|The book of Bemidbar (`In the desert') begins with HaShem commanding Moshe to take a census of all the men over the age of twenty -- old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The Levi'im are counted separately later, because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and putting them together when the nation encamps. |
The Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: to the East, South, West and North. Since Levi is singled out, Yosef is split into Efrayim and Menashh so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal exchange is made between the first born and the Levi'im, whereby the Levi'im take over the role the firstborn would have had serving in the Mishkan before the sin of the golden calf. The exchange is made using all the 22,000 surveyed Levi'im from one month old and up, even though only Levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining firstborn sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our firstborn today. The sons of Levi are divided in three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the Kohanim -- the special division from Kehat's family). The sons of Kehat had to carry the Menorah, the Table, the Altar and the Holy Ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the Ark and the Altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the Levi'im prepared them for travel.