Numbers 8:1-12:16

In the wisdom of the Kabbalah, the Jewish people are seen as a single body. This body has different organs. For example, a Rebbe is viewed as an acronym, Rosh of Bnei Yisrael – the head of the children of Israel. I was always curios about the meaning of other organs of this mystical body – the nation of Israel.

Driving from New York this past Friday, my wife, Leah, who is a biologist/biophysicist, told me about the new discovery in human anatomy. One would think that by now, we surely know the anatomy of human body that had been studied for millennia. But there it was – scientists discovered new vessels in human brain. These are not blood vessels, however. These are lymphatic vessels.

Everyone is familiar with the cardiovascular system responsible for blood circulation. Lymphatic circulatory system is much less known and understood. Lymphatic system is comprised of lymphatic vessels that carry lymph—a colorless fluid (in Latin lympha means water)—lymph nodes and lymph organs: spleen, thymus, tonsils. The functions of lymphatic system include the absorption of excess fluid and its return to the blood stream, immunity and absorption of fat. Lymph delivers immune cells, lymphocytes, to where they are needed and carry out debris from cells and bacteria. Bone marrow is also a part of the lymphatic system as it is responsible for production of lymphocytes that are concentrated in lymph nodes. Lymphatic circulation is responsible for the removal of interstitial fluid rom tissues.

The lymphatic system was first mentioned by Hippocrates in 5 c BCE. In Talmud, spleen, one of the main organs of lymphatic system is seen as the source of laughter (tr. Berachot 61b).

Until now, it was thought that the brain had no lymphatic vessels. The discovery my wife told me about was the discovery of lymphatic vessels in the brain. This is a huge and very important discovery that will have wide ranging consequences in medicine. Hearing this, two thoughts crossed my mind. There is what is called blood-brain barrier that protects the brain by preventing many chemical substances to enter the brain from the blood. Aside from its protective function, blood-brain barrier also creates problems. It is not easy to treat infections of the brain, such as encephalitis or meningitis, because most antibiotics cannot cross blood-brain barrier. So first I thought this discovery may open a new way to deliver medications to the brain through lymphatic vessels circumventing the blood-brain barrier. The second thought was, being that it was Erev Shabbat Bechalotecha (the Eve of Shabbat on which the Torah portion Bechalotecha is read) that talks about the respective roles of kohanim (priest) and levi’im (Levites), can we say that kohanim correspond the cardiovascular system and levi’im correspond to the lymphatic system of the mystical body representing the Jewish nation?

Kahanim-priests had the exclusive responsibility for bringing karbanot (sacrifices) by slaughtering the animals and burning them on the mitbe’ach (altar). Perhaps, they were in charge of “spilling the blood” of sacrificial animals because they represented the “blood of Jewish people”? One of the main functions of blood is the delivery of oxygen to cells where it is used in chemical reaction of oxidation – burning. Hence, the expression “to burn calories”—because calories are consumed in the process of oxidation. Thus burning karbanot-sacrifices may be parallel to “burning,” i.e., oxidation in a human body—another parallel between kohanim and the blood system.

Similarly, Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) had the exclusive responsibility for lighting the Temple Menorah. Light is emitted by burning oil—an exothermic chemical reaction using oxygen. Similarly, our bodies are kept warm by burning calories—another exothermic chemical reaction using oxygen delivered to the cells by blood.

The fact that kohanim – the tribe of priests – had its chieftain, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, is reflected by the fact that the cardiovascular system has its main organ—the heart. Thus, Kohen Gadol—the High Priest—was the heart of the Jewish nation.

The tribe of Levites, levi’im, did not have a Chief Levite (the prince of the tribe of Levi, was the High Priest whose function was one of a Kohen-in-Chief, not Levite-in-Chief.) Anatomically, this is reflected in the fact that in humans (unlike in some animals), lymphatic system does not have a “heart” (i.e., a pump that would pump the lymph as the heard pumps the blood). Instead, lymph is moved by contraction of the lymphatic vessels and by contraction of muscles (this is why it is so important to move, as in a sedentary body, the lymph is not moved as efficiently as it should!)

Our circulatory system processes about twenty liters of blood per day. Roughly seventeen liters of plasma get reabsorbed directly into the blood vessels. The remaining three liters are left in the interstitial fluid – liquid that surrounds cells. One of the main functions of the lymphatic system is to reabsorb these extra three liters of fluid into the blood. Just as lymphatic system plays a subservient role to the blood circulation system (it reabsorbs extra plasma, delivers lymphocytes and certain other white blood cells), so levi’im played a subservient role to kohanim assisting them in their Temple service.

The Levites shall come to serve in the Tent of Meeting. (Num. 8:15)

I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to perform the service for the children of Israel in the Tent of Meeting and to atone on behalf of the children of Israel have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to perform the service for the children of Israel in the Tent of Meeting and to atone on behalf of the children of Israel. (Num. 8:19)

The connection of lymphatic system with fluid reabsorption may be viewed as parallel to the unique function of levi’im in the Temple Service – nusach ha’mayim – the water libation. (see Rashi on Bamidbar 29:18; tr. Taanit 2b.) Indeed, as noted above, the word lymph comes from Latin Lympha, which means water. The water libation ceremony was considered one of the most joyous events of annual festival cycle. The Talmud says, “He who has not witnessed the celebration of Simchat Bet HaShaevah [water libation ceremony] has never seen happiness in his life.” (tr. Sukkah 51b) Maybe this is why, spleen—an organ identified with the lymphatic system—is vied in Talmud as the organ of joy (tr. Berachot 61b).

As noted above, lymph caries lymphocytes, other white blood cells, protein and fat. Similarly, it was the role of levi’im in the desert to carry parts and vessels of disassembled Mishkan-sanctuary.

As noted above, one of the principle functions of the lymphatic system is immunity. Lymphocytes, T-cells are critical agents of the adaptive immune system. They guard the organism from foreign invaders. Similarly, Levites were charged with guarding Bet HaMikdash – the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Only mature Levites—from age of 25 till 50—were allowed to serve in the Temple. After age of 50, they retired and helped their fellow Levites to guard the Temple. Immature T-cells produced by bone marrow reach their maturation in the thymus—one of the main organs of the lymphatic system. Mature T-cells are released in the bloodstream where they play a key role in adaptive immune system. Old T-cells retire in lymph nodes.

Let us summarize all these similarities and parallels in two tables:

 

Kohanim-Priest Blood Circulation System
Slaughtering (spilling blood) of animals for sacrifice Blood
Burning Karbanot (sacrifices) One of main functions of blood is to deliver oxygen used in burning calories, i.e., exothermic reactions
Kohen Gadol – High Priest – lit Temple Menorah Light and heat are exothermic reaction that uses oxygen from blood
The kahanim had Kohen Gadol – High Priest The main organ in cardiovascular circulatory system is the heart

Table 1. Kohanim — the Blood of the Jewish Nation

 

Levi’im – Levites Lymphatic System
Levi’im do not have Chief Levite Lymphatic system in humans does not have a “heart”
A unique responsibility of Levi’im in the Temple service was nusach ha’mayim – water libation Lymph comes from Latin Lympha – water. The primary function of lymphatic system is fluid reabsorption
Levites stood on guard protecting Bet Hamikdash One of the primary functions of lymphatic system is immunity – defense of the organism from foreign invaders
Levi’im carried parts and vessels of the Mishkan Lymph carries lymphocytes, white blood cells, protein and fat, and removes debris of dead cells and bacteria
Levi’m served and assisted kohanim Lymphatic system is subservient system to blood circulation system delivering white blood cells and extra fluid for blood

Table 2. Levi’im — the Lymphatic System of the Jewish Nation

 

Whether I am correct to identify the tribes of kohamim and levi’im with blood and lymphatic circulatory systems of the mystical body of the Jewish nation is a question. What is unquestionable, it that all Jewish tribes, all Jews are a part of one whole—one body, as it were. That is why, to help a fellow Yid is not to help a stranger, it’s to help yourself. This is also why, we have a principle, Kol Yisrael areivim ze b’ze—all Jews are responsible for each other. If there is any lesson to be derived here, it is one of Jewish unity.

After the distraction of the Jerusalem Temple—Bet HaMikdash—both kohanim and levi’im lost their ceremonial function. It is as if our circulatory system was shut down. No wonder, our nation, as a whole, is in poor health spiritually and physically – how can a body be healthy without well-functioning circulatory system?! This is why the parts of morning liturgy called Karbanot and Ketoret that recite the order of sacrifices and incense offering end with the following prayer which is a fitting end for this post:

Master of the Universe, You commanded us to offer daily sacrifice at its appointed time and to offer the incense at its designated time, with the kohanim performing their service, the Levites [singing] on their platform, and the Israelites attending… But now, because of our sins, the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed and the daily offerings and the incense-offerings were disrupted. We have neither a kohen performing his service, nor a Levite on his platform, not an Israelite attending.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe and all prior Jewish sages stated unequivocally—the redemption depends on the unity of Jewish nation. May our collective national blood and lymph start flowing again with kahanim and levi’im performing their respective services in the Third Temple — Bet HaMikdash HaShilishi takev u’mead mamash!

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