The fourth book of the Torah is aptly called “Chomesh HaPikudim” (Yoma 7:1) or accurately translated into English “Numbers” for within it we find various censuses polled of the Nation. Right from the start this volume begins by counting the entire population; however they were not counted all together but were reckoned in two different tallies. The twelve Israelite tribes formed one poll whilst another was taken of the Levite families.
There is a difference in the criteria employed for the various censuses. The obvious dissimilarity is that of the Israelites are counted from age twenty to sixty and the Levites from one month old – this is dealt with extensively by the commentators – however there is another subtly systematic discrepancy. The Israelites were counted in tribal units, and the Levites were counted out by family rather than as a tribe; i.e. within each tribe there are various families, and these divisions were integral for computing the Levites. Why?
A look at the purpose for each head count will help shed light and uncover the basis for this disparity. The motivations behind counting these two groups were not identical and therefore they differed in the structure which they were fulfilled.
The poll of Levites was framed within the context of their hallowed profession. This tribe surrounded the Mishkan, and was tasked with safeguarding its sanctity – Shomrei Mishmeres Hakodesh. It was a count of employees (actual and potential) available for Mishkan duty. The rest of the nation were counted from twenty to sixty – Yotzei Tzava Beyisraoel, anyone fit to join the army. This count was assessing the prospective number of soldiers available to enlist for a military campaign.
There are careers which are treasured and enhanced by their hereditary trademark. Traditions and sensitivities are transferred between parent and child, and occasionally this extends to the transmission of trade secrets. One often hears people boast their many generations of quality service. Numerous professions offer an equal if not more important value but are not improved by being within the family. The fact it was inherited does not enhance the quality of work. (We should take note that it is important to pass some of our skill-sets, minhagim and traditions to the next generations in the context that these are our family way of life).
This then is the distinction between the two tallies. The statistics on the Levites was to ascertain how many people are available to serve in the Mishkan. Serving in the Mishkan was a family pursuit with the subtleties passed down from father to son. Thus this filial occupation was counted appropriately in family formation, because the family unit added to superiority of their service.
The census of the populace was an accounting how many candidates were available for waging battle. War is not a family trade, a certain level of similarity and cooperation is crucial for the success of an army, and for this reason they fought in tribal formation. We find each tribe forming its own brigade and legions; as the verse documents their preparation for warring Midyan:
“A thousand for each tribe, a thousand for each tribe, from all the tribes of Israel you shall send into the army… one thousand was given over for each tribe, twelve thousand armed for battle” (Bamidbar 31:4-5)
Seeing as military prowess was not an art passed between father and son, the tally of soldiers was not counted by family but by tribal battle divisions.