Parshat בראשית – Genesis 17:13 – May a Woman Perform a Circumcision?  

Genesis:  17:13 –Those born in the house and those purchased for money shall be surely circumcised (המול ימול), and My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.

Babylonian Talmud – Avodah Zara 27a: – It was taught as follows: From what verse do we know that it is invalid for a non-Jew to perform a circumcision on a Jew? From the verse that states “shall be surely circumcised…”

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #36:

It is possible that the exegesis is from the word “ המול” and is taken to allude to the idea of  “מהול“– one who is circumcised. This is done by swapping the first two letters of the word with each other as we find is sometimes done in rabbinic discussions. Thus, the meaning would be “one who is circumcised should perform the circumcision”. In a previous verse (Genesis 17:9) a similar lesson is learned from the phrase “And you, my covenant shall you keep” – “you and people similar to you”. See there for a fuller explanation.

The Gemora explains that there is a practical halachic ramification that depends on which verse is used as the source. The halachic difference being whether women are allowed to perform circumcisions or not. If you deduce the rule from the verse “And you, my covenant shall you keep” – then a woman would not be allowed to perform circumcisions because she isn’t included in the “covenant of circumcision”. However, if you deduce the rule from our verse of “shall be surely circumcised (המול ימול)” – then the principle of “woman are considered as circumcised” would apply. Look over there are the pertinent Gemora and Tosafot.

Note that we hold as a matter of law that women are permitted to perform circumcisions. This is the conclusion of the Gemora based on the verse in Exodus 4:25 “Tzipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son”. (Note that according to those of the opinion that women are not allowed to perform circumcisions, they understand this verse to mean that Tzipporah began the circumcision, but Moshe completed it.)

In Yoreh Deah section 264 [Yosef Karo] states explicitly that a woman is permitted to perform circumcisions with the condition that if there is a Jewish man of greater stature who knows how to perform circumcisions, then that person would have preference. The Ramah [famous Askenazic early halachic authority] states there, “there are those who say that a woman should not perform circumcisions and our custom is to seek a man to be the mohel.” The Shach and the Gra wonder about the comment of the Ramah and believe that his comment was self-evident and wonder why he commented.

It appears that the intent of the Ramah’s comments is that one is obligated to seek a man to be the mohel even if there is not one close by. This would be in contrast to the opinion of Yosef Karo who would only give precedence to a man if he were present and able to perform the circumcision but there would be no obligation to seek out a man as a mohel.

The logic of the Ramah is that he [essentially] was of the opinion that a woman is not allowed to perform circumcisions. However, the obligation of performing the circumcision on the 8th day takes precedence since the core halacha is that a woman is allowed to perform the circumcision. In spite of this fact, the Ramah’s opinion is that one should seek out a man to perform the circumcision in order to comply with the stricter opinion that a woman may not perform the circumcision.

Additionally, regarding the Shach’s comment that the Ramah stated an obvious fact “we are accustomed to seek a man to perform the circumcision” since a woman is not commonly found who can perform circumcisions, that is not a valid critique by the Shach. If it were decided that a woman is allowed to perform circumcisions even in a situation where a competent male was present, then it is probable that then more woman would learn this skill. From the decision that they are not allowed to perform circumcisions, that is why they have not learned this skill.

Translator’s Note:  I appreciated the Torah Temimah’s analysis of the Shach’s observation that there are very few women who have this skill.


Parshat בראשית – Genesis 21:4 – May a Woman Perform a Circumcision?  

Genesis:  21:4 – And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.

Babylonian Talmud – Kedushin 29a: – A woman is not commanded to circumcise her son. This is derived from the verse “as God commanded him”. God commanded him, not her.

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #6:

Tosafot ask why a verse is needed to teach this law. Could it not have been deduced from the general concept that women are exempt from all commandments which are time-bound. Since circumcisions may only be performed during the day, we would know that women are not commanded in this mitzvah even without a verse to teach this point.

Tosafot answer this question by stating that there are some opinions that circumcisions that occur after the optimally mandated period of 8 days may be performed either during the day or at night. [Thus, according to those opinions, one would need a verse to explicitly teach that women are not commanded to perform circumcisions.] Most rabbinic opinions, however, are that circumcisions even after 8 days must be performed during the daytime.

This may be the reason that the halachic authorities have omitted explicitly mentioning women’s exemption from this commandment even though the Gemora [cited above] explicitly mentions it. Since we follow the ruling that even circumcisions after 8 days should be performed in the daytime, we can automatically deduce that women are exempt from this commandment. That is why the halachic authorities did not need to record this explicit ruling.

We should also consider the question of why the Gemora taught women’s exemption from our verse rather than from the verse in Genesis 17:13 “You should surely circumcise…”. From that verse is taught the law that a non-Jew should not perform a circumcision because from the word “surely” [in Hebrew it is actually a doubling of the verb] we learn that circumcisions should be performed by one who is circumcised. This same approach is used to teach that women may not be scribes and write tefillin. This is deduced (Menachot 42b) from the verse “you should tie…you should write” – all who are obligated to tie are obligated to write.

Perhaps the answer to this question is based on what Tosafot write in Berachot 20b. There they write that women are obligated to say during the recitation of the blessing after meals the phrase “we than God…for the covenant in our flesh…”. Tosafot state that the reason why women are obligated to say this prayer is because since circumcision is not possible with women, there is no reason to exclude them from the general category of people saying the blessing after meals. This same approach is used (in Gemora Avodah Zara 27a) when discussing whether a woman may perform circumcisions due to the fact that she is in the [legal] category of circumcised people.

We see therefore that it is not possible to exclude women from the obligation to perform circumcisions from the verse “you should surely circumcise…” [since woman would actually fulfill this requirement.]

 Translator’s Note: This Torah Temimah note does not actually address the issue of whether women may perform circumcisions. This note here just addresses the topic of whether women are commanded in the mitzvah or not. The question of whether a woman is permitted to perform circumcisions is addressed by the Torah Temimah in his note on Genesis 17:13, note #36. That comment is located here:


Parshat בראשית – Genesis 22:3 –  Why Should We Get Up Early To Do Mitzvot?

Genesis:  22:3 –And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

Babylonian Talmud – Pesachim 4a: – The whole day is a valid time for performing circumcisions, but one should [optimally] perform circumcisions earlier in the day. This is because of the dictum “Zealous people should perform mitzvot with alacrity otherwise physical aspects will present themselves to prevent performing the mitzvah” [Zrizim makdimim l’mitzvot]

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #7:

Note what is written above in Genesis 21:4 to explain the phrase “Abraham performed the circumcision [in the manner] as God had commanded him”. According what is stated in Gemora Kedushin 29a: that the commandment of alacrity for circumcision is biblical in nature [not rabbinic] and applies to all of Israel. [If that is so], then the phrase “zealous people should…” is problematic. In the book Ravid HaZahav, the author asks why the issue of “zealous people should perform the commandment early” is not deduced from the verse in Parshat Bo (Exodus 12:17) “and you shall zealously observe my commandments”. There, on that verse, the Gemora and the Mechilta do deduce that if an opportunity comes into your hand to do a commandment, one should not be lax / lazy in performing it.

The answer appears to me that here, the Torah is commanding to perform the mitzvot and the Gemora is bringing a proof that zealous people, due to their love of the commandments, will perform them sooner / earlier of their own initiative [rather than as a core part of the obligation]. It is this point that the Gemora here is trying to prove by quoting the verse of Abraham arising early in the morning [even though it wasn’t a ‘legal’ obligation to do so, per se.]

Regarding the legal details of “zealous people should perform the commandments with alacrity”, we will, with God’s help, delve more deeply into that topic in our comments on Exodus 12:17.

Translator’s  Note: The Torah Temimah is distinguishing between the times when getting up early to do a commandment is a legal obligation versus the times when doing so reflects our love of the commandments.

Parshat לך לך – Bereishis 17:14 – Do the Descendants of Keturah Need to Be Circumcised?

Genesis 17:14 – And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin-that soul will be cut off from its people; he has annulled My covenant.

Gemora Sanhedrin 59b: From the verb “annulled” we learn that this verse includes the sons of Keturah in the requirement to be circumcised.

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #46

It is not clear how this verse alludes to the idea that the sons of Keturah are obligated in the commandment to be circumcised. Further, I haven’t seen any commentators who attempt to explain this, even superficially. It appears to me that [perhaps] it can be explained based on the grammatical meaning of the verb “annul”. According to grammarians, “annul” [הפר]  refers to something that is totally null and void. This can be contrasted with the word “invalidated” [בטל] which refers to something that is declared void for a given period of time, but might be renewed or return to be valid. See Tosafot in Gemora Shabbat 20b.

So, consider that a Jewish person who is not circumcised for whatever reason, is more referred to as invalid rather than annulled. Thus, for example, it is possible that he might circumcise his own sons and resuscitate the commandment of circumcision [in his family] for later generations. This is not the case with the sons of Keturah, according to Rashi. Rashi’s opinion is that the obligation for the sons of Keturah is only on the six sons of Keturah explicitly mentioned [in verse Genesis 25:2]. In other words, the sons of Keturah were not commanded to be circumcised in perpetuity, but rather just her immediate sons. Therefore, if for some reason they were not circumcised, whether by accident or with intent, then the commandment of circumcision would be wiped out [from that family]. There would be no further command to circumcise her [later] descendants. As we explained above, this complete nullification is what is referenced with the word ‘annul’ and thus we see how this verse alludes to the sons of Keturah.

However, the opinion of Maimonides in Chapter 10, Halacha 10 in the Laws of Nations states that the sons of Keturah are obligated in perpetuity to circumcise their sons. Thus, according to his point of view, it does not make sense to say that the verb “annul” refers to the sons of Keturah. One could perhaps say that the reason the verse is teaching regarding the sons of Keturah is not due to the verb “annul” but rather due to the word “et”. [Editor’s note: this connecting word has no translation, it is used to indicate a direct object for a verb.] Thus, according to Maimonides the use of the word “et” [which is optional] refers to an additional inclusion in the command. The additional inclusion being the other wife of Abraham. Normally, the children of the maidservant [secondary wife] would be considered her children rather than the father’s children. [That would be why a special command was needed to state that the sons of Keturah are included in the commandment of circumcision in perpetuity.]

The core disagreement between Rashi and Maimonides is whether the sons of Keturah are commanded in perpetuity or not. The Shaagas Arye wrote at length on this issue. It appears to me a slight proof to Rashi from the Midrash concerning Yitro {Moshe’s father-in-law]. The Aggadah (Section 94:1) states that when the verse states that Yitro “joined” (ויחד) the Jewish people, he passed a sharp (חדה) sword over his flesh. {Meaning that he circumcised himself at that point.] Further, it is stated in Seder Olam Rabba and in Midrashim that Yitro was descended from Keturah. Thus, we see that Yitro did not circumcise himself until he decided to join the Jewish people. This would be a support for Rashi’s point of view.

Also note that Rashi exact phrasing is not entirely clear. Rashi states that this verse “comes to include the sons of Keturah, only those six alone and not in perpetuity. But Abraham was commanded for everyone who was born to him in perpetuity.” It is not clear what Rashi meant by adding the phrase “but Abraham was commanded…” In fact, this [additional] phrase is hard to understand. It appears that it was unclear to Rashi himself how it would be possible that the sons of Keturah were not commanded in perpetuity. The choice would seem to be either the sons of Keturah are from the seed of Abraham, then why would they not be commanded in perpetuity. Or, they they aren’t counted as “seed of Abraham”, then why would they themselves be obligated to be circumcised? It is for this reason that Rashi explains that they are not considered as “seed of Abraham”. If you would then ask why then do they have to be circumcised themselves, the answer would be “Abraham was commanded for everyone who was born to him…” This answer seems a little forced.

Editor’s Note: I think that it is interesting that Rashi and Maimonides have different opinions as to whether or not the sons of Keturah (and their descendants) are commanded to be circumcised.


Parshat נח – Genesis 6:16 – Was it a Window or a Rock?

Genesis 6:16 – You shall make a window (tzohar) for the ark, and to a cubit you shall finish it to the top, and the entrance of the ark you shall place in its side; you shall make it with bottom [compartments], second story [compartments], and third story [compartments].

Gemora Sanhedrin 108a: Rabbi Yochanan taught: God said to Noah, affix precious stones and pearls in the ark in order that there should be light as if it were noon.

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #22

Rabbi Yochanan stated his opinion because ‘tzohar’ is from the same root as ‘tzoharaim’[afternoon]. Both these words are from the same root of zohar [shining]. The Hebrew letter tzadee (ts) can be exchanged with the Hebrew letter zayin (z) because they are from the same phonetic source. See also regarding this aggada in the Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim Chapter 1, Halacha 1.

Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion that the word ‘tzohar’ means a precious stone rather than the simple explanation of a window relates to another opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, in a different context. In Parshat Vayera (Genesis 19:17) the angels tell Lot [as he is fleeing Sodom} that he may not look back, behind him [at Sodom, as it is being destroyed.] The Midrash states that the angel actually told Lot, “you are not worthy of seeing the downfall of the wicked. Rather, you should be careful to pay attention to yourself”.

Also note that Noah is described as a “righteous person in his generation”. Rabbi Yochanan comments there and interprets this description as being a negative comment on the degree to which Noah was righteous. [In other words, “in his generation” is taken to mean, if he had lived in a different generation, his degree of righteousness would not have been remarkable.] If, for example, Noah had lived in the generation of Abraham, Noah would not have been considered especially righteous. Rabbi Yochanan also states in Midrash Rabba that Noah’s faith was flawed and he didn’t believe God’s word that He would soon bring a flood.

Thus, we see that it was clearly Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion that Noah was not fit to gaze upon the downfall of Sodom. Also, we know that if one places stones in doors and windows to let some light in – the explicit intent is to not permit looking outside. This is precisely what a window does, it allows light in and also enables those inside to look outside. It is for this reason that Rabbi Yochanan states that the tzohar was a stone rather than a window. It is consistent with his other opinion that Noah was not a perfect tzaddik. Noah was not so righteous that it was appropriate for him to be looking at the drowning of the evil men of his generation.

Editor’s Note: I like the idea that a person needs to be incredibly righteous to be permitted to look at (and presumably rejoice at) the downfall of evildoers. We, regular people, are not fitting for this. Also, note that the normal word for window is “chalon” not “tzohar”. It is for this reason that Rabbi Yochanan interprets the verse as he does.


Parshat בלק Bamidbar 24:2 – Damage Caused By Seeing

Bamidbar 24:2 –  Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of God rested upon him.”

Gemora Bava Basra 80a – What did Balaam see? He saw that the doors of the tents [of the Bnei Israel] did not directly face each other. This caused him to say that that the they are fit for the Divine Presence to dwell amongst them.

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #1:

This is to say that the placement of the tents was such that one person could not see what was occurring in the tent of his neighbor. This demonstrates a quality of modesty [privacy] that thus prevents the evil eye from seeing. The Rashbam states that the source of conclusion regarding this teaching is from the fact that the verse is soon followed by another verse with Bilaam’s praise “how goodly are the Tents of Jacob; the dwelling places of Israel.” Tosafot, on the other hand state that the source of this teaching is from the second part of the original verse which states “and the spirit of God was upon him.”

One can say [perhaps] that the Rashbam was being exact in his analysis of the verses. From the fact that that our verse is followed by the praise of the tents of Jacob shows that the order of the tents found favor in [Bilaam’s] eyes to the extent that he thought it appropriate for the Divine Presence to dwell amongst them. This is why the term “dwelling place” is used. Tosafot, on the other hand, think that the source of this teaching is from the second half of the verse. They, therefore, would read it not that the “spirit of God was upon him” but rather “and the spirit of God should be upon them”. That is to say, “they are fitting for the spirit of God to dwell amongst them”.

You should be aware that, based on this teaching, the Ramban, in his commentary on the beginning of Baba Basra, states that the prohibition of “hezek re’iah” [damage caused by seeing] is a direct biblical prohibition. The back and forth debate in the gemora is whether the damage is materially significant or not. The issue is not whether there is damage or not. Certainly, opening a window opposite another window or a door is certainly a biblical prohibition. Rather the debate in the gemora is on the particular details of the boundaries of the prohibition. For example, would it apply where a window faces a jointly owned courtyard or where two people want to jointly construct a shared courtyard, etc.

Also note that the Baal Atur on page 94 states that the distance that would be applicable for this prohibition of hezek re’iah has no set limit and is quite large.  This observation requires further analysis [and appears to be flawed.] Observe that in verse (Genesis 21:16) it states that Hagar stayed a distance of a ‘bow-shot’ away from Ishmael so that she would not be able to see the death of the child. From that verse we see that the distance of a bow-shot is [approximately] how far a human eye can see [accurately]. Midrash Rabbah on that verse explains that this distance is approximately 1,000 amot. One does need to say that this distance would vary from person to person. However, for Hagar, the distance was about the distance of a bow-shot.

For the halachic parameters of “hezek re’iah” that are currently applicable, see Choshen Mishpat Section 154.

Editor’s Note: My opinion is that the law of hezek re’iah should be reinforced and more widely taught. It seems to be a very significant teaching emphasizing that we should not be ‘busy-bodies’ involving ourselves in other people’s business.

Parshat חקת – Numbers 20:2 – In Whose Merit Was the Well?

Numbers 20:2 – The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

Gemora Taanit 9a: It was taught in a Beraita as follows: Rabbi Yosi the son of Rabbi Yehuda said that the Well was given through the merit of Miriam. Therefore, when Miriam died, the Well ceased. This is proven by the verses that state “Miriam died and there was no water for the congregation.”

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #8

Note also the Gemora in Baba Metzia 87b where it states that the Well was given due to the merit of Abraham’s stating to his guests “let a little water be brought [for you]” (Genesis 18:4). The Maharsha asks how can it say here in our Gemora that the Well was due to the Merit of Miriam? Also, what would it mean to refer to it as the Well of Miriam if it was given due to the merit of Abraham? The Maharsha’s response is that if God had considered only the merit of Abraham, the Well would have lasted only for a short period of time. It was only through the merit of Miriam that it lasted all forty years that they were in the desert.

These words of the Maharsha seem not to make sense. How could he possibly say that Miriam’s merit was greater than Abraham’s and say that Abraham’s merit would have sufficed only for the Well to last a short period of time?!

It appears to me that the explanation of the difference between these two Gemoras is that because of the merit of Abraham, the Jews merited to have a woman of Miriam’s qualities who then, in her merit, the Well would be given that would last forty years. In this same manner are we able to explain other examples where the Pillar of Fire and the Manna are also attributed to Abraham and Also to Aaron and Moshe respectively.

Editor’s Note: I appreciated the Torah Temimah’s solution that gives honor and glory to both Abraham and Miriam and does not diminish either one.

Parshat חקת – Bamidbar 20:1 – Did Miriam Die for Our Sins?

Bamidbar 20:1 – The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

Gemora Moed Kattan 28a: It was taught in a Beraisa as follows: Rabbi Ami asked why is the narrative of the death of Miriam adjacent to the narrative of the Red Cow? He answered: to teach that just as the Red Cow atones for sins, so does the death of the righteous atone for sins.

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #2

One needs to ask why the narrative of Miriam’s death is adjacent to the story of the Red Cow, specifically, and not next to many of the other ceremonies that also are meant to achieve atonement such as sacrifices or the clothing of the high priest. Perhaps one can explain the answer according to that which is stated by Rashi in the previous chapter (19:22) that the Red Cow is meant to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. This is analogous to the mother coming and atoning for her child. In other words, the mother cow (Red Cow) is atoning for the calf (Golden Calf). Then with a slight linguistic change, one can say that this is similar to the death of Miriam in her role as the mother to the Jewish People.

[On the other hand] it is not clear what is meant, in general, by the statement that the death of the righteous people [somehow] cause an atonement and what would be the reasoning behind such a statement. Perhaps the answer is in accordance with the statement in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 17) when it discusses the death of Shaul (in Samuel 2, Chapter 21) where it states

“And they buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the sepulcher of Kish his father; and they did all that the king commanded. And God was entreated for the land after that.”

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer states that since God saw that the Jewish people dealt kindly [appropriately] with Shaul’s body [after his death] in that they fasted and cried and eulogized him, God then was filled with mercy towards the Jewish people. This is the meaning of the phrase “And God was entreated for the land after that.”

Thus, it is clear from here that it isn’t the death, itself, that causes the atonement. Rather, the mourning and the honor that are given to a great person who has passed away is what what causes God to [in a corresponding way] look kindly on the Jewish people because the honor that the people are showing to the great person is, essentially, showing honor to God.

Editor’s Note: The idea that the death of a righteous person somehow, magically, causes atonement to the living is a foreign concept to Judaism. The Torah Temimah is pointing out, in this note, that it is not the death itself that causes God to show mercy to the living; rather it is the kind manner and loving mourning for the deceased that arouses God’s mercy.


Parshat במדבר Bamidbar 15:24 – Should Judges Have a Retirement Age?

Bamidbar 15:24 – If because of the eyes of the congregation it [the sin] was committed inadvertently, the entire congregation shall prepare a young bull as a burnt offering for a pleasing fragrance for the Lord, with its prescribed meal offering and libation, and one young he goat for a sin offering.

Gemora Horayot 4b – [If such a case happened and] the Sanhedrin taught an erroneous halacha but it was found that one of the members of the Sanhedrin was a convert, or a bastard or a “Natin” or an elderly person who cannot bear children, then this law does not apply. This is proven by the word “congregation” in our verse. In our verse the word “congregation” is used and it is also used in Numbers 35:24. Just as in that verse it means a congregation (court) where all members are appropriate to be judges so too in our verse it must mean a congregation (court) where all members are appropriate to be judges.

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #64:

See also what [I have written] at length on this topic in Vayikra 4:13 (note 69) regarding a Great Court that makes an error in judgement that causes the Jewish People to sin unintentionally.  

Note also that the phrase in our verse “the eyes of the congregation” is an expression alluding to the Great Court (Sanhedrin) because, in effect, the Court acts as the eyes of the Congregation. Additionally, the Court enlightens the eyes of the Congregation through their teaching and their judgements.  Reference those notes in Vayikra to understand the Sages’ necessity for their explanation and their statement that every single member of the Court must be found to be fitting to be on the Court.

In regard to the specific phrase: “an elderly person who cannot bear children”, Rashi states “it is unclear to me why such a person is unfit to be a judge”. These words of Rashi are astounding. It states explicitly in Gemora Sanhedrin 36b that one should not appoint as a judge an old person, a eunuch or one who does not have children. The reasons for these disqualifications are that such people are not [generally] merciful.

Additionally, an elderly person, even though he had children when he was younger, nevertheless, he has forgotten the trials and tribulations of raising children and he will not be merciful. See also the commentators on the Mishna.

It is virtually certain that there is a textural error in his words or perhaps he had a different text. Certainly, the text that we have in front of us is problematic in that it combines two separate issues into one with the phrase “an elderly person who can’t bear children”. These are actually two separate, distinct issues. 1) An old person 2) One who cannot bear children (even if he is a young person.)

Note that, in fact, the Rambam in Chapter 13 Halacha 1 of Unintentional Sins writes the words “either an elderly person or one who does not have children”. Certainly, this is the correct and accurate text.


Editor’s Note: The idea that being elderly would disqualify someone from being a judge was a new concept for me. Being married and having children is a requirement. It seems, based on this Gemora, that a certain requirement for retirement beyond a certain age is also appropriate.

Parshat במדבר Bamidbar 1:51 – Who Is a Stranger?

Bamidbar 1:51 – When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it; and when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it; any outsider [non Levite] who approaches shall be put to death.

Gemora Shabbos 31a – A non-Jew asked Hillel, “Who does this verse refer to? Hillel responded: Even to King David”

Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #2:

The Gemora here mentions this story as a continuation of the story of the non-Jew who approached Hillel and asked to be converted on the condition that he be appointed as the High Priest. Hillel responded, “first go and learn the whole Torah.”

The non-Jew went and studied and when he reached this verse he asked what type of ‘stranger’ the verse is referring to. Hillel responded that this law regarding non-Levites [a type of hereditary priesthood] applies even to King David.

The reason for Hillel’s mentioning King David is multi-fold. First of all, perhaps this is an allusion to the Gemora Kritot (6b) where it discussed the verse in Ki Tissa regarding forbidding ‘strangers’ from deriving benefit from the anointing oil in the temple. In that particular situation the word ‘stranger’ does not apply to a King because, actually, a King is one of the people who is anointed with that oil. Nevertheless, here, however, Hillel wanted to emphasize that the word ‘stranger’ would apply to any non-Priest.

An additional reason for mentioning King David is because of the fact that King David is descended from converts [from Ruth the Moabite]. Even though it is well known that converts are especially beloved before God and even though he is King, still this verse’s severe punishment for a stranger applies even to him. Therefore, the implication is that Hillel was obliquely telling the convert that he has no chance of becoming High Priest [but that this doesn’t indicate that he is any less beloved or of a low stature.]

It is also possible that Hillel decision to choose King David as an example is a reference to the verse in Chronicles (15:2) “Thus said David that only the Levites will carry the Ark of the Lord because God has specifically chosen them for this task…”

Thus we see that King David himself was aware not to participate in a service that had been assigned to the Levites and certainly would have not desired to participate in a service assigned to the High Priest.

Editor’s Note: The idea that the law forbids someone who is not descended from the Cohanim to officiate in the temple is not meant to be an insult or any lack of stature for the non-Priest. In fact, the Torah teaches that there are 3 crowns: the crown of Priesthood, the crown of Kingship and the crown of Torah; the crown of Torah being the greatest one of all.

Additionally, for me, the message is that we are all strangers, in one way or another.