Why was the tribe of Levi not counted along with the other tribes? (v. 1:49)
Rashi: The King's legion deserves to be counted on its own. Another explanation: G-d foresaw that a decree would be passed in the future against all those counted from twenty years and upward, condemning them to die in the desert. He said, "Let these [Levites] not be included! They are Mine, for they did not err with the [Golden] Calf."
The Rebbe's Teachings
The Tribe of Levi (v. 49)
In his commentary to verse 49, Rashi offers two explanations why the tribe of Levi was excluded from the main census of the Jewish people:
- Because they are an elite group ("the King's legion") and therefore deserve to be counted separately.
- Those included in the main census would later be subject to a decree preventing them from entering the Land of Israel. Therefore, G-d spared the Levites from being counted.
How do these two interpretations clarify our verse, at the literal level?
The phrase "Do not count the tribe of Levi," in verse 49, is difficult to understand, since the Levites were counted in a census of their own. To overcome this problem, the verse could be understood in either of two ways:
- By reading the end of the verse as a clarification of the beginning: "Do not count the tribe of Levi... with the children of Israel," i.e., You should count the Levites, but not together with the other children of Israel. They are to have a private census; or
- The phrase "Do not count the Levites" could be read literally and independently, that the Levites were not physically counted at all. Their counting was unlike any other, as Rashi explains below: "Moshe went and stood at the entrance to the tent, and the Divine Presence preceded him. A heavenly voice came out of the tent, saying, 'There are so-and-so many babies in this tent.'" Since the counting was actually carried out by a "heavenly voice," it could be argued that the Levites were not actually counted by Moshe (though Moshe did mathematically process the results that he received from the heavenly voice, as the verse continues, "Do not calculate their number together with the children of Israel").
These two ways of understanding the verse correspond to Rashi's two interpretations:
- "The King's legion deserves to be counted on its own," i.e, the Levites were counted, but due to their importance, they were not counted with the rest of the Jewish people. According to this interpretation, the verse is read, "Do not count the tribe of Levi...
[together] with the children of Israel."
- The Levites were not counted at all, and therefore they were not subject to the decree against entering the Land. According to this interpretation, the verse is read, "Do not count the tribe of Levi [at all; and even when you are told the number in each tent from the heavenly voice] do not calculate their [total] number together with the children of Israel."