Parashat Naso begins by outlining the portions of the Mishkan which were transported by the Levite families of Gershon and Merari when Benei Yisrael traveled through the wilderness. This section is a continuation of the final section of Parashat Bamidbar, which told of the duties assigned to the other Levite family, the family of Kehat.
In discussing the articles assigned to Kehat, God commands the kohanim to appoint “ish al avodato ve-el masa’o” – each Kehatite to his specific role (4:19). Meaning, rather than leave it to the Kehatites to arrange their family’s workload themselves, the kohanim should take responsibility for this arrangement, and order each member of Kehat to a particular job. A somewhat similar statement is made in Parashat Naso with regard to the duties assigned to the family of Gershon: “U-fkadetem aleihem be-mishmeret eit kol masa’am” (4:27). The kohanim were to assign the Gershonites to their particular roles, so that each knew precisely which parts of the Mishkan he was responsible for transporting. This is mentioned in reference to the workload of Merari, as well, only with one interesting difference. The Torah writes, “u-ve’sheimot tifkedu et kelei mishmeret masa’am” (4:32) – the various utensils transported by Merari were to be assigned “be-sheimot,” by name. It appears that with regard to the portions of the Mishkan transported by Merari, the names – of either the utensils or the people of Merari – had to be specified.
The Ramban explains that in truth, there was no difference in this regard between Merari and the other Levite families. Every Levi, from any family, was assigned by name to a particular utensil of the Mishkan. The reason why this was mentioned specifically in reference to Merari, the Ramban suggests, is because the Merarites’ responsibilities included the heaviest articles – specifically, the planks and beams. The workload of the Merarites, in particular, lent itself to quarreling, as some might have wished to excuse themselves from the heavier articles and leave them for others. Therefore, it was especially important that the Merarites be assigned to their roles by name, though in truth, this was done for all three Levite families.
Maharil Diskin explains differently. He writes that Merari’s assignment was unique in that it included multiple identical parts. They were responsible for transporting the planks, pillars and sockets, all of which were numerous and indistinguishable from one another. Maharil Diskin noted that just as each plank, pillar and socket needed to be positioned in the same location each time the Mishkan was reassembled, it also needed to be carried by the same Levite each time the Mishkan was transported. And given that all the planks were identical to one another, as were the pillars and sockets, each needed to be given a name and labelled to ensure that it would be carried by the same person or people each time the nation traveled. This system was not necessary for the families of Kehat and Gershon. The Kehatites transported the sacred vessels – the altars, the ark, the table and the menorah – which were, of course, easily distinguishable from one another. And the Gershonites transported the various cloths and curtains, most of which differed from one another significantly, such that each could easily be distinguished from the others. Therefore, it was only the items carried by Merari which need to be labelled by name to ensure that they were all carried by the same Leviyim each time Benei Yisrael traveled.