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Parsha and Manuscript: Naso – ‘The secondary counting of the Levite clan of Gershon’

Friday, 5 June, 2020 - 1:34 pm

MS. Canonici Or. 35, fol. 158 (1401-25).pngIn the Torah portion of Naso, it discusses the census of the Levite clans; the mention of the Gershonites is sandwiched in the Book of Numbers between the census of the Kehatite and Merorite clans. This census follows three earlier countings in the Book of numbers: a. the overall census of the Jewish people between the ages of twenty and sixty[1], excluding the Levite tribe,[2] b. the census of the Levite tribe from thirty days old,[3] and c. the census of the firstborns, also from thirty days old, who were redeemed of their sanctity by the Levites.[4] This particular census of the Levite clans were of people between thirty and fifty, the purpose was to found out how many were strong enough for the service of dismantling and transporting the Tabernacle in the desert, the role of the Levite clans. The delineation of their roles were: the Kehatites would transport the sacred vessels; the Gershonites would be responsible for the hangings and curtains; the Merorites, the planks, pillars, and sockets.[5]

 

The Torah states:[6]

 

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Take a census (lit. a headcount) of the sons of Gershon, of them too, following their fathers’ houses, according to their families. From the age of thirty years and upward, until the age of fifty years you shall count them, all who come to join the legion, to perform service in the Tent of Meeting.

 

The question that arises from the text is: why does the Torah state in the context of the counting of the Gershonite clan: ‘of them too’ (gam hem), suggesting a uniqueness that perhaps they should not have been included in this counting. We will explore four interpretations of the Biblical commentaries to this question and demonstrate how the different perspectives are reflected in the Hebrew manuscripts of the commentary of Rashi in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  

 

MS. Huntington 425, fol. 8 (1403).pngFirst interpretation: The use of the exceptional phrase Naso (raise a head)

 

The reason for stating ‘of them too’ (gam hem) is because the phrase ‘take a census’ - literally ‘raise the head’ (naso et rosh) is showing extra respect to the ones counted. It is mentioned regarding the counting of the Kehat clan, who carried the sacred objects. The Gershonites, responsible for the transportation of the hangings, were also included in this exceptional phrase, due to their status as firstborns.[7] In the census of the Merorite clan, however, who were responsible for the transportation of the beams, it only uses the ordinary term: ‘you shall count them’ (tifkod otam).[8] For this reason, in the census of the Gershonites, it states ‘them too.’

 

Second interpretation: Indicating that they were counted second

 

Another interpretation for writing ‘of them too’ relating to the Gershonite census is since the census should have begun with the clan of Gershon, instead of Kehat, due to the fact that the Gershon clan were from the firstborn of the three sons of Levi, as it states: ‘And the sons of Levi were Gershon, Kehat and Merari.’[9] In addition, in the general census of the Levite tribe, the Gershon clan were in fact counted first.[10] For this reason, it states: ‘of them too,’ to emphasise that although the Gershon clan were not counted first, they should have been, and the reason for the counting of Kehatite clan first was only because they carried the sacred objects, including the Holy Ark.[11] One might come to the conclusion that since the Gershonites were not counted first, they wouldn’t be counted at all, this is pointing out that they were.

 

MS. Huntington 445, fol. 16 (1376-1400).pngThird interpretation: no need to count

 

A third interpretation for writing ‘of them too’ with the Gershonite census is because the Gershon clan did not need to be counted at all, since their work did not involve physical carrying. The Gershonites, like the Merarites, were allowed to use wagons for the transportation of the hangings and the beams, as opposed to the Kehat clan who carried the sacred vessels on their shoulders.[12] For this reason the Torah states: ‘of them too’ - that they should also be counted.[13]

 

Fourth interpretation: no need to count from thirty

 

A fourth interpretation for writing ‘of them too’ with the Gershonite census is because, since the service of the Gershon clan did not involve carrying, as they used wagons for the transportation of the hangings and the beams, as opposed to the Kehat clan who carried the sacred vessels on their shoulders, their counting could have been from the earlier age of twenty or thirty days.[14] For this reason the Torah states that nevertheless they too should be counted from thirty years.

 

MS. Michael 384, fol. 96 (1399).pngRashi’s commentary

 

We would like to argue that the above four interpretations are reflected in the various versions of Rashi’s commentary as found at the Bodleian Library relating to the verse about the census of the Gershonites. Rashi comments that the reason for the additional statement: ‘of them too’ (gam hem), is to inform that they should be counted in a similar way to the Kehat clan who were counted to see how many were fit for service of transporting the Tabernacle.

 

Rashi states:

 

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, of them too: As I commanded you with regards to the children of Kohat, to see how many there are who have reached the category of those fit for service.

 

In light of the four interpretations above in explaining why the verse uses the phrase: of them too’ (gam hem), the comment of Rashi appears ambiguous. It does not seem to articulate insight consistent with any of the above interpretations: a. offering a reason for the elevated word Naso (lit. raise a head), b. being counted second, c. being counted in the first place, d. being counted from thirty years old.

 

MS. Huntington 389, fol. 9 (1301-1400).pngThe Rashi Manuscripts:  four versions

 

In the manuscripts and the printed edition there are four versions of Rashi’s commentary. We would like to argue that the different versions reflect the above interpretations of how we understand the statement: ‘of them too’ (gam hem) in the context of the census of the Gershonites. In particular, we would like to focus on the precise words of the verse Rashi quotes when presenting his comment.

 

1. In MS. Huntington 445 (1376–1400),[15] it quotes the whole first half of the verse:[16] ‘Take a census (the head) of the sons of Gershon, of them too’ (naso et rosh bnei Gershon gam hem).

 

2. In the printed edition and MS. Michael 384 (1399),[17] it omits the first word naso  (take – literally: ‘raise’) and quotes from the verse: ‘a census (the head) of the sons of Gershon, of them too’ (et rosh bnei Gershon gam hem).

 

3. In MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425)[18] and MS. Huntington 389 (1301-400),[19] it omits ‘take a census (the head) of’ (naso et rosh) and quotes from the verse: ‘the sons of Gershon, of them too’ (bnei Gershon gam hem).[20]

 

4. In MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225),[21] MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408)[22] and MS. Huntington 425 (1403),[23] it omits most of the first half of the verse and only highlights the words: ‘of them too’ (gam hem).

 

MS. Oppenheim 34, fol. 78 (1201-25).pngFour interpretations

 

The first two versions include either the words naso et rosh orjust et rosh indicating that the reason for stating ‘of them too’ (gam hem) regarding the census of the Gershon clan is to address the discrepancy between the clans of Kehat and Gershon, and Merari: With Kehat and Gershon it states in the commandment for their census: naso et rosh, while with Merari it uses an ordinary term, suggesting a special connection between those first two clans, thus the adjoining term: ‘of them too’ (gam hem).

 

The two manuscript versions that only quote from the verse ‘the sons of Gershon, of them too’ (bnei Gershon gam hem) or just ‘of them too’ (gam hem), reflect that the query is not connected to the discrepancy related to the use of the term for the census (‘naso’, raise a head, as opposed to the ordinary term, ‘tifkod’ you should count). Rather the concern is to address whether there was a need to count the Gershonites in the first place or whether they need to be counted in the same way as the Kehat clan: from thirty years old, unlike the rest of Israel – from twenty, or like their fellow Levites, from thirty days.

 

Conclusion

 

We posed a question: why does the verse use ‘of them too’ (gam hem) in relation to the counting of the Gershon clan regarding the service in the transportation of the Tabernacle in the desert. We presented four interpretations explaining the uniqueness of the Gershon census, explaining why ‘of them too’ (gam hem) is written. One reason is since only Gershon and Kehat have an exceptional phrase: ‘naso’ (raise the head) in relation to their counting, as opposed to Merari that only has the regular term ‘you should count them’ (tifkot otam) used. Three other reasons are to suggest that the counting itself was either unnecessary or should have been from a different age or in different order. We demonstrated how these interpretations in addressing the reason for the phrase: ‘of them too’ (gam hem) are reflected in the four versions of the Rashi commentary which, though ambiguous, aims to address this question about the phrase ‘of them too’ (gam hem) regarding the census of the Gershonites.

 

 


 

[1] Numbers 1:2-3.

[2] Numbers 1:47: ‘But the Levites, according to their father's tribe were not numbered among them.’ Numbers 2:33.

[3] Numbers 3:15: ‘Count the children of Levi according to their fathers' house according to their families. Count all males from the age of one month and upward.’

[4] Numbers 3:40-41: ‘The Lord said to Moses: Count every firstborn male aged one month and upward of the children of Israel, and take the number of their names. And you shall take the Levites for Me I am the Lord instead of all firstborns among the children of Israel. And [take] the Levites' animals instead of all the firstborn animals of the children of Israel.’

[5] Numbers 4.

[6] Numbers 4:21-23.

[7] Midrash Aggadah, Ibn Ezra and Kli Yakar on Numbers 4:22 and Likkutei Torah by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi on Naso 21a and 23b.

[8] In Numbers 4:2 it states: Make a count (Naso et rosh) of the sons of Kohath from among the children of Levi by their families, according to their fathers' houses. In Numbers 4:22 it states: ‘Take a census (Naso et rosh) of the sons of Gershon, of them too.’ In Numbers 4:29, it states: ‘[As for] the sons of Merari, you shall count them (tifkod otam) by their families, according to their fathers' houses.’

[9] Genesis 46:11: ‘And the sons of Levi were Gershon, Kehat, and Merari.’

[10] Numbers 3:17-10: ‘These were the names of Levi's sons: Gershon, Kohat, and Merari. The names of the sons of Gershon according to their families were Libni and Shim'ei. And the sons of Kohat according to their families were Amram, Itzhar, Hebron, and Uziel. And the sons of Merari according to their families were Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of Levi according to their fathers' houses.’

[11] Da’at Haz’keinim on Numbers 4:22:1. The reason why the Kehatites were selected to carry the sacred objects and not the Gershon clan, as the first born, was to illustrate that the Torah should not be seen as reserved for the elite (firstborns) but of equal possession to all of Israel, similar to the reason why the Torah was given in the desert, to show that it is not the possession of any person or class of Israel in particular.

[12] Numbers 7:7-10.

[13] Bartneura and Chizkuni on Numbers 4:22:1.

[14] The reason for counting from thirty until fifty was because a person is at one’s full strength at thirty and becomes weaker after fifty (Rashi on Numbers 4:1).

[15] Fol. 16.

[16] Numbers 4:22.

[17] Fol. 96.

[18] Fol. 158.

[19] Fol. 9.

[20] Omitting Naso and et rosh.

[21] Fol. 78.

[22] Fol. 75.

[23] Fol. 8.

 

 

 

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