Early in the book of Numbers, the Torah records the first census in the history of the Jewish people: “Count the heads of the entire witness community of the children of Israel, by their families, by their parents’ houses” (Numbers 1:2). Certainly a census is a momentous event — not only as a profile of a nation’s most important natural resource, its people, but also as a means of enhancing each national with a sense of pride in his newly acquired significance as a member of an important nation.
At the end of the day, when all the counts of the various tribes were added up, the total number of those twenty years and above was 603,550 (Numbers 1:46). The census tells us — in more ways than one — that each person counts. Again and again, we encounter the phrase in connection with the census: “by their families [lemishpe’ hotam], by their parents’ houses [leveit avotam].”
This particular term is repeated with each of the tribes and families, except for two instances wherein the phrase is inverted — in the case of the Levites, as well as the sons of Gershon. In these two instances, instead of the order being “by their families” and “by their parents’ houses,” we find “by their parents house and by their families” (Numbers 3:15).
In contrast, Levi’s other sons, Kehat (Numbers 4:2) and Merari (Numbers 4:27), are presented in the book of Numbers in a manner similar to the presentation of the rest of the tribes — first by their “families” and only afterwards by their “fathers’ houses.” Why should there be such a reversal in phraseology in the case of Levi and the children of Gershon?
In a prior commentary, we rendered the phrase “lemishpe’hotam” to mean “by the family of their tribal forebears,” and “leveit avotam” to mean “by their immediate parental names,” in accordance with the interpretation of Rashi (1040–1105). However, the earlier Aramaic translation of these phrases, Targum Onkelos, which is generally placed alongside of the biblical text as a demonstration of its authoritative position, render “lemishpe’hotam” as “lezarayaton” — “by their seed, by their children.”
Thus the usual formulation, found no less than 17 times in our passage, is rendered to mean that each individual is numbered by their children and by their parents’ house. The message of the Targum is clear: An individual is to be counted first by whom he or she has produced — by his or her children — and only afterwards and secondarily do we pay attention to his or her forebears, to the yihus which comes from one’s parents and the parental forebears; perhaps Targum would include the tribal background as well in “leveit avotam.”
From the perspective of this definition, we can also readily understand the reversal of the phrase regarding the tribe of Levi. Ordinarily individuals are defined first by whom and what they have produced — their children. However, a kohen (priest) or Levite serves in the Temple and performs special ritual duties, not by virtue of merit, but only by virtue of ancestry: I am a kohen only because my father was a kohen. Hence, in accordance with this reality, the Bible insists that their census is “by their parents’ house and by their children” — the parents coming first!
And, in addition to special ritual functions, the care and maintenance of the Sanctuary (during the years of wandering in the desert) was divided among the three scions of the house of Levi. The duty of Gershon, as described in the previous portion, focused on the curtains, the hangings, the various coverings inside the Tabernacle. According to the midrash, this was the easiest job in the Sanctuary. It is therefore assumed that the children of Gershon were satisfied to rest on their laurels; they remained in essence Levites, dependent on their “parent’s house” for their status and function.
In contrast, the children of Kehat were in charge of the much heavier items, such as the menorah and the Ark. In Bamidbar Rabba (5:1), we read the following description: “When the Jews were traveling, two sparks of flame came out from the two poles of the Ark of the Tablets of Law.” The Kehatites volunteered to put their lives on the line and risk the fire in order to bear the Holy Ark. And their brothers, the Merarites, learned from their example, volunteering to transport the heaviest wood and metals. These children of Levi were anxious to be their own people, to establish their own yihus. As a result, the Torah counts them in accord with “their children and their parents’ house” — themselves and their children coming first!
What we’ve gathered from the overview is that a seemingly slight difference in word order may reveal a world of attitude and psychology. When each of us is counted and assessed when the Almighty conducts His census, the most important criterion in our judgment will not be who our parents were, but who and what we and our children have developed into. All too often, the descendant has descended too far down. And when we ponder the question of “who is a Jew?” as we so often do within the context of necessity for conversion and the “right of return,” it is important to note that at least from a sociological (rather than a halachic) perspective, a Jew is defined more by his children than by his parents; indeed, I would argue that, sociologically speaking, a Jew is he or she who has Jewish grandchildren.
Postscript: The Maggid of Mezritch (18th century, Ukraine) was a great disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and heir to his leadership. It is told that when the Maggid was still a child, a fire broke out in his family home. Although the family was rescued from the flames, his mother was weeping hysterically. When he asked her why she was so upset at the loss of mere physical objects, the mother explained that she was crying for the loss of the record of their family pedigree, which had been destroyed in the flames. This record had traced back their familial roots to King David himself. “You don’t have to cry over that,” said the young Maggid, comforting his mother. “I will begin a new record of our family pedigree; from me will begin a new yihus. Subsequent generations will trace their lineage back to me.” JN
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.