379. Carry On!: The obligation for the Levites to transport the ark on their shoulders

…on their shoulders they shall carry it. (Numbers 7:9)

When the Mishkan traveled, the aron (ark) was not transported by wagon. Rather, it was carried by kohanim on their shoulders. In the Torah, the Levites carried it, but that’s because there were only three kohanim. As we see in the Books of Joshua and Samuel, the kohanim later assumed this responsibility, as intended. (This is the opinion of the Rambam – Maimonides. The Ramban – Nachmanides – feels that either kohanim or Leviim were suited to the task, and he has copious supports for his position.)

The basis of this mitzvah is that the Torah is our most precious possession. The aron contained the luchos (tablets) that were given by God to Moshe on Mount Sinai. Rather than treat it like cargo, the ark was afforded the greatest honor when circumstances required it to be transported from place to place. As we see in II Samuel chapter 6, King David erred in this matter when he had the Aron carried by wagon and tragedy ensued (see Talmud Sotah 35a).

This mitzvah applies at a time when the Jews reside in their land. In the Talmud, it is discussed in tractate Sotah (35a-b) and in tractate Menachos (98b). It is codified in the Mishneh Torah in the second chapter of Hilchos Klei HaMikdash. This mitzvah is #34 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos.