“The Role of the Levites, and the Service of Yeshiva Students in the Israeli Army.”
(updated and revised from Bamidbar 5763-2003)

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 records 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 2:33we are informed: וְהַלְוִיִּם לֹא הָתְפָּקְדוּ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם אֶת מֹשֶׁה, the tribe of Levi was not counted among the Children of Israel, as G-d had commanded Moses. In Numbers 3:12, the Torah relates why the Levites were not counted for the army: וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם, G-d declares that the Levites belong to Him, in place of the בְּכוֹריםb’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) As opposed to the rest of the Israelites who were counted from 20 years old and upward, the Levites were counted from 30 days old and upward  2) The Torah seems to indicate that G-d himself counted the Levites 3) We later learn, in Numbers 3:44-47, 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 פְּדְיוֹן הַבֵּןPidyon Haben, redemption of the first-born ceremony, that is practiced today.

It is interesting to note, that the tribe of 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 up. The Levites population was clearly significantly less. (Parenthetically, the largest tribe in Israel was Judah, who numbered 74,600 souls.)

A host of reasons are proffered for Levi’s small population. 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 condemned by Jacob (Genesis 34:30), 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, וַתִּקְרָא–“Va’tikra,” “she,” the mother, named the child. Whereas with Levi, the Torah says (Genesis 29:34), עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ, לֵוִי, 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.” The Hebrew word Levi, means “to escort,” indicating that Levi 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, when no one else responded, that the Levites stood up in response to Moses’ call, (Exodus 32:26): מִי לַהשׁם אֵלָי, “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 vital 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 are surely aware of the ongoing controversy concerning the large numbers of Chareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) Yeshiva students in Israel who do not serve in the army. Some reports claim that as many as 60,000 Yeshiva students are now exempt. A significant number of secularists, and even many moderates, feel that the situation has gotten dangerously out of hand. One prominent Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman, who strongly opposes the growing strength of the Chareidim, formed a protest political party, Yisrael Beiteinu, which plays a very powerful role in the current coalition government.

Those who oppose the draft of Yeshiva students in Israel often point to the Biblical text here in parashat Bamidbar, where the Levites are exempted from serving in Israel’s army because they serve in G-d’s army! Many religious Jews feel strongly that there must always be a cadre of the most excellent Yeshiva students who are exempt from military service because, they truly believe, that Yeshiva students serve as a spiritual defense force in the State of Israel, who protect Israel through the study of Torah. However, it is generally acknowledged that, unfortunately, there are significant numbers of Yeshiva students who abuse the system, avoiding service, despite not really being serious students.

Surely, the best and the brightest, (perhaps, determined by oral and written examinations) should be exempted. In addition to the issue of sharing in the national burden and the increased manpower, there are many who believe 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 Nachal Chareidi corps that has been established is already widely acclaimed and admired. Despite the progress that has been made over the past few decades, it is still most disappointing that many Israelis never have 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 the Israeli’s generous social system.

On the other hand, the Hesder Yeshiva boys, those who learn in Yeshiva 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 was reported in 2015, that more than to 50% of young officers in combat units of the Israeli army wear kipot. This transformation which has taken 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.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3334 years ago is observed this year on Saturday evening, June 4th, and continues through Monday night, June 6, 2022.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy, festive, and healthy Shavuot.