Who Were the Levites? By Menachem Posner
The Levites, descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, were selected to serve G‑d in the Holy Temple. Most served in peripheral roles, playing music, opening and closing the gates, and standing guard. In the case of the portable Tabernacle (which preceded the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), they were responsible for packing up, transporting, and reconstructing the Tabernacle whenever the Israelites travelled to a new camp.
The most sacred tasks, including bringing the sacrifices, were reserved for the kohanim (priests), descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses.
How Was Levi Selected?
Originally, the firstborn sons were to have been the priests. When G‑d spared the Jewish firstborns in Egypt, He “acquired” them and designated them for this special role.
When the Jewish people made and worshipped a golden calf after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the only tribe that did not participate was Levi. At this time, the firstborns lost their special status, and it was transferred to the Levites.
In truth, however, the Levites were special from beforehand. Even during the Egyptian bondage, they were exempt from the crushing labor and permitted to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits, providing the rest of the Israelites with much needed encouragement and a strong moral compass (Read: Why Didn’t Pharaoh Enslave the Tribe of Levi?)
How Were the Levites Divided?
Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kehot, and Merari. When transporting the Temple, each clan had different duties. Kehot would transport the Holy Ark and other accouterments, Gershon carried the curtains, Merari carried the beams, sockets, and bars.
In later generations, as the population grew, the Levites were divided into 24 mishmarot (guards). Each group served one week in the Temple before relinquishing their place to the next mishmar in the roster.