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Rashi on Shemot 5:4 says:

GO YE UNTO YOUR BURDENS — Go to your work which you have to do at home; but it cannot signify “go to your labours as slaves”, for he was speaking to Moses and Aaron who were of the tribe of Levi, and the work of Egyptian slavery had not been imposed on the tribe of Levi. You may know that this was so, because Moses and Aaron went and came just as they pleased (Exodus Rabbah 5:16).

Why weren't the Levi'im enslaved like the other tribes? Is it that they were already serving as a kind of priestly tribe though this title was moved from the b'chorot to the tribe of Levi only later on in the Torah and it's a case of אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה? If so, a. What duties exactly did they have at the time (with there being no Mishkan)? b. Why should Pharaoh even care that their tribe had a different status among Bnei Yisrael, enough to respect it and not enslave them?

If it's not a case of אין מוקדם ומאוחר, is there a different explanation?

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From Tiferes Yonasan,(pg 85) Rav Yehonasan Eibschutz writes that Pharaoh freed shevet Levi from slavery so that they would not identify with the suffering of the rest of the Jews. He saw through astrology that the savior would come from that shevet and thought that by keeping them sheltered from the suffering he could keep them from caring, and getting involved and prevent the redemption from occurring.

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Just as the Egyptians freed their clergy from the taxes that Yoseph set up, so to the Leviim were in effect the clergy of the Bnai Yisrael. As a result, the Egyptians treated them the same way as they treated their own clergy. It was a superstition that those regarded as clergy belonged to the gods and therefore could not be forced into paying a labor tax.

Another reason is that when Pharaoh and the Egyptians initialy tricked the Hebrews into paying the labor tax, which then led to the slavery, the Levites did not go along with this and never started working for the Egyptians. Additionally, when the rest of the Hebrews started spreading out of Goshen and into the rest of Egypt, the Levites stayed in Goshen and continued to be separate.

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    it's a good answer, but: a. Are there any sources for this? b. As clergy, what did the Levi'im actually do (considering there wasn't a Mishkan at the time)?
    – Harel13
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 6:54
  • The Levi'im continued doing whatever they had been doing before the slavery started.
    – Schmerel
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 21:17
  • @Schmerel which is what? What made them clergy in their doing?
    – Harel13
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 8:57
  • @Harel13 See Rambam, Hil. Avodah Zarah 1:3 (1:15-16 in the Mechon Mamre edition): they were the nation's Torah teachers.
    – Meir
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 20:46
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B"H

I am actually writing a sefer on this (and more), so I've got this ready :)

The Rabbeinu Bahya (sv. לכו לסבלותיכם) explains:

The Egyptians, i.e. Pharaoh, respected Joseph’s law that religious dignitaries were not owned by Pharaoh. Pharaoh himself was interested in the people having religious leadership and instructions that would make them a disciplined people.

Tiferes Yonasan, brought down by Rabbi Avraham Bukspan in Classics & Beyond (vol. 2) (see also answer above from Shmuel Goldstein) explains that Pharao excepted Shevet Levi from slavery because of the principle נושא בעול עם חבירו and he wanted to prevent that in combination with the coming of redemption.

Similary, the Chizkuni writes:

!לכו לסבלותיכם, “go back to your labours! “The reason why the tribe of Levi had been exempted from performing slave labour when the Egyptians first began to enslave the Israelites was that Pharaoh pretended to share that burden with them in order to encourage them to perform these labours for patriotic reasons, building fortifications against potential invaders.

At that time the tribe of Levi remembered what their founding father Yaakov had said to them on his death bed, that Levi was not to be one of his pall bearers as that tribe was destined in the future to carry the Holy Ark on its shoulders. They therefore declined at the time to participate in the building of fortifications, and Pharaoh did not make an issue of this as also the Egyptians had a caste of priests who Joseph during the years of famine had completely excused from any taxation.

See also Daas Zkenim (ad loc.) and the Tur HaAroch (ad loc.):

לכו לסבלותיכם, “go about your own business!” Rashi equates סבלותיכם with עבודתכם, “your work,” as opposed to סבלות, forced labour, as the members of the tribe of Levi were exempt from forced labour. Ibn Ezra does not perceive the word סבלותיכם as addressed to Moses and Aaron, but as referring to the forced labour of the masses of the Israelites whom they claimed to represent. Some commentators claim that even the ordinary Israelites did not have to join the workforce until they had reached the age of nine, and that they could “retire” at the age of 60. Nachmanides writes that according to the plain meaning of the words Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron to rather perform their duties for their King, together with the remainder of the nation, seeing that on that occasion Moses and Aaron appeared before him accompanied by the common people. Pharaoh therefore told those people to get back to work instead of wasting their time dreaming of an illusory redemption. When Moses and Aaron, instead of complying with Pharaoh’s command, appeared before him once more, he commanded them to legitimize themselves by means of a miracle. Once Moses and Aaron had done so, he no longer looked upon them as part of the common people but respected them as elders, as sages. Once they had begun to decree plagues upon Egypt, he no longer treated them only with deference, but with fear, with dread. It appears that not all of the Israelites were slaving away making and laying bricks all the time, for if so the country would have become a large heap of bricks. Making bricks was a tax imposed by Pharaoh on the entire population, but the Israelites were singled out by working far longer hours and by having to supply a much larger percentage of their manpower.

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Me’am Lo’ez says that the Levites provided a useful core of intellectual experts who were of use to the Egyptians. In contrast, Oznayim la-Torah says they weren’t enslaved because they knew nothing but Torah so had no useful practical skills whatsoever!

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