Bamidbar | פרשת במדבר

Bamidbar 1:1-4:20 [Hebcal] [על-התורה] במדבר א א-ד כ

Haftarah: Hoshea 2:1-22 (all) | Unless it is Shabbat Machar Chodesh

[על-התורה] הפטרה: הושע ב א-כב (ע”פ כל המנהגים)

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Parashat Bamidbar falls into the first narrative section of Sefer Bamidbar, the preparations for the journey to Eretz Yisrael that take place at Har Sinai. This parsha includes the census, the arrangement of Bnei Yisrael’s (moveable) camp, and many matters pertaining to the Levites and their special role in the affairs of the Mishkan.

The Census

[Bamidbar 1:1-46]

G-d speaks to Moshe and tells him that he needs to count all the heads of the entire community (edah), listing the name of each male aged 20 and over according to clan (mishpachah) and tribe (beit avotam). This population is able to bear arms. Individuals are designated from each tribe (except Levi) to assist in taking this census:

  1. Reuven – רְאוּבֵן: Elitzur ben Shedeiur
  2. Shimon – שִׁמְעוֹן: Shlumiel ben Zurishaddai
  3. Yehuda – יְהוּדָה: Nachshon ben Aminadav – נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן עַמִּינָדָב1
  4. Issachar – יִשָּׂשכָר: Netanel ben Tzuar – נְתַנְאֵל בֶּן צוּעָר
  5. Zevulun – זְבוּלֻן : Eliav ben Chelon
  6. Yosef: Efraim: – אֶפְרָיִם Elishama ben Ammihud
  7. Yosef: Menashe – מְנַשֶּׁה: Gamliel ben Pedahtzur
  8. Binyamin – בִנְיָמִן: Avidan ben Gideoni
  9. Dan – דָן: Achiezer ben Ammishaddai
  10. Asher – אָשֵׁר: Pagiel ben Ochran
  11. Gad: Elyasaf ben De’uel
  12. Naftali – נַפְתָּלִי: Achira ben Einan

These heads are known as nesi’im (leaders) of their tribes (matot avotam) and rashei alfei Yisrael, the heads of the legions of Israel (נְשִׂיאֵ֖י מַטּ֣וֹת אֲבוֹתָ֑ם רָאשֵׁ֛י אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל). The census proceeds, and the count is as follows:2

  1. Reuven: 46,500
  2. Shim’on: 59,300
  3. Gad: 45,650
  4. Yehudah: 74,600
  5. Issachar: 54,400
  6. Zevulun: 57,400
  7. Yosef – Efraim: 40,500
  8. Yosef – Menashe: 32,300
  9. Binyamin: 35,400
  10. Dan: 62,700
  11. Asher: 41,500
  12. Naftali: 53,400

This comes to 603,550 (excepting the Levites), the same number as the accounting of those over twenty for the purpose of paying the half-shekel tax in Parashat Pekudei;3 it is more in comparison to the census at the end of Sefer Bemidbar in Pinchas, which totals 601,730.4

The Special Case of the Levites

[Bamidbar 1:47-54]

The Levites are not to be counted in the census. They are responsible for attending to the Mishkan and its instruments, camping around it, disassembling and reassembling it and carrying it from place to place.

The Arrangement of the Camp

[Bamidbar 2:1-34]

The camp of Bnei Yisrael is to be arranged according to specific strictures. Only the Levites may be near the Mishkan; each tribe camps under its banner at a distance from the Mishkan. In the east is the camp of Yehuda, and next to them, Issachar and Zevulun. As each tribe is mentioned, its head and head count from the census are reiterated. To the south are the camps of Shimon, Gad, and Reuven. To the west are camped Efraim, Menashe and Binyamin; to the north, Dan, Asher, and Naftali. When moving from place to place, the tribes are to keep to this order as they march.

Aharon’s Lineage and Relationship with the Levites

[Bamidbar 3:1-13]

Aharon’s lineage is recounted: Nadav was his first-born son, then Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar. The story of Nadav and Avihu offering “strange fire” (esh zara) and dying as a result, told in Parashat Shemini in Sefer Vayikra, is retold here. Although all were anointed, it is only Elazar and Itamar who serve as kohanim during Aharon’s lifetime.

The Levites are to serve the kohanim, and on behalf of the entire community. The Levites are consecrated to G-d in place of all firstborns (תַּ֧חַת כָּל־בְּכ֛וֹר פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם), since all firstborns are theoretically consecrated.

The Census of the Levites

[Bamidbar 3:14-51]

At this point, Moshe is told to take a census of the Levites, recording every male from the age of 1 month an up:

  • Sons of Levi (לֵוִי): Gershon, Kehat, and Merari
    • Sons of Gershon (גֵּרְשׁוֹן): Livni (לִבְנִי) and Shimi (שִׁמְעִי), totaling 7,500, with Eliasaf ben Lael (אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן לָאֵל) as the nasi, encamped to the west of the Mishkan;
    • Sons of Kehat (קְהָת): Amram (עַמְרָם), Itzhar (יִצְהָר), Chevron (חֶבְרוֹן), and Uziel (עֻזִּיאֵל), totaling 8,600, with Elitzafan ben Uziel (אֶלִיצָפָן בֶּן עֻזִּיאֵל) as the nasi, encamped to the south of the Mishkan;
    • Sons of Merari (מְרָרִי): Machli (מַחְלִי) and Mushi (מוּשִׁי), totaling 6,200, with Tzuriel ben Avichayil (צוּרִיאֵל בֶּן אֲבִיחָיִל) as the nasi, encamped to the north of the Mishkan.
  • Moshe, Aharon, and Aharon’s remaining sons camp to the front (east) of the Mishkan, with Elazar serving as the nasi of all the Levites;
  • The total of Levites is 22,000.

Each of the three major clans of Levites (Gershon, Kehat, and Merari) are assigned specific parts of the Mishkan to handle.

Moshe is then commanded to take a census of every first-born male among Bnei Yisrael, for whom the Levites serve as proxy: the number comes out to 22,273. (The cattle of the Levites serve as proxy for the firstborn animals of all Israel.) Because there are 273 more firstborn males than there are Levites, they are redeemed by shekel amounts, 5 per person at 20 gerahs per shekel (the shekel ha-kodesh), equaling 1,356 shekel. This sum is given to Aharon and his sons, the kohanim.

Bnei Kehat, a Family of Levites

[Bamidbar 4:1-20]

Moshe is now commanded to take a separate census of the Kehat family of Levites of those males aged between 30 and 50. This is the age of service for the Kehat clan, who are charged with taking care of the holiest parts of Mishkan. The procedure for breaking camp, disassembling the Mishkan and readying it for travel are described, undertaken by the kohanim and handed off to the Kehatis. The Kehatis are not to be cut off from the Levites, and neither are they to enter Ohel ha-Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting).

Haftarah Summary: והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים

[Hoshea 2:1-22]

The haftarah begins with a note of consolation, stating that Israel will be numerous and great, that they shall assemble and be counted, picking up the themes of the parsha. However, Hoshea goes on to rebuke Israel (metaphorically depicted as a mother engaged in harlotry) who will be punished for sins of idolatry. In the end, however, after uprooting Israel, G-d will remove the names of the idols from her mouth and return her to what she once was, espousing her forever.

Image: “IMG_1237” by Malachy Harty is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


  1. Nachshon is also identified in Midrash as the first person to set foot on the dry ground of the bottom of the Reed Sea after it split during the exodus.
  2. This assumes that elef here means 1,000; for an alternate understanding of elef (that also takes into account the total count, which is specified in the Mikra), see here.
  3. The number is given in Shemot 38:26 and the half-shekel census is commanded in Shemot 30:12.
  4. See the numbers for the second here.

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