A new station in life calls for a ceremony—a wedding, a commencement, an inauguration, an ordination. At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive a new formal religion, and consecrate two groups of men to administer it: priests (kohanim) and Levites (levi-im).
The first priests to serve at the new tent-sanctuary for God undergo an eight-day ordination in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Before then, any head of a household could build a stone altar and burn an animal offering for God. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all did it. But after Moses has ordained Aaron and his sons, only they can make the daily offerings at the altar, light the menorah, place bread and frankincense on the table, and burn incense on the incense altar.1
Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into an unauthorized place on their first day of service, and God kills them.2 In the new religion, priesthood is a dangerous vocation. Aaron and his two younger sons are meticulous about following God’s rules.
The Levites replace the firstborn sons as acolytes when God reorganizes the religion at Mount Sinai. In this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, God reminds Moses:
“For every firstborn from the Israelites is mine, from human and from beast; on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them as mine. Now I take the Levites instead all the firstborn of the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:17-18)
Serving as a Levite could also be a hazardous job, as I wrote in last week’s post: Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty. Any close contact with the God of Israel carries grave risks.
The ordination of the Levites includes animal offerings similar to those in the ordination of the priests, but other elements of the ritual are dissimilar. One difference is that while priests are forbidden to shave any part of their bodies, the Levites must shave their entire bodies for their ordination.
“Take the Levites from among the Israelites and ritually purify them. And thus you shall do to them to make them ritually pure: sprinkle over them water of expiation3 and make a razor pass over all their flesh. And they shall clean their clothes, and they shall ritually purify themselves.” (Numbers 8:6-7)
Shaving as disfigurement
Shaving is not an everyday activity in the Hebrew Bible. Shaving the scalp or beard is considered disfiguring, like gashing the skin; both are mourning practices indicating one’s abandonment to grief, along with tearing good clothing, wearing sackcloth, and throwing dust or ashes on one’s head.4
Priests and nazarites are expected to put their dedication to God first, so they are forbidden to engage in shaving or gashing when someone close to them dies.5 Male and female nazarites must not cut their hair at all during the term of their vow, but on the day their term ends, they shave their heads and burn their hair as an offering to God.6
Furthermore, the Torah forbids all Israelites to shave specific spots on their heads (possibly places that worshipers of other gods shaved).7
However, two groups of people must shave not just the whole head, but the whole body: those who have recovered from the skin disease tzara-at, and the Levites being ordained in this week’s Torah portion.
Shaving the metzora
A person who has tzara-at must live outside the camp, excluded from the community’s social and religious life. If the skin returns to normal, the person must undergo an elaborate ritual purification in order to return to society. The Torah portion Metzora in the book of Leviticus opens:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “This will be the instruction for the metzora at the time of his ritual purification, when [the news] is brought to the priest.”
metzora (מְצֺרָה) = one afflicted with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרַעַת), characterized by one or more patches of scaly white skin that is depressed (tzirah, צִרְעָה) compared to the surrounding skin.
If the priest pronounces the metzora healed from the disease, the ensuing ritual includes cleaning their clothes and shaving—elements that are also included in the consecration of the Levites.8
And it will be on the seventh day he shall shave all of his hair and his beard and his eyebrows; all his [body] hair he will shave. And he shall clean his clothes and wash his flesh in water, and he will be ritually pure. (Leviticus 14:9)
Only a healed metzora and the Levites inducted into sanctuary service are commanded to do full-body shaving.9 Does this imply a deeper similarity between them?
Shaving for separation
In the 20th century, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut suggested that both kinds of people are separated from the rest of the community; the metzora is separated physically until the skin condition disappears, while the Levite is separated spiritually after consecration.10 After ordering the ordination ritual for the Levites, God adds:
“And you shall separate the Levites from among the Israelites, and the Levites will be mine.” (Numbers 8:14)
Shaving for abnegation
According to the Talmud, God afflicts individuals with tzara-at to punish malicious speech and arrogance.11 One example appears in the portion Beha-alotkha after Miriam criticizes her younger brother Moses’ marriage, and adds that God speaks not only through Moses, but through her and her older brother Aaron as well.
And God’s nose burned against them, and [God] left. And the [divine] cloud withdrew from over the Tent, and hey! Miriam was a metzora [with scales] like the snow!” (Numbers 12:9-10)
In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that both the metzora and the Levites must renounce their selfish concerns: “This is true of the Levi’im: Until now, they led merely private lives, as was their right; but from now onward they must assume the service the community… And this is also true here of the metzora: Until now, he lived only for himself—selfishly and antagonistic toward society; and this was his main sin. From now onward he must undertake the self-sacrifice of his duties toward the community. In both cases … man must cease living only for himself. Hair is intended to protect the body … Stripping a body of all hair exposes it to the effects of the outside world.”12
Shaving for transition
In the 11th-century, Rashi summarized this argument by another French rabbi, Moshe ha-Darshan: The Levites were substitutes for the firstborn, the firstborn had worshiped the golden calf, and Psalm 106:28 calls idol-worship “offerings to the dead”. Therefore the Levites had to shave their bodies like a metzora, who is also called dead—when God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at in this week’s Torah portion.
And Aaron said to Moses: “Oh, my lord, please don’t put guilt on us for our foolishness that we were guilty of! Please don’t let her be like a corpse that emerges from the womb of its mother and half its flesh [looks] eaten away!” (Numbers 12:11-12)
It does not make sense to equate the appearance of Miriam’s skin disease with the offerings of the people the Levites are replacing. Yet death and rebirth are implicit in both ceremonial shavings.
If shaving one’s head is a mourning practice, then shaving one’s whole body might be a reminder of the death of one’s old identity.
I agree with Hirsch that both the Levites and a metzora are purified and sanctified in order to rise above their self-centered concerns and step into a new role in the community. The Levite must become a servant of God, the priests, and the new religion; the ex-metzora must become an ethical and thoughtful member of society.
Shaving the entire body makes someone even more hairless than a newborn infant. The Levite and the ex-metzora must abandon their previous adult identities along with their hair, and be born into their new lives.
- Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
- See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
- chata-at (חַטָּאת) = guilt, wrongdoing, ritual error; expiation of wrongdoing, ritual error, or ritual impurity. Anyone who has been in contact with a human corpse is impure until sprinkled with water of chata-at (Numbers 19:1-22).
- Jeremiah 41:5, Micah 1:16. These mourning practices were widespread in the Ancient Near East; cf. Deuteronomy 21:12, Isaiah 15:2, Jeremiah 48:37, Ezekiel 27:31.
- Leviticus 21:1-6, Ezekiel 44:20, Numbers 6:5.
- Numbers 6:5, 6:13-18. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
- Leviticus 19:27 bans rounding off the hair at the temples, the sideburns, or the edges of the beard. Deuteronomy 14:1 bans shaving “between the eyes”. (See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.)
- See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.
- The only other reference to full-body shaving in the Hebrew Bible is in Isaiah 7:20, part of a prophecy about a sign from God rather than a command for people to obey.
- Gunther Plaut suggests this answer in his commentary on Numbers 8:7 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1075.
- Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 15b-16a. Several of the Talmudic rabbis cite Psalm 101:5 as their proof text.
- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Pub., Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 438-439.