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Encyclopedia Judaica: Mishmarot & Ma'amadot


According to I Chronicles 24–26 and rabbinic tradition, the priests and the Levites were organized into courses or divisions. According to post-biblical evidence, these divisions used to serve in rotation. The term which is rendered as "course" (Heb. mishmar, mishmarot) is the one used in post-biblical sources (The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, p. 2, 2ff.; Suk. 5:6–7; Ta'an. 2:6–7, et al.), whereas the Bible generally employs the term "division" (Heb. maḥlakah, maḥlakot).

According to I Chronicles 23:1ff., it was King David who divided all the priests and Levites according to their families and clans and assigned them their tasks in the *Temple . This arrangement is attributed to David also in the description of the dedication of the Temple by Solomon in II Chronicles 8:14. The text of Nehemiah 12:45–46 ascribes the assignment of tasks to the Levites and priests to both David and Solomon. There is no information about the working arrangements in the Temple anywhere else in the Bible; neither is there any allusion to courses among the detailed instructions for the priests and Levites in the Bible. It would appear that even the listing of the divisions of priests and singers and porters, as given in I Chronicles 24–26, dates from the Second Temple era, and that they reflect a Second Temple reality, a conclusion based on the comparison of the list in I Chronicles 24 with the lists of the priestly families in the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah and post-biblical sources.

In the list of returnees in Ezra 2:36–39 (Neh. 7:39–41) – apparently a record of a general census after the rebuilding of the Temple – only four priestly clans are listed: the sons of Jedaiah (of the house of Jeshua), the sons of Immer, the sons of Pashhur, and the sons of Harim. They totaled 4,289, which was a tenth of the number of returnees. This is a complete record of all the priests as of that date, and they belonged to only four families or clans. Of these four clans, three – Jedaiah, Immer, and Harim – appear again in the list of the 24 divisions of the priesthood in I Chronicles 24:7ff. Again, a detailed list of priests (as representatives of clans) leads the list of 22 names of those who signed the covenant in Nehemiah 10:2–9. Eight of these – Immer (Amariah), Malchijah, Shebaniah (Shecaniah), Harim, Abijah, Mijamin, Maaziah, and Bilgai (Bilgah) – recur in the list in I Chronicles 24. With minor differences, these names are the same as those of the priestly clans listed in Nehemiah 12:12–20, which is attributed to the time of Joiakim, the high priest and the father of the high priest Eliashib of the period of Nehemiah. Fifteen names in the latter list are identical with the names of the signers of the covenant, including the eight clans which figure in the list of divisions in Chronicles; and it includes two names which recur in the Chronicles list, including Jehoiarib (Joiarib), the division to which the Hasmoneans belonged. These two lists – of Nehemiah 10 and of Nehemiah 12 – also predate the list of 24 priestly divisions in the book of Chronicles.

It would appear, then, that the author of Chronicles ascribed to David certain later arrangements of divine service, and that the priestly courses were actually not established until the Second Temple era. On the other hand, it may be argued that, although the list of courses in I Chronicles 24–26 reflects reality at the time of the author, the fact that priestly tasks were performed by established divisions serving in rotation indicates a historical tradition. Indeed, the theory that some sort of courses existed in the First Temple is supported by the parallel with the system of divisions in Egyptian temples, despite the generally dissimilar natures of the two priest-hoods. The four priestly families mentioned in the list of returnees in Ezra 2:36–39 may possibly have corresponded to the four priestly divisions of the First Temple, which also served in rotation. Comparison of the list of priests in the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah and the list of the 24 priestly courses in Chronicles illustrates the relationship between all these lists, on the one hand, and the priority of the lists in the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah, on the other. The earliest among them is the list of four priestly families, mentioned in Ezra 2, from the time of the Return, which is based on the divisions in the First Temple. According to this list, the number of priests was already very large (4,289 men), and even the number of priests in one family was so great that they could not serve in the Temple simultaneously. An arrangement whereby the groups of priests would serve in rotation was necessary. The families were divided into clans, and the clans into courses (cf. rabbinic tradition: "four divisions returned from Exile – Jedaiah, Harim, Pashhur, and Immer; and the prophets in Jerusalem organized them into four-and-twenty divisions", Tosef., Ta'an. 2:1; TJ, Ta'an. 4:2, 67d, et al.). Perhaps to be included in the same framework is the account given by Josephus (Apion, 2: 108) concerning four priestly tribes that rotated service in the Temple at regular intervals. Indeed, there are those who would amend the text to read "twenty-four" in this place as well (cf. Jos., Life, 2; Jos., Ant., 7:366). A tradition concerning the gradual consolidation of the 24 priestly courses appear also in Tosefta, Ta'anit 4:2, and TJ, Ta'anit 4:2, 67d.

The establishment of 24 priestly courses and the order of their service as described in I Chronicles 24 was meant to be a permanent arrangement. When this order was established and at what time the list was made is not known. In any event, it was a late development, at least one or two generations after the time of High Priest Joiakim, to which the list of priestly clans in Nehemiah 12 is attributed. Various scholars date this list at the beginning of the Hasmonean era, since Jehoiarib, the representative of the Hasmonean clan, heads the list (I Chron. 24), whereas in Nehemiah his name is 16th on the list. According to this theory, the family of Jehoiarib was primarily a provincial one, which did not achieve greatness until the Hasmonean period. However, according to I Maccabees 2:1, the house of Joiarib (Jehoiarib) was Jerusalemite; only Mattathias moved to Modin (Modi'in, presumably because of the perilous times.). Although he is mentioned 16th on the Nehemiah list, he appears before Jedaiah, whose family was important from the early days of the Return of Exiles (Neh. 12:6, 19). The date of the list of 24 priestly courses may therefore be set close to the period of Nehemiah, still during the Persian occupation. Possibly Nehemiah, who testifies that it was he himself who assigned the priests and the levites their various duties (Neh. 13: 30), also established the arrangement of the 24 priestly courses, despite his failure to specify it in the account of his activities.

[Jacob Liver]

Talmudic Data

As the priests were numerous and scattered throughout Palestine, it was impossible for all of them to officiate at the same time. An arrangement was therefore made whereby they were divided (in the final stage) regionally into 24 mishmarot (lit. "guards"; Ta'an. 4:2), which served in a regular weekly rotation. The mishmarot were further broken up into a varying number of battei avot ("houses" or "families"). Each division and subdivision was presided over by a head, called rosh mishmar and rosh bet av respectively (Tosef., Hor. 2: 10); there is also mention made of a bet av (Tam. 1:1; Mid. 1:8; cf. Yoma 1:5). The levites were similarly divided into 24 mishmarot, which replaced each other every week (I Chron. 25:8ff, et al.; Jos., Ant., 7:363ff.; Ta'an. 4:2). These were in turn subdivided into seven battei avot, and presided over by "heads." Finally, there was an analogous division of the Israelites themselves into 24 mishmarot, each of which had to take its turn in coming to Jerusalem for a week. They served to represent the whole body of the people while the daily (communal) offerings were sacrificed, for "how can a man's offering be offered while he does not stand by it?" (Ta'an. 4:2, et al.).

That part of the mishmar of priests, Levites, or Israelites actually engaged in the performance of its duty was called a ma'amad or ammud ("station") and was headed by a rosh ma'amad (Tam. 5:6). When the time for the service of a mishmar came round, all the priests and Levites belonging to it would go to Jerusalem. Not all the Israelites of that mishmar, however, proceeded to Jerusalem. A portion of them certainly did (Ta'an. 4:2; cf. Tosef., Ta'an. 4:3) but those who could not do so assembled in their own towns and read the story of creation, etc. Only those in Jerusalem who actually "stood by" while the sacrifice was being offered could, strictly speaking, be called a ma'amad, or ammud (see Sof. 17:5; but see Lieberman , Tosefta ki-Feshutah 5, 1962, 1104, who shows that according to a different opinion the ma'amadot were of Israelites alone).


These 24 mishmarot conducted the daily Temple service, each in turn officiating for one week. Every Sabbath they changed, the retiring mishmar offering the morning and musaf additional sacrifices, whereas the new mishmar offered the evening one, and laid the fresh shewbread on the table (Tosef., Suk. 4:24–25). On the three pilgrim festivals, all the 24 mishmarot officiated together (Suk. 5:7–8). Each priestly mishmar had in the Temple its own ring at which its members slaughtered their animals (Mid. 3:5) and its own niche in which their vestments were kept (Tam. 5:3). Bilga's niche was, however, permanently blocked up and its ring immovable (Suk. 5:8), a sign of disgrace, because one of its members had once acted shamefully (Suk. 56b). The weekly mishmarot of priests were broken up into between four and nine subdivisions (battei avot). If there were fewer than seven, some would officiate twice during the week. If, on the other hand, there were more than seven, then on some days two would have to serve together (Tosef., Ta'an. 2:2, et al.). Furthermore, as only a small part of a bet av was required to serve at any given time, lots were drawn to decide which individual priests should officiate each day (Yoma 2:2–4, et al.).

A number of restrictions were placed upon members of the mishmar and bet av during their week (or day) of office. Thus, members of the mishmar were permitted to drink wine by night but not by day, whereas those of the bet av could not drink wine either by day or night, as they might be called upon to assist in the Temple service at any conceivable hour. Members of the mishmar and of the (Israelite) ma'amad alike were forbidden to cut their hair or wash their clothes throughout the week – as this should have been done earlier – except on Thursday, so that due honor be accorded the Sabbath (Ta'an. 2:7). On certain communal fast days, members of the mishmar and the bet av were permitted to eat, or else to fast only partially, so as to have enough strength to carry out their Temple duties (Ta'an. 2:6). The men of the Israelite ma'amad, however, would fast from Monday to Thursday on their week of service, while from Sunday to Friday they read (in sections) the chapter of Creation (Gen. 1; Ta'an. 4:2–3). Members of the mishmar who were not engaged in actual service would pray that the sacrifices of their officiating brethren be acceptable; while those of the Israelite ma'amad who could not come to Jerusalem gathered in their local synagogues (or meeting places) and prayed for the welfare of sailors, wayfarers, children, pregnant women, etc. The ma'amadot were considered to be of such importance that it was said that without them heaven and earth could not have survived (Ta'an. 27b; cf. the reading in Sof. 17:15). The institution of the ma'amadot, which dates back to the beginning of the Second Temple (see sources cited below), seems to have formed the basis of what later became the synagogal system.


Concerning the origins of the mishmar system, there are three conflicting (tannaitic) traditions recorded in rabbinic literature:

(1) Moses established eight (priestly) mishmarot, to which David and Samuel added another eight. Finally, on the return from the Babylonian Exile, 24 were established (TJ, Ta'an. 4:2, 67);

(2) Moses established eight (priestly and levitical) mishmarot; David and Samuel increased them to 24, and on the return from the Exile 24 (Israelite) ammudim (ma'amadot) were established, parallel to the priestly and levitical mishmarot (Tosef., Ta'an. 4:2);

(3) Moses established 16 mishmarot, which were later increased to 24 (Ta'an. 27a). Relative unanimity of opinion is to be found only in the account of the restoration of the mishmar system after the Babylonian Exile. Four mishmarot are said to have returned from the Exile, Jedaiah, Harim, Pashchur, and Immer. "And the prophets among them [or "in Jerusalem", according to the Tosefta; i.e., Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi] arose and made 24 lots, and put them into an urn." Then each of the four mishmarot drew five lots in addition to his own, making a total of six. Finally, the rashei mishmarot divided them into battei avot (TJ, Ta'an. 4:4, 68a, et al.). It would seem (from tradition (2) above) that only at this stage were the Israelite ma'amadot introduced.

Thus rabbinic sources trace the first origins of the mishmarot via David and Samuel back to Moses. However, these accounts do not appear to have the value of independent traditions but rather to be based upon inferences drawn from scriptural passages. Thus, "… whom David and Samuel the seer did ordain, in their set office …" (I Chron. 9:22) is said to refer to the priestly and levitical mishmarot (Tosef., ibid.; cf. TJ, ibid., citing I Chron. 2:4). Nevertheless, the resultant picture presented by rabbinic sources probably has considerable historical validity. The system remained unchanged even till Josephus' time (Jos., Ant., 7:363ff.; Life, 1:2).

Long after the destruction of the Temple, memories of the mishmarot lingered on. In Ereẓ Israel their names were mentioned each Sabbath in the piyyutim. Tablets, fragments of which have survived, were fixed on synagogue walls, engraved with a list of mishmarot and their geographical provenance. Karaite liturgy preserved echoes of both the mishmarot and the ma'amadot. Even as late as 1034, it was still the custom in some communities to announce on each Sabbath: "Today is the holy Sabbath, holy to the Lord. Today is [the Sabbath of] which mishmeret? [That of] mishmeret … May the Merciful One restore the mishmeret to its place, speedily and in our days. Amen."

[Daniel Sperber]


IN THE BIBLE: Schuerer, Gesch, 1 (1901), 286–97; S. Klein, Meḥkarim Ereẓ-Yisre'eliyyim (1924), 3–30; idem, Ereẓ ha-Galil (1945, 19672), 62–68, 177–92; A.C. Welch, The Work of the Chronicler (1939), 8–96; H. Kees, Das Priestertum im aegyptischen Staat (1953), 300–8; Jepsen, in: ZAW, 66 (1954), 87–106; W. Rudolph, Die Chronikbuecher (1955), 152–78; Y. Kaufmann, Toledot, 4 (1956), 358–9; P. Winter, in: VT, 6 (1956), 215–7 (Eng.); J.T. Milik, in: VT. Supplement, 4 (1957), 24–26 (Fr.); S. Talmon, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 4 (1958), 168–76 (Eng.); Avi-Yonah, in: IEJ, 12 (1962), 137–42; L. Finkelstein, New Light from the Prophets (1969), 49–76, 101–22. IN THE TALMUD: M.L. Bloch, Sha'arei Torat ha-Takkanot, 1 (1879), 27–40, 87–94; J. Liver, Perakim be-Toledot ha-Kehunnah ve-ha-Leviyyah (1968), 33–52; EM, 5 (1968), 569–80.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.