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The Disappearing Levites

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Disappearing Levites


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





With the laws from Sinai in Sefer Vayikra in their heads, the Jewish people head into the desert (both geographically and literally) with Sefer Bamidbar.  Journeying towards Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, the Jewish people attempt to transform themselves from a ragtag band of newly-freed slaves into a unified nation.  Our parasha's census and placements around the Mishkan (Tabernacle) serve to assist this transition.  Towards that end, the census emphasizes not the counting of people, but the "numbers of names" (1:2, 18, 20, 22, et al.), maintaining each individual's personal standing with the context of nationhood.  As the Seforno notes:


"Numbers of names" implies that every member of this generation is to be considered personally; "name" connotes unique individual and achievement, as in "I know you by name" (Shemot 33:7).


At this critical point of national consolidation and crystallization, we are shocked to discover that the tribe of Levi, not an inconsequential member of the people, has been omitted (1:45-49):


All of the accounts of the Israelites were by their fathers' house, from twenty years of age and up, all those in Israel who were capable of bearing arms.  All of the accounts were 603,550.  The Levites, by their fathers' tribe, however, were not counted among them. 


And God said to Moshe, saying, "Do not take a count or census of the tribe of Levi among the Israelites." 


The placement of the tribes around the Mishkan re-emphasizes the exclusion of the Levites (2:2,33): 


The Israelites shall camp, each with his flag, under the banners of their fathers' house…


But the Levites were not counted among the Israelites, as God commanded Moshe.


Even when finally counting the Levites, the Torah does so not from age twenty, but from one month up in Chapter 3 and from age thirty to fifty in Chapter 4.  Whereas the census unites the other tribes, it only serves to exclude Levi from the others, a difference highlighted by the vast differential in numbers between them.




Many commentators note the relatively small numbers of Levites.  The Ramban (3:14) offers the following explanation:


The Levites are unlike other tribes.  Of those that are over the age of one month, there are only 22,000 (3:39); of those that are over the age of thirty [and below fifty], there are [about] 8,000 (4:48).  That number is not equal to even half the amount of the next smallest tribe!  Now, they did not yet have the duty of carrying the Holy Ark; thus, it was not its holy presence that destroyed them (see 4:17-20).  How is it that God did not bless His personal servants as He did the rest of the nation?


This strengthens the Sages' contention (Shemot Rabba 5:16) that the Levites were not subjected by the Egyptians to work and backbreaking labor.  The Egyptians embittered the lives of Israel with hard work so as to diminish their numbers; and in response, the Holy One, Blessed be He, increased their numbers…  For the Holy One said: Let us see whose will shall be fulfilled, Mine or theirs.  However, unlike the other tribes, the Levites grew at a normal rate.


[Another explanation:] perhaps there are a relatively small number of Levites because of Yaakov's anger (Bereishit 49:5-7) against [his sons, Shimon and Levi].  While the tribe of Shimon is at this point large, its numbers decrease to 22,000 when it enters the Land (Bamidbar 26:14), but since Levi is the tribe of his righteous, they are not diminished by plague. 


The Ramban's two answers are not universally accepted.  The Or Ha-chayyim considers the second explanation especially far-fetched, both because there is no hint in the Torah that the Levites are diminished numerically due to Yaakov's anger, and because, according to the census in I Divrei Ha-yamim (23:3), their numbers increase to 38,000 by the time King David assumes the throne.  Instead, he connects the small number of Levites to the story from the Talmud (Sota 12a) about Pharaoh's decree to kill the male children (Shemot 1:22).  When Pharaoh orders the Egyptians to throw the infants into the river, Amram (whom the Sages consider the president of the Sanhedrin) divorces his wife Yokheved.  The Or Ha-chayyim argues that while the other tribes choose to give birth in caves and fields away from the Egyptians' reach, the Levites follow Amram's example.  According to this approach, Levi's survival is a miracle.  As the passage from Divrei Ha-yamim shows, once the Levites are able to procreate normally, they grow quickly.


The Keli Yakar approves of the Or Ha-chayyim's explanation and offers other suggestions, including the idea that the Levites deliberately limit their own numbers while in Egypt.  Since they were dependent on the largesse of the other tribes, the Levites wish to ease the burden as much as possible.  The Abarbanel suggests that the unnatural rate of fertility of the other tribes during the Egyptian exile is the outcome of Divine Providence, in order to enable them to conquer the Land and settle it.  If the Jewish people were to return to Eretz Yisrael without sufficient numbers to protect it, their enemies would overrun them immediately.  Since the Levites were not to take part in the fighting and settling, their rate of increase is more natural. 




Common to many of the explanations given above is the paradoxical idea that the Levites' diminished numbers are directly linked to their unique position in the people.  A brief overview of the parasha, indeed the book of Bamidbar, reveals that a great deal of narrative space involves the role of the Levites.  We see the details of their redemption of the firstborn (Chapter 3); their families, jobs and leaders (Chapter 4); and the dedication ceremony (Chapter 8).  Fascinatingly, a close reading of the dedication ceremony reveals that it suffers from reverse chronology.  First, the Torah (3:15) presents the counting of the Levites from the age of one month:


Count the Levites, according to their fathers' house, family by family; and you shall count every male among them from the age of one month and upwards. 


Then, the Levites are exchanged for the firstborn (v. 45):


Take the Levites in place of every firstborn among the Israelites … for the Levites shall be mine.


When does this ceremony take place?  Later, the Torah describes the dedication of the Mishkan for a third time (the first two being in Shemot 40:17-38 and Vayikra 8:1-9:24): 


On the day Moshe completed erecting the Mishkan, he anointed it and sanctified it… (7:1)


"You shall bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting… (8:9)


"Have Aharon elevate the Levites waving them before God… for they are formally assigned to Me from among the Israelites;  I have taken them to be Mine in place of all the first issue from the womb, of all the firstborn of the Israelites."  (8:11, 16)


However, the act of counting only takes place at the beginning of the second month, as the beginning of our parasha makes clear.  In effect, the tribe of Levi is consecrated in the Mishkan well before they are "set apart," counted or exchanged, and the historical presentation is rearranged to present the choice of Levi.  This willingness to rearrange the historical record colors Rashi's interpretation (1:49) of the parasha's separation of the tribe of Levi:


God foresaw that there would be a decree of death [because of the sin of the spies] on all those included in the census from twenty years of age, so He said: Let them not be included.


            If Levi is excluded from the historical vicissitudes that befall the Jewish people (the slavery in Egypt, the punishment of the spies), what role does Levi serve?  Why does God create this nation within a nation?  The Rambam (Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel, 13:12) provides the following explanation:


They were set apart to serve God, to impart His forthright paths and just laws to the people, as it states (Devarim 33:10), "They shall teach Your laws to Yaakov and Your statutes to Yisrael…"


Therefore, they have been set apart from the norms of the world:  they do not wage war like the rest of the Jewish people, they do not inherit the Land like the rest of the Jewish people, nor do they profit personally by physical might.


The Rambam's descriptions of the Levites' role as ahistorical, outside "the norms of the world," remind the reader of the role played by the Jewish people for almost two thousand years.  Exiled from their land, with only the Torah as moral guide to unite them, the Jews serve as Levites for millennia to an often unwilling world.  The Rambam (ibid., 13) anticipates this global aspect to their role:


It is not for the tribe of Levi alone, but anyone in the world who is moved to dedicate himself; whose mind comprehends the need to stand apart, to serve and to work and to know God; who walks straight, the way God created him, removing from his neck the many calculations which others seek – such a person becomes sanctified, a Holy of Holies…


In Eretz Yisrael, the Levites serve as a living example of how the Jewish people can come to achieve holiness; in exile, we teach the world the same.