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Home » B'Midbar Parshah

B’midbar: Celestial Formations

Submitted by on May 21, 2006 – 3:10 amNo Comment | 3,706 views

Around the Tabernacle

They traveled together, a single mass of two million people moving slowly through the sands. Each tribe precisely positioned, each group in perfect formation, their footsteps marked the desert.

At the center of this great mass was the tabernacle, the holy house of G-d. Immediately surrounding the tabernacle, was the tribe of Levi. Moses, Aaron and their families to the east, the Gershonic family to the west, the Kehati family to the south and the Merari family to the north. (1) Arrayed around these four families were the remaining twelve tribes of Israel. Three tribes to the east, three to the west, three to the north and three to the south. (2)

Angelic Entourage

The Midrash relates that G-d descended from the heaven at Sinai surrounded by a majestic entourage of twenty-two-thousand angels. The entourage, arrayed around the divine presence, was divided into four groups, one on each side of the Divine. (3)

The eastern group was led by the angel Michael. The western group, by the angel Gavriel. The Northern group, by the angel Rephael and the southern group, by the angel, Uriel. (4)

Arrayed around the first circle of angels was yet another circle of angels, also comprised of four groups. This outer circle numbered six-hundred-thousand. (5)

Witnessing this majestic array our ancestors yearned for a similar formation. Being totally encircled by G-d’s presence would ensure that their attention would be exclusively focused upon G-d. (6) celestial formations - innerstreamThey asked that they be positioned in similar formation when G-d’s presence would become manifest in the tabernacle. (7)

Request Granted

Thirty days after the tabernacle was erected G-d commanded Moses to take a census of the Jewish people and to establish their formations in accordance with that of the angels.

To his amazement, Moses found that the census matched the number of angels in G-d’s entourage perfectly . There were twenty-two thousand Levites, corresponding to the number of angels in G-d’s inner circle, and six-hundred-thousand Jews in the other tribes, corresponding to the number of angels in G-d’s outer circle. (8)

When Moses was instructed to establish the tribal formations, he worried that it would lead to friction among the tribes. Which tribe would lead and which would follow? Who would lead to the east and who to the west? Moses didn’t relish controversy.

“Don’t worry,” G-d told him, “the patriarch Jacob has already arranged it. When Jacob passed away he instructed his sons to carry his coffin in the same formation that their children would later use in the desert.

Yehudah would lead to the east ,followed by Yissachor and Zevulun. Reuven would lead to the south, followed by Shimon and Gad. Ephraim would lead to the west ,followed by Menashe and Binyamin. Dan would lead to the north, followed by Asher and Naftali. (9)

Tribes and Angels

The tribe of Yehudah led to the east, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Gavriel. Yehudah was a symbol of strength and firm discipline as is Gavriel, the angel of divine strength.

The tribe of Reuven led to the south, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Michael. Reuven was a symbol of kindness; he was the first to rush to Joseph’s rescue. This corresponds to Michael, the angel of divine benevolence.

The tribe of Ephraim led to the west, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Rephael. The tribe of Ephrayim prevented Jews from the north of Israel to visit the Temple in Jerusalem. They never repented for this sin and were never spiritually healed. They were therefore aligned with Rephael, the angel of divine healing.

The tribe of Dan led to the north, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Uriel. The tribe of Dan actually implemented Ephraim’s ban on the pilgrimage and denied themselves access to spiritual light. They were therefore aligned with Uriel, the angel of, divine light. (10)

Eleven Months

G-d waited eleven full months before granting his children’s wish and agreeing to this celestial formation (11) (12)

The Midrash teaches that G-d betrothed the Jews at Sinai and married them on the day that the tabernacle was erected. (13) In ancient times it was customary to wait ten months between betrothal and marriage and indeed, there was a ten month interval between the day we received the ten-commandments and the day the tabernacle was erected. (14)

According to the Talmud, wedding celebrations should last for thirty days and indeed, G-d waited one additional month. (15) He wanted to conclude the celebrations and make certain that the bond was complete. Only then, when we were fully committed, our devotion beyond question, did he grant our desire for celestial formation. (16)

Becoming Angelic

Our ancestor’s request reflected a desire to reach beyond their grasp. To perceive G-d’s greatness the way the angels do and to be affected by G-d’s presence the way angels are. They knew that this was beyond them, but this did not prevent them from yearning for it.

G-d waited till they reached the pinnacle of their own potential and then granted their request. In doing so G-d made it possible for us, even here today, to reach beyond ourselves and periodically gain a measure of angelic inspiration. (17)


  1. Numbers 3: 23-39. See also R. Bachye (R. Bachya ben Asher, Saragossa, Spain, 1255-1340) on Numbers 2: 10.
  2. Numbers 2: 1-31.
  3. Bamidbar Rabbah, 2:3. See also R. Bachye on Numbers 2: 1-25.
  4. R. Bachye on Numbers 2: 1-25. See Zohar page 118: for a slightly different order.
  5. Bab. Talmud Shabbat: 88a
  6. Kli Yakar  (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) on Numbers 2: 2. See also Toras Moshe (R. Moshe Alshich, Tzefat, 1508-1600) on Numbers 1: 2. He explains that G-d deliberately positioned the Levites between the tabernacle and the tribes. It ensured that that the rays of G-dly light emanating from the tabernacle would not radiate in pure form as it did at Sinai and overwhelm the uninitiated, but be filtered through the prism of the righteous Levites. The Levites, bolstered by their proximity to Moses and Aaron, would learn to tolerate the intensity of the pure rays and pass them on to the other tribes in a dimmer, softer form than the original.
  7. Vayikrah Rabbah, 2:3.
  8. Numbers 1: 46 and 2: 39. Only the men between the age of twenty and sixty were counted, as this was a census of battle worthy men. There were in fact 603,550 men, however, the additional three-and-a-half-thousand men were not considered in the larger number. See Toras Moshe on Numbers 1: 2.
  9. Midrash Tanchumah, Bamidbar, 12.
  10. R. Bachye on Numbers 2: 1-25. See also Kli Yakar and Nachmanidies (Nachmanides, R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) on Numbers 2: 2 and 3 for alternative explanations. Gavriel, Michael and Refael are also the angels who came to visit Araham and Sarah after Avraham’s circumcision. Refael came to heal Avraham and to save Avraham’s nephew Lot. Michael came to inform them that a child would soon be born to them and Gavriel came to destroy the city of Sedom. Each was sent on a mission that corresponded to its character. See Bereishis Rabbah, 50: 2.
  11. The Ten Commandments were given on the sixth of Sivan and the formations were established on the first of Iyar.
  12. Many explanations were offered in addition to the one offered in this essay. Orach Chayim R. Chaim Ibn Atar, Morocco, 1696-1743) on Numbers 1: 2 argued that G-d was waiting for enough children to be born so that the census would match that of his angelic entourage. Orach Chayim brilliantly compares this census to the previous one (Exodus 38: 26 and 38: 12) and demonstrates an uncanny resemblance between them.Kli Yakar and Toras Moshe suggest that G-d wanted to firmly establish his presence in the tabernacle for at least one month before he acquiesced to the request. Toras Moshe further argued that this was in response to the sin of the Golden Calf. When Moses informed the people that G-d had forgiven them, the people immediately set about building the tabernacle.

    Upon its completion G-d made his presence manifest in it to demonstrate his forgiveness. After thirty days of such presence it was time to align the people in the same formation as the angels to allow for maximum exposure to and benefit from the divine presence among them.

  13. Midrash Tanchumah, Tisa, 16. Midrash Tanchumah, Naso, 20 and see Rashi on Numbers 7: 1.
  14. Genesis 24: 55. “Let the girl stay with us a year or ten (months). These are the ten months that we allow between betrothal and marriage, so that the bride might adorn herself with the twenty-four adornments mentioned in Isaiah, 3: 18-24.
  15. Bab. Talmud, Ketubot, 8a. Every time a newlywed couple attend a meal the wedding blessings should be recited if there are at least ten Jewish men in attendance.
  16. Kli Yakar on Numbers 1: 1.
  17. Sefas Emes, (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur 1847–1905) Bamibar, 1878.


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