After officially inaugurating the Levites, and having them go through a unique purification process, G-d told Moshe, “This is [the rule] regarding the Levites: Beginning at the age of 25, they shall participate in the work force engaged in the Communion Tent’s service. Then, when they are 50 years old, they shall retire from the work force and not serve any more. [During their duty period] they shall perform their appointed tasks, serving their brethren [the priests] in the Communion Tent. They shall not, however, participate in the divine service. This is what shall be done for the Levites as far as their appointed tasks are concerned.” (8:24-26)
In the previous two Torah portions, in chapter 4, we were told the Levites would work from ages 25 to 50.
Let us look at three questions. First, why the discrepancy in the starting age, 25 versus 30? Second, why forced retirement at 50? Third, is this rule applicable to all Levites, regardless of the difficulty of their assigned jobs?
Ibn Ezra compares the ages of 30 and 50 to numbers close to multiples of seven when he says “30 years is close to 4 “weeks,” while 50 is 7 “weeks” — at that point one’s strength begins to wane. The work we’re talking about here is the labor of carrying.”
Rabbi Yosef B’chor Shor echoes sentiments expressed by Ramban when he notes that “25 is when lighter work begins, including singing. At age 30, heavier carrying kicks in, as strength kicks in (based on Avot 5:21). The rabbis also taught that at 25 he begins his training, while at 30 he begins to serve.”
This leads me to wonder what the Levite was doing until age 25? There is a tradition that the Levites were the teachers of Israel. Of course, they couldn’t all teach and help the Kohanim at the same time, so perhaps they were meant to be engaged in study and teacher training when not in regular duty and reserve duty to work in the Temple.
Many commentaries look at a debate between Rashi and Ramban over what the Levites did when their time of service was over. Rashi indicates that the 50 year old would no longer bear the burden of carrying on the shoulder, but he returns to locking gates, singing and loading the wagons.
Ramban quotes the Sifrei that they could return to lock gates and to do the work of Bnei Gershon (loading curtains onto wagons), and that the Sifrei makes no mention of their returning to singing.
Ramban indicates that they should have been counted from 20, because at that age they could sing, lock gates, and load wagons until they reached the proper age to do their “avodah” (he also distinguishes between their wilderness jobs and their permanent jobs when the Mihkan/Mikdash would be in a set place in the Land). He indicates that the only work which would end is the carrying of the vessels (job of Kehat) and so perhaps Gershon and Merari should not be counted in this way as all of their work can also be done after turning 50!
His answer is that everything becomes based on the Bnei Kehat’s job, and therefore all are counted the same, from 30 to 50.
While there is no room to share their analyses here, both Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi and the Maharal (Gur Aryeh) come to Rashi’s defense after the great attack of Ramban in this issue. But the truth is that the commentaries are split over what is considered Levite work from which they were excluded at 50, and what they could continue to do after 50, most notably in the realm of singing. Was it considered Avodah (service) or was it something else?
Malbim, for example, distinguishes between “sherut” and “avodah,” noting that while at 50 the Levi could no longer do avodah, he could do sherut.
Netziv and Chizkuni say singing is permitted after age 50. Meshekh Chokhmah makes a similar point as he distinguishes between song of the mouth (permitted after 50!) and song from instruments (though he doesn’t mention if they may play instruments after 50).
The Midrash Rabba points out that fewer than a third of counted Kehatites were between 30 and 50 (2,750 out of 8,600), unlike Gershon who had over a third between those ages (2,630 out of 7,500), and Merari who had over half its population between those ages (3,200 out of 6,200).
Kehat was different because the service of carrying the Ark assumed a risk. And even though they were counted before their jobs were assigned, those who were deemed unworthy of this task were not assigned to the typical Kehathian service, and were not counted in the 30 to 50 census (Netziv makes a similar argument about those unfit for war not being counted in the general 20 and up national census, which would suggest the population was significantly higher than 600,000 males ages 20 and up).
It seems that loading and unloading wagons is not a kind of “service” that is dependent on the strength that comes with age. The Levites are essentially being told, life comes in stages, and every stage has a role for you. Sometimes there is overlap in what you can do through life-stages, sometimes there is not.
Guarding the Torah might not necessarily be a physical burden (honestly it is more difficult to lift the beams onto wagons than it is to “carry” the Ark), but as Netziv notes in 7:9, there is a kind of intention (Kavvanah) that is most necessary, and most difficult to achieve, that becomes a kind of burden, without which the carriers could face certain death. And so the burden is not as much a physical one, as it is a mental one.
Which suggests that our mental capacities and abilities to concentrate need extra efforts past a certain age. May we be blessed to defeat the natural decline that may come with age, and find new strength to concentrate on our tasks of being guardians of the Torah.