Whenever there is a requirement to post guards at night, there is a concern lest the guards might fall asleep. To ensure that the Temple guards remained at attention, an officer was responsible to visit the guards. The Gemara relates:
The officer of the Temple Mount used to go round to every watch with torches burning before him, and if any watchman did not rise and say, “Peace be upon you,” it was a proof that he was asleep, and he would beat him with his stick. He was also permitted to burn his clothes. The others would say, “What noise is that in the Azara (Temple courtyard)?” And the response would be “It is the cry of a Levite who is being beaten and whose garments are being burnt because he was asleep at his post.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov said: “Once they found my mother’s brother asleep and they burnt his clothes.”
Different explanations are given to account for the fact that the Temple workers would say “It is the cry of a Levite who is being beaten.” Did only levi’im cry out? Did kohanim never fall asleep while on guard duty?
- The Tiferet Yisra’el suggests that only levi’im were beaten and had their clothing burned, but kohanim received other punishments. This is because of the passage in Sefer Vayikra (21:8) that teaches regarding kohanim “You shall sanctify him therefore; for he offers the bread of your God; he shall be holy unto you.” The commandment to sanctify the kohen and make him holy does not allow us to treat him in a disgraceful manner.
- According to the Tosafot Yom Tov, the officer of the Temple Mount was only responsible for the levi’im and not the kohanim. As such, he was involved only in reprimanding the sleeping Levite.
- The Rambam argues that the punishments of beating and of having clothing burned were meted out equally to kohanim and levi’im. The expression “It is the cry of a Levite who is being beaten” refers to kohanim as well as to levi’im, since we often find that kohanim are included in the broader term levi’im, given that they descend from that tribe.