top of page

Torah Thoughts by Rabbi Alex Israel.

Parshat Bamidbar
The Sanctity of Levi


How did Shevet Levi become the special tribe amongst the tribes of Israel? Why the Tribe of Levi in particular? And why now – at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar – do they receive their unique appointment?


Both Parashat Bamidbar, and Behaalotecha describe the ceremonial appointment of the Levites as functionaries to the Temple[1]. From this moment forth, it is the Levites – Shevet Levi – who will assist Aharon in the service of the Mishkan. In addition, the Levites will function as the "movers" of the Mishkan, dismantling and transporting the sanctuary as Bnei Yisrael travel from one encampment to the next.


However, the method in which Shevet Levi is inaugurated into its sacred role is rather enigmatic. The Levites are to switched, exchanged, one for one, with the Firstborn Israelites. What is the nature of this exchange?


Chavruta study


1. See Bamidbar 3:5-13

Contrast the language and content of verses 5-10 with verses 11-13.

  • How do the two paragraphs differ regarding the choice of Shevet Levi? (You should find a number of significant differences) What do you make of these differences?

  • See the continuation of the perek. Sometimes Levi’im are counted from 1 month old; at other times, they are counted from age 30-50. Can you attempt to explain this, especially in the light of the earlier pesukim?

  • See the appointment ceremony of Shevet Levi in Ch.8. Are these “two aspects” of Shevet Levi discernable in that perek too? How so?


Let us add some further questions:

  • Why are the Firstborns holy?

  • What rights, or duties does this sanctity confer upon the Firstborns?

  • Why are the Levites being exchanged with the Firstborn?

If the Firstborn were switched with the Levites, then:

  • Why are Firstborns born today endowed with a state of Kedusha that Halakhically requires their redemption via a Kohen? (Pidyon HaBen.)

(- and why not a Levi? Indeed, we should note that the process of "exchange" of Firstborn for Levi took place only once in history. It does not continue on an ongoing basis.)

  • How is it that the Levites are eternally endowed with their sanctity, as well as the Firstborns being endowed with their sanctity? Double kedusha!


2. When was the Tribe of Levi singled out for special attention?

  • Maybe begin by taking out a Concordance and research: When do we begin to talk about Shevet Levi in the Torah?

  • See Devarim 10:8 (obviously look at the context there) and then study Rashi, Rashbam and Ramban –  op cit . "Ba'et Hahee." How do they each understand the timing of the appointment of Shevet Levi? What are the Ramban's proofs?

  • What are the implications for our Parsha?


3. The role of Shevet Levi would appear to be perceived in a variety of ways. Here in Bamidbar 3:7-8, and explained in greater detail in Chapter 4, their role would appear to be the transportation of the Mishkan.

Contrast this with:

  • Bamidbar 8:19

  • Devarim 17:9, 21:5, 33:10.



When studying Sefer Bamidbar we can clearly discern that the status of the Leviim is of a complex, dual nature. On the one hand:


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Advance the Tribe of Levi and place them in attendance upon Aharon 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… You shall assign the Levites to Aharon and to his sons … from among the Israelites" (3:5-9)


But in the next paragraph we read a different dimension of the Levitic role:


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby take the Levites from amongst the Israelites in place of the first-born… the Levites shall be mine. For every first-born is mine, from 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. I am the Lord." (3:11-13)


Look carefully at the differences. In the first case:


  • The Levites are given to Aharon

  • They are to function as officials of the Temple

  • They are working on behalf of Bnei Yisrael


In the second:


  • The Levites are taken by God

  • They are a replacement for the first-born

  • They are not designated a particular role


This duality in the appointment of the Levites to Temple service resurfaces clearly in Parashat Behaalotecha. There we see that on one hand the Levites are:


"Given to Me (God) out of Bnei Yisrael IN EXCHANGE FOR THE FIRST-BORN  of Bnei Yisrael, I have taken them to ME." (8:16)


and on the other hand:


"I formally assign the Leviim TO AHARON and his sons from Bnei Yisrael to PERFORM THE SERVICE OF BNEI YISRAEL in the Tent of Meeting and to atone for Bnei Yisrael, so that there will be no plague on Bnei Yisrael for coming too near the sanctuary." (8:19)


Once again, we see on the one hand, the Levites appointed in exchange for the first-born. But then, additionally, Shevet Levi are viewed as the representatives of the entire nation within the Temple.


This will explain another perplexing detail in Parashat Bamidbar. Why are the Leviim sometimes counted between the ages of 30 and 50 years (4:1), whereas at other times (3:15) , the Leviim are counted from one month in age? The answer is rather straightforward.   When we are talking about the service of the Mishkan, a Levite serves between the ages 30-50, and so this count determines the number of working Leviim.


However, in the exchange process of Leviim for the first-born, we are interested in every Levite male, hence once the child is born and out of danger, a stable healthy baby – from a month old – he is counted as a Levite in respect to the exchange with the first-borns.




To summarise, Shevet Levi's sanctification is dual:


Given to God

  • Instead of Firstborn


  • From one month old


Given to Aharon

  • To serve/guard the Temple

  • As the representative of the Nation

  • Age 30-50


Now, let us take this to a deeper level.


In Behaalotcha, one particular phrase highlights the "service" dimension Of the Leviim. The Leviim function as the representatives, the agents of all Bnei Yisrael[2]. Why? With what motive? 


"…so that there will be no plague on Bnei Yisrael for coming too near the sanctuary."


Here, we glimpse a possible logic of this system. It would appear that on an ideal level, all Bnei Yisrael should be granted access to the Mikdash to offer korbanot. After all, the Korbanot Tzibbur (collective Temple service) are communal, national in nature. However, the Mikdash is a sensitive place - "The outsider who draws too close will be killed." (3:10) Because of this real and present danger, it would appear prudent to train a select group who will be well versed in the Temple laws, a group who will be nurtured in sanctity, who are experts in the rites of the Temple. This group will be groomed for Temple Service. In this way, we ensure that all who have contact with the sanctuary are suited to the task. From both Bamidbar and Behaalotecha, It is apparent that the Leviim are the nation's delegates for the Temple service. They represent the people before God.




But how do we account for the second aspect – the exchange of the Levites for the Firstborn? What is happening here?


Let us begin. Where does the sanctity of the first-born come from? We quoted the reason a little earlier. It all began on the night of the Plague of the First-born in Egypt:


"It was with a might hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew every first-born in the Land of Egypt of both man and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb and redeem every first-born among my sons." (Exodus 13:13-15)


So, we understand that every First-born is on some way sacred. The First-born is a living symbol to God's salvation. From the moment in which God saved the Israelite first-born, it is as if they somehow belong to God, as if by sparing them, they owe their very existence to Him. This eternal debt, this eternal sense of living on borrowed time, is the state of the first-born until he is redeemed, thereby gaining his right to life.


So Firstborns are holy. But how does this connect with the Levites at all? Is this connected? After all first-borns do have some sanctity even today! - Nowadays, we do Pidyon Haben. A first-born is redeemed for 5 silver shekels by a Kohen. The source may be found in Bamidbar 18:15-16.


"The first issue of the womb of every being, man or beast, that is offered to the Lord, shall be yours (the Kohen's); but you shall have the first-born of man redeemed … Take as their redemption price from a month up, the equivalent of five shekels by the sanctuary weight."


This is a fairly rare ceremony[3], but it is still practised. And this begs the question; If the Kedusha of the first-borns was exchanged for that of the Levites[4], then how do we emerge with a situation today in which BOTH Levites AND first-borns have a sacred status?





We have already stated three things:


1. Firstborns are holy every since the night of the Exodus.

2. In Sefer Bamidbar, Levites are appointed as representatives of the nation to the Temple.

3. In Sefer Bamidbar, Levites are switched with the first-born.


We have already transcribed the selection of Shevet Levi as a double process. The way Rashi reads things, the appointment of Shevet Levi transpires in BOTH dimensions.


1. the service of the first-born is transferred to the Levites.

2. The innate sanctity – the Kedushat HaGuf – of the firstborn was transferred to the Levites.


This is all true but there is a significant difference between these two dimensions; after all, the Leviim are selected as the functionaries of the Mikdash FOR ALL TIME. Yet, the switch with the first-born is THIS GENERATION ALONE. FOR ALL TIME, every first-born born subsequently is still endowed with their Kedusha, thus necessitating Pidyon (redemption.)


In addition, whereas a first-born is redeemed by the Kohen, here the first-borns are redeemed by the Leviim.


We might say that in this generation, as the first-borns were relieved of their sacrificial responsibilities, they had to hand over not only their ritual role, their priestly appointment, but they also had to entirely lose their sacred status. Likewise, for the Leviim, it might be important for them to be inaugurated not only under the mandate of ritual agency on behalf of the entire nation, but they had to be "formally assigned to God." This only happens when their very being is claimed by God, an infusion of Kedushat Haguf. And so:


For all time, the Leviim are the servants of God; the firstborn have innate sanctity, and, in this generation alone, the Leviim were endowed with the Kedushat Haguf of the Bechorim.




Rashi's famous comment to Bamidbar 3:12 is enlightening:


"Originally, the Service (Avoda) was performed by the first-borns. When they sinned at the Golden Calf, they were disqualified. The Levites who did not worship a foreign god were chosen in their place."


Rashi informs us that prior to Parashat Bamidbar, the first-borns were the Temple functionaries. Rashi assumes that the Leviim were appointed to high office:

  • Taking the place of the first-born

  • After the failure of the first-born in Chet HAEgel.


However, these issues are an open topic for discussion. After all, there is no absolute proof whatsoever that the first-born held ritual positions prior to the appointment of the Leviim[6].


The connection between the appointment of Shevet Levi and the Golden Calf is also inconclusive. Let us focus upon this for a moment or two. In Sefer Devarim, we read about the choice of Shevet Levi:


"At that time, the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of the Lord's covenant, to stand in attendance upon the Lord, and to bless in his name, as is still the case…" (10:8)


The previous Chapter dealt with the Golden Calf, and it would appear that the phrase "At that time," relates to that event:


"At that time, the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi: At the time of the act of the Golden Calf, when they (Levi) found favour in God's eyes, as it states (Shemot 32:26): 'And all of the sons of Levi gathered to me.'"  (Rashbam. Torah Commentary)


The reference to Sefer Shemot refers to the events following Moses' descent from Mt. Sinai, and after the smashing of the two Tablets of Stone, when Moses calls upon the nation to kill the perpetrators of the Golden Calf:


"Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, 'Who is for Hashem come here!' And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, 'Thu says the Lord, the God of Israel: each of you put your sword upon your thigh and go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp and slay brother, neighbour, and kin… And Moses said, 'Dedicate yourselves to the Lord this day … that he may bestow a blessing upon you today." (32:26-29)


Are these events identical, as suggested by Rashi, and his grandson, the Rashbam? Or is there more to it?


The RAMBAN disagrees:


"If (Rashi) is correct, then the verse (Devarim 10:8) is saying that from that time (Egel Hazahav) the (Levites) were set apart before Him, but in truth, they were not appointed in practise, until the 2nd month in the 2nd year!"


Instead, the Ramban suggest that the appointment of Shevet Levi has a different cause:


"To my mind the correct application of the phrase, "at that time," would apply (as its usage earlier – 10:1) to the time of … the (instruction for) the second Tablets of Stone. It was at that time that God forgave Israel (for the sin of the Golden Calf,) and he commanded them about the Mishkan. Aharon was forgiven, and commanded… (Shemot 28:4) "to act as priests to Me," … and then he made set apart the Tribe of Levi, who are "assigned" to him (Aharon) and his sons. Or we might suggest that the Leviim were separated at that time to be priests from Israel, in order to carry the Ark ."


For the Ramban, The tribe of Levi are appointed to serve the Mishkan. There is NO connection between the Golden Calf. There is no suggestion that their appointment was only a result of the failure of the first-born.




According to the Ramban, prior to the Mishkan, there was no spiritual elite, no priests. Only once the Mishkan was set up was there a need to appoint functionaries. The natural choice, it would seem, was Shevet Levi. One wonders why? Maybe the Ramban's quotation of Shemot ch.28 is instructive here. There Aharon is appointed to high office as High Priest. Possibly, Aharon's tribe – Levi - were to be appointed alongside him.


But Rashi is far more intriguing. For Rashi, there were two stages. Initially, the first-born were the priests. At a later stage, due to the failure of the first-born, the group that sustain God's covenant when it was "under fire" – the Levites – were chosen to lead the nation in the service of God. Precisely that group who cast aside all concerns and affiliations, realising the need to act for God and God alone in the moment of crisis in which every second counts, these was the group that were selected to serve God and stand before Him on a permanent basis.


Clearly, on this basis, we see the appointment of the Leviim as a positive phenomenon. But let us ask ourselves whether we lost out at all in this shift of personnel from the first-born to the Levites?


Rashi informs us that prior to the Egel, the first-born were the priests. What does this mean, spiritually, sociologically? It means that each and every family had access, had a representative in the Temple. The spiritual heights of the Temple were not restricted by an elite group, serving from behind closed doors. Prior to the Egel, every family put forward a candidate for divine service. There was a certain democratic strain that enlivened this system.


Indeed at the Covenantal Ceremony at Mt. Sinai, we can imagine the Bechorim priests as - the "youth of Bnei Yisrael" (Rashi, Rashbam and Ramban to Shemot 24:5)  - feeling proud to represent their family in the Nation's covenant.


The Egel put a stop to this. The calamity of the Egel highlighted the danger of wide access to the Mishkan, the hub of the Divine. The Leviim are appointed: "… so that there will be no plague on the Israelites if Bnei Yisrael for coming too near the sanctuary."  Now, the Leviim are installed as the representatives of Israel, but somehow, the Divine Service is more distant from the people. Now the Levites, dwelling in their own Machane Shechina – Camp of God's Presence – are insulated and focused away from the influence of the masses, but the flip side will state that the nation have lost "the common touch" with God.


For the Ramban, of course, this trauma does not exist. God's original plan is one of the Tribe of Levi. God's vision is for a tribe of priests amongst Israel, in the same way that Israel is a "Kingdom of priests and a holy nation" towards humanity.


Maybe the dispute between Rashi and the Ramban is really whether the institution of Shevet Levi is ideal (lechatchila) or simply a recourse to necessity (Bedieved.)!


Shabbat Shalom!





[1] A quick look at a Concordance will show that the role of Shevet Levi really comes into its own here in Sefer Bamidbar. Throughout Vayikra, Kohanim, "bnei Aharon" are mentioned but there is barely an appearance of Shevet Levi as an independent group. In Sefer Shemot, outside the story of the Egel, Levi is described within the familial context of Moshe, but not otherwise. This observation should stimulate thought: 1. Regarding the Egel-Shevet Levi connection that we shall deal with in this shiur 2. Why do the Leviim emerge as a group only here in Sefer Bamidbar? Maybe this shiur shall go some way to providing an answer of sorts.


[2] Parallel this with the statement of Chazal. Mishna Taanit 4:2


[3] Because it is only with the first-born of each family. Only male children. If the father is a Kohen or Levi, and if the mother is a bat Kohen or Bat Levi, Pidyon Haben is not practised. If the baby is born by Caesarean birth, or if there was a miscarriage prior to the birth, there is no Pidyon Haben. This lowers the probability considerably.


[4] – also for 5 shekels per person Bamidbar 3:47


[5] To investigate this distinction further, see the article by Rav Mordechai Sabato, "Hakohanim, Haleviim Umaaseh HaEgel" in Megadim vol.2


[6] See Rashi to Shemot 19:22. Ibn Ezra and Rashbam agree that here, Kohanim = Bechorim, but this is not conclusive. Maybe other suggestions may be raised to explain this phrase. 



bottom of page