Social Class System

Kidushin (4:1) | Allon Ledder | 15 years ago

One of the main themes in the beginning of the final chapter is the apparent class system in Jewish society. For example, the Mishnah (4:1) lists ten genealogical classes of people who returned to Eretz Yisrael after the Babylonian exile and explains which of those classes are allowed to intermarry and which are not. The Mishnah (3:12) lists those women which are forbidden to marry Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol. The Mishnayot (3:13 and 4:8) deal with Mamzerim – who, despite being the children of two Jewish parents, are excluded from marrying into the congregation. In almost all of these cases, one’s status follows directly from the status of one’s mother or father (3:12).

Some of these restrictions on marriage still apply today. Kohanim are still prohibited from marrying divorcees. There are many sad cases of Mamzerim, who, through no fault of their own, are severely limited in who they can marry. It seems they are locked into a social class due to accident of birth.

This theme is also evident in parashat Bamidbar, which describes the encampment of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael around the Mishkan in the desert54. There is a great rigidity about the encampment – each individual’s distance and direction from the Mishkan was purely a function of their lineage. Those who were lucky enough to be born a Kohen or a Levi would camp closest to the Mishkan and would be privileged to serve in the Mishkan.

This seems quite foreign to our ‘modern’ notions of equality. Western society believes in the idea that everyone should have equal opportunities. There is almost a consensus that in an ideal world, there will be an egalitarian society based on merit and that no-one’s opportunities in life should be limited by their status.

However lets take a closer look at the justice of this notion of equal opportunity. People are born with different talents and skills which limit their ultimate status. While we can learn new skills and improve ourselves, many of our attributes are ours from birth, just like our lineage.

How can we reconcile our Western notions of equality with Judaism’s apparent class system. One answer is highlighted by the Gemara. The Rabbanim teach us that honours are to be bestowed according to a person’s accomplishments in life and nothing else - “The Mamzer who is a Talmid Chacham takes priority over the Kohen Gadol who is ignorant” (Horayot 13a). Hashem takes into consideration one’s circumstances when assessing one’s achievements and ultimately one’s merit. We are ultimately assessed based on the extent to which we have reached our potential.

R’ Moshe Feinstein touches on this issue in a comment on the Rashi to Shmot (6:26). In this pasuk, Aharon’s name is mentioned before Moshe’s name. Rashi notes that sometimes in the Torah Moshe’s name precedes Aharon’s name and sometimes Aharon’s name precedes Moshe’s name. Rashi comments that this shows that Moshe and Aharon were equally great. R’ Moshe Feinstein asks how this can possibly be true. The Torah itself testifies that Moshe was the greatest prophet of all time (Bamidbar 12:7). R’ Moshe Feinstein answers that just like Moshe, Aharon achieved the absolute maximum of his potential. Hashem measures our merit based purely on how well we achieve our potential taking into account our unique circumstances.

On the one hand, this is quite a reassuring idea. We will not be judged based on how we compare to other people because we all have different circumstances. On the other hand, this can be quite daunting. We are only judged based on how we measure up compared to our own potential. However we can never know what our potential is and when we have reached it. No matter what we have achieved, there is always more that can be done.

54 Some of these ideas are based on ‘Jewish Meritocracy’ - an article by Rabbi Noson Weisz, parsha Bamidbar 2006.\ (see:


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