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By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari | Series: | Level:

I explained in Paershat Ki Tisah, that the machtzit hashekel was not commanded upon us as a mitzvah to be observed for all time as a means of making a census. Rather it was specific to that numbering and only meant as a good advice for future numberings. There the purpose of the census was the machtzit hashekel itself, and not the numbering. The machtzit hashekel was to be used for the adanim, in contrast to the rest of the mishkan that was to be funded from free will offerings and not from coerced taxation like the machtzit hashekel. Here when the purpose was to determine the number of each degel and each camp, the Divine commandment came without the requirement of the half-shekel. Hashem commanded Moshe to count Israel and to have no fear of ‘ayin harah’ or of external evil forces, since the emissaries of mitzvoth suffer no harm, and this numbering was the mitzvah of Hashem.

Hashem wanted that the wanderings of Israel in the desert, the order of their encampments and their entry into Eretz Yisrael should be according to a certain order. Therefore the positions of the camps and the number of the soldiers in them had to be known and the encampments determined accordingly. That was the purpose of the census here, and not, as Rashi taught, simply Hashem’s love for Israel that was expressed as pleasure at their numbers.

The 12 Tribes were to be arranged so that the Mishkan, be surrounded by the Army of Israel, as befits the heart of the nation. They would not be arranged haphazardly, according to the individual’s choices and preferences but following a definite, logical and determined pattern. [“Ya’akov took what came to hand as a gift to Eisav”. The Kotzker taught that he whose divine avodah is just what comes to hand, without preparation and thought, achieves only a gift to Eisav.] So Moshe and Aharon, like kings and generals reviewing their armies were commanded to number Israel in honor and glory, by each individual according to his father’s house, according to his clan and according to his tribe; individual worth yet part of a collective unity. Each man in Israel above 20 years of age was counted to be a warrior, so he had to pass before them and be numbered and known according to all his specific details. There was no upper limit to military service because men vary in their physical strength as they age, so that service was voluntary as they grew older but could not be the subject of a compulsory commandment. The eirev rav who also were warriors, were excluded from the census as that could only include the sons of Ya’akov, since this was the Host of the G-d of Ya‘akov. In contrast to the numbering of Klal Yisrael the Leviim were counted in the presence of Moshe without Aharon, in order to make it quite clear that none of the silver given as redemption for the First-born to Aharon and the Kohanim, reached Moshe as well. It is interesting to point out the number of Leviim was far smaller that any of the other tribes, not even half. Now the rapid increase of the other tribes was miraculous, even as promised to Avraham, “Thy seed shall be like the stars for numbers”. This was in order that they should have sufficient manpower to conquer the land, to work it and defend it. However, since Levi was destined to serve Hashem and to have no share in the land while their parnasah was to be only from maser, it was unnecessary for them to be as numerous as the other tribes who would be following a more normal life.

There were only 4 flags, each depicting an encampment of 3 tribes and not a flag for each tribe, as some have commentated. The groups were not chosen in the order of the birth of the sons of Ya’akov nor were they allocated according to their preferences or choices, nevertheless there was also an acknowledgement of their birth and status.

The main danger to the camp was from a frontal attack and ten from attackers on the rear [as Amalek did], while there was less danger envisaged from the flanks. Therefore the strongest and most powerful tribes were placed in these positions [Yehudah in the vanguard and Dan bringing up the rear], whereas the camps of Reuven and Ephraim were on the sides. Yehudah was first and his encampment lay to the East, since he was the most powerful and the one destined as the ruler, and the East is the most important side [as Yerushalyim and the Mikdash lies to the East in Eretz Yisrael]. Issachar, the tribe of wise men and masters of the knowledge of times [science?] and Zevulun, the tribe of scribes, were under Yehudah as befits the service of kings and princes. Shimon was not included under Yehudah, not only because that would have been disrespectful as he was the senior, but also because his census did not fit numerically; rather he was in Reuven’s camp. To that camp was added the first born son of Leah’s handmaiden Gad; rather than Levi who, while being Leah’s son as were the other two in that camp, was chosen to serve G- d and so was not included in the mustering of the tribes. Dan was to be the leader of the fourth Degel as he was known for his bravery. Ya’akov had prophesied that he would be an avenger of his people, a virtual dragon, while Moshe had said of him that he was a lion.

We find the same consideration of security and strength in the enumeration of the camps numerical strength that is repeated when describing the degalim. Yehudah’s total was 186,000 and Dan’s was 157,000 compared to 151,000 and 108,000 for Reuven and Ephraim respectively. However, the form of the encampments was not only a matter of strength and security, important as these are.

The emblems on the flags, a lion [Yehudah], a human face [Reuven in memorial of the Dudaim], an ox [Yosef], and an eagle [or dragon viper- Dan], were the same as those that Yechezkiel saw surrounding the Kisei HaKavod. Chazal taught (Chagigah; Midrash Rabbah) that these are the bravest and fiercest – the lion of the beasts, the ox of the animals, and the eagle of all that flies; the owner looks with pride on them and Hashem takes pride in all of them. The camp of the Shechinah was a parallel to the world of the angels, Machaneh Leviim to the Heavens, the world of Israel as the lowest world.

To the East where the sun rises, that is the most honored side of all, was the encampment of Moshe and Aharon, and his sons. To the south were the Bnei Khat, the Levitical clan of Aharon carriers of the Klei HaMishkan- the essence of the Mishkan, to the west that is the place of the Shecinah were the sons of Gershom the senior clan of Levi carriers of the curtains, and on the North lay the sons of Merari, the youngest clan of Levi who carried the boards that were merely the foundations of the Mishan. All this surrounded by the tribes according to their spiritual qualities and merits.

[We can see Abarbanel’s pragmatic and utilitarian approach to the census also in his treatment of the census by David that resulted in the punishment of the plague (Shmuel Bet, chapter 24). There, David commanded Yoav to conduct a census, despite Yoav’s objection. That census provided a mustering of 800,000 soldiers of Israel and an additional 500’000from the tribe of Judah].

The sin of David was not as Rashi and others have taught, because he conducted the census not through the numbering by the machtzit hashekel or other such form of indirect counting. There are other examples in Tanach of a direct census. Rather, it was the conducting of a census simply to satisfy the vanity of the king. Yoav pointed out to him that there was neither a war nor a national emergency that would justify a census. Simply to know how many soldiers 9one has, so that one can feel the satisfaction of being a powerful king or to show off military might, is a not merely a misuse of the census but a sin against the role of kingship.

Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and

D r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.