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From Parsha to Halakha Bamidbar: Levites, Torah scholars, and draft dodgers

Iyar 5784 | June 2024

The explosive issue

After years of simmering, it seems the issue of IDF draft exemptions for certain demographic groups is reaching its boiling point, with calls for increasing the low enlistment rates of demographic sectors such as Israeli Arabs and dati women. The most heated debates surround the controversial exemption for full-time yeshiva students, with the current security demands converging with judicial, political, and social issues to fan the flames.

Proponents arguing to continue the current exemption have their reasons, many of which are philosophical, practical, or political. The halakhic basis for the rationale boils down to two main sources which discuss the obligations of Torah scholars – one in Bava Batra and the other in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, where Rambam draws a parallel between the Levites and other Torah scholars.[1] As the Levites’ exclusion from the army is first mentioned in this week’s parsha, we will focus on this one particular aspect of the broader discussion.

God’s army

Bamidbar is also known as the “Book of Numbers,” “Chumash HaPekudim,” as it begins with a census and ends with a census, an accurate count of males over twenty for the army and for apportioning the land.[2] In both the Levites are counted separately, from a different age. Does this mean their census is irrelevant to the army or the portioning of the land?[3]

In God’s first command to take a census we read:

“Take [a count] of the heads of the whole congregation of the Israelites, according to the clans of their paternal houses, the sum of the names of every male, a head poll. You and Aharon shall count them, from [the age of] twenty years and up, all who go out [to battle] of the hosts of Israel…”[4]

But after listing the census of each tribe we are told: “The Levites were not mustered among the Israelites, as the Eternal commanded Moshe.”[5] Instead, the Levites are appointed from among the Israelites to serve God by serving the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Priests, and the congregation.[6] Moshe is then tasked with counting male Levites from the age of one month and firstborn males from the other tribes from the age of one month.[7] Following, the firstborn males who are born consecrated to God’s service, are redeemed in exchange for the consecration of the Levites.[8]

Why weren’t the Levites included in the census?

The simplest answer is that the Levite males were not counted with the other tribes because they were counted from a different age.[9] It’s also possible that they weren’t counted because they don’t fit the criteria of “all who go out [to battle] of the hosts of Israel.”[10] Rashi provides two other answers – the Levites were counted separately to honor them as the “Legion of the King,” and to prevent their inclusion in the decree that doomed those counted in the census, all the men over twenty, to die in the desert in the aftermath of the Sin of the Spies.[11]

The classic Rambam

Rambam connects the reasons the Levites were not given portions of the Land of Israel or the spoils of war and teaches:

“Because they were separated for the service of God, to serve and teach God’s upright ways and righteous laws to the masses… Therefore, they were separated from the [normative] ways of the world and do not wage battle as the rest of Israel, they do not inherit a portion [of land] and do not win it with their physical strength. Rather they are God’s troops…”[12]

According to Rambam, the Levites didn’t serve in the army that conquered the land of Israel and so they didn’t have a portion in the land or its spoils. Instead of army service, the Levites served God as teachers and stewards in the Mishkan.

What does this have to do with enlistment for yeshiva students? Rambam continues:

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any individual person who inhabits this earth and whose spirit moves them and intellect guides them to separate themselves and stand before God to serve and minister to God, to know God, and they walk justly as God made them and removed the many considerations that people pursue is sanctified as holy of holies, and God is their portion and legacy for eternity, and in this world will give them enough, like the Priests and Levites.”[13]

According to the Torah, the Levites are given scattered cities and the surrounding fields for their livestock to graze, they have no land to work and live mainly off the tithes they receive from the Israelites. Rambam further states that this lifestyle is not reserved for those who are born into it, one may choose to live like a Levite – to forsake material pursuits to dedicate their life to serving God through Torah study – and God will ensure they have “enough.”[14]

While Rambam clearly states that the Levites did not fight when conquering the land, he doesn’t mention whether they were permitted, or even obligated, to fight in other wars. Moreover, Rambam doesn’t mention any practical halakha when comparing Torah scholars to Levites, he merely states that one may rely on God to provide if they are truly dedicated.

Indeed, when Rambam records the laws of war he does not mention an exemption for Levites or Priests, quite the opposite, they are mentioned in laws that deny certain people exemptions.[15] The statements in Hilkhot Shemita and Yovel are halakhot that apply to the allotment of the Land of Israel and spoils of war. On this subject Rambam brings two Torah prohibitions: the Levites and Priests do not get a portion of the land and they do not receive portions of the spoils of the wars.[16] In the previous halakhot Rambam discusses cases when the Levites do get a portion of land and spoils, indicating that there are times they go out to war.[17]

Nevertheless, it is not farfetched to connect these aspects to the exemption from army service, as Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg explained: “Since Rambam speaks of the conquering the Land of Israel as an inheritance, which is a ‘milkhemet mitzvah’ (obligatory war), we can learn that, like the Levites, Rambam exempts anyone who preoccupies themselves with the service of God and God’s Torah, even for milkhamot mitzvah.”[18]

Did Levites serve in the army?

There are several sources that indicate the Levites did go out to war. After the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, God commands the Israelites to go out to war and “take the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites.”[19] Moshe then commands the Israelites “to go unto Midian to put the vengeance of the Eternal on Midian… one thousand per tribe, one thousand per tribe from all tribes of Israel send to the army.”[20]

Rashi brings the Sifrei on Bamidbar that the Torah repeats “one thousand per tribe” and stresses “from all tribes of Israel” because the tribe of Levi was included. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, explained that the Levites did not fight in wars to conquer and settle the land, but they did fight in this war, which was for the honor of God and Israel. As the Legion of God, it was fitting they join the effort.[21]

In Divrei HaYamim the Levites and Priests are counted among the troops that came to crown David as king.[22] Historically, it was the Hasmoneans – Priests – who led the Israeli army against the Greek oppressors to gain independence in the Second Temple Period.

The Netziv in Ha’amek Davar offers an interesting way to reconcile these disparities, explaining that a small portion of Levites did go out to war, but it wasn’t a significant enough number to form their own brigade, as most Levites were preoccupied with Torah and did not go out to war.[23]

Others offer a similar explanation to that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Sefer Mitzvot HaGadol indicates there’s a difference between the wars of Israel against the original Canaanite peoples and future wars, when the Levites could receive a portion, which may be why they are included in the laws of those who go out to war.[24]

The Levites did not fight wars of conquest and did not have to fight to conquer their own territory as other tribes did, but they did fight defensive wars, as the gemara says, “In an obligatory war (milkhemet mitzvah) all go out to battle, even a groom from his room and a bride from her wedding canopy.”[25] While the wars against the Canaanite peoples were also considered “milkhamot mitzvah” there are those who differentiate between different types of milkhamot mitzvah such as the wars against the Canaanite peoples which were also to conquer land and milkhamot mitzvah such as defensive wars, wars against Amalek, and the war against Midian in Bamidbar 31.[26]

Indeed, Rav A.Y. Kook taught, the Levites did not go out to fight as a tribe, to capture their own portion of land, but when all of Israel went out to war “they are also obligated to go out, and a war for the whole of Israel is also service of God, and it is more relevant to those who are specifically designated for service of God, more than the rest of the people.”[27]

Even if the Levites did not serve as traditional soldiers, there are also several indications that the Levites served the community in other roles. In addition to Torah study and their service in the Temple, the Levites taught Torah, they imposed law and order as “shotrim,” officers of the rabbinic courts, and in wartime they oversaw the troops’ morale and spirituality.[28]


The Levites were distinguished from the rest of Israel. They were “God’s Legion.” This in no way implies they are forbidden, or even exempt, from army service. Just as there are clear indications that the Levites did not participate in wars the same way the other tribes of Israel did, there are also many indications that the Levites served in at least some of the wars of Israel. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein so eloquently stated in “The Ideology of Hesder”:

“… the spirituality of the Levite does not preclude military service entirely. It only absolves him from waging war “like the rest of Israel.” At most, he can be exempt from the gamut of wars included within the mizvah of milhamah per se. This exemption has no bearing, however, upon his duty to help fight or prevent a defensive war that threatens the survival of his community and his peers. Is a spiritual order excused from saving human lives? To the extent that this obligation is rooted in the overall norm of gemilut hasadim, it encompasses everyone. The world of the ben Torah, too, rests upon three pillars.[29] Of course, no one would suggest that all bnei yeshiva stop learning and turn to cardiology. There is, however, a clear difference between abstaining from specializing in humanitarian endeavors and forgoing a universal effort. And above all, the issue is not one of suspending talmud Torah, God forbid, but of balancing and complementing it.”[30]

[1] Tb Bava Batra 8a

[2] See Ramban 1:1.

[3] Malbim Bamidbar 1:50.

[4] Bamidbar 1:2-3

[5] Bamidbar 2:23

[6] Bamidbar 3:5-10, 11-13 and Rashi ad loc.

[7] Ibid and verses 40-41. All Levite livestock is also counted in exchange for the firstborn (male) livestock of the other tribes.

[8] Ibid verses 40-51. The firstborn males who remained after all the Levites were exchanged are redeemed with five pieces or silver.

[9] Bechor Shor Bamidbar 1:47; Seforno 1:49. Male Levites were counted when they were thirty days old and thirty years old.

[10] Rashbam

[11] Rashi 1:49. Rashi explains that they were not included in this decree because they did not participate in the Sin of the Golden Calf, while others such as Birkat Asher (verse 47) add they also didn’t sin after the spies.

[12] Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Shemitta and Yovel 13:11

[13] Ibid Halakha 12

[14] Radbaz highlights that it is God who will provide for them and “not that he should cast himself [as a burden] on the community,” as Rambam himself insists a scholar should never seek material benefit from their studies in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10 and his commentary to Avot 4:5, and as he himself lived.

[15] Hilkhot Melachim u’Milkhamoteihem 7:8; 8:4. See also TB Kiddushin 21b that discusses whether a Priest may have relations with an “Isha Yefat To’ar” a beautiful Canaanite woman taken captive during war, implying the Priests went out to war.

See Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Ideology of Hesder” and

[16] Sefer HaMitzvot Lo Ta’aseh 169, 170.

[17] Hilkhot Shemitz v’Yovel 13:10-11; See Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowitch, Yad Peshuta ad loc.

[18] Hilkhot Medina 2:4

[19] Bamidbar 31:1-2

[20] ibid 3-4

[21] Likutei Sichos vol. 28, pg. 344; vol. 23, p 210.

[22] Divrei HaYamim I 12:25-28.

[23] Ha’amek Davar Bamidar 1:47

[24] Sema”g Lavin 276-277, based on Bava Batra 122a. See Brit Moshe ad loc. The gemara states that in the future the Land of Israel will be split between thirteen tribes.

[25] Mishna Sota 8:7; Hilkhot Melachim u’Milkhamoteihem 7:4; Hilkhot Shabbat 2:23

[26] See Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Mishpatei Sha’ul Eretz U’Medina 312.

Based on sources such as TB Eiruvin 45a; Steinzaltz commentary on Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Shemita v’Yovel 13:12.

[27] Shabbat Ha’Aretz 13:12

[28] Teachers: Devarim 6:7 and 11:19; Sifrei ad loc.; TB Kiddushin 31a.

Officers: Based on Devarim 20:5-9; Divrei HaYamim II 19:11 and 34:14; Nechemiah 8:11;  Sifrei Devarim 15:5; TB Yevamot 86b.

In war: Devarim 20:1-4; Bamidbar 10:8-9; Rashi on Bamidbar 26:13; Divrei HaYamim II 20:19-22; Mishna Sota 8:6; TB Sota 42b and Meiri;

[29] “The world stands on three pillars: Torah, avoda (service of God), and gemilut chassadim (acts of loving-kindness).” Avot 1

[30] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Ideology of Hesder” and

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.