In both this week’s parsha (Nasa) and in last week’s parsha (Bamidbar), we find counting. Most of last week’s parsha had to do with counting the tribes; the end of last week’s parsha and most of this week’s parsha are about counting the Levites.

We find three different ways of counting the Jews.  First of all, there was the process outlined earlier, in parshat Ki Tissa, in which the Jews were commanded to each contribute a half a shekel, upon which all the half shekels were counted.  We do not directly count Jews themselves, since the act of counting constitutes singling out and separating one Jew from another, and we do not wish to do that.  So, instead, the Torah instructed us to count only the number of half-shekels.

However, the process of counting the Levites took place differently.  Either they weren’t counted at all (but their total numbers became known), or they were counted in a special way: Moshe was instructed to stand before the tent of each Levite family and a “voice” emerged from the tent telling him how many were Levites were in each tent.  After taking the census of each tent, Moshe tallied up the total. Why the three different processes of counting?

Here is the verse from which the counting of the Levites is derived:

במדבר 1:49)  אך את מטה לוי לא תפקד ואת ראשם לא תשא בתוך בני ישראל

Bamidbar 1:49) “However, do not count the tribe of Levi, nor raise their profile among the [rest of the] Jews.”

There are two ways to understand our verse:  1) Either the end of the verse (“nor raise the profile…”) reflects back on the beginning (“Do not count…”), but the total number of Levites will become known, or 2) the end of the verse is a “stand-alone,” telling us not to count the Levites at all.

Rashi gives two explanations:  “It is appropriate for the King’s legions to be counted separately.  An alternative explanation: Noting the decree that all males over twenty years old would perish in the desert, God declared that the Levites should not be included in the decree, since they are “mine” because they did not participate in the sin of the calf.”

Why did Rashi give two explanations?  As it turns out, his two explanations fit well with the two interpretations of the verse mentioned above.  If we say that the end of the verse reflects back on the beginning, then the Levites were not to be counted.  However, their total number will still become known, and therefore, “It is appropriate for the King’s legions [the Levites] to be counted separately” – that is the Levites were not to be counted like the rest of the Jews, but nevertheless they still underwent their own counting (when Moshe stood in front of each tent).

Or, if the end of the verse is a “stand-alone” and does not reflect back on the beginning, then “God declared that the Levites should not be included in the decree…” and it was not necessary to count the Levites at all (but still, their total number will become known by other means).

In summary, then, there are three ways of counting the Jews:

1)      By counting their half shekel donations, aside from the Levites (Parshat Ki Tissa)

2)      Among the Levites, Moshe would stand outside of the tent of each family and a bat kol would emerge, stating how many souls inside.

3)      No counting took place, but the final sum total nonetheless became known

The three processes correspond to three kinds of avodat Hashem: good deeds (mitzvoth), Torah study, and prayer.  There are the Jews who put emphasis on mitzvoth, who are counted via the half shekel.  Then, there are Jews who emphasize learning Torah, who are counted from outside the tent, like the Levites. Finally there are Jews who are dedicated to prayer and cleaving to God, and therefore they possess no independent existence of their own.  These are like the Levites who were not counted at all (but still, God knows who they are).

Similarly, the three ways of counting correspond to the Yisraelites, the Levites and the Cohanim in the Temple.

For a more detailed explanation, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 32, page 1-9

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