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Aaron: changing perceptions.

AS WE STUDY THE VARIOUS CHARACTERS IN the Bible, we tend to feel that we understand them. Each has a personality of his or her own. Some seem to stay the same in the brief stories told about them; others, more extensively portrayed, may develop as they grow. Still, while a Jacob or Joseph may mature as he ages, each retains a basic personality which we can recognize.

However, as we pass from one book to another, especially outside of the Torah, there may be a more profound or extreme personality change. Thus, the gentle Elijah, whom we find portrayed reconciling parents and children in the last verses of Malachi, is very different from the violent prophet in Kings. The change is even more striking when we move out of the Bible into post-Biblical literature. The kindly Elijah who helps the righteous in times of trouble, who brings instruction to favored rabbis and who, ultimately, will usher in the reign of the Messiah, is even farther removed from the wild visionary who challenged royalty and exterminated the prophets of Baal at Mr. Carmel.

In some cases, we can determine the reasons which prompted later commentators to change the pictured personality of familiar Biblical characters. For example, Job, Jethro, and Balaam not only differ from their Biblical presentations, but also evolve in post-Biblical writings. All three became typical figures for Jewish and Christian polemicists. As each of these men was used in ensuing controversies, each developed not one new personality, but two, one as drawn by Jewish commentators, one as drawn by Christians.(1)

However, our study will focus on a different development, one which took place before Christianity had become a factor in Jewish thinking. We will focus on the changes that took place in the picture of Aaron. How does the man who fashioned the Golden Calf, who joined with his sister, Miriam, in slandering Moses, and who, like Moses, was forbidden entry into the Promised Land -- how does this man become the saintly o'hev shalom v'rodef shalom (lover of peace and pursuer of peace), the arch-typical peacemaker whom we find in the Rabbinic writings?


The picture of Aaron that is presented in the Torah is, at best, undistinguished and, at worst, unpleasant. True, when we first meet him on Moses' return to Egypt from Midian (Ex 4:27ff.), he welcomes Moses, and works with him to bring the Israelites out of slavery. Despite God's assurance to Moses that Aaron will do whatever speaking is necessary, there is no explicit evidence -- except for one instance in which it is specified that he is repeating what Moses had heard from God (Ibid., v.30) -- that one brother or the other is the speaker at the royal court. Aaron does handle the wonder-working rod to bring on several plagues, but, otherwise, has no independent function until the people are free and reach Mt. Sinai. Then, while Moses is receiving the Torah, Aaron is involved in the making of the Golden Calf!

Before considering how the picture of Aaron changed, we must first examine the major Biblical passages which depict him. We need to know who and what the Biblical Aaron was. Several passages will concern us -- and concerned the Rabbis. The first of these is the story of the Golden Calf:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man, Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt -- we cannot tell what has happened to him." Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you from the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation: "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord!" Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to make merry.(2)

Clearly, this text shows Aaron agreeing with, or at least acceding to, the people who want a visible god. If he is not the cause of the idolatry, he is, at least, an accessory before the fact. If he has any hesitancy about the entire procedure, the text hides it from us.

Once Moses has returned and destroyed the calf, Aaron's position seems to change:

Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?" Aaron said, "Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt -- we cannot tell what has happened to him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off!' They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!" ...

Then the Lord sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.(3)

Under his brother's stern gaze, Aaron accepts the fact that the entire incident was sinful -- and blames it all on "this people," with whom he clearly does not choose to associate himself.

A second event, in which Aaron stands out, is of a very different nature. After the rebellion of Korah, Datan, and Abiram has been miraculously suppressed, there is danger for the entire congregation of Israel:

When Moses and Aaron reached the Tent of Meeting, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant." They fell on their faces. Then Moses said to Aaron, "Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!" Aaron took it, as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked. Those who died of the plague came to fourteen thousand and seven hundred, aside from those who died on account of Korah. Aaron then returned to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, since the plague was checked."(4)

In this story, Aaron's role is clearly positive. Although he functions only under Moses' explicit directions, his is a brave, even heroic, action.

Aaron also appears in a positive light when once he ignores Moses' direct command. During a seven-day period of ordination, Aaron and his sons were to eat a part of the goat of the sin-offering each day. This served as an expiatory rite for the community, and also provided a feast for the priestly family. During that period, however, two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, died for offering "alien fire" before the Lord. Moses, who seems to have assumed that the eating of the sin-offering was primarily an expiatory rite, assumed that the ordination of the priests would continue without any interruption in the routine. Aaron (and presumably his two remaining sons) had, however, experienced this as a meal of family rejoicing, and believed that an interruption was warranted in light of the tragedy that had just taken place. He was able to convince Moses of the cogency of his position:

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord? Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you ought certainly to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." And Aaron spoke to Moses, "See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?" And when Moses heard this, he approved.(5)

One more passage needs to be included in this preliminary survey, especially since it once again presents a negative image of Aaron, one which is at great variance with the picture of him that develops in Rabbinic literature. It is to be noted that although Miriam alone is punished here, Aaron admits his guilt, too, for the "sin which we committed." When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: "He married a Cushite Woman!"

They said, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?" The Lord heard it. Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting." so the three of them went out. The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, "Aaron and Miriam!" The two of them came forward....

As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, "O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother's womb with half his flesh eaten away." So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, "O God, please heal her!"

But the Lord said to Moses, "If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted." So Miriam was shut out of camp for seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.(6)


In spite of this rather undistinguished picture which the Torah presents, some of the prophetic books and some Psalms praise Aaron.(7) When we come to the rabbinic teachings, however, it is striking to see just how magnificent a figure he has become. Aaron was one of the great men of the world.(8) He received the High Priesthood because of his merit although, in his modesty, he would have declined it or transferred it to his brother, Moses.(9) Whether the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) did or did not rest upon the altar at any given time depended on his need, and it was only when Aaron and Moses blessed Israel together that the Shekhinah rested upon the people.(10) He was an honest and devoted scholar, and even taught Moses, whose equal he was in many ways.(11) He was rewarded for remaining silent after the death of his sons, Nadab and Abihu.(12) In fact, all of his sons deserved to die, and it was through this merit that the other two did not perish at that time.(13)

Aaron's sacrifices were exceptionally beloved to the Holy One, blessed be He. His death was as painful to God as the breaking of the Tablets of the Law, and, like the death of any righteous man, procured atonement.(14)

Like his younger brother, Aaron was privileged to die by the Divine Kiss, and, after his death, worms had no dominion over his body.(15) When he died, the Clouds of Glory which had shielded the people departed, and all of Israel assembled to mourn him.(16) Again and again, we are told that he was righteous, honored, and holy!(17)

We are faced with two questions: First, how could the Rabbis have so transformed the Aaron of the Bible into such a saint and hero? Second, and even more important, why did they do it?

In order to make Aaron into any kind of hero, the Rabbis first had to deal with both the slander story and the Golden Calf. We will consider each in turn.


Apologists were not really successful in trying to excuse Aaron's participation in slandering Moses. They did, however, try to minimize his guilt. The Bible provided them with two facts which they found helpful in this undertaking. First, Aaron, unlike Miriam, was not stricken with leprosy. This would seem to indicate that he himself was not (very) guilty of slander, at least not as guilty as his sister clearly was. Second, when Miriam was punished with leprosy, Aaron interceded with Moses for her. This was understood to show a high level of compassion on his part. Still, these mitigate, rather than excuse, Aaron's participation in the attack on his brother, a participation to which he admits.

The Midrash assures us that Moses was very upset with Aaron's participation in the attack against him: how could Aaron have done anything which might harm his beloved younger brother?(18) Furthermore, he had participated in slander! Now, engaging in lashon ha-ra (slander, malicious or needless gossip) is a serious transgression, but the fact is that it is also a very common one (as we know from our own experience). Therefore, when we are exposed to it, we may find it morally reprehensible, but hardly surprising. Lashon ha-ra is so pervasive that we actually find it difficult to take seriously the idea that one who indulges in it is guilty of a serious transgression. Thus, the Rabbis suggest that, if a normal person had spoken as Aaron did, no one would really have been particularly upset. For a lesser person, there would have been neither condemnation nor guilt.(19) It was only because of the exceedingly high standards which Aaron had established for himself that he appeared guilty. This, too, added to Moses' shock. Thus, the fact that this act was considered sinful for Aaron tells us how righteous a person he really was.(20)


Paradoxically, the Rabbis do a better job in the apparently more difficult task of trying to minimize Aaron's guilt concerning the Golden Calf. The Bible portrays Aaron as the mildly reluctant but unresisting maker of an idol.(21) Once it is made, he proclaims a festival, apparently identifying the calf with the Lord. It appears that he acted cravenly out of personal fear of the people.

But this reading of the case, while possible, was not really acceptable. If fear was a factor in Aaron's actions, the Rabbis would rather find selfless fear for the people than cowardly fear of the people. Aaron -- we are, therefore, told -- went along with what they demanded in order to keep them from even graver sin. His actions are portrayed accordingly, as a series of (unsuccessful) delaying tactics, a kind of fighting retreat or passive resistance. He tried a variety of means to stretch out the process of making and worshipping the calf, in the hope that Moses would return and bring the people under control. In this way, while they would still be guilty of desiring idol-worship, they would be free from the guilt of having actually participated in that great sin.(22)

We also find a special variation of this theme: Aaron could have refused to take any part in preparing an idol, but this would have led the people to kill him. He was more than willing to give up his life, but, preferable as the option would have been to him personally, he knew that it would have meant the people's destruction! They had already killed the prophet, Hur. If they killed Aaron as well, they would have killed both priest and prophet, and so be subject to even more terrible penalties.(23)

In one striking passage, Aaron is actually portrayed as having resisted the people too much! R. Assi teaches that Aaron took a hammer, battered the Golden Calf with it, and said to them, "Behold that there is no substance to it." For this, Moses rebuked him when he said, "What did this people do to thee, that thou hast brought a great sin upon them?" (Ex. 32:21) R. Assi's point was that it would have been better for Israel to be judged for sinning in ignorance, but, by demonstrating so explicitly the lack of power of the calf, Aaron underlined the fact that they were sinning deliberately.(24)


Of course, the incident with the plague is a clear plus for those who would seek to rehabilitate Aaron.(25) The Biblical story needed little elaboration; it was enough to make explicit some themes that might have been overlooked.

So, we are reminded that Aaron did not hesitate to oppose himself to danger from an angel, on behalf of the Jewish people. He did, it is true, hesitate to use his fire-pan, for it was by their use of fire-pans that his two sons, Nadab and Abihu, had died, but he finally obeyed Moses, willing to die, if necessary, for the sake of the people.(26) Although he was acting under Moses' orders, the fact is that he could -- and did -- stand up to the Angel of Death."(27) He was the first man ever to accomplish this feat.(28)

Of course, it is his spiritual power which is shown by this incident, but we are not to suppose that he was physically weak. Indeed, he demonstrated his physical strength on a different occasion, when the Levites were consecrated. At that time, he himself performed the wave-offering of all 22,000 Levites in a single day!(29)


We have shown that, with sufficient effort and imagination, it was possible to rehabilitate Aaron. However, this really only brings us to the more perplexing questions: who undertook this process, and why was it done at all?

We might respond that this was part of a general glorification of the past. It is perfectly natural for any group to try to paint its Founding Fathers in the best possible light. When one of the towering figures of the past is found to be less than might have been wished, the solution is simply to revise the record to the greatest extent possible. Where there is an unchangeable textual record of transgressions and weakness, one must do the reworking by re-interpretation of the text. Once the task is completed, the present group is strengthened. Glory is added to the present by adding glory to the past. Furthermore, there is really nothing to be lost in the attempt.

If our sources glorifying Aaron were all from the late Tannaitic period -- let us say the end of the Second Century -- or even later, this would be a satisfactory explanation. However, the fact is that the process of rehabilitating Aaron was begun earlier, certainly by the early First Century C.E. and quite possibly in the First Century B.C.E. It is, of course, notoriously difficult to date material from this period. However, there is no reason to believe that all of the sources dealing favorably with Aaron, which are ascribed to the first century, are products of a later age.(30)

But that is exactly the period in which we would least expect to find Aaron glorified by the Sages. The early first century was the period of the tension -- and more than tension -- between Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees, as is well known, were the priestly party. Since all the priests claimed descent from Aaron, and the leading Sadducee, the High Priest, held Aaron's office, we would expect that this party would make every attempt to glorify their presumed progenitor. Therefore, it would appear that the obvious strategy for the Pharisees, the party of the Rabbis, would have been to denigrate Aaron to the maximum extent possible (thus degrading, by implication, his descendants) -- and, at least, not to go out of their way to glorify him. Yet, what we find taking place is just the opposite: it was the Pharisees who told these new stories about Aaron, stories that would seem to benefit their Sadducean opponents. It seems that the Pharisees did all that was in their power to elevate the status of their opponents' ancestor, a task which was, as we have seen, by no means an easy one.



The common depiction of the Pharisees is that they were the preeminent teachers and defenders of the Oral Torah, while the Sadducees were the advocates of the Written Torah. While it is an oversimplification, there is much truth in this portrayal. It is, however, only a partial truth. While the Pharisees interpreted the written Torah in ways that the Sadducees did not, the very books upon which they based their oral interpretations were explicit about the rights and duties of the priests, and the importance of the Temple rites in the religious life of the people. Therefore, there was no way that the Pharisees could deny -- even if they had wanted to -- the important role of the priesthood.

The function of the Aaronides in the Temple cult was unchallengeable.(31) When the Temple was destroyed and the sacrifices could no longer be offered, the cultic privileges were no longer so important. There remained, however, the explicit statement that difficult legal cases should be taken to the Aaronide priest to be decided. Here was a highly charged point of conflict, for the Pharisaic legal teaching was often significantly different from that of the Sadducees. Therefore, it followed that a priest who was not also a Pharisee would (from the Pharisaic point of view, at least) necessarily give false instruction and render wrong decisions.

The Pharisees could, and did, however, extricate themselves from this difficulty by insisting that the only men who had the right to claim the prerogatives given to priests by Scripture were those who manifested proper behavior as well as proper descent. What priest was "proper?" Clearly one who was like Aaron, the father of the priesthood.

Once this definition was accepted -- and it must have been very hard for anyone, Sadducees or Pharisees, to reject it -- one could define a "proper" priest by describing Aaron closely. We do not know how the Sadducees may have portrayed him, but when the Pharisees had finished painting the portrait of Aaron which we outlined above, the first High Priest had become the ideal Pharisee. In fact, he had virtually become Hillel!(32)

So, for example, Aaron is portrayed as being exceedingly humble. He was Moses' older brother, but we are told that Aaron treated Moses as his master and teacher.(33) Even when he was installed as High Priest, he was uncertain of his own worthiness.

... Observe the piety of the righteous Aaron! When Moses poured the anointing oil on his head, Aaron was filled with trepidation and dismay. He said to Moses, "My brother: perhaps I am unworthy of being anointed with the anointing oil and have committed a trespass, thus incurring the penalty of excision, for the Holy One, blessed be He, has said, 'It shall not be poured upon the flesh of man.' (Ex. 30:32) Therefore, Scripture testifies about him, saying, 'Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard ... like the dew of Hermon.' (Psalm 133:1ff.) Scripture thus compares the anointing oil to the dew of Hermon: just as the dew of Hermon is not subject to the laws of trespass, so the oil that descends upon Aaron is not subject to the law of trespass.(34)

This identification of Aaron with the Pharasaic leadership is made virtually explicit in the well-known Talmudic account of the confrontation between a high priest and Hillel's two teachers:

Our Rabbis taught: It happened with a high priest that as he came forth from the Sanctuary, all the people followed him, but when they saw Shemayah and Abtalion (Hillel's two teachers) they forsook him and went after Shemayah and Abtalion. Eventually, Shemayah and Abtalion visited him, to take their leave of the high priest. He said to them: May the descendants of the heathen come in peace! -- They answered him: May the descendants of the heathen, who do the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron who does not do the work of Aaron, he shall not come in peace!(35)

Of course, Hillel himself had said, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, one that loves peace, that pursues peace, that loves mankind, and brings them close to the Torah."(36) While Moses' motto was "Let the law cut through the mountain," Aaron loved peace and constantly pursued peace.(37) For this, he received special praise from God.(38) When he died, the mourning for him was greater than that which was later observed for Moses:

Only the men showed lovingkindness to Moses, as it is said, "And the sons of Israel wept for Moses." (Deut. 34:8) The men and women and children showed lovingkindness to Aaron.

Why (was this)? Because he loved peace and pursued peace, and passed daily through the entire camp of Israel and promoted peace between a man and his wife and between a man and his neighbor, and therefore all Israel showed lovingkindness to him, as it is said, "And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel." (Num. 20:29)(39)

Thus, the Pharisees were enabled to claim that they, rather than their priestly opponents, were the true heirs of Aaron. Of course, they recognized that biological descent from Aaron belonged to the (mostly Sadduceean) priests. However, those priests were seen -- or, at least portrayed -- as arrogant, overbearing, and often ignorant.(40) Thus, by praising Aaron for the very qualities which they saw in their leaders, and which they strove to attain, the Pharisees could put forward their claim to be Aaron's spiritual children. In emphasising spiritual rather than biological descent, thus distancing the Sadducees from their original priestly ancestor, the Pharisees established their right to be the recognized judges and interpreters of the law.

HENRY BAMBERGER is the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Utica, New York.


1. Judith R. Baskin, Pharaoh's Counsellors, Brown Judaic Studies 47 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press. 1983).

2. Exodus 32: 1-5. Biblical quotations are from The Torah (Phila.: Jewish Publication Society, 1962), unless they are part of a Rabbinic passage.

3. Exodus 32:21-24. 35.

4. Numbers 17:8-15.

5. Leviticus 10:16-20.

6. Numbers 12:1-5, 10-15.

7. It is only fair to note that the transformation of Aaron -- like that of Elijah -- does begin, in a small way, in the Bible. His name is paired with that of Moses in references to the Exodus, e.g., Joshua 24:5, Samuel 12:6 and 8. Micah 6:4 (where Miriam is also mentioned), and Psalms 77:21. In Psalms 99:6, 105:26, and 106:16 there are short passages praising Aaron.

8. Eccl. R. I:4. Deut. R. 13:15 specifies that he was one of the seventy-seven righteous men in his time, and Ex. R. 44:7 puts him in the top ten.

9. Eccl. R.7:2; B. Yoma 72b; Tan. Shemini 3 and T'zav 10.

10. Lev R. 20:4; Eccl. R. 4:9; Midrash Hagadol (MHG) on Lev. 8:15; and Pesikta d'Rav Kahana (PRK) 4:5, 26:4. Israel's redemption from Egypt was dependant on the merits of the three patriarchs, and Moses and Aaron (Ex. R. 2:9).

11. Ex. R. 38:5; B. Zeb. 101a-b. In addition to teaching, he had prophesied in Egypt; see "Divrei Hayamim shel Moshe Rabbeinu, Alav HaShalom" in Bet HaMidrash (BH), Adolph Jellinek, ed., 6 vols., vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1967), p.5. Indeed, Moses hesitated to return to Egypt at God's command, in large part because he realized that Aaron had been prophesying there for eight years, and it would not be proper for him to trespass, so to speak, on his older brother's territory. However, God assured him that Aaron would be pleased rather than offended. See Midrash HaGadol on Exodus 4:27. For Aaron as equal to Moses, see Song of Songs R. 4:5. Cf. Avot de Rabbi Natan (ARN) 37; Mekhilta, Piska 1; Gen. R. 1:15; Ex. R. 2:5, 15:3, 25:8; Lev. R. 36:1; Num. R. 2:1; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simon b. Jochai, Bo, 1. In one late source, he is even referred to as Moses' rabbi: see Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (PE), Ch. 41. Just as Moses is sometimes considered equal to all of Israel, so is Aaron (Ex. R. 37:3). In all but a few instances, when the Bible says that God spoke to Moses. the revelation was actually to both brothers (Sifra, Va'yikra, perek 3).

12. Lev. R. 12:2.

13. B. Yoma 87a. However, Tan. Aharei Mot 8, offers a different explanation: God planned to kill all four of Aaron's sons in punishment for his sin with the Golden Calf, but Moses prayed for them and the punishment was halved, thus allowing two to live. So, also, Tan B. (Buber) Aharei Mot 12, and Lekah Tov on Num. 17:13, where Moses' standing between the two surviving sons and death is paralleled to Aaron's standing between the Israelites and the Angel of Death.

14. Re sacrifices, Lev. R. 8:3. Re Aaron's death, Ibid., 20:12; B. Mo'ed Katan 28a.

15. Song of Songs R. 1:2; Buber, Addition to Hukkat 2; B. Baba Batra 17a; Derekh Erez Zuta 58a. Moses and Aaron died even though each had fulfilled the entire Torah (B. Shab. 55b). It is even suggested that they, and Miriam as well, died without having ever sinned (Sifre Deut. 338).

16. Lam R. 1:56. Cf. B. Ta'an. 9a, B. Rosh Hashanah 2b. Mekhilta Va'yissa 6, Sifre Numbers 82, Lev. R. 27:6, Nitre. R. 1:2 and 19:20, Eccl. R. 7:1, Tanhuma Ba'midbar 2, Buber, Ba'midbar 2. Midrash Mishlei, ch. 14, par. 1, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 17, Targum Yerushalmi (TY) on Num. 20:29 and 21:5, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (TJ) on Num. 20:29. Not only the Clouds of Glory but, also, the pillar of cloud which led the people by day disappeared at Aaron's death: TY on Num. 21:5 and TJ on Num. 21:5 and Deut. 10:6. The departure of the Clouds of Glory at his death allowed the Canaanites to attack (PRK 19:2).

17. Mekhilta Va'yissa 1; Sifre Deut. 352; Ex. R. 5:10, 38:7; Num. R. 19:9-17; Sofrim 41b; Ben Sir. 45:6ff. Cf. Hebrews 5:4f. He was a righteous man who, unlike various other righteous men, produced righteous sons: Tan. Shemini 3. He, himself, is called "Hesed" and "Shalom" (Ibid., Sh'mot 28). Before Moses came on the scene, Aaron had prophesied in Egypt for 80 years (Ibid., 27). We are even told that Aaron was a haver (B. San. 90b). While there are several opinions on the exact implications of the term haver, associate, we may content ourselves with the definition offered by the Glossary to the Soncino Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, p. 785: "Haber -- 'Fellow', 'associate', opp. to 'am ha-arez (q.v.); one scrupulous in the observance of the law, particularly in relation to ritual cleanness and the separation of the priestly and Levitical duties." Clearly, this is intended as a term of praise. Cf. also G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927), Vol. II., p. 73, and Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages, translated by Israel Abrams (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), pp. 583ff.

18. Deut. R. 6:11. Furthermore, Moses and Aaron were greatly devoted to one another, each rejoicing in the honors shown to the other (Tan. Sh'mot 27, Shemini 3 and Midrash Shir haShirim, Ch. 5, par. 5). When Aaron died, Moses wept and praised him (TY and TJ to Numbers 20:29).

19. A similar approach is applied to David in B. Shabbat 56a, where it is suggested that his only sin was with Bath-sheba, and that, indeed, his sin was much less than it appears to be from a simple reading of the Bible. Consideration is given to the question of whether, and to what extent, he may have sinned in the death of Uriah in battle, but that is unresolved. (This approach is not wholly dead; see Artscroll Tehillim, Vol. 1, pp. xxxvi-xl, which quotes the Talmud with evident approval.)

20. A few sources do deny that Aaron was particularly righteous. We are told that God never spoke directly to Aaron; even where it appears that He did, He actually spoke to Moses who repeated the Divine message to Aaron (Num. R. 6:5, 14:19). However, Mekhilta, Piska I |beginning~ insists that Aaron was spoken to directly by God. One reference indicates that Moses wanted God to specify his transgression so that he might not be identified with Aaron's sin (B. Yoma 86b).

21. In Tan. Ki Tissa 19, Aaron explicitly says to God, "You know that I am doing this against my will."

22. Ex. R. 37:2. Indeed, when Moses was sceptical about Aaron's motivation, God affirmed that he had not joined the idolaters, but was trying to delay them until Moses' return (Lev. R. 10:3).

23. Lev. R. 10:3. That Hur was a prophet is also hinted at in Num. R. 9:45. That he was killed while trying to prevent the people from worshipping the idol is stated in Ex. R. 48:3. His greatness is praised in Ex. R. 42:1. TY and TJ to Exodus 32:5 both indicate that Aaron saw that Hur had been killed, without dealing with the question of whether that made him more fearful for himself or for the people. Of course, there are passages which confirm the Biblical picture. In PE, Ch. 45, Aaron tried to delay making the Golden Calf, but is clearly afraid of the people. Compare Lev. R. 10:3 and Buber. Ki Tissa 13.

24. Lev. R. 7:1. It should be pointed out that, in fact, there are also sources which see Aaron's behavior in the case of the Golden Calf as wholly reprehensible. Moses' treatment of the people is compared with the trial of the suspected adulteress (sotah), and Aaron is, naturally enough, compared with the paramour. His guilt was so great that he deserved to lose all of his children, but Moses prayed on his behalf and only two of his four sons died (Num. R. 9:47 and Lev. R. 10:5: cf. Lev. R. 8:1 and reference in note 12 above.

25. In reference to this event, the Apocryphal hook, Wisdom of Solomon, 18:21ff, refers to Aaron as "a blameless man." However, Zeitlin feels that this is a mistranslation of the underlying Hebrew, and should read "a man of peace." See Joseph Reider, The Book of Wisdom, Dropsie College Edition, Jewish Apocryphal Literature (N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, 1957), ad. loc.

26. Tan. T'zav 9; Lekah Tov on Num. 17:11.

27. Aaron is given credit for listening attentively to his brother whenever Moses spoke. Indeed, the two of them always showed one another the greatest respect (Mekhilta, Piska 3, beginning).

28. Buber, Addition to Hukkat 2.

29. Num. R. 19:20; 4 Macc. 7:11; Wisdom of Solomon 18:2Off. Tan. T'zaveh 15 says explicitly that, after a period of argumentation, Aaron used physical force against the angel, obviously with success. However, Wisdom, 18:22, is careful to stress that his subduing the Angel of Death is "not by strength of body."

30. Indeed, even many of the references which come from works that appeared in the late Tannaitic period or later may be earlier in origin. The phrasing in the text is used because, for our present argument, it is necessary that only some of the passages date from the First Century. Therefore, the question of just how many of them might be later can remain moot. On the problem of dating, see, e.g., Bernard J. Bamberger, "The Dating of Aggadic Materials," Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 68 (1949): 115-123.

31. Indeed, the Rabbis themselves recognized that the covenant with Aaron was unconditional (Mekhilta, Amalek, 4).

32. Jacob Neusner, Torah From Our Sages, Pirke Avot (Chappaqua, N.Y.: Rossell Books, 1984), touches on this but does not go far enough in his remark, "That is, his message is that priests should be more like rabbis" (p. 37 on Avot, 1:12). Louis Finkelstein sees this passage as directed to the priests, but, like Neusner, he fails to appreciate the depth and range of the polemic which Hillel and his disciples are undertaking: "He |Hillel~ urged them |the priests~ to be disciples of Aaron no less than his physical descendants, maintaining that Aaron was characterized by love of peace and the pursuit of peace, love of people and the desire to bring them to the Torah (Mishnah Avot 1:12). Certainly the Shammaitic priests of Hillel's day could not be considered lovers of peace, for they counselled and even urged rebellion against Rome. Nor could they be described as seeking to bring the general population near the Torah, for they held that the Torah should be taught only to the wealthy and the aristocrats (Avot of R. Nathan, I, ch. 3). See Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, Third Edition, 1962), p. lxxxix.

The Qumran sect went even further in dealing with the pro-Zadokite verse in Ez. 44:15. They stated, "The priests are the captivity of Israel who went forth from the land of Judah, and the Levites are those who joined them; and the sons of Zadok are the elect of Israel, those called by name, who will abide at the end of days." ("The Damascus Document," VI, in Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls |N.Y.: The Viking Press, 1933~, p. 352.) Here, not only are the qualities, rather than the genealogy, of the priests emphasized, but the literal meanings of "priest," "Levite," and "sons of Zadok," are rejected.

33. ARN 27, with reference to Num. 12:11; Mekhilta, Piska 3.

34. Num. R. 18:9; B. Hor. 12a. For other mentions of Aaron's humility, see Kallah R. 52a and Midrash Gadol U-g'dolah, Chapter 4 (in BH, vol. 3).

35. B. Yoma 71b: MHG on Lev. 16:25; B. Hot. 13a.

36. Avot 1: 12; see R. Travers Herford's translation in R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), Vol. II, p. 693, where his commentary adds, "The association of Aaron with peace is frequent in the Rabinical (sic) literature and is possibly due to H|illel~ himself." In his The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers (N.Y.: Jewish Institute of Religion, 1945), p. 32, he expands this slightly to say, "All that is told about Hillel shows him to have been a lover of peace. It is possible that he was the first to see in Aaron the type of the man of peace and the peacemaker." (It is interesting to note that on p. 31. Herford's translation, otherwise identical to the one in the Charles volume, omits the phrase, "pursues peace," although it is found in the Hebrew there. Since he does not comment on this omission, it should be understood as accidental.) Aaron's techniques for bringing about peace are described in ARN 12.

37. B. San. 6b; Sifra, Shimini, perek 1, 37.

38. Num. R. 11:7. Of course, the verse quoted from Malachi (2:5) actually refers to the priestly family.

39. PE 17; Buber, Addition to Hukkat 2; MHG, on Lev. 10:4 and Num. 20:29. On Aaron as peacemaker, see also Lev. R. 3:6; Kallah R. 52b; and Perek HaShalom 59b.

40. We have seen the overbearing arrogance in the story dealing with Shemayah and Abtalion quoted above (with references in n.35). On ignorance, see, e.g., Mishnah Yoma 1:6 which not only considers the possibility that the High Priest is unaccustomed to reading the Bible, but also records the testimony of Zechariah ben Kevutal that such was often the case! Such a man would be ignorant of Sadducean learning as well as of Pharisaic teaching.
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Author:Bamberger, Henry
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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