In the desert (“bamidbar”) of Sinai, on the first of the month of Iyar, one year and two weeks after the exodus from Egypt, G‑d speaks to Moses. The leader of Israel is instructed to conduct a census of his people:

Raise the head of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a headcount of every male according to the number of their names.

From twenty years old and upwards, all that are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions, you and Aaron.

Assisting Moses and Aaron are the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The people assemble and “declare their pedigrees after their families, after the house of their fathers.” The results of the census are:

The tribe of Reuben—46,500; Simeon—59,300; Gad—45,650; Judah—74,600; Issachar—54,400; Zebulun—57,400; Ephraim—40,500; Manasseh—32,200; Benjamin—35,400; Dan—62,700; Asher—41,500; Naphtali—53,400.

All those who were counted of the children of Israel . . . six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty.

The Levites

The tribe of Levi, however, was not included in this count, for they are to be “set aside,” consecrated to serve in the Sanctuary. As G‑d instructs Moses:

Only you shall not count the tribe of Levi, nor take the sum of them among the children of Israel.

Appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of Testimony, and over all its vessels, and over all things that belong to it. They shall carry the Tabernacle and all its vessels, they shall minister to it, and round about the Tabernacle shall they camp.

And when the Tabernacle journeys forward, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up.

The Camp

“Every man by his flag shall the children of Israel camp.” Each of the twelve tribes had its nassi (“prince”), a flag representing its color and emblem, and its own section in the Israelite camp.

The Sanctuary stood in the center of the camp, surrounded by the tents of the Levites. Beyond the Levite camp were the camps of the twelve tribes. To the east were the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, together comprising the greater “Camp of Judah.” To the south was the “Camp of Reuben,” encompassing the camps of Reuben, Simeon and Gad. To the west, Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin made up the “Camp of Ephraim.” To the north was the “Camp of Dan” with Dan, Asher and Naphtali.

This formation was preserved as the people journeyed through the desert, with the Camp of Judah at the head of the procession and the Camp of Dan bringing up the rear.

Again the Torah lists the adult male population for each tribe, also tallying the total for each camp: 186,400 for the Camp of Judah, 151,450 for the Camp of Reuben, 108,100 in the Camp of Ephraim, and 157,600 for the three tribes comprising the Camp of Dan. Total: 603,550.

“The Levites were not counted together with the children of Israel, as G‑d had commanded to Moses.”

The Levite Census

Originally, the service in the Sanctuary was to have been performed by the firstborn, since “on the day that I smote all firstborn in Egypt, I have consecrated to Me all firstborn in Israel.” But this privilege was taken from them when the firstborn joined in the making of the golden calf, and only the tribe of Levi remained loyal to G‑d (cf. Exodus 32:26).

G‑d now commands Moses to count the Levites, in order to appoint them to their specific tasks in the service of the Sanctuary. It was also necessary to know their exact number, so that a transfer of the “consecration” could be made from each of the firstborn to the individual Levite who would replace him. Unlike the other tribes, the census of the Levites included children as well, beginning from the age of one month.

First to be enumerated is Aaron’s family, who constituted a distinct class within the Levite tribe: they were the kohanim (“priests”), who conducted the service in the Sanctuary.

These are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that G‑d spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. And these are the names of the sons of Aaron: the firstborn Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar . . .

Nadav and Avihu died before G‑d, when they offered strange fire before G‑d in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Elazar and Itamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father.

The rest of the tribe of Levi served as assistants to the kohanim and as caretakers of the Sanctuary, and were divided into three clans, descendants of Levi’s three sons: Gershon, Kohath and Merari.

The Gershonites numbered 7,500, and camped on the west side of the Sanctuary. When the Sanctuary was transported, the families of Gershon were in charge of “the Tabernacle roof-covering, and the tent roof-covering, the upper roof-covering, and the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the courtyard, the screen at the entrance to the courtyard . . . its ropes, as well as all the work involved.”

The families of Kohath, numbering 8,600 and pitching their tents to the Sanctuary’s south, carried the Sanctuary’s “vessels”: “The ark, the table, the menorah, the altars and the holy vessels with which the service is performed; and the [inner] screen and all its implements.”

The Merari families totaled 6,200, and camped to the Sanctuary’s north. “Under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the wall-panels of the Tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its foundation sockets, and all their implements and all that belongs to them, and the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, pegs and cords.”

Camping before the Tabernacle toward the east, before the Tent of Meeting eastward, shall be Moses and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the children of Israel.

G‑d now commands Moses to count all male firstborn in Israel from the age of one month and older, and “take the Levites to Me—I am G‑d—in the place of all the firstborn of Israel.”

There were 22,273 firstborns, but only 22,000 Levites to replace them. The remaining 273 each contributed a sum of five shekels to Aaron and his sons as a “ransom.” (All subsequently firstborn Israelite males are likewise redeemed.)

Covering the Vessels

When the Levites transported the Sanctuary, the most prestigious task fell to the Kohathites: on their shoulders they carried the Sanctuary’s holy vessels. But first the vessels had to be covered by the priests with special wool and leather coverings made for this purpose.

When the camp is about to travel, Aaron and his sons shall come and take down the dividing screen; with it, they shall cover the Ark of Testimony. They shall place upon it a covering of tachash skin, and on top of that they shall spread a cloth of pure blue wool. Then they shall put its poles in place.

Similar coverings were made for the table, the menorah and the two altars, to “swallow the holy” and conceal them from non-priestly eyes.