The Service Of Song
The duty of the Levites to accompany the Tabernacle service with music and song reminds us to serve God with joy.
Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.
The G-d-centric, Torah-centric, Mishkan (Tabernacle)-centric Israelite camp described in the opening section of the Book of B'midbar [Numbers] is ordered, sanctified and serene. A census of the population is taken. The tribe of Levi is counted separately, and their holy tasks in the Mishkan are assigned:
All those that were numbered, whom Moshe and Aharon and the princes of Israel counted of the Levites according to their families and according to their fathers’ houses; from thirty years old and upward, until fifty years old, all those who come to perform service to a service (avodat avodah) and the service of carrying in the Tent of Meeting. Their accounts were 8,580. According to the word of Hashem through Moshe did he appoint them, each one to his service and to his burden, and those that were numbered constituted that which Hashem had commanded Moshe (Bamidbar 4:46-49).
Two Categories of Service
The Levites’ duties fall into two distinct categories of service. The service of carrying is obviously the transporting of the parts of the Mishkan from place to place in the desert, a responsibility that would become superfluous once the people would enter the land of Israel. But, what is service to a service (avodat avodah)?
This is not the first time such a dichotomy has been employed by the Torah. Verse 24 speaks of the service of the families of the Gershon-division of the tribe of Levi:
to serve (la’avod) and to carry (l’masah).
There, Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) says that, while “to carry” refers to transporting the Mishkan from one encampment to the next, “to serve” refers to all the duties of the Levites at the place of encampment. These duties include setting up the Mishkan, baking the show-bread, slaughtering the sacrifices and guarding the Mishkan. The distinction between the two lies in the place where the duties are discharged.
Rashi, based on the Talmud (Arachin 11a) and the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 6:10), sees in the phrase “service to a service (avodat avodah)” an allusion to the Shirah, song and instrumental music produced by the Levites. During the wine-libations of certain obligatory sacrifices, the Levites would sing and play musical instruments as an accompaniment to the sacrificial service.
From the age of twenty-five, Levites would begin training in instrumental and vocal music. After age fifty, when a Levi is disqualified from many duties, he may continue to function as a musician.
According to Rashi, the phrase “service to a service” refers to music because it is the service that is to say, accompanying, another service, namely the sacrifices. A fuller treatment of the musical duties of the Levites is found in Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles).