Is there a Jewish class system?

November 16, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. I don’t like Jews being divided into Kohen, Levi and Yisra’el. It looks like a rigid class structure. What do you think about it?

A. Let’s first ask what a class system is.

A closed class system allocates a person a position in society as a matter of birth.

The old British class system was like this. Your place depended on who your father was. The aristocracy was at the top of society and the commoners were at the bottom. It was described as an “upstairs, downstairs” society. You were either the 14th Lord Wilson or the 14th Mr Wilson.

In contrast, an open class system allows for movement. You can go from rags to riches or from riches to rags. Your own effort determines who you are and where you fit in.

The Jewish type of class system was a combination of both.

In some respects you were stuck with your heredity. You couldn’t move from Kohen to Levi or from Levi to Yisra’el.

Even if you were a Kohen who transgressed the laws of marriage and could no longer claim the privileges of being a Kohen, you still had to carry out the Kohen’s responsibilities.

But this aspect of Jewish identity was not an end in itself: it merely defined one’s role in the Temple.

On the other hand there was an area in which your status was entirely fluid and depended on your own actions and aspirations.

The Jewish ideal had nothing to do with what money you had or what size your house was. It was a matter of learning. The scholar was esteemed regardless of his wealth or lineage.

The aim was to marry your daughter to a scholar (a “talmid chacham”) or the son of a scholar (I remember saying under the chuppah when two fellow students married that they had the best of both worlds – a scholar was marrying a scholar). The fear was that a person would marry someone who had neither piety nor learning.

When the sages spoke of learning being the defining characteristic which was open to everyone they did not measure it by the number of books you had read (or written), but by the effort you had made at study.

They thought of study in terms of Torah; in modern times this Jewish value concept has been extended to include the pursuit and attainment of knowledge in other fields too.

Being a Kohen depends on your father; gaining a Nobel Prize depends on your own self.

When you criticise the Kohen-Levi-Yisra’el system you do not explain which group you belong to. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to want to rebel against whichever group it is. There are many aspects of our identity and personality which we are born with and have to handle as a fact of life.

Did anyone ask me, for instance, whether I wanted to be a human being? Was I consulted about which gender I preferred to be born into, which colour, which nationality?

Since I have no control over these or other aspects of who I am, have I any better option than to say “That’s who I am: now let me get on with it”?


Q. Who was Abraham’s mother?

A. According to Rav (3rd century Babylonia), she was Amatlai bat Karnevo (Bava Batra 91a).

According to Rashi, her name implies that Abraham was influenced by his mother; “kar” is a lamb, a clean species of animal, and Abraham was a pious, upright person.

The Talmud also gives the names of the mothers of Haman, David and Samson.

Why, the text asks, were the names of these particular women not stated in the Bible itself?

“In order to reply to the ‘minim’, the sectarians”.

Which sectarians, and why did they need a reply?

The problem appears to be that some groups questioned the authority of the oral tradition, and the Talmud is suggesting that only through oral traditions such as the names of Abraham’s and other people’s mothers is important information preserved.


Q. What are the origins of the menorah?

A. The original menorah was made for the sanctuary in the wilderness (Ex. 25:31). Constructed by Betzalel, it was beaten out of one piece of pure gold, with a central shaft and six branches.

In due course, the menorah was re-erected in the First Temple in Jerusalem and was hidden away by the kohanim before the Babylonians destroyed the Temple.

The menorah from the Second Temple was carried away by the Romans; it may still be in Rome, though it is not likely to be in the Vatican archives.

Though the sages prohibited reproducing the shape of the 7-branched menorah, a nine-branched version was introduced to commemorate the Maccabean victory. Few early menorot have survived, but there are late-medieval versions that replicate artistic models of the time.

We know of a French menorah shaped like a medieval cathedral, an Italian menorah that looks like a many-towered castle, a Polish menorah that resembles a country synagogue with chimneys, and an Algerian menorah in the shape of a Moorish palace with a crescent and star.

Sometimes menorot depict Biblical scenes; the figure of Judah Maccabee is popular, as is the heroine Judith.

Menorot for synagogue use were quite large; domestic versions often had a protective back panel which helped to prevent the flames from spreading and causing a fire.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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