Levite Genes

  • Rav Zvi Shimon






Levite Genes

 By Rav Zvi Shimon


            The book of 'Bamidbar,' Numbers, opens with a population census of the tribes of Israel.  One by one, the Torah lists the tribes and their numbers, a seemingly standard, run-of-the-mill census were it not for one aberration; one of the tribes, the tribe of Levy, is missing from the census!  The absence of the tribe of Levy is of course not an oversight, it is the commandment of God:


"The Levites, however, were not tallied among them by their ancestral tribe.  For the Lord had spoken to Moses, saying: Do not on any account tally the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.  You shall put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.  When the Tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death.  The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division, and each under his standard.  The Levites, however, shall camp around the Tabernacle, that wrath may not strike the Israelite community; the Levites shall             stand guard   around the Tabernacle."  (Numbers 1:47-53)


            The Levites do not dwell with other tribes.  Rather, they live as an independent unit around the 'mishkan' (Tabernacle) and have special functions relating to the care of the 'mishkan.'  It is clear from the Levites' distinct location in the camp and the fact that they are not part of the general census, that they enjoy a special status among the Israelites.  Our parasha later informs us of the source of the Levites' distinguished position:


The Selection of the Levites


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.  For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the Lord's."  (Numbers 3:11-13)


            The tribe of Levi replace the first-born of every Israelite family.  These children were consecrated by God after the plague of the first-borns of Egypt (see Exodus 13).  The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) explains this as follows:


"'On the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, I sanctified unto Me all the first-born in Israel.' - Indeed, [at the time] of the smiting of the first-born, the first-born [of Israel] also deserved to be punished for the sins of that generation being that they  were the most honored [members of the community]; and they were not worthy of being saved from the plague visited on the community.  But I saved them by sanctifying them unto Me."


            God saved the first-borns of Israel from the plague thereby consecrating them to His service.  Both Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) and Sforno point out that the first-borns were originally responsible for offering sacrifices.  Rashi interprets the verse: "He [Moses] designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings..." (Exodus 24:5) in reference to the first-borns.  It was the first-borns who offered sacrifices at Mount Sinai.  In parashat Bamidbar, the Levites are designated to replace the first-borns and undertake their responsibilities.  What is the reason for this sudden "changing of the guard?"  What caused the first-borns to lose their standing and why were the Levites chosen to replace them?  Our Sages offer the following explanation:


"Originally, the Temple service devolved upon the first-born, but when they committed the sin of the Golden Calf the Levites, inasmuch as they had not erred in the matter of the Calf, were privileged to enter in their stead."  (Bamidbar Rabba 3:5)


            The first-borns erred and transgressed with the rest of the people in the sin of the golden calf.  Thus, they failed to fulfill their leadership responsibilities.  The only tribe which did not participate in the sin of the golden calf was the tribe of Levi.  As Moses descends Mount Sinai and sees the golden calf the Torah recounts:


"As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain...Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, whoever is for the Lord, come here!"  And all the Levites rallied to him.  He said to them, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor and kin."  The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day.  And Moses said, "Dedicate yourselves to the Lord this day - for each of you has been against son and brother - that he may bestow a blessing upon you today." (Exodus 32:19, 26-29).


            It is not only that the Levites did not worship the golden calf.  They were also willing to fulfill God's command and kill their kinsman and friends who were involved in the betrayal of God.  The capacity to surmount personal loyalties and commit themselves unconditionally to the fulfillment of God's will made the Levites worthy of being selected for spiritual prominence.  The first-borns were unable to withstand the negative developments in the community.  It was the Levites' capacity to separate themselves from the evil within their community and amongst their relatives, which led to their receiving the role originally designated for the first-borns.


The Census


            We now know the reason for which the Levites were chosen.  What remains to be explained is why the Levites were not included in the census of the tribes at the beginning of our 'parasha?'  Are not the Levites part of the nation of Israel?  The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) offers the following explanation:


"[The Levites] were exempt from military service.  They were numbered separately for the purpose of taking up service at the sanctuary."  (Numbers 1:47).


            The purpose of the census taken in our parasha is military.  It was to determine the number of troops in the Israelite camp.  This purpose is explicitly stated in the commandment to count the Israelite community:


"You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of TWENTY YEARS UP, all those in Israel who are able to BEAR ARMS." (1:3)


            The Levites must remain to guard the sanctuary and therefore, according to the Rashbam, are incapable of going to wage war.  Therefore, they are not included in the military census.  Our Sages offer a different explanation:


"Why were they not numbered with Israel?  Because the tribe of Levi was the palace-guard.  This may be illustrated by the parable of a king who had many legions and said to the commander in Chief, 'Go and number [all] the legions except my own personal one.'  So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, HOWBEIT THE TRIBE OF LEVI THOU SHALT NOT NUMBER ... AMONG THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL; you may not number them AMONG THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL but separately number them.  For it is not consonant with the dignity of a king that his own legion should be numbered with the other legions.  Israel, therefore, were numbered separately and the tribe of Levi separately."  (Bamidbar Rabba 1:12)


            The Levites were excluded from the general census not because they did not participate in wars.  Rather, their function and importance as the closest servants of God obliged that they be counted independently.


            The Levites are counted in their own independent census.  However, this census differs from the general census in one important aspect.  God commands Moses:


"Take a tally of the Levites, family by family, according to their paternal lines.  Count every male over one month old" (3:15).


            As opposed to the general census which counted the males of twenty years and more, the Levites are counted from the age of one month. What is the reason for this variance?  The Rashbam offers the following explanation:


"Since every Levite was a substitute for an Israelite first-born, whose duty to be redeemed began at the age of one month, the census of the Levites had to cover the same age-group" (3:15).


            Our parasha recounts the replacement of the first-borns by the Levites:


"The Lord said to Moses: Make a tally of the male first-born among the Israelites who are over ONE MONTH old, and take a list of their names; and take the Levites for Me, the Lord, in place of every first-born among the Israelite people" (3:40,41).


            Rashi (3:40) explains why the first-borns were counted from the age of one month.  A new-born baby is considered viable only from one month and onwards.  Before the completion of a full month, an excessively premature child is still in danger.  Therefore, only after one month is the baby removed from the category of a possibly non-viable birth.  Just as the first-born are counted from one month and up, so too are the Levites, their replacements, counted from the age of one month.


            Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) offers an alternative explanation:


"This counting the Levites from earliest infancy, after living for thirty days can be taken to prove that the calling of Levites goes far beyond the service of the Sanctuary which is here declared to be their calling. This, the service and care of the Sanctuary during the encampments and wandering can only be the result of, and a concrete expression of, their general calling.  So that counting them from childhood must have some calling in view beyond this service and especially beyond just that calling which this actual service implies.  It must be a calling for which perhaps they are fit for at an early age, but which, in any case, must demand the whole of the bringing up and education of youths from earliest childhood onwards.  And in fact, the tribe of Levi were not to be merely the guardians and watchers over the Tabernacle but were to be the defenders and protectors, teachers and advocates of the Torah itself and its observance. ... This general calling of the Levi belongs to the Levite child from the first month, and he must be brought up for it from the beginning of his growth."  (3:15)


            A military census counts those physically capable of waging war.  Only from twenty years of age is one considered to possess the physical prowess necessary for battle.  However, a Levite enters the ranks of his tribe from infancy.  The preparation for spiritual leadership is a life-long process of education.  It requires direction and training beginning with parental instruction in the home.  The Levite begins the process of preparation for his role from the age of one month.


The Role of the Levites


            How are we to understand the exclusion of the Levites from the general census and their living separately from the remaining tribes?  Are they an independent unit detached from the rest of the Israelite community and committed solely to the service of God?  What exactly is their association with the other tribes?  Different and seemingly contradictory conceptions of the Levite's role appear in the verses of our 'parasha.'


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Advance the tribe of Levi and place them in attendance upon Aaron the priest to serve him.  They shall perform duties for him and for the WHOLE COMMUNITY before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle.  They shall take charge of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting - A DUTY ON BEHALF OF THE ISRAELITES - doing the work of the Tabernacle.  You shall assign the Levites to Aaron and to his sons: they are formally assigned to him from among the Israelites."  (3:5-9)


            Twice the Torah stresses that the Levites perform their duties in the 'mishkan,' on behalf of the whole community.  Rashi comments on the nature of the Levites functions and their relation to the community at large:


"A duty on behalf of the Israelites"- "For all of the people were required for the needs of the sanctuary, but the Levites came in their stead as their agents; therefore they receive from them [the Israelites] the tithes as their reward, as it is stated (Numbers 18:31) "for it is your reward in return for your service."  (Rashi 3:8)


            The Levites function as the representatives of the whole community.  They perform their tasks on behalf of the people of Israel and receive tithes from the people as compensation for their work.  Rabbi Hirsch further elaborates this point:


"The priesthood itself is only the representative of the national community in the Sanctuary.  For the Torah is not given to the priests and Levites, it is given to the whole nation who are responsible for it.  It was not priests and Levites who had to build a holy place for it and who did build it.  The whole nation were to build for God a holy place so that God should be present amongst them.  So that the priest and the Levite stand there in the name of the nation and the watch of the Levites about the Sanctuary is to be made as representative of the nation.  The Torah and its Sanctuary is a holy treasure entrusted to the nation.  'Guarding' it against infringement by others is the first duty of those to whom the guarding of such a treasure has been entrusted.  So that in their own interests, to carry out their first responsibility the nation as a whole and individually makes the Levites keep guard about the Sanctuary of the Torah"  (3:7)


            However, the verses immediately following those cited above present a totally different conception of the role of the Levites:


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be MINE.  For every first-born is MINE: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, TO MYSELF, TO BE MINE, THE LORD'S"  (Numbers 3:11-13)


            The Levites are not depicted here as the representatives or messengers of the people.  Rather, they are the property of God.  It is God who took the Levites from the midst of the Israelites to replace the first-borns.  They were set apart from the people in order to serve God.  Therefore, how are we to understand the Levites?  Do they represent God or are they envoys of the people?


            I believe the answer to this question is that the Levites represent both God and the people of Israel.  The seemingly contradictory understandings presented in the Torah actually portray the dual role of the Levites.  The location of the Levite camp, between the 'mishkan' and the people of Israel reveals the nature of their role.  They are a bridge between the nation and God.  The Levites represent the people before God and represent God before the people.


            This dual function is perhaps exemplified by the different roles of the Levites.  Our parasha concentrates on the functions of the Levites in relation to the 'mishkan.'  They are responsible for the Tabernacle and all its furnishings.  They carry the Tabernacle and guard it from encroachment by outsiders.  In this respect, the Levites are performing the duties on behalf of the community.  The 'mishkan' is the center of the whole community.  It was constructed by the whole community as a national project.  The Levites' service is on behalf of the people and they are compensated by them for their work.  However, the Torah relates another function of the Levites:


"They [the Levites] shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your instructions to Israel."  (Deuteronomy 33:10)


            The Levites are not only responsible for the performance of ritual duties in the Tabernacle.  They are also the teachers of Torah.  They convey God's precepts to the people.  In this critical capacity, the Levites function as emissaries of God.  God gave the Torah to the people of Israel and designated the Levites to be the bearers and teachers of His law.  Thus, the different functions of the Levites encapsulate their dual role and reveal to us the significance behind the different conceptions of the Levites presented in our parasha.  The Levites represent the people through the fulfillment of their different tasks relating to the 'mishkan' and represent God in their teaching of His Torah.


            The Levites were selected by God to serve as spiritual leaders of the people.  This responsibility and privilege was earned by the Levites because of exemplary behavior during the sin of the golden calf.  Indeed, our sages view the selection of the Levites as a reward for their outstanding conduct:


"And the Levites shall be Mine [Num. 3:12], for I bring near unto Me every one who brings Me near unto himself.  They drew themselves near unto Me; as it is said, And Moses said: Whoso is on the Lord's side, let him come unto me.  And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him [Ex. 32:26].  Since they brought Me near to them, I shall bring them near unto Me; hence, 'And the Levites shall be Mine.'"(Bamidbar Rabba 1:12)


            The Levites' selection is permanent and some of their functions relating to the 'mishkan' may only be performed by them.  However, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) stresses that all Israelites can ultimately achieve the same degree of holiness and closeness to God as the Levites:


"Not only the tribe of Levi but any human being whose spirit drives him to volunteer and whose intellect leads him to separate himself to serve, worship and know God and comports himself righteously... and brakes from his neck the yoke of the different concerns preoccupying most people, he is sanctified as the holy of holies and God             will be his part and his inheritance for eternity" (Mishneh Torah (Code of law), end of laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee years)


            While a person cannot become a Levite, he can and must certainly strive to join the ranks of the servants of God.  This is the ultimate purpose and destiny of the whole nation of Israel.