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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Matos/Masei

These are the last two sedras in the Book of Numbers. They discuss the laws of vows; the war with Midian; the request of Reuben & Gad to live in Trans Jordan and the borders of the state of the Jews. The following verse comes from the section on the war with Midian.

Numbers 31:4

A thousand to a tribe, a thousand to a tribe, for all the tribes of Israel you shall send the army.


For all the tribes of Israel: Rashi: This includes the tribe of Levi.

Rashi is telling us that in this war with Midian the tribe of Levi also participated. The commentaries point out that ordinarily Levi did not go out with the army. But this time they did. This is the message of the words "all the tribes of Israel". But this causes some problems.

See the next verse.

What is your question?


A Question: The very next verse says "...one thousand from each tribe; twelve thousands equipped army." If there were 12 thousand and Levi was included then one of the tribes must have been excluded. Remember, Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe took the place of Joseph among the tribes, that made 13 tribes. So Levi was always excluded. But if Levi is included now and we still have only 12 (thousand) - and not 13 - it means one other tribe was excluded. Probably it was one of Joseph's sons. But where does it say that a tribe was excluded?

Can you offer an answer?

Your Answer:


An Answer: The Rashi commentaries suggest that although Levi went out with the army they did not send a thousand men, just a few, to do the chaplain services. So while all the other 12 tribes sent a thousand each, the tribe of Levi went out, with the other 12 tribes, but with just a select few.

Can you find support for this idea in the words of the Torah?

Hint: Compare the wording in verses 4 & 5.

Your Answer:


An Answer: Verse 4), which teaches us that Levi was included, says: "sent to the army" while the verse (5) which numbers twelve tribes says: "equipped for the army." It would seem that Levi was not sent equipped as the others were. The reason probably being because they were not fighters in the army; they were adjuncts for some auxiliary service (probably the chaplaincy).


While most think that Levi did not ordinarily go to war, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky in his book "Emes L'Yaakov" points out that the Talmud gives instances where the Kohen Gadol ( a member of the Tribe of Levi) was with the army.

Perhaps the answer is as we said - Levi went out with the army, but not as fighters.


Rashi's source (that Levi was included) comes from the midrash "Sifri". But the Gaon of Vilna has a comment on the Sifri which says the tribe of Levi was excluded! (not included). Ironically, the GRA implies that Levi usually went to war with the army - since he needs a special drash to tell us that this time they were excluded!

But how do we reconcile the difference between Rashi and the GRA?

Do you have an answer?

Your Answer:


One has to see the GRA's commentary on the Sifri to realize that he said Levi was excluded based on the Torah's words "equipped for the army" (Hebrew: "chalutzei zava").

So we can easily explain the difference: Rashi bases his "including Levi" on the words "all the tribes of Israel" (verse 4). While the GRA bases his "excluding Levi" on the words: "equipped for the army" (verse 5). They don't contradict each other. As we suggested: Levi went out (as per Rashi's included) but only few in number not as a regular unit (as per the GRA's excluded).

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

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