The Levi’im and Their Role in the Jewish People

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parashat Bamidbar counts the Jewish people twice, once by tribe, then by tribe in their four camps around the Mishkan, the movable Temple The Levi’im had a separate, internal, camp, between the ordinary Jews and the Mishkan, we see in Bamidbar 1;50-53. Meshech Hochmah raises a remarkably simple problem, in that the Torah elsewhere requires a ba’al keri, a man who has engaged in marital relations, to stay outside of mahaneh Leviyah, the camp of the Levi’im, until he goes to mikveh.

What does that mean about the family lives of Levi’im? There is no assumption they were celibate, but they could not engage in marital relations in the mahanah LeviyahMeshech Hochmah gives what seems the only plausible solution, the Levi camp had two parts: close to the Mishkan was a a camp with all the attendant sanctity, where no ba’al keri went. The Levi’im’s wives, children, and any other household members lived mil away, close enough to the regular camp for it not to count as mahaneh Leviyah (an idea Rashi had shared in Bamidbar 2;2, based on the Torah saying the Jews camped mi-neged saviv, opposite and around, the Mishkan). Their wives were there, far enough from the Mishkan for keri not to be a problem, and the Levi’im would live in that farther area with their families, while also camping close to the Mishkan.

Meshech Hochmah suggests it explains the repeat expressions in Bamidbar 1;50 and 1;53. The first says ve-saviv la-MIshkan yahanu, to him a reference to only the men, the second says ve-ha-Levi’im yahanu saviv la-Mishkan, which he takes to indicate the whole family.

[He doesn’t explain how it would work. He might mean all male Levi’im had tents close to the Mishkan, with second tents for their families, farther away. It would be as if the men worked in “the city,” and slept there much of the time, but also had homes in the suburbs with the wife and kids. The men could see them often, possibly daily, but sleep close to the Mishkan, unless they had had relations with their wives.

That seems immodest, because everyone would know when a Levi and his wife had enjoyed their marriage fully.

To me, his idea suggests a rotation system, like the eventual mishmarot in the Temple. There needed to be a staffed mahaneh Leviyah, of the sanctity such that ba’alei keri could not go. If so, perhaps—like later—one twenty-fourth of Levi’im were “on duty” each week, and those Levi’im would spend the week away, while the rest lived with their families.]

The balance of the life of a Levi, attending to both his public service and his private family life.

We Count Jews by Tens

In 3;17, Moshe counts the Levi’im, as Hashem had commanded, to see how many there were to substitute for the first born. There were 273 more first-born than Levi’im, a surprising number because the previous counts—of the tribes and of the Levi’im—counted by groups of tens. Meshech Hochmah thinks the tens were a matter of Hashem saying to count the tribes by kol yotzei tzavaBamidbar 1;3, and le-tziv’otam, to him meaning “in their assemblages.”

The smallest assemblage we learn about in the Torah is ten, from Yitro’s sarei asarim, officers/leaders/commanders of ten. Meshech Hochmah makes a reasonable assumption, such ten-groups could include more, up until twenty. When reporting their count, however, each officer of ten reported only the ten.

[I wrote a novel which came out during the pandemic and perhaps therefore gained little tractionThe Making of the Messiah 2048, where I tried to envision the system in practice. It makes me wonder how many officers of ten had excess people who didn’t make their own group. It means there might have been almost double the number we see in the Torah, because, theoretically, every group of ten could have had as many as nineteen. I doubt it, but it’s interesting to speculate.

He does not delve into why the Torah would call for a census that focused only on how many ten-groups (minyanim) there were, what it says about the role of the individual in the nation, and how people count only or mostly as part of their groups.]

We Count Levi’im Younger, by Tens, First-Born by Ones

Moshe did not count the Levi’im himself, tradition infers from 3;16 saying al pi Hashem, by God’s mouth (as it were). Since Levi’im were counted from a month old, he or his agent would have had to enter each household and check for infants [censuses are always difficult, because some people want to hide, so he could not trust people to just tell him]. To solve the problem, tradition assumed Hashem told him to stand at the entrance to each tent, and a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, would announce any infants.

Moshe does so, the verse tells us, ka-asher tzuvah, as commanded. Meshech Hochmah thinks the phrase means Levi’im were also counted in groups of ten, as commanded with regular Jews. [Although the phrase works at the plainer sense of “as he was commanded about the Levi’im specifically,” I think Meshech Hochmah is reacting to the roundness of the count, how the Levi’im, too, have only round numbers.

His idea explains that one fact, at the cost of making it less clear why Moshe had to stand at each tent. If no one infant counts, if the Levi’im, too, were enumerated only in their tens, Hashem could have had him stand at the entrance to a group of tents, tell him how many babies were in all together. In addition, while we know of the sarei asarim system for regular Jews, I do not remember it being made explicit for Levi’im, especially not for those under twenty or thirteen. Meshech Hochmah seems to think the role of the individual Levi was similar enough to that of the individual ordinary Jew to be counted the same way.]

With bechorimMeshech Hochmah says the specific number of 273 shows each individual first-born was counted. This makes sense in Meshech Hochmah’s idea, because there were no groups of first-born—they did not make groups of ten together, led by one sar.

[At the same time, it suggests a difference in the service of the Levi’im and bechorim. The former were a tribe, with sub-groups in tens, like regular Jews; had the first-born resisted the lure of the Golden Calf, Meshech Hochmah seems to think they would have brought a greater individuality to the service, the exact parameters of which we will never know.]

Levi’im Have Only Second-Order Sanctity

In Bamidbar 3;45, Hashem says ve-hayu li ha-Levi’im, the Levi’im shall be mine. Meshech Hochmah infers a distinction between Levi’im and kohanim. Kohanim are meshamshei kedushah, serve God’s sanctuary directly, where Levi’im are meshamshei de-meshamshei, serve the servants (they are assigned to help the kohanim).

He uses the distinction to explain why a kohenet¸ a woman of a priestly family, who engages in prohibited marital relations loses her right to eat terumah—she has betrayed her kedushah, a sanctity inherent to her person and desecrated by her actions. Women of Levi families who do the same may still eat ma’aser, because Levitical sanctity is not inherent in the same way.

The idea gives another reason the parts of the Mishkan the descendants of Kehat carried were covered with garments. [The usual idea says those items must be carried on human shoulders because of their heightened sanctity. Such sanctity also means it would be inappropriate for them to be exposed.] The other items were transported on agalot, carriages, so the sons of Gershom and Merari were a step removed, they would move the agalot rather than the items [of course, they had to put the items on the agalot, but he does not seem bothered by that].

The descendants of Kehat were going to carry their assigned items directly, so they needed some separation, hence the cover. Levi’im are always meshamshei meshamshim, help something that helps the essential.

Similarly, gifts Jews gave kohanim, such as terumah, have sanctity to them, must be eaten only by members of a kohen’s household, where ma’aser, the tithe given to Levi’im, had no such rule. Even for R. Meir, who thought there was such a rule, ma’aser could be eaten while tamei, ritually impure, where terumah could not. He works to apply the idea also to there being no concept of zarut, outsider, for Levi’im, where there was for kohanim, but it becomes too involved to share here.

We already have enough to get a picture of Meshech Hochmah’s view of the Levi’im, a tribe separate from the rest of the Jewish people in where they lived [I should have pointed it out before—if the Levi’im were going to have regular homes for their families, they could have had those homes be part of the regular camp. Meshech Hochmah’s view has the Torah insist on them being separate both in their regular homes and in their “surrounding Mishkan” residences], were like the people in being counted by tens, and separate from the kohanim in being servants to servants of sanctity, not attendants to the sanctity itself.

About Gidon Rothstein

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