Levites in the Halakhah

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The levite has no privileges, neither through personal or family status nor any special sanctity, and it was ruled that "the levite is equivalent to the Israelite" in all things, including ritual defilement through contact with a corpse, which is forbidden to a Kohen only (tj., Naz. 7:1).

Nevertheless, as long as the Second Temple was standing, the levites played an important part in its services as assistants to the priests, as gatekeepers and choristers, and in various ancillary duties (see *Temple, Levites). With the destruction of the Temple, however, and the consequent abolition of the sacrificial system, their importance and role diminished, and with one exception the special position of the levite is due to historical associations alone, from which certain halakhot of secondary importance are derived. That exception was the right of the levites to biblical tithes. Already during Temple times there was a dispute whether the tithes should be given to the levites or to the priests, and since the separation of tithes continued after the destruction of the Temple, this difference of opinion persisted (for a full discussion, see *Terumot and Ma'aserot).

Although such laws as those of the *Levitical Cities and the dwelling house in walled cities and the other similar laws applying to the levites mentioned in Lev. 25:29–34 are discussed in detail in the halakhah (Ar. 9:5–8 and tb 32a–34a), the discussions were purely theoretical and had no practical application.

At present the only halakhot which apply specifically to the levite are the following: (1) The levite is called to the reading of the second portion of the Torah portion, but only when there is a Kohen present who is called to the reading of the first portion. When there is no Kohen present, he is not necessarily called up first (Git. 5:8). (2) Apart from this the levite can be called up only to the reading of the last portion of the sidrah on the Sabbath, after the statutory seven have already been called; or for maftir on Sabbaths and festivals. (3) The levite is exempt from Pidyon ha-Ben (the Redemption of the *First-born, Bek. 2:1) and the exemption applies whether the father or the mother is a levite (ibid. tb 4a). (4) The levite washes the hands of the Kohen before he ascends to pronounce the *Priestly Blessing. This is a comparatively late custom, first mentioned in the Zohar (Portion Naso, 146 a, b).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]