Bamidbar (parsha) - in Classical Rabbinic Interpretation - Numbers Chapter 1

Numbers Chapter 1

The Rabbis discussed why God spoke to Moses "in wilderness." (Numbers 1:1.) Raba taught that when people open themselves to everyone like a wilderness, God gives them the Torah. (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 55a.) Similarly, a Midrash taught that those who do not throw themselves open to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. The Sages inferred from Numbers 1:1 that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of fire, water, and wilderness. And the giving of the Torah was marked by these three features to show that as these are free to all people, so are the words of the Torah; as Isaiah 55:1 states, "everyone who thirsts, come for water." (Numbers Rabbah 1:7.) Another Midrash taught that if the Torah had been given to the Israelites in the land of Israel, the tribe in whose territory it was given would have said that it had a prior claim to the Torah, so God gave it in the wilderness, so that all should have an equal claim to it. Another Midrash taught that as people neither sow nor till the wilderness, so those who accept the yoke of the Torah are relieved of the yoke of earning a living; and as the wilderness does not yield any taxes from crops, so scholars are free in this world. And another Midrash taught that the Torah was given in the wilderness because they preserve the Torah who keep themselves separate like a wilderness. (Numbers Rabbah 19:26.)

The Gemara noted that Numbers 1:1 happened in "the second month, in the second year," while Numbers 9:1 happened "in the first month of the second year," and asked why the Torah presented the chapters beginning at Numbers 1 before Numbers 9, out of chronological order. Rav Menasia bar Tahlifa said in Rab's name that this proved that there is no chronological order in the Torah. (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 6b.)

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak noted that both Numbers 1:1 and Numbers 9:1 begin, "And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai," and deduced that just as Numbers 1:1 happened (in the words of that verse) "on the first day of the second month," so too Numbers 9:1 happened at the beginning of the month. And as Numbers 9:1 addressed the Passover offering, which the Israelites were to bring on the 14th of the month, the Gemara concluded that one should expound the laws of a holiday two weeks before the holiday. (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 6b.)

A Midrash taught that when God is about to make Israel great, God explicitly states the place, the day, the month, the year, and the era, as Numbers 1:1 says, “in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt.” The Midrash continued that God then said to the Israelites (rereading Numbers 1:2): “Raise to greatness all the congregation of the children of Israel.” (Interpreting “raise the head” — שְׂאוּ אֶת-רֹאשׁ — to mean “raise to greatness.”) (Numbers Rabbah 1:1.)

A Midrash explained the specificity of Numbers 1:1 with a parable. A king married a wife and did not give her a legal marriage contract. He then sent her away without giving her a bill of divorce. He did the same to a second wife and a third, giving them neither a marriage contract nor a bill of divorce. Then he saw a poor, well-born orphan girl whom he desired to marry. He told his best man (shoshbin) not to deal with her as with the previous ones, as she was well-born, modest in her actions and worthy. The king directed that his aide draw up a marriage contract for her, stating the period of seven years, the year, the month, the day of the month, and the region, in the same way that Esther 2:16 writes about Esther, “So Esther was taken to king Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign.” So God did not state when God created the generation of the Flood and did not state when God removed them from the world, except insofar as Genesis 7:11 reports, “on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up.” The same fate befell the generation of the Dispersal after the Tower of Babel and the generation of Egypt; Scripture does not indicate when God created then or when they passed away. But when Israel appeared, God told Moses that God would not act towards them as God did towards those earlier generations, as they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God instructed that Moses record for them the precise month, day of the month, year, region, and city in which God lifted them up. Therefore Numbers 1:1 says: “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai,” indicating the region; “in the tent of meeting,” indicating the province; “in the second year,” indicating the precise year; “in the second month,” indicating the precise month; “on the first day of the month,” indicating the precise day of the month; and “after they were come out of Egypt,” indicating the era. (Numbers Rabbah 1:5.)

Rabbi Phinehas the son of Idi noted that Numbers 1:2 says, “Lift up the head of all the congregation of the children of Israel,” not “Exalt the head” or “Magnify the head,” but “Lift up the head,” like a man who says to the executioner, “Take off the head of So-and-So.” Thus Numbers 1:2 conveys a hidden message with the expression “Lift up the head.” If the Israelites were worthy, they would rise to greatness, with the words “Lift up” having the same meaning as in Genesis 40:13 when it says (as Joseph interpreted the chief butler’s dream), “Pharaoh shall lift up your head, and restore you to your office.” If they were not worthy, they would all die, with the words “Lift up” having the same meaning as in Genesis 40:19 when it says (as Joseph interpreted the chief baker’s dream), “Pharaoh shall lift up your head from of you, and shall hang you on a tree.” (Gen. XL, 19).

A Midrash taught that the Israelites were counted on ten occasions: (1) when they went down to Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:22); (2) when they went up out of Egypt (Exodus 12:37); (3) at the first census in Numbers (Numbers 1:1–46); (4) at the second census in Numbers (Numbers 26:1–65); (5) once for the banners; (6) once in the time of Joshua for the division of the land of Israel; (7) once by Saul (1 Samuel 11:8); (8) a second time by Saul (1 Samuel 15:4); (9) once by David (2 Samuel 24:9); and once in the time of Ezra (Ezra 2:64). (Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Sisa 9.)

Rav Aha bar Jacob taught that for the purposes of numbering fighting men (as in Numbers 1:1–3), a man over 60 years of age was excluded just as was one under 20 years of age. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 121b.)

The Rabbis taught in a Baraita that upon entering a barn to measure the new grain one should recite the blessing, "May it be Your will O Lord, our God, that You may send blessing upon the work of our hands." Once one has begun to measure, one should say, "Blessed be the One who sends blessing into this heap." If, however, one first measured the grain and then recited the blessing, then prayer is in vain, because blessing is not to be found in anything that has been already weighed or measured or numbered, but only in a thing hidden from sight. (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 8b.)

The Gemara deduced from the words "by their families, by their fathers’ houses" in Numbers 1:2 that the Torah identifies families by the father's line. (Babylonian Talmud Nazir 49a, Bava Batra 109b, Bekhorot 47a.)

The Mekhilta found support in the words "they declared their pedigrees after their families, by their fathers' houses" in Numbers 1:18 for Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kappar's proposition that the Israelites displayed virtue by not changing their names. (Mekhilta Pisha 5.)

Rabbi Judah ben Shalom taught that Numbers 1:49 excluded the Levites from being numbered with the rest of the Israelites for their own benefit, for as Numbers 14:29 reports, "all that were numbered" died in the wilderness, but because the Levites were numbered separately, they entered the land of Israel. (Numbers Rabbah 3:7; see also Numbers Rabbah 1:11–12.) A Midrash offered another explanation for why the Levites were not numbered with the Israelites: The Levites were the palace-guard and it would not have been consonant with the dignity of a king that his own legion should be numbered with the other legions. (Numbers Rabbah 1:12.)

The Rabbis taught in a Baraita that when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the Levitical camp established in Numbers 1:50 served as the place of refuge to which manslayers could flee. (Babylonian Talmud Makkot 12b.)

Building upon the prohibition of approaching the holy place in Numbers 1:51, the Gemara taught that a person who unwittingly entered the Temple court without atonement was liable to bring a sin-offering, but a person who entered deliberately incurred the penalty of being cut off from the Jewish people, or karet. (Babylonian Talmud Menachot 28b.)

A non-Jew asked Shammai to convert him to Judaism on condition that Shammai appoint him High Priest. Shammai pushed him away with a builder's ruler. The non-Jew then went to Hillel, who converted him. The convert then read Torah, and when he came to the injunction of Numbers 1:51, 3:10, and 18:7 that "the common man who draws near shall be put to death," he asked Hillel to whom the injunction applied. Hillel answered that it applied even to David, King of Israel, who had not been a priest. Thereupon the convert reasoned a fortiori that if the injunction applied to all (non-priestly) Israelites, whom in Exodus 4:22 God had called "my firstborn," how much more so would the injunction apply to a mere convert, who came among the Israelites with just his staff and bag. Then the convert returned to Shammai, quoted the injunction, and remarked on how absurd it had been for him to ask Shammai to appoint him High Priest. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a.)

The Gemara relates that once Rabban Gamaliel, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Akiba went to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, and just as they came to Mount Scopus, they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies. The first three Rabbis began to cry, but Akiba smiled. The three asked him why he smiled, but Akiba asked them why they wept. Quoting Numbers 1:51, they told him that they wept because a place of which it was once said, "And the common man that draws near shall be put to death," had become the haunt of foxes. Akiba replied that he smiled because this fulfilled the prophecy of Uriah the priest, who prophesied (along with Micah, as reported in Jeremiah 26:18–20) that "Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the House as the high places of a forest." And Isaiah 8:2 linked Uriah's prophecy with Zechariah's. And Zechariah 8:4 prophesied that "here shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem." So the fulfillment of Uriah's prophecy gave Akiba certainty that Zechariah's hopeful prophecy would also find fulfillment. The others then told Akiba that he had comforted them. (Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24b.)

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