Counted From Birth
Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )
This week we start Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah. The book contains stories of the events that transpired during the Jews' 40-year trek through the Wilderness on their way to Eretz Yisrael. It also discusses the census of Bnei Israel. In that context we find the following verse and Rashi. Notice his precise choice of words.
"And Hashem spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai saying: Number the children of Levi according to their father's household, according to their families, every male from one month of age and up shall you count them."
From one month of age and above - RASHI: When he leaves the category of a "stillborn" he is counted, to be called "guardian of the sacred watch." Rav Yehuda the son of Shalom said: This tribe (Levi) is regularly counted from the womb, as it is said (Numbers 26:59) ["And the name of Amram's wife was Yocheved the daughter of Levi] whom her mother bore to Levi in Egypt." While entering the portals of Egypt she bore her (Yocheved) and she is counted among the 70 souls [who came down to Egypt] for, when one counts their total, one finds only 69, and she completed the total.
The tribe of Levi was the only tribe counted from such a young age - practically from birth - from the age of one month. In fact, as Rashi goes on to say, the Levite was, in essence, to be counted from birth. The reason the count was delayed until the infant was a month old was for technical reasons. During the first month of life, the child's viability is in grave doubt. Only after a month is the infant out of the shadow of death. During that month he is clinically considered to be a potential "Nefel"; if he dies during the first month, he is considered to have died a "stillborn." If the infant dies after a month, his death is no longer attributed to being a "stillborn."
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi reinforces the idea that the tribe of Levi is to be counted from birth with a Midrash. The Midrash points out that when Jacob and his family entered Egypt, the Torah enumerated the individuals who came with him and set the number at 70. But a precise count reveals only 69 (including Joseph and his sons who were already in Egypt). We are told that the missing person was Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, whose mother came down to Egypt, pregnant with her. As Levi's wife entered the gates of Egypt, she immediately gave birth to her. Thus, there were 69 who came into Egypt - plus Yocheved, who was born at the moment of their arrival in Egypt. We thus see that the Torah considers even a newborn infant of the tribe of Levi to be part of the count.
This is a beautiful Midrash for it answers two questions with one explanation.
We understand the discrepancy in the count of Jacob's family and we also understand why the tribe of Levi was counted at such a young age.
All this is clear enough. But when we compare this Rashi with another Rashi-comment further on in the parsha, we notice a slight change in Rashi's wording.
Let us compare our Rashi-comment with another similar one.
"And Hashem said to Moses: Count every first born male of the Children of Israel from the age of one month and older, and calculate the number of their Names."
Count every firstborn male ... from the age of one month and older - Rashi: When he leaves the category of a doubtful stillborn.
Do you see any difference between the wording of these two comments?
A CLOSE LOOK
An Answer: Did you notice that the first Rashi says "When he leaves the category of a stillborn," while the second Rashi says "when he leaves the category of a doubtful stillborn"?
It is not easy to understand why he made such a change. Can you suggest an explanation?
Hint: Look at the context of both verses.
Another Hint: Look at Rashi on 3:16.
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE
An Answer: These two censuses, one of the tribe of Levi and one of the firstborn Israelite, were done in different ways. While both counted infants from the age of a month, the census of the firstborn was done with direct Divine guidance (as Rashi says in verse 3:16). Since God was choosing the infant, Rashi could say with certainty: "When he leaves the category of a 'a stillborn.'" Whereas, when Moses counted the tribe of Levi, he did so on his own, without direct Divine guidance, therefore he could be not be absolutely sure the infant was exactly 30 days old. There may have been a human error in calculating; an error of a day, of an hour or even of a minute. So this child could only be considered a "doubtful stillborn."
Rashi's precision in his choice of words is his "signature" in Torah commentary.