by R. Gidon Rothstein
Rambam and Ramban debate the nature of our mitzvah, forcing Sefer HaChinukh to take sides (Ramban was his direct teacher, while he built his whole book on Rambam’s count, as we have seen).
Rambam’s Mitzvah—Kohanim Carry the Ark
Rambam says Obligation 34 requires kohanim to carry the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, on their shoulders, whenever there is need to move it. In our parsha, Bamidbar 7;9 says Moshe did not give carriages to the descendants of Kehat, a family of Levi’im, because they carried their load—the Aron and other especially sanctified items—on their shoulders.
Rambam is certain the mitzvah addressed Levi’im in that generation only due to a lack of kohanim, the clan having started only with Aharon and his sons. In Yehoshu’a, in multiple places, and in Shmuel, we see kohanim carrying the Aron. In Divrei HaYamim, the verse refers to them as Levi’im, and says they carried it as Hashem commanded Moshe. Sifrei Bamidbar Naso 46 reads I Divrei HaYamim 24;19, which speaks of the role entrusted to the kohanim’s ancestor Aharon, to mean the job of carrying the Aron.
For Rambam, the Torah assigned a mitzvah to the Levi’im when it really meant the kohanim, so he defined it in terms of the kohanim.
It Wasn’t Only Then
Rambam introduced the Sefer HaMitzvot with shorashim, rules for how to decide what qualifies to be one of the 613. Part of Ramban’s objection to the third of those shorashim included a discussion of our mitzvah. Rambam had rejected an idea in Behag, whose count Rambam used as foil for his own.
Behag included the obligation to retire Levi’im after age fifty. Rambam complained the mitzvah only applied for the generation of the desert, and he held that temporary commandments do not make the list. Ramban responded the mitzvah wasn’t restricted to that generation at all, because any time the Levi’im carry sanctified items on their shoulders, those above fifty may not do so.
Rambam did have a Gemara on his side. Chullin 24a says the Levi’im could continue serving past age fifty in Shiloh (where the Mishkan went after the Jews entered Israel, until the beginning of the book of Shmuel) and the Beit Hamikdash. Ramban says he over-read the passage, that it really supports his view.
In the desert, where the Aron was carried frequently, fifty year old Levi’im had to stop all services directly related to the Mishkan. In an environment where carrying the Aron happened all the time, if a Levi was known to serve in other ways, he might also err and carry the Aron. To avoid the problem, those fifty and older would only open and close the gates, and carry what the sons of Gershon did, since those services had no inside element.
Long Term Is Not Permanent or Eternal
In later locations, where the Aron came to general rest and moved only rarely, there was no need to retire the Levi’im from anything other than actual carrying. Ramban points to other verses in Divrei HaYamim where it is clear Levi’im carried the Aron when needed, such as when verses say they only performed their service between ages thirty and fifty.
True, II Divrei HaYamim 35;3 has Yoshiyahu tell the Levi’im to deposit the Aron, that they will not carry it anymore on their shoulders; Ramban dismisses that as a practical statement, not an halakhic one. Rambam himself knew of, and counted, mitzvot that might not feasibly be fulfilled for a long time (such as to eradicate Amalek; for all that it has been centuries since we have known who Amalek is, the mitzvah has never stopped being in force).
The Aron, too, might have sat unmoving for centuries, then hidden away to avoid being taken captive, but the mitzvah is still there: whenever we want to carry the Aron, it will be carried on the shoulders, by Levi’im. Ramban expects that to happen in the runup to the Messianic era, for example.
Rambam presumably agreed with these parts of Ramban’s ideas, because he did count a mitzvah to carry the Aron [I included it as a reminder of this aspect, to be part of the 613, a mitzvah must last throughout human history, although circumstances might make them impractical for much or most of that history. They are still part of the system of Torah and mitzvot, still part of how a Jewish worldview looks]. He certainly disagreed with Ramban regarding who bore the obligation.
He thought the mitzvah transferred to kohanim. Since Chullin 24a said age does not disqualify kohanim, Rambam further thought the age limit of fifty was removed, even for carrying the Aron.
Ramban disagrees on two counts. First, if the mitzvah went to them, it should bring age requirements with it. The Gemara meant age wasn’t a problem for inherently priestly services, but if they were given a Levitical service, it should have its old rules, Ramban was confident (if someone over fifty was deemed too old, he is saying, why would they’re being a kohen change anything?).
Switch a Mitzvah to Kohanim?
To me, his more interesting objection was to the idea of a Biblical mitzvah changing so profoundly. Rambam sounds like the Levi’im were no longer allowed to carry the Aron once sufficient kohanim were available, when we see Levi’im carry the Aron later in Tanakh. Can’t be; instead, Ramban says both kohanim and Levi’im were always allowed to carry, because they are all descended from Levi.
[Ramban of course wouldn‘t raise it here, but his view is even more interesting given a comment of his on the Torah, that the obligation to count the months from Nisan expanded when the Jews returned from Bavel, bringing new names of months with them. He seems comfortable with later events impacting a Biblical mitzvah, just not removing elements.]
The Honor of the Aron and the Torah It Holds
Sefer HaChinukh 379 gives us Rambam’s view, then Ramban’s, and agrees with Ramban. It’s notable each time, because Rambam had done an important service for Sefer HaChinukh, providing the framework for his own work, yet his conceptual sympathies lay more with Ramban.
He takes for granted the Aron’s role is only about the Torah it contains. Since Torah separates the Jews from others, we honor it by only carrying it on shoulders, and only by the most respected and sanctified among us. (Minchat Chinukh objects, because the sons of Kehat carried all the inner furniture of the Mishkan, the golden altar, the Menorah, the Table for the showbread).
He says there is no need to go on at any greater length with a matter understood by schoolchildren. [This schoolchild wonders whether the Aron is only about the Torah it contains as well as whether kohanim/Levi’im are the most honored and/or sanctified in the nation. They live in ways that might count as more kadosh in the sense of separate, and have been assigned the role of carrying the Aron. To me, he could have said we honor the Aron and the Torah within by designating a special honor guard to care for it, without the rest.]
The People’s Role in the Mitzvah
In defining who bears the obligation, Sefer HaChinukh slips in what I think is a very important point. He mentions the Levi’im and kohanim who might actually carry it, then says “and the rest of Israel, who agree to their actions.”
It’s a reminder of the role of society at large in setting standards, mores, values. The mitzvah in action will be when Levi’im or kohanim carry the Aron. The mitzvah in principle is somewhat fulfilled when Jews, wherever they are, say and uphold the idea the Aron was special and different, needed to be carried by a special cohort.
It seems we have agreement there is a mitzvah, although who is included, and why it was given, remain in some doubt. We can hope to find the Aron again soon, along with a rebuilt Temple, and see how the mitzvah plays out in practice.