Is There Any Place for “Professional Priesthood” Today?

Posted by on Aug 3, 2017

What does the Torah say about the so-called professional priesthood and tithes? Is the professional priesthood entitled to receive the tithes; are there any justifications for that in the Torah?

The common misconception today is that the Levites had no means of living except the tithe they received for their service in the Temple. Hence, those who call themselves “the new Levites” (priests, pastors, reverends, Messianic rabbis), i.e., the new “professional priesthood”, believe they are entitled to receive the tithes of their congregants. What does the Torah say on this matter? Are these religious leaders entitled to receive the tithes and are there any justifications for the existence of professional priesthood today? This will be the subject of our discussion, as we will advance in the Torah study.

The Levites were not left without means of living

Command the children of Israel that they shall give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession. Also give the Levites suburbs around the cities. And they shall have the cities to dwell in, and their suburbs for their cattle, and for their herds, and for all their livestock. And the suburbs of the cities which you give the Levites are from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits. And the city is in the middle. This is to them the suburbs for the cities. (Num 35:2-5)

The Torah (Num 18:20 and Num 18:23) says that the Levitical priesthood were to receive no inheritance of the land, unlike the other twelve tribes which did receive their own tribal territory. However, the Torah also says that the Levites were to receive cities where to dwell in with open lands round about them. Those suburbs around the Levitical cities were designated for “all their livestock.” The Levites were to dwell along with their brethren from the tribe on whose territory the cities were to be built.

The Levites inherited total of forty-eight cities, as six of them were to be cities of refuge, where the manslayer could flee to, according to Num 35:6-8. Also, according to Lev 25:32-33, their houses (if sold) could be redeemed at any time, but the field of the open land of their cities was not to be sold, because it was their everlasting possession (Lev 25:34).

But the fields of the open land about their cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession. (Lev 25:34 JPS)

In other words, the house could be sold if the Levite desired so, but it was to be returned to its original owner in the year of Jubilee. Beside the houses, the Levites were also to receive pastures for their flocks around these cities (Num 35:2-3). The land, however, was not to be sold at all, but to remain in his possession. These lands were not to be sold, because, if they were sold, the Levites would have nothing left upon which to feed their cattle and thus to secure their and their families wellbeing. 

Thus, we see that YHVH gave His servants, the Levites, the houses and the open land around the cities they were to live in as a perpetual secured possession, as we read, 

But as for the cities of the Levites, the houses of the cities of their possession, the Levites shall have a perpetual right of redemption. And if a man purchase of the Levites, then the house that was sold in the city of his possession, shall go out in the jubilee; for the houses of the cities of the Levites are their possession among the children of Israel. But the fields of the open land about their cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession. (Lev 25:32-34 JPS)

We should note that the fields of the open land around the cities were to be given to them for pastures where the Levites could feed their flocks. That open land was to be one thousand cubits (a cubit is fifty centimeters or foot and half) measured from the city wall or the city limit outward all around. Then, we are given another measurement of two thousand cubits again all around. How can we understand these laws regarding the inheritance of the Levitical priesthood?

According to Sotah 27b, the Sages say that the two thousand cubits were given around the city, of which the inner thousand was for open area for their cattle, and for their herds, and for all their livestock and the outer thousand for fields and vineyards, although some commentators interpret this to mean the total of three thousand cubits around the cities. That distance of two thousand cubit measured from the city limits was known in the first century Judea as “the Sabbath day’s journey” as seen in the Book of Acts 1:21.

Therefore, we learn from the Torah that YHVH provided the Levitical priesthood with cities, houses, and land to possess. That possession was meant to secure the wellbeing of the Levites, so that they would not lack anything. In other words, the Levites were socially secured and rightly so since they did not receive tribal land of their own. So, we see that YHVH did not give the Levites much to possess, but just enough to provide for their and their families’ wellbeing. The reason being for not giving a tribal land, is that the tribe of Levi is His inheritance.

And Yehovah said to Aharon, “You are not to have an inheritance in their land, nor have any portion in their midst. I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. And see, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the service which they are serving, the service of the Tent of Meeting.” (Num 18:20-21)

These two verses, read out of the context, may give the impression that the tithe was the only means of living the Levites had; they did not possess any land, nor any portion in their midst. However, if read in the context of the entire Torah, we see that YHVH did give the Levites land to possess. How are we to reconcile this apparent controversy?

When the Torah speaks of the land as an inheritance of the children of Israel, it also says, Command the children of Israel that they shall give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession.” In other words, the land was indeed given to the children of Israel as an inheritance, but in return they were to give the Levites the land around the designated cities, as we read in Num 35:2-5. Therefore, we find no controversy in the Torah; YHVH gave the land to the Israelites, and they were to give a portion of that land to their brothers, the Levites, thus securing their wellbeing.

The tithe was for their service before YHVH

We see the same principle of providing of portion of what the children of Israel had in the law of the tithe. This law that all tithes in Israel were to be given to the Levites constituted their inheritance in return for their service in the Temple. The Torah is very explicit to say that the tithe was for their service before YHVH, not a means of living; the land around the Levitical cities was given as their means of living. Therefore, the inheritance of the priests and Levites did not consist in any material possessions or revenues from the tithe, but in the possession of YHVH.

It is true that they received city land and portion of the tithe, but that did not constitute their inheritance, because it was said “You are not to have an inheritance in their land … I am your portion and your inheritance.” As for the tithe, not all tithes were given to the Levites, though. The children of Israel were allowed to keep a portion of the tithe for themselves for pilgrimage and feeding the poor and the needy.

Therefore, we learn that the suburb land was given for providing their living and it is incorrect to assume that the tithe was meant to satisfy all their and their families’ needs, because the portion of the tithe they received from the children of Israel was not sufficient to provide for their needs but represented only a small portion of their revenue. So, we may conclude that in the wilderness and later when the Temple stood, the tithe was given to the Levites in exchange for their service.

The Torah also says that when the Levites received the tithe from the children of Israel, they were to give a tenth of the tithes to the High Priest that was to be distributed to the Aharonic priests. We read,

Speak to the Levites and say to them, ‘When you take from the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution of it to Yehovah, a tenth of the tithe. And your contribution shall be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing-floor and as filling from the winepress. Thus, you also present a contribution unto Yehovah from all your tithes which you receive from the children of Israel. And you shall give from it the contribution to Yehovah to Aharon the priest. (Num 18:26-28)

From the above verse, we see, that while the ordinary Levites were to receive a tenth, the High Priest and the other priests were to receive a tenth of the tenth, or one hundredth of the entire contribution. 

We should also note that the greatest percentage of the Levites did not perform services in the Temple, but only a small number of them, namely those who lived in Jerusalem. Most Levites performed duties such as teaching, judging, etc. in the forty-eight cities where they dwelled. Therefore, the majority of the Levites had to have other means by which to earn a living without having had a dependence upon tithe alone. 

That is why the open land around the cities in which they lived was given to them, because the tithe alone was not enough to support them, and it was not meant to support them. The tithe was always given in the form of agricultural products and never in a monetary form. 

And this is where we coming to the main point in our study of the Levites and the tithe.

Had the tithe alone be meant to serve as a means of living, the Levitical priesthood would have become a peculiar tribe in the eyes of the other Israelites and not the peculiar possession in the eyes of YHVH. And the tithe would have become their portion and not YHVH.

The opposite is also true: just as the other tribes were to live upon the fruits of the land, the Levites were to live upon what YHVH bestowed upon them: the open land around their cities.

The pastors are to work for their living

In conclusion, we studied that the Levites had to work for their living by raising cattle and sheep or working in vineyards as anyone else. Only when the Levites attended the service of the Tabernacle was the tithe expected to support them. In all other cases, the Levites had to work for their living.

Let us look at another example in the Torah. We read from Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation:

And if a Levite come from any of thy gates out of all Israel, where he sojourneth, and come with all the desire of his soul unto the place which the LORD shall choose; then he shall minister in the name of the LORD his God, as all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before the LORD. They shall have like portions to eat, beside that which is his due according to the fathers’ houses. (Deu 18:6-8 JPS)

Literally verse 8 says thus:

They shall have like portions to eat, beside what comes of the sale according to (with) the fathers,

What this law says is this: a Levite can eat the portion of the tithes independently of what he receives from the sale of his patrimony or from the produce of the land. The phrase “beside what comes of the sale according to (with) the fathers” is interpreted to mean “according to what comes from the sale or lease of the property which he possesses according to his father’s inheritance.”

The law in Lev 25:33-34 forbids the sale of the open field around the cities belonging to the Levites but allows the sale of their city houses. So, when a Levite decides to leave the city (other than Jerusalem) where he had dwelt and comes to the Temple to serve YHVH like his other brothers (Lev 18:6-7), he may either lease his house and/or open land and live by the yearly rent, or he may choose to sell his house and live on the money, but he cannot sell the open land, because the land is his everlasting possession.

In any case, the laws in Numbers and Deuteronomy provide a convincing proof that (1) the Levites were not without possessions, (2) they lived on the produce of the open land or on the lease, therefore they had to work for their living, and that (3) the Levites could not live on the tithe alone.

With that being said, we see that there is no foundation for the claim that the modern-day priesthood (priests, pastors, and other clergy staff) is entitled to receive free money from the parishioners. As the Levites had to work for their living, so do the modern-day professional priesthood: the clergy in not entitled to any tithes. Besides, other laws of the Torah forbid anyone to imitate, substitute, or replace the Levitical priesthood. 

What, however, do we see today? We see just the opposite.

The clergymen claim to be “the modern Levitical priesthood”. They have an inheritance in the land and a large material portion in the midst of the laity. Its portion and inheritance are among the members of their religious corporations called churches. The professional priesthood claims the tithes for the simple reason that they believe that the Church has replaced Israel and they are “the new Levites” today.

They have rejected the Law of YHVH but have kept only one law of it: the law of tithes. Their favorite quotes of the Scripture are:

For it is written in the law of Moses (Deu 25:4), Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? (1Co 9:9)

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And the labourer is worthy of his reward. (1Ti 5:17-18)

If the Law of YHVH were done away with, how it can be used as an argument to receive the tithe. But, for more insight on this controversy, the reader may refer to the articles “Do not Muzzle an Ox while it is Threshing!” Did Paul Claim the Tithes?, Misunderstanding Paul and Do Not Sell Wisdom, Instruction, and Understanding!

And another controversy to think about. The congregants give the religious corporations their “tithes” but seek to regain them in the form of deducted taxes at the end of the fiscal year; thus, what they have given “to the Lord” is negated by the Caesar.

The Churches have become “tax exempt religious corporations” by the law of the land managing their own enterprises: some more, some less. YHVH is not their inheritance, although they claim so, but their inheritance has become the material possessions. The religious corporations invest the surplus of the tithes in buildings, stocks, bonds, retirement plans, and real estates in order to avoid taxation and keep their “non-profit organization” status. The pastors have become wealthy, and some very wealthy, even millionaires.

There is no scriptural evidence that grants any tax-exempt status or any recognition in that matter from secular government. There is no scriptural evidence that grants “the professional priesthood” the tithes and the work-exempt status. None.

The pastors are to work for their living as anyone else. As the Levites did.

May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.