The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects….. – Numbers 4:17-19

Of all the Israelite tribes, the Levites alone are singled out for service to the priests, doing the work of the Tabernacle (Lev. 3:8). At the time of the second census, they are counted separately from the other tribes. The Levites are enumerated further by ancestral houses descended from the sons of Levi – Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Each is assigned a place within the camp adjacent to the Tent of Meeting and responsibility for a particular set of duties.

Among the Levites, mature men of the Kohathite clans headed by Levi’s great-grandson, Elizaphan, are also counted separately and before those of the Gershonites and Merarites. Those Kohathite men who are subject to service (Lev. 4:3) are assigned to the most important ritual objects: the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the sacred utensils that were used with them (Lev. 3:31). Specifically, the work of the Kohathites is to carry these sacred objects as the people transverse the desert wilderness between camps.

Porterage of the Holy of Holies was arduous work. From numerous midrashic sources we learn that these Levites traveled barefoot because they carried and protected sacred objects in the presence of the Shekhinah. They walked backwards to avoid turning their backs to the Holy Ark. The Kohathites’ responsibilities were dangerous, as well. Sparks from the cherubim killed the serpents and scorpions and burned the thorns that threatened the Israelites as they proceeded. The staves extending from the ark set off sparks that killed Israel’s enemies. They sometimes created havoc among its bearers, too.

The Torah indicates that the greatest potential danger to the Kohathites occurred during the taking down of the camp when the sacred ritual objects in Tent of Meeting were prepared for transport. God specifically charges Moses and Aaron with ensuring that the priests protect the men of the Levite clan who are assigned to serve them by preparing the ark and other implements for the Kohathites to carry.

Our work as bakers cannot compare with that of the Israelite priests, but we share their responsibility to protect those who help us in our undertakings. We must assist our kitchen helpers by providing a safe environment and, as needed, by performing those tasks which pose the greatest danger to them ourselves.

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