Everybody loves a good mystery, and today’s daf provides an excellent one: In returning to the land of Israel from Babylon, how did Ezra find and bring back the Levites necessary to run the Temple services? And why does it seem like they appear, disappear and then reappear?
To give some context, the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and exiled the Jews from the land of Israel around 586 B.C.E. The Persians authorized their return a couple of decades later under the leadership of Ezra the Scribe. Ezra gathers a group of Jews to reestablish Jewish life in Israel, and given how central the Levites were to the Temple service, we would hope some of them were included.
On today’s daf, we find a mishnah suggesting that they were. The mishnah lays out ten categories of Jews who were part of Ezra’s troupe, three of which are likely familiar to you: the aforementioned Levites, the kohanim (priests) and Israelites. The other seven are less discussed. They are: priests disqualified from the priesthood because an ancestor married a woman forbidden to priests; converts; emancipated slaves; mamzerim; descendants of the Gibeonites who converted in the time of Joshua; children of unknown paternity; and abandoned children. These seven latter groups are later referred to in the Gemara as having “flawed” lineage, a rather derogatory term that many translations weave through this section.
The mishnah specifies that these ten categories were represented among those who “ascended from Babylonia” with Ezra to reestablish a Jewish presence in Israel. But in the Gemara, we find this statement that’s a little confusing:
Rabbi Elazar says: Ezra did not ascend from Babylonia until he made it like fine flour, and only then he ascended.
What does this mean exactly? According to Rashi, Ezra was concerned that if he didn’t leave behind some members of the big three — the priests, Levites and Israelites — the remaining categories of Jews, left to their own devices, might engage in prohibited marriages and relationships, making it difficult to keep track of who fell into which category. Rabbi Elazar is saying that Ezra first clarified who was of which lineage so that the reconstituted Jewish community in Israel would have a definite sense of who was who.
Why was this so important? Well, if you’re going to have a Temple, you’re going to need priests and Levites. And if you can’t figure out who qualifies for which role, it’s going to be hard to put the band back together. But there’s a problem:
“And I gathered them together to the river that runs to Ahava, and we camped there for three days; and I viewed the people and the priests, and found there none of the sons of Levi” (Ezra 8:15).
Frankly, this presents multiple challenges — both practically for Ezra and because of the way it contradicts other texts. Our mishnah says the Levites went up with Ezra, and Rabbi Elazar says that Ezra did his sorting in Babylonia before ascending. Both those claims are inconsistent with a verse that says Ezra only discovered later that the Levites were missing. So what’s going on at the river?
The question of whether Ezra separated people by lineage in Babylon or by the river is a source of contention between Rava and Abaye, but it’s not resolved in the Gemara so we’re going to let it be here. The absence of Levites presents a more gruesome story. According to Rashi and Tosafot, when the Babylonians exiled the Levites and mockingly asked them to sing songs of Zion (as related in Psalm 137), at least some of them cut off their own thumbs to render themselves unable to play their instruments. This disqualified them from the priesthood, rendering them functionally absent. (Incidentally, this gives a more literal interpretation of the question posed in the psalm: “How can we sing a song of God on alien soil?” Answer: We can’t because we have no thumbs.)
Ezra is able to recover from this setback by calling for Levitical reinforcements, but what can we learn from this? In returning to Israel and restoring the Temple service to something approaching its former glory, it was important to (a) know who had which lineage and (b) make sure there were enough Levites for the Temple to run. So is the mystery solved? Indeed. We’ve resolved the tension between the mishnah and the verse in Ezra and we’ve found our missing Levites, enabling Ezra to install appropriate individuals in ritual positions, have a critical mass of officiants and bring back what had been lost in the Babylonian destruction.