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Kiddushin 78

Holiness in contradiction.

Leviticus 21:14 states: “A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is degraded by harlotry — such [the high priest] may not take [for a wife]. Only a virgin of his own kin may he take as his wife.”

However, Ezekiel 44:22 says: “They [priests] shall not marry widows or divorced women of the stock of the House of Israel, but only virgins; or they may marry widows who are widows of priests.”

The prohibition of marrying a widow or divorcee is limited to the high priest in Leviticus, while Ezekiel apparently expands the prohibition to all priests. On today’s daf, the rabbis are troubled by this contradiction and seek a resolution.

One solution, cited by Radak and Abarbanel, is that Ezekiel is talking about an ideal future time when priests will all practice a greater level of holiness, closer to that of the high priest. The idea here is that in the future all Israel will ascend a level of holiness. For the time being, priests, who enjoy a more direct connection to God, are meant to serve as exemplars for Israelites. Israelites, in turn, have rituals that actively imitate priests. For instance, tzitzit, ritual fringes worn by all Israel, incorporate expensive dye that emulates the clothes of the high priest. Tzitzit also mix wool and linen, a prohibition (shatnez) only set aside for the priestly garments. And just as Israelites aspire to priestly status, to a closer connection with God, the priests, in the future (argue the rabbis), will aspire to emulate the high priest, who has the most intimate human-divine relationship.

Another solution, cited on our daf, is to reinterpret the verse in Ezekiel. Rava does this in a way that surprises Rav Nahman: 

Rav Nahman said to Rava: Does this verse [from Ezekiel] refer to the high priest in the beginning and a regular priest at the end?!

Rava said to him: Yes.

Rav Nahman: But can a verse be written this way?

Rava: Yes, as it is written: “And the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel laid down to sleep in the Temple of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:3). But only the kings of the House of David are allowed to sit in the courtyard of the Tabernacle! Instead, the verse should be interpreted as follows: “And the lamp of God had not yet gone out” — in the Temple of the Lord; “and Samuel laid down” — in his place.

Rava’s solution to the contradictory verses from Leviticus and Ezekiel is to essentially split the verse from Ezekiel in two so that the first part (prohibiting marriage to widows or divorcees) refers to the high priest and the second to regular priests. Rav Nahman finds this interpretation unconvincing, since generally people (and biblical verses) don’t switch subjects mid-sentence without making that clear. Ezekiel gives no indication of such a switch. Rava responds that when a verse contradicts something we know to be true, this is a reasonable way to interpret it. He provides another example, using a verse in Samuel where it seems that when the young prophet was an apprentice in the Tabernacle, he slept inside. However, we know from elsewhere that only a king from the line of David is allowed to recline in the Tabernacle courtyard, as a sign of respect for the king — all others are expected to stand. So, the rabbis split the verse and say that “in the Temple of the Lord” refers to the lamp of God, which was inside, and “Samuel laid down” outside, in the quarters where the Levites slept. 

Samuel, who was neither a priest nor a Levite, was apprenticed to Eli, the high priest at the time. Rava’s chosen verse, in a certain way, actually supports the first solution discussed above. Samuel is not a priest, but an Israelite emulating the priests, and he is allowed to serve in God’s abode.

While Rava’s method of splitting a verse may not help us find the peshat (i.e. the simple, literal meaning of the verse) it is not a disingenuous method of reinterpretation. If two verses seem to give two different rules, one must be interpreted in light of the other. 

In the end, each of the solutions to the Leviticus/Ezekiel conundrum on today’s daf embeds a message for the rabbis. The first teaches that priests in the future will ascend in holiness. The second inspires reflection on the limits of exemplars, and on the ways in which we struggle to ascend in holiness at the present time.

Read all of Kiddushin 78 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 31st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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