“The Role of the Levites, and the Service of Yeshiva students in the Israeli Army”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week we begin to study the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. In parashat Bamidbar, out of His great love for Israel, G-d instructs Moses to take a census of the Israelites, because every Jew is precious to G-d. The count discloses that the total number of Jewish men twenty years old and upward, who are of appropriate age to serve in the army of Israel, is 603,550.

One of the tribes of Israel however, is not counted. In Numbers 2:33 we are told: “V’hal’vi’im lo hat’pak’doo b’toch B’nai Yisrael, ka’asher tzivah Hashem et Moshe,” the tribe of Levi was not counted among the Children of Israel, as G-d had commanded Moses. In Numbers 3:12, the Torah tells us why the Levites were not counted for the army: “V’ani hee’nay la’kachti et hal’vi’im mitoch B’nai Yisroel, tachat kol b’chor petter rechem Biv’nai Yisroel, v’hayu lee hal’vi’im,” the Levites belong to G-d, in place of the b’chorim, the first born, who sinned with the Golden Calf and thus lost the privilege of ministering to the children of Israel, while the Levites remained faithful.

From early on we notice that the Levites were significantly different from the other tribes of Israel: 1) They were counted from 30 days old and upwards, as opposed to the rest of the Israelites who were counted from 20 years old and upward; 2) The Torah seems to indicate that G-d himself counted the Levites; 3) We later learn in Numbers 3:44, that 22,000 Levites were used to redeem 22,000 first born of the other 12 tribes. The remaining 300 first born of the other tribes were redeemed by paying five shekels, which is similar to the Pidyon Haben ceremony that we practice today.

It is interesting to note that Levi was by far the smallest tribe of Israel. The next smallest tribe in number was Menashe with 32,200, who were counted from 20 years old and upwards, whereas the Levites who numbered 22,000, were counted from 30 days old and upwards. So we see that the Levites’ population was significantly less. (Parenthetically, the largest tribe in Israel was Judah, who numbered 74,600 souls.)

A host of reasons are proffered for Levi’s smallness. First, tradition claims that since the Levites were not subject to slavery in Egypt and were not included in the peoples’ suffering because of their special position as clergy, they were also excluded from the blessing of fertility. (Remember, according to the Midrash, the Israelite women gave birth to six children at a time.) In addition, the tribe of Levi was cursed by Yaakov, because of Levi’s zealotry at the time of the rape of Dina, when Levi and Shimon killed the men of Sh’chem. A third reason for Levi’s smallness is that, from a practical point of view, it would be too difficult for Israel to support a burgeoning clergy class. Whatever the reason for its smallness, we see clearly that the tribe of Levi was “a breed apart” from the other tribes.

Even Levi’s birth was special. At the birth and naming of all the other tribes, the Torah notes, “Va’tikra,” “she,” the mother, gave the child a name. Whereas with Levi, the Torah says (Genesis 29:34), “Al kain kara sh’mo Levi,” that’s why he called his name Levi. Jewish tradition assumes that either Jacob himself gave Levi his name, or since the verse doesn’t specifically say Jacob, it may be that the angel Gabriel gave the child his name.

Clearly, the tribe of Levi had a “calling.” Levi, which means “to escort,” was destined to bring, to escort, many Jews closer to G-d. Yes, Levi was a zealot. But he was a balanced zealot– both internally and externally. He was a zealot internally for his own family, for Dina, when he responded to her rape by attacking the men of Sh’chem. But he was also a zealot for G-d at the Golden Calf. It was there that the Levites stood up and responded to Moses’ call (Exodus 32:26): “Mi la’Hashem ay’lie,” Whoever is for G-d, come join me! While the b’chorim, the first born, were the first biologically, the Levites were the first spiritually.

The Levites also had a particular character trait that proved important to them in their role as leaders. They were enablers, who brought out the best in others. They sang songs, but did not necessarily compose. They taught law, but did not write law. Enabling was truly a very special gift of the Levites.


Many of our readers have surely heard of the ongoing controversy concerning the large numbers of Chareidi Yeshiva students in Israel who do not serve in the army. Some reports claim that as many as 40,000 Yeshiva students are now exempt. A significant number of secularists feel that the situation has gotten so completely out of hand that they’ve formed a protest political party, Shinui, which in the recent election became the third largest party in Israel.

Those who oppose the draft of Yeshiva students in Israel often point to our text here, where the Levites are exempt from serving in Israel’s army because they serve in G-d’s army! I feel strongly that there must always be a cadre of the most excellent Yeshiva students who are exempt from military service, because I truly believe that Yeshiva students serve in the spiritual defense in the State of Israel by protecting Israel through learning Torah. However, it appears, unfortunately, that quite a few Yeshiva students are abusing the system, avoiding service, despite not really being serious students.

Surely the best and the brightest (and I think that this should be determined by oral and written examinations), should be exempted. But, I can’t help believing that having tens of thousands of Yeshiva students in the army would have a most meritorious effect on the army, the State of Israel, and its people. In fact, the Chareidi Nachal that has been established is already widely acclaimed and admired. It is a terrible tragedy that the average Israeli never has a chance to really meet and get to know the Chareidim and the Yeshiva students, and are consequently, very resentful of those whom they see as parasites, not working, not serving, yet greatly benefitting from Israel’s generous welfare system.

On the other hand, the Hesder Yeshiva boys, those who learn and serve in the army at the same time, are among the most highly regarded in all of Israel. In fact, their units are considered among the best and the bravest, and, unfortunately, have suffered the highest casualties of any units in the Israel Defense Forces. It’s reported now that close to 40% of the young officers in combat units of the Israeli army wear yarmulkas. This transformation which is presently taking place in the army could be a most important factor in determining the future of Israel.

May these contemporary “Levites” lead us into a period of peace and tranquility for our people Israel.

May you be blessed.