Talmud

Taanit 27

Holding up the world.

King David is famous for many things — defeating the giant Goliath, sinning with Bathsheba, his music and more. 1 Chronicles 23-26 tells us that David was famous for something else too: dividing the Levites and priests into 24 divisions. The mishnah tells us that each division, or watch, would take their turn serving in the Temple for one week at a time, so that as many families as possible could participate in the work. 

The mishnah we read yesterday adds another element to this rotation: watches of non-priests (“Israelites”) who rotated through their own Temple service. We know that the priestly watches would have performed the sacrifices and the Levite watches would have musically accompanied their work. What kinds of work were the Israelite watches expected to do?

Today’s daf offers two different answers to this question, depending on where one lived.

Israelites who live in Jerusalem were expected to be present at the Temple in Jerusalem when sacrifices were offered during their watch week:

Since it is stated: “Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering of food, which is presented to me made by a fire, of a sweet savor to me, you shall guard the sacrifice to me in its due season” (Numbers 28:2), but how can a person’s offering be sacrificed when he is not standing next to it? The early prophets instituted 24 priestly watches. For each and every priestly watch there was a non-priestly watch in Jerusalem of priests, Levites and Israelites.

The mishnah reads the verse from Numbers as insisting that the entire community of Israel must offer the daily sacrifice and that in order for the sacrifices to come from all of Israel, all of Israel must be represented at the Temple at the moment of sacrifice.

Israelites who live outside of Jerusalem and cannot be present in the Temple are given a different assignment — they are expected to stay home and read the Torah, specifically the story of creation in Genesis. Given that the watches are about the division of labor in offering sacrifices, you would think that they would be required to read the biblical texts about sacrifices found in Leviticus, but the mishnah is quite clear that it’s actually the stories of creation that are required. The Gemara next explores the connection between creation and sacrifices:

Rabbi Yaakov bar Aha said that Rav Asi said: Were it not for the non-priestly watches, heaven and earth would not continue to exist, as it is stated: And he (Abraham) said: Lord God, by what shall I know that I shall inherit it? (Genesis 15:8

Abraham said: “Master of the Universe, perhaps the Jews will sin before you. Will you treat them as the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersion?” God said to him: “No.” 

Abraham said before God: “Master of the Universe, tell me, with what shall I inherit it?” God said to Abraham: “Take for me a three-year-old heifer, and a three-year-old goat, and a three-year-old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” (Genesis 15:9)

This is one of the most famous ways the rabbis create midrash — by interpolating statements into biblical text. Here, Rav Asi adds a few lines to a conversation between God and Abraham found in Genesis 15 and reads God’s promise as contingent on Abraham (and his descendants) offering sacrifices. For Rav Asi, it is through sacrifices that the land (and all of creation) is maintained. And because sacrifices are humanity’s way of maintaining creation, the Israelite watches are required to read the story of creation and make that connection explicit.

We might think that those who work in the Temple, the priests and Levites, are most vital to its operations. And we might also suppose that those regular Israelites who can be physically present are the most crucial to communal sacrifice. But today’s daf inverts that idea. Instead, it is those who are most distant, the Israelites in cities across the land, who are credited with the biggest job of all — upholding the entire world. 

Read all of Taanit 27 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 9th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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