Aharon’s Just Reward

Parashas Tetzaveh introduces us to the special vestments worn by the Kohanim when serving in the Mishkan. Among the eight unique garments worn by the Kohen Gadol was a breastplate known as the Choshen, which contained precious stones on which the names of the 12 tribes of Israel were engraved.

Rashi writes (Shemos 4:14) that in the merit of Aharon rejoicing in his heart upon hearing that his younger brother Moshe was appointed to lead the Jewish people and redeem them from slavery in Egypt, instead of feeling envious and hurt, he was rewarded with the breastplate which was placed on his heart. As Hashem metes out reward and punishment middah k’negged middah (measure for measure), in what way was the privilege of wearing the Choshen considered an appropriate remuneration for Aharon’s conduct?

The Drashos HaRan (Drush 3) explains the connection between Aharon’s actions and his reward based on the fact that the Choshen contained within it the Urim V’Tumim, a parchment on which one or more of Hashem’s Divine Names were written.

Rashi writes (28:30) that the Kohen Gadol was able to query the Urim V’Tumim regarding urgent questions of national importance, and he received answers from Hashem in the form of the letters of the tribes that were engraved on it either lighting up or protruding. This enabled the Jewish people to receive Divine guidance on critical issues, such as whether they should go to war.

The Ran notes that this ability to consult Hashem and receive replies was essentially a minor form of prophecy, which is not typically associated with the job description of the Kohen Gadol, whose primary focus and responsibility was the Divine Service that took place in the Mishkan. If the Jewish people needed Divine communication, there were prophets whose function was to receive messages from Hashem and relay them to the nation.

Moreover, the Urim V’Tumim wasn’t even one of the eight essential vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol, as evidenced by the fact that it was hidden away during the period of the Second Temple, yet the Kohen Gadol still donned the other eight garments and served during this time — something that would be forbidden if any of the other mandatory garments was unavailable. How did this seemingly tangential function become assumed by the Kohen Gadol?

The Ran explains that the Kohen Gadol’s additional role is due to the fact that when Hashem selected Aharon’s younger brother Moshe to serve as His prophet, Aharon’s response was not one of jealousy and resentment, but rather one of genuine happiness as he went out to greet his brother with true joy in his heart.

As a result, Hashem declared that the appropriate reward was for Aharon to wear the Choshen and the Urim V’Tumin contained therein on his heart, which enabled him to also receive a level of prophecy, thereby elevating him to serve a function of vital national import.

Q: How was Shmuel permitted to kill Agag (Shmuel I 15:33), the king of the Amalekites, when the Gemara in Nazir (66a) teaches that Shmuel was a nazir who was forbidden to become impure through contact with a dead body (Bamidbar 6:6)?

A: The Radak writes that although Benayahu was a Kohen and forbidden to become impure through contact with the dead, he was permitted to kill enemies of the Jews in a war which was considered a mitzvah. This opinion would presumably apply to a nazir as well.

The Noda B’Yehudah similarly answers that the Gemara rules that aseh docheh lo saaseh — a positive mitzvah may be performed even if doing so entails the transgression of a negative commandment. In this case, the positive commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek permitted Shmuel to kill Agag, even though he became impure in the process.

The Tiferes Yisrael and Me’am Loez suggest that Shmuel did not actually kill Agag, but merely fatally wounded him and rendered him a goseis, who is legally considered alive for the purposes of ritual purity. Harav Dovid Cohen suggests that this explanation is alluded to by the unusual verb used to describe what Shmuel did to Agag — vayeshaseif — which means to separate, but not to cut and sever completely.

However, Harav Binyomin Elyashiv points out that the Midrash teaches that Shmuel cut Agag into pieces, which would presumably kill him. Harav Chaim Kanievsky answers that Shmuel killed Agag using a simple wooden stick which does not receive and transmit impurity, although the Ralbag writes that Shmuel killed him with a metal sword that transmits impurity, which seems to be the simple reading of the text.

Harav Dovid Cohen notes that the Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, Asei 189) implies that Shmuel did not actually kill Agag, but ordered somebody else to do it. Harav Meir Shapiro explains that Shmuel was not a regular nazir but was legally considered a Nazir Shimshon, who is permitted to become impure through contact with the dead.

The Mishbetzos Zahav cites opinions that maintain that it should have been prohibited for Shmuel to kill Agag, but he did so as a horaas shaah — temporary measure based on the circumstances at the time, similar to the offerings brought by Eliyahu on Har Hacarmel.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.