All the countings of the Leviim, which Moshe and Aharon counted
at Hashem’s word according to their families – every male from a month of
age and up, were twenty-two thousand.
Be’er Yosef: Ramban2 asked the question first. The population
figure in this pasuk does not come to half of the similar age group in the
smallest of the other shevatim! Why was shevet Levi depressed in its
population? Some of the factors that might hold down the numbers of Leviim
did not even apply at this point. While it is true that the kedushah of the
kelim of the mishkan could prove fatal to any Levi carrying them improperly,
the total in our pasuk reflected a shevet Levi before its service in the
mishkan began. (Ohr HaChaim adds that in the aftermath of the Golden Calf,
many lost their lives – but not anyone in shevet Levi, which did not take
part in that transgression.)
Why would it be that the group of Jews most identified with genuine avodah
of Hashem should not merit the blessing of children to the same degree as
the rest of the nation?
Ramban’s opinion focuses on the Egyptian oppression. Shevet Levi was not
enslaved. Its members did not suffer like the rest of the Jewish people. G-d
responded to the pain of the Jewish people with a blessing for children.
Those who did not suffer did not receive the berachah of unnatural
population growth. The Leviim populated like any other group would – no
more, and no less. Hence, in comparison with all the other shevatim, their
numbers were modest.
We could point to another factor. Chazal3 show how the ten
plagues in Egypt followed from the crimes of the Egyptians. The plague of
blood was visited upon them because they prevented Jewish women from using
the mikvah to rid themselves of the tumah of blood. Their purpose was to
thus deny the Jews the opportunity to become pregnant and propagate.
According to the Tanchuma, 4 however, the plot failed. The women
did not evidence their usual monthly cycles, and never became forbidden to
their husbands. Thus, to the contrary, there were no time-bound restrictions
at all on their marital lives. This led to a sharp increase in their birth
rate. (The gemara5 similarly posits that a state of fear will
interfere with the monthly period. Thus, the Jewish women did not commonly
experience their period that would have interfered with opportunities to
consort with their husbands.)
All of the above, however, applied only to the other shevatim. They lived
through the oppression and the terror of the Egyptian enslavement. Shevet
Levi, on the other hand, knew nothing of this. Their physiological lives
continued as usual. This meant that they were in need of mikva’os – and
denied their use by edict of the Egyptians. They were able to immerse in a
mikvah only through subterfuge. Their families for the most part suffered
forced separation when they were not able to use the mikvah. This kept
Levi’s population down.
It could be objected that women from all the other shevatim whose monthly
cycles disappeared also became incapable of becoming pregnant! Ordinarily,
this would be a typical consequence. It was not so, however, in regard to
the Jewish women. Hashem kept them miraculously fecund. Without having to
worry about mikvah, they were able to produce children abundantly – in far
greater numbers than Shevet Levi.
1. Based on Be’er Yosef, Bamidbar 3:39
2. Bamidbar 3:14
3. Shemos Rabbah 9
4. Tanchuma, Metzora, end
5. Nidah 16A