On Rosh Chodesh of the second month after the Exodus from Egypt, God instructed Moshe and Aharon to take a census of men above the age of 20. The leader of each tribe was to be present when his tribe is counted. The name of each leader is stated. The census was carried out as commanded.
The Torah lists the results of the census. The tribe of Reuven numbers 46,500; Shimon 59,300; Gad 45,650; Yehuda 74,600; Yissachar 54,400; Zevulun 57,400; Ephraim 40,500; Menashe 32,200; Binyamin 35,400; Dan 62,700; Asher 41,500; Naftali 53,400. This comes to a total of 603,550 men. The tribe of Levi was not counted with the rest of the tribes. They were assigned to dismantle and transport the Mishkan (Tabernacle) when the nation travelled in the desert, as well as to guard the Mishkan when it is stationary.
God told Moshe and Aharon how to position the 12 tribes (other than Levi) around the Mishkan. They were to be organised into four groups of three tribes, each group led by one particular tribe. To the east of the Mishkan are the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun, led by Yehuda. To the south are the tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Gad, led by Reuven. To the west are the tribes of Ephraim, Menashe and Binyamin, led by Ephraim. To the north are the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali, led by Dan.
Aharon’s sons are listed. God told Moshe to bring the tribe of Levi to Aharon in order to assist him in his work as the Kohen Gadol. The tribe of Levi was to take over the role that had been designated for the firstborn, who were sanctified on the night of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Egyptian firstborn were killed and they survived.
God told Moshe to count the men of the tribe of Levi, aged from one month upwards. The count is divided up into three main groups, according to the descendants of Levi’s three sons, Gershon, Kehat and Merari. Each main group, whose constituent families are also listed, is given a different location in relation to the Mishkan. The overall number of Levi’im counted in the census is 22,000.
Moshe was told to count the male firstborn and to ‘replace’ them with the Levi’im. The firstborn number 22,273. The extra 273 firstborn (over and above the 22,000 Levi’im) were to give five shekels each in order to redeem their status.
The specific role of each of the three main families is now detailed, one in this week’s sidra, two in next week’s sidra. The family of Kehat were to take down, transport and reassemble the holy Ark (Aron), the Table (Shulchan), the Menorah, the Golden Altar (Mizbeach Ha’zahav) and the vessels used together with these features of the Mishkan.