Today’s daf quotes a mishnah from Nega’im, the tractate that explores the halakhot of tzara’at, a disease described in the Hebrew Bible that is sometimes mistranslated as leprosy. (This mishnaic tractate, like much of Seder Toharot, has no Gemara, so we won’t be learning it together in our Daf Yomi journey). Mishnah Nega’im 14:4 teaches:
There are three who shave and their shaving is a mitzvah: the nazir, the one with tzara’at, and the Levite. And in all these cases, if they shaved not with a razor, or left two hairs unshaved, they did not do anything and their status has not changed.
The nazir, as we by now know, is shaved when completing their vow, so it’s clear why that is a mitzvah. Leviticus 13:29-37 tells us that if a person has tzara’at on a part of the body that is covered in hair, the hair around the area with tzaara’at must be shaved in order for the priest to properly diagnose the illness. But the Levite? What’s going on with the Levite?
The process by which Levites become qualified to serve in the Tabernacle is outlined in Numbers 8. There, God commands Moses:
“Take the Levites from among the Israelites and purify them. This is what you shall do to them to purify them: Sprinkle on them water of purification, and let them go over their whole body with a razor, and wash their clothes; thus they shall be purified.”
The Levites must shave their whole bodies with a razor in order to be ready to serve in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). But the Gemara is going to then get…even weirder. In this way, they are just like the nazirite and the a person with tzara’at. But there is one key difference. And its’ a big one.
For the Levites require that their bodies be waved.
The Gemara explains that in order to be transformed from just one of the 12 tribes to a tribe dedicated to serving God, the Levites had to be picked up and waved around. Picture one of the fancy lifts in ice dancing or pairs skating, but without the ice. Where does the Gemara get this idea? From the dedication of the Levites in Numbers 8:11 where God tells Moses to “let Aaron designate the Levites before God as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of God.”
The word that the 2006 JPS translation gives as “designate” is the word henif, which literally means to wave or swing. And so the rabbis read the word literally, imagining Aaron picking up and waving each of the Levites (individually or as a group) in front of him to prepare them to serve. This image is particularly impressive when we recall that Numbers 3:39 tells us that Moses and Aaron recorded 22,000 male Levites.
In Pirkei Avot, Hillel describes Aaron as a “lover of peace and chaser of peace, who loved humankind and brought them close to Torah.” In light of today’s daf, we should not imagine this lover of peace as slight or weak. No, in order to lift up and wave around 22,000 men, Aaron would have had to be absolutely ripped. A good reminder that while it takes real strength to lift 22,000 men, it also takes real strength to seek peace.
Read all of Nazir 40 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.