Aaron as Loving Peace and Pursuing It

Aaron as Loving Peace and Pursuing It

By: Dr. Gilead Sasson*

This week’s reading tells of the death of Aaron, one of the central figures in the Torah.  Aaron the Priest is known as “loving peace and pursuing peace.” The source for ascribing these traits to Aaron comes from the words of Hillel in the Mishnah (Avot 1.12, according to the Kaufman manuscript): “Hillel said: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them closer to the Torah.”[1]

Pursuing peace and loving mankind are traits associated with Hillel himself in the writings of the Sages, as evinced by several stories in the Talmud (Shabbat 30b-31a); and Hillel sought to pass these characteristics on to his disciples.[2]  Whence, we must ask, did Hillel deduce that these traits were also characteristic of Aaron?  Looking at the history of Aaron in the Torah, it is hard to find any source for the view that Aaron “pursued peace.”[3]  Sifra, a tannaitic midrash on the book of Leviticus, cognizant of this difficulty, searches for some basis in the scriptural text (Miluim 37, Shemini 10.4):

Whence do we know that Aaron was one to pursue peace in Israel?  For it is written, “The whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last.  All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days” (Num. 20:29); whereas of Moses it is written, “And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days” (Deut. 34:8). 

Why did all the house of Israel bewail Aaron for thirty days, but Moses was bewailed only by the Israelites and not all the house of Israel?  Because Aaron never said to any man or woman:  You have done wrong; but Moses, since he reproved them, of him it was written, “The Israelites bewailed Moses” (loc. cit.).  Also, according to tradition, Scripture is exposited by Aaron:  “I had with him a covenant of life and peace” (Malachi 2:5), indicating that he pursued peace in Israel.

Sifra finds two points on which to anchor the view that Aaron was a man who “pursued peace.”  The first is the description of the mourning over Aaron’s death, appearing in this week’s reading, where we are told that after Aaron’s passing all the house of Israel bewailed him for thirty days. 

This fact, in itself, says nothing; but when compared with the description of the mourning over Moses’ death, we see a difference.  Of Aaron it says he was bewailed by “all the house of Israel,” and of Moses it says “the Israelites”—neither “all” nor the “house of.”  From this the homilist deduced that all of Israel, men and women, loved Aaron because, in contrast to the strict man that Moses was, he never reproved them.

The second point comes from the words of the prophet Malachi (2:4-7):

Know, then, that I have sent this charge to you that My covenant with Levi may endure—said the Lord of Hosts.  I had with him a covenant of life and peace, which I gave to him, and of reverence, which he showed Me.  For he stood in awe of My name.  Proper rulings were in his mouth, and nothing perverse was on his lips; he walked with Me in peace, along a straight path, and held the many back from iniquity.  For the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and men seek rulings from his mouth; for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts.

In these verses the prophet describes the covenant between the Lord and the priests, members of the tribe of Levi.  The prophet presents the traits of the ideal priest:  G-d-fearing, refraining from perversity, studying the Torah and teaching it to others, and keeping the people from sinning. 

The word “peace” appears in the passage twice.  The homilist of Sifra diverged from the plain sense in two regards:  first, while these verses speak of the ideal priest, the homilist associated them with Aaron; second, according to the plain sense, the peace was between the priest and the Omnipresent, but the homilist transferred it to relations between one person and another. 

Another source that builds on these verses to describe the difference between Aaron and Moses may be found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b):

Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Jose the Galilean says:  It is forbidden to arbitrate in a settlement, and he who arbitrates thus offends, and whoever praises such an arbitrator contemns the Lord, for it is written, He that blesses an arbiter, contemns the Lord (Ps. 10:3).  But let the law cut through the mountain, for it is written, For the judgment is G-d’s (Deut. 1:17).  And so Moses’ motto was:  Let the law cut through the mountain.

Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between one person and another, as it is written, Proper rulings were in his mouth, and nothing perverse was on his lips; he walked with Me in peace, along a straight path, and held the many back from iniquity (Malachi 2:6).

Here, too, Moses is described as being strict and Aaron as moderate, although the issue here is not one of reproving but of resolving conflicts between parties.  Moses would seek to exact the strictest justice in the context of a legal hearing in court, whereas Aaron would seek a way to arbitrate between the parties before the matter came to court.[4]  Like Sifra, this source cites the same verse in Malachi to substantiate ascribing moderation to Aaron.

Later sources by the Sages further enlarge upon Aaron’s trait of pursuing peace by means of illustrative stories, as in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (addendum 2 to Version 1, chapter 8, Schechter ed., p. 163):[5]

Hillel and Shammai received the oral tradition from them.  Hillel said:  Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving one’s fellow and bringing them closer to the Torah.  The story is told that Aaron would be walking along and, upon encountering a bad or wicked person, would greet that person with peace.  Later, when the same person was on his way to worship [idolatry], he said:  Woe unto me!  How can I look Aaron in the eye without being ashamed before him, for he greeted me with peace!?  And so, the person in the end refrained from idolatrous worship.

It is also told of two people who had a quarrel that Aaron went and sat with one of them and said, “My son, see what your fellow is doing, for he is in a state of emotional turmoil, rending his garments and, all choked up, saying:  How can I look my friend in the eye? I am ashamed before him, for it was I who did wrong.” 

He would sit with him until he removed all jealousy from his heart.  Afterwards he would go to his fellow and say to him, “My son, see what your fellow is doing.  For he is in a state of emotional turmoil, rending his garments and, all choked up, saying:  How can I look my friend in the eye?  I am ashamed before him, for it was I who did wrong to him.” 

He would sit there until he removed all jealousy from his heart.  When the two met, they embraced and kissed each other.  Therefore it is written, “all the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days” (Num. 20:29).

Summarizing thus far, the Torah itself does not say explicitly that Aaron “pursued peace.”  Even the verses on which this notion is pegged, in the description of the mourning for Aaron and in the verses in Malachi, say nothing explicit about Aaron’s personality, so the deductions are all by way of homiletic interpretation. 

This brings us back to our question about Hillel’s remark:  why did he choose to describe Aaron as pursuing peace?[6]  The answer, it seems, lies outside of Scripture, in one of the important turning points in the world of Torah during the Second Temple period and after the destruction of the Temple. 

As is known, responsibility for Torah study was originally placed on the priests, as Moses said in his blessing to the tribe of Levi:  “They shall teach your laws to Jacob and Your instruction to Israel” (Deut. 33:10).  The above-cited verses from Malachi, who prophesied during the period of the return to Zion, indicate that this situation persisted into the early days of the Second Temple.  But, beginning with the Hasmonean period, a group of Sages began to emerge, known as the Pharisees, who sought to break the priests’ monopoly on studying and teaching the Torah.[7]  After a prolonged struggle the priests indeed lost their exclusive hold over the Torah.

Hillel’s remarks, so it seems, should be read in the context of this struggle.  The qualities that Hillel mentions were ones which in his opinion would be likely to persuade the people to accept the authority of the Rabbis.  The Rabbis’ pursuit of peace and love of mankind were ways to draw the people closer to Torah. 

In saying, “Be a disciple of Aaron,” and ascribing these qualities to Aaron, Hillel was declaring:  We, the Rabbis, are disciples of Aaron.  We, and not his sons, are the ones continuing Aaron’s role as the one who teaches Torah to the people of Israel.[8]  To be a spiritual leader one did not have to be Aaron’s descendant, rather, his disciple.  Not lineage but personality character was significant.  So, mentioning Aaron in conjunction with these traits was not meant as a biographical-historical depiction, rather as a way of establishing that the Sages had the traits making them the ones who were continuing in Aaron’s footsteps.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 

* Dr. Gilead Sasson, Department of Talmud, Bar Ilan University.

[1] “A disciple of [Aaron]” and not “one of the disciples of [Aaron]” also appears in the Parma Manuscript and in a fragment from the Cairo genizah.  Cf. Shimon Sharvit, Masekhet Avot le-Doroteiha:  Mahadurah Mada`it, Mevo’ot, Nispahim, Jerusalem 2004, p. 73;  ibid., Leshonah ve-Signonah shel Masekhet Avot le-Doroteiha, Jerusalem 2006, p. 127.  The expression, “loving peace and pursuing peace” comes from the verse, “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:15).

[2] On the question of the historical value of the stories about Hillel, see Yisrael Ben-Shalom, “Hillel ha-Zaken—Ishiyyuto u-Fo`alo `al Rek`a Tekufato,” Irad Malchin and Zeev Tzahor (eds.), Manhig ve-Hanhaggah:  Kovetz Ma’amarim, Jerusalem 1992, pp. 103-132.

[3] Even when Aaron recites the priestly blessing, “and may He grant you peace” (Num. 6:26), it is the Lord who grants peace, not Aaron.

[4] On Aaron trying to settle disputes by compromise so that the parties would not have to bring their case to court, see Rashi and Tosefot, loc. cit.

[5] This is further elaborated in Midrash Tanhuma, addendum to Parashat Hukat 2, Buber ed., p. 131.

[6] Avigdor Shinan, Pirkei Avot:  Perush Yisraeli Hadash, Jerusalem 2009, p. 25, deals with this question and suggests that “the Sages followed in the wake of these verses and reinforced the element of pursuing peace in the figure of the priest in general, and in Aaron in particular,” but, as we said above, the peace mentioned in Malachi is between the person and the Omnipresent, not between one person and another.

[7] On the struggle between Sages and priests, cf., for example:  Ayal Regev, Ha-Tzadokim ve-Hilkhatam:  `Al Dat ve-Hevrah bi-Yemei Bayit Sheni, Jerusalem 2005, pp. 378-403; Meir Bar-Ilan, “Ha-Pulmus bein Hachamim ve-Cohanim be-Shelhei Yemei Bayit Sheni,” Moreshet Yisrael 8 (2011), pp. 37-53; Zeev Safrai and Ayal Regev, Eretz Yisrael be-Tekufat Bayit Sheni, ha-Mishnah, ve-ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 2011, pp. 184ff., esp. pp. 208-209.

[8] This direction was taken 77 years ago by Aaron Kamenka, “Hillel ha-Zaken ve-Mif`alo,” Zion, 3-4 (1939), p. 262.  On the distinction between “disciples” and “sons” of Aaron, see Elimelech Auerbach, Hazal:  Pirkei Emunot ve-De`ot, Jerusalem 2006, p. 529.  On the question of lineage as the source of legitimacy in the fight between Sages and priests, see Daniel Schwartz, “Bein Hachamim ve-Cohanim bi-Yemei Bayit Sheni,” D. Kerem, ed., Migvan De`ot ve-Hashkafot be-Tarbut Yisrael, 2, Jerusalem 1992, pp. 72-73.

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Last modified: 29/06/2016