This is what regards the Levites: From the age of 25 years and above, each will enter the battalion of service for the Tent of Meeting. And from the age of 50 years, yashuv from the battalion of service, and he shall not serve any more. He shall attend to his brother in the Tent of Meeting, keeping his watch, but he shall not do service. Thus you shall do for the Levites regarding their duties. (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:24-26)
yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall return, turn back, turn away, withdraw.
It sounds like a mandatory retirement age. And retirement at 50 would be a golden dream to all the people today who must continue to toil at jobs that sap their energy instead of nourishing them. Do the Levites really get this blessing?
This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, includes the consecration of the Levites as servants of God’s sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting.1 (The first priests, Aaron and his sons, are consecrated in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.2 ) Leviticus also provides lengthy job descriptions for priests, who perform all the rituals of offerings at the altar, tend the most sacred holy objects, and judge various issues about ritual purity.
While the priests perform the highest-ranking work in the religious life of the ancient Israelites, many other duties are necessary to maintain either a traveling sanctuary (in Exodus through Joshua) or a permanent temple (from 1 Kings on). The first two Torah portions in Numbers begin assigning these duties to the three clans of Levites. (See last week’s post, Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.)
For each leg of the Israelites’ journey from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, the Tent of Meeting must be disassembled, carried to the next campsite, and reassembled. Only the priests can prepare the holiest items for travel; they wrap the ark, the lampstand, the bread table, the incense altar, and the altar for offerings in multiple coverings before turning them over to the Levites of the Kehat clan for porterage.
The other two clans of Levites, Geirshon and Merari, disassemble, carry, and reassemble the tent roof, the cloth walls of both tent and courtyard, and the frameworks they are stretched over. All of these jobs are critical, and an error may result in death. (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.) They are also jobs that require physical strength and skill.
I believe the tasks of dismantling, carrying, and erecting the pieces of the santucary are restricted to Levites old enough to be mindful, but young enough to do the labor without faltering. Levites must retire from these duties before old age compromises their physical abilities. So the men who do this work must be between the ages of 25 and 50—at least in the portion Beha-alotkha.
The first two portions of the book of Numbers give a different starting age for the Levites. God requests a census of each of the three clans of Levites,
From the age of 30 years and above, up to the age of 50 years, all those who come into the battalion to do labor in the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:3, 4:23, 4:30)
According to Rashi, the strength to carry heavy objects is not fully developed until age 30. After age 50, a man’s strength begins to diminish again. The Talmud3 explains the different starting ages by claiming the Levites began learning these duties at age 25, and began actually performing them at 30. I suspect the discrepancy is due to different opinions about the age at which young men can be trusted to carry out a long process with unflagging mindfulness of the sanctity of every movement.
The Levites age 50 and above still perform some duties, those that all Levites do while the Israelites are encamped and the sanctuary is in place. What are these jobs?
The only ones mentioned in the first five books of the Torah are guarding the sanctuary to prevent any unauthorized persons from entering;4 and helping to collect tithes from the rest of the community, tithes used to support the priests, the Levites, and the poor.5
Other Levitical duties are not mentioned until books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which describe the building of the second temple in Jerusalem.
Supervising the building of a temple can apparently be done well by a wider range of Levites. The book of Ezra says that when the exiled Israelites returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, their leaders appointed the Levites from age 20 years and above to supervise the labor of [building] the House of God. (Ezra 3:8)
Both books list the job titles, ancestry, and numbers of men who serve at the new temple. Priests are listed first, then Levites, then singers, then gatekeepers, then temple servants.6 Although the singers and gatekeepers are listed separately from “Levites”, the traditional interpretation is that these two groups were subdivisions of Levites.
One piece of evidence is the celebration over the completion the foundation of the second temple in the book of Ezra.
…and the priests were stationed in their vestments with their trumpets, and the Levites, descendants of Asaf, with cymbals to praise God … And they [the Levites] answered with haleil and with thanks to God: “because [God]is good, because [God’s] kindness is everlasting” (Ezra 3:10-11).
haleil (הַלֵּל) = songs of praise.
The same words “because [God] is good, because [God’s] kindness is everlasting” appear in Psalms 106, 118 and 136. As far as we know, all the Psalms were sung at temple rituals, accompanied by instruments—and the musicians were Levites.
For us, as for the Levites, retirement is not ceasing to work; it is withdrawing from a job that has become difficult, and turning to work that benefits body and soul. Yes, many retirees spend more and more time taking care of their aging and cranky bodies. But we can also take some time to help others from a place of wisdom, and to do the work that nourishes our souls.
No doubt some of the Levites serving in the second temple got bored with locking and unlocking gates, or dreaded singing under a certain conductor, and wished they could retire at 50 like the Levites in the book of Numbers. Lighter work is not always soul-nourishing work.
Nevertheless, the duties of the Levites can inform our own retirements, when we finally shuv—withdraw, turn away, return from—the jobs we had to do to make a living. In the workforce (equivalent to the “battalion” in this week’s Torah portion), we have to keep disassembling and reassembling our knowledge base, our skills, our resumes, as we meet the demands imposed by our employers or the larger society with live in.
Retired, we can exercise more of our own judgement about what to let in through our personal gates, and what to keep out. And we can lift our own spirits toward the spirit of the divine by singing to God.
- Numbers 8:8-22.
- Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
- Talmud Bavli, Chullin.
- Numbers 18:2-6.
- Numbers 18:20-24; Nehemiah 12:44.
- Ezra 2:40-41 and 2:70; Nehemiah 7:43-45, 10:29, and 11:15-22.