical to assume that it falls under the rubric of “the wise one will be silent.”
From what age were the Levites suitable for service in the Sanctuary? In chapter four they counted the Levites suited for work as being from age thirty to fifty, “from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who are subject to service, to perform tasks for the Tent of Meeting,” but in 8:24 it is said, “This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting.” Again, we will not bring the Biblical commentators to settle the conflicting verses; we leave this to anyone who is interested and seeks truth. Let him check and find for himself the meaning of the contradiction. We have already hinted at the method of solving it many times.
But we will note that in the book of Ezra 3:8 it is written, “appointed Levites from the age of twenty and upward to supervise the work of the House of the Lord.” We find that in the Second Temple period they did not follow what was written in the Torah, neither about the age of thirty nor about the age of twenty five. What do Chazal say about this? In Hulin 24a: “Could it have been even in Shilo and the permanent Temple [that Levites below the age of thirty were invalid]? It says, ‘To do the work of service and the work of carrying.’ This applies only when there is work of carrying [that is, when the Tabernacle must be carried from place to place].” This is very puzzling, for it is specifically for the work of carrying that young strong men would be needed, yet this work, the carrying of the Tabernacle, the Torah delegates to the older men, and in the permanent structure where there is no carrying, they use the young men? This is what we say: The Torah expands and repeats the count of the Levites and details the sacrifices of the tribal leaders for full chapters, but the exact age of the Levite suitable for Temple service is left for the sages to determine through the 13 methods in which the Torah is elucidated. Understand this well, for we do not live from the Torah but from the words of the sages, for in the Torah it is written thirty or twenty-five (of twenty nothing is written in the Torah), and in the Temple we permit service form the age of twenty.
And between the chapters recounting the census of the Israelites and the dedication of the Tabernacle the Scripture commands us about the adulterous woman and the Nazarite. We will focus in on the adulterous woman and see what we have already written about in the portion of Tetzave, that halacha changes with the times; generations come and go and the determination of the sages differs in each generation, based upon the public’s will and the spirit of the time and place. We will also say that even though the law of giving the adulterous woman to drink the bitter water is no longer practiced, the laws of an adulterous woman are still applicable, as is written in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, section 178, paragraph 7, “A man should not say to his wife, even in private, ‘do not be alone with so-and-so.’ Now that we do not have the waters of the adulterous woman, if she is alone with a man after she is wed she is forever forbidden to her husband.” (In paragraph two it is explained that a husband may forbid his wife to be alone with even her father or brother.)
The text explicitly states that it is enough should a man be jealous of his wife “and the spirit of jealousy passed over him” in order to shame her in public in the Holy Temple, to see if the husband’s jealousy has any actual foundation. As Ibn Ezra wrote on Numbers 5:13, “Though there is not even a single witness to make her suspect.” But the sages understood that in this sort of situation many women would be unreasonably shamed due to the suspicions of their jealous husbands, so they determined in tractate Sotah 2 that witnesses had to see her go off alone with her suspected partner in adultery, as Rashi writes on Numbers 5:13, “There are no witnesses to her impurity, but there are witnesses to her going off alone.” Not only did the sages innovate this, they also said that if the husband or wife were blind or lame the woman should not drink the bitter waters, as they said in Sotah 27, “Just as if the husband were blind he would not give the bitter waters to be drunk, for it is written, ‘and it disappears from the woman’s eyes,’ so, too, if she is blind she does not drink. R’ Ashi says that if she is lame or an amputee she does not drink, as is written, ‘And the priest will stand the woman before the Lord and place on her hand,’ so, too, if he were lame or an amputee he would not give to drink.” See how strange are the teachings of the sages. Did the Scriptures mean, in saying “and it disappears from the woman’s eyes” that if he is blind he does not give her to drink? When it says, “and place it upon her hand” that if the woman is an amputee she should not drink the bitter waters? To illustrate how the sages determine and decide matters which are explicit in the Scriptures, see the decree of Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai, who lived at the end of the second Temple period, in tractate Sotah, chapter nine, mishnah nine: “As the adulterers have multiplied, the administration of the bitter waters has ceased, and it was Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai who ceased it, as written, ‘I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom, nor your brides when they commit adultery’.” Is the fact that adultery is widespread a reason to cease administering the bitter waters as commanded by the Torah? The Gemara in Sotah 47b explains that the bitter waters only check the woman if the husband is clean of the sin of adultery. Now that the husbands, too, are adulterers, there is no reason to give her to drink, as the bitter waters will not test her. Maimonides, in Laws of an Adulterous Woman chapter three, halacha 17, explained: “If the man is guilty of that which is prohibited, the waters do not check his wife…and he merely ridicules the waters of the adulteress, for his wife tells other women who have prostituted themselves that the waters did not test her, and she will not know that it was her husband’s actions which rendered the waters ineffective.” See how quickly the miraculous powers of giving the waters of the adulterous woman fall away. Those who believe in the miracle can always claim that nothing happened to the adulterous woman because of some hidden sin of her husband’s. This is a ready excuse for the water’s lack of effectiveness.
Come see how the reality of public behavior changes the law of the Torah itself. There is no better example than an incident which took place in 13th century France, mentioned in the Responsa of the Provence sages, part one, section 49: A cohen was jealous of his wife and told her not to be alone or speak to a specific man. When he returned from abroad witnesses and one woman told him that they saw his wife kissing and hugging that man. When he asked his wife, she admitted that she had slept around. He went to the religious court in his city, and the judges went to the woman and heard her say that she had slept with someone other than her husband. One of the investigation judges told her: “Stupid, why didn’t you just hide the matter from your husband?” She told him, “I couldn’t, because one woman saw me coming out from behind the curtain with the man.” When she tried to get away from the sages who were investigating her, they warned her not to dare admit anything to any person or religious court on earth. After a time her father and loved ones came and she retracted everything, saying that she had not said what she had said, and that the only reason she admitted to anything was for fear of her husband, and it seemed certain that she learned her claims from the judges.
From this incident you can see that the Torah is set aside; the religious arbiters knew very well that the woman was committing adultery, and that she should be forbidden to her husband, but what did they do? The judges reprimand her and tell her not to admit the truth so that she might be permitted to her husband. All opposite the Torah’s commands.
Not only in matters of adultery do the sages intentionally ignore the facts. On many rules they do so when they think the times do not fit the rules of the Torah. In the portion of Tetzave we brought the change which befell the issue of monetary loans, with the Torah commanding they be forgiven, but when Hillel saw that if the Torah’s law was kept the public would not loan money, he changed the law and established the prozbol. Later they establish that even if the prozbol were not written the judges teach the claimant to say he had one, though everyone knows he did not! Similarly, the selling of chametz on Passover; any reasonable person knows that the grocery store owner does not sell his chametz to a gentile, but what do the sages care for facts? It’s enough that he mumbles some formula and presses the “sell” button and it’s sold. This is also the rule on the prohibition against usury; today any G-d fearing Jew who’s greatly overdrawn at the bank pays usurious rates without hesitation. Our rabbis know that the religious public is prepared to pay interest in their dealings with the banks and could not follow the laws of interest from the Torah, so they created permission for businesses, as though we were partner with the bank and therefore are “saved” from the prohibition against interest. Every child knows that we are not actually partners in the banks in any way, but what difference does reality make? Write a writ of permission for a business and the whole Torah prohibition against interest becomes like the dust beneath our feet.
These are only a few examples of the acts of the sages, who permit themselves to uproot the words of the Torah when they understand that the public will not follow the prohibition from the Torah. This is how it has been for generations. And in our days there are those who wish to decree a total and absolute freeze on halacha, for fear of the wisdom and enlightenment which have spread throughout the world. As more and more facts have been revealed which raise difficult questions about the validity of various halachot, the rabbis began to fear that they would be forced to deal with these difficult questions. They decided that any halachic innovation would be forbidden, under the heading of “new [things] are forbidden by the Torah.” They did not rest until they calcified the whole halachic process, and for fear of one step forward resolved to only walk backwards from now on. Their rulings became stringencies on top of stringencies and added fear to every suspicion, turning every doubt into a certainty and every far-fetched custom into a strict prohibition. But soon they will all see that life and reality have power greater than any decree, and that which the public cannot live with will surely fall. What will it aid the generations’ rabbis to forbid computers and the internet? There is not a house where there is no net…
Words of True Knowledge