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The Order and Contents of Sefer Bemidbar

Rav Aviya Hacohen


The problematic nature of the order of Sefer Bemidbar has prompted many different commentators to offer solutions. In general the connection between the various parashot is explained as being based on association. For example, the parasha of "nedarim" (vows) (chapter 30) follows immediately after the parasha of the sacrifices brought on the festivals (28-9) because of the linguistic connection between, "apart from your vow offerings (nidreikhem) and voluntary offerings" (29:39) and "If a person should take a vow (yidor neder)" (30:2). If we follow this line of explanation we will of necessity reach the conclusion that Sefer Bemidbar is nothing but a haphazard collection of different parashot. Local connections between parashot which are juxtaposed do not in themselves represent sufficient reason for the Sefer in its entirety to be defined as such. The question of the internal order is not peripheral; it is a central issue in the definition of the Sefer.

 It is not my intention to solve all the textual problems posed by Sefer Bemidbar. Rather, I would like to point out what seems to me the basic logic of this Sefer.

 Sefer Bemidbar can be divided into three main units:

Chapters 1-10: The structure of the camp and issues relating to their travels.

Chapters 11-20: The various complaints of Bnei Yisrael.

Chapters 26-36: Issues pertaining to division and inheritance of the Land, and conclusion.

 Part I - chapters 1-10

 This division is, of course, extremely broad, and for our purposes we will concentrate here only on what makes the first unit unique. The second unit contains seven stories of different complaints, while chapters 1-10 contain no real narrative at all. At the conclusion of the first unit we find the verses, "Vayehi binso'a ha-aron - And it was that when the Ark traveled, Moshe said... And when it came to rest he said, 'Return, O God, to the ten-thousands of thousands of Israel'" (10:35-36). These verses are enclosed in special "parentheses" - there is an upside-down letter "nun" at the beginning of verse 35 and at the end of verse 36 - and Chazal regarded this unit as a separate Sefer in its own right (Shabbat 116a). In fact, the upside-down "nun's" define not only these two verses as a sefer apart: as a result of their location, the preceding unit (chapters 1-10) is also defined as a separate sefer. The theme of this first "sefer" is the structure of the encampment and issues pertaining to its travels. Chapters 1-4 deal with the number of souls in each tribe and among the Leviim, the position of each tribe during their travels, and the function of the Leviim during the travels. Chapters 7-8 deal with the dedication of the Mishkan and the sanctification of the Leviim - in other words, preparation of the Mishkan for use. Chapter 9 verse 15 until 10:34 deals with traveling. Chapters 5-6 are clearly an exception and are not connected to the theme of this unit. Two other exceptions are the parasha of the menora (8:1-4, See Rashi and Ramban on the spot) and that of Pesach Sheni (which chronologically fits into the first unit of the Sefer, taking place as it did in the second month of the second year; however, for the purposes of our thematic analysis, the chronological aptness is not sufficient reason for its inclusion.) We shall concentrate on the most outstanding exception - that of chapters 5-6.

 The camp as described in chapters 1-10 is a stationary encampment. At the center of the camp stands the Mishkan, surrounded by Kohanim and Leviim. What is the role of the simple Israelite in this world of holiness? It is this question which chapters 5-6 come to address.

 It seems that chapters 5-8 are arranged inversely to chapters 7-15 of Sefer Vayikra (an idea explored by G. Straus in his article "Chronological and Substantial Order in Sefer Bemidbar," Alon Shvut 75 - Tammuz 5739, pp. 13-21). A comparison of these two units is instructive not only regarding our exceptional chapters but also with regard to the entire unit under discussion.




1. 7:35-8:36

Sanctification of kohanim

2. 9

Dedication of the Mishkan

3. 9:23

Blessing of Moshe and Aharon

4. 10:6-9

"Your hair shall not grow long...", "You


shall not drink wine or intoxicating drink"

5. 10:14

"For the sacrifices of peace offerings of


Bnei Yisrael are lawfully yours and your



6. 10:11-15

Issues of ritual impurity


Impure foods


Impurity of childbirth


Impurity of tzara'at ("leprosy")


Impurity of "zav"




6. 5:1-4

"And you shall expel from the camp every


'leper and every 'zav' and anyone impure due


to contact with a corpse"

5. 5:5-10

Sin offering for having stolen: "And every


offering of all the holy sacrifices of Bnei


Yisrael... shall be to the kohen."

4. 5:11-31

Sota: "And he shall make the woman's hair



4. 6:1-21

Nazir: "He shall avoid wine and intoxicating


drink... he shall not drink... he shall let


the hair of his head grow long..."

3. 6:22-27

The blessing of the kohanim

2. 7

Dedication of the Mishkan



1. 8:5-26

Sanctification of the Leviim


Before dealing with the parallels themselves and their significance, it should be noted that the very fact that the parallel exists indicates the purposeful order of the Torah. Let us now examine each parasha individually.

 1. Sanctification of kohanim - Sanctification of Leviim

In Vayikra - also known as "Torat Kohanim" - we find the regulations for the sanctification of the kohanim. The Leviim are barely mentioned at all. In Sefer Bemidbar, on the other hand, the Leviim are mentioned frequently, including in the context of the process of their sanctification. This difference between the two books is not incidental. The significance of the difference may be an extension of the connection to the world of kedusha from the nucleus of Aharon's family to the entire tribe of Levi (even though there remain differences in their respective status and responsibilities.)

 2. Dedication of the Mishkan

At the center of the dedication of the Mishkan in Sefer Vayikra stand Aharon and his sons, while in Sefer Bemidbar it is the princes of the tribes who play a central role in the ceremony. The entire institution of the princes is left almost unmentioned until the end of Sefer Vayikra, while in Sefer Bemidbar it is a dominant theme. The significance of such an innovation may be a further extension of authority; the bestowing of leadership authority on the representatives of the nation.

 3. Blessings of Moshe and Aharon - Blessing of the Kohanim

5. Gifts to the Priests

In neither of these two subjects did I find a significant difference between the two books. Their importance lies in their contribution to the developing parallel.

 4. "You shall not let your hair grow... you shall not drink wine or intoxicating drinks" - Nazir

The Nazir is similar to the Kohen. Just as the kohen, during his period of service in the Mishkan, is forbidden to drink wine or other intoxicating liquor, so the Nazir is likewise forbidden - for the entire period of his vow. Regarding the Kohen, the Torah says: "They shall be holy to their God" (21:5), while regarding the Nazir we read, "He shall be holy... He is holy to God" (6:5-8). Moreover, the Nazir is comparable to the Kohen Gadol: Concerning the Kohen Gadol the Torah says, "For the crown (nezer) of the anointing oil of his God is upon him" (Vayikra 21:12), and the language used in the case of the Nazir is remarkably similar: "For the crown (nezer) of his God is upon his head" (6:7). A Nazir is forbidden to come into contact with a corpse - even in the context of the funeral of one of his close relatives - just like the Kohen Gadol (Vayikra 21:11), and for the entire period of his Nazirite vow his state is reminiscent of thaof the Kohen Gadol - "He shall not depart from the Mikdash." However, there is one outstanding difference between the kedusha of the Nazir and that of the Kohen. The former involves the command "He shall leave his hair to grow long," while the kohanim are commanded, "You shall not let your hair grow long." (This may express the difference between "institutionalized" kedusha and individual, spontaneous kedusha.)

 The Torah's treatment of the subject of the Nazir provides the answer to the question we posed earlier: What is a simple Israelite to do in the midst of this world of kedusha? Our parasha comes and teaches us that (through the Nazirite vow) any Israelite may reach a level of holiness similar to that of the Kohen Gadol.

 4. "You shall not let your hair grow long" - "And you shall make the hair of the woman disheveled" (Sota)

We compared the Nazir to two parashot dealing with the priesthood in Sefer Vayikra - chapter 10 and chapter 21. The parasha of Sota, too, can be compared to these two parashot. There is a linguistic similarity to Vayikra 10:6, but a more substantial similarity exists with reference to Vayikra 21:7, where the kohanim are commanded, "You shall not take (marry) a prostitute or a profaned woman." Just as the kohen is commanded to maintain the kedusha of his family, each individual in Israel is expected to sanctify his private life. The parasha of Sota dramatically conveys this point.


6. Ritual Impurity - Banishing of the ritually impure

Both Vayikra and Bemidbar contain parashot reflecting concern for the sanctity of the camp of Israel. The instructions as to the banishing of the ritually impure continues in the direction of Nazir and Sota - i.e., the development of the sanctity of the camp.

 We have learned that the parashot in chapters 5-6 provide a response to the problem posed by the stationary camp, i.e., the problem of the relationship between the camp of Israel and the world of kedusha. However, we have learned a much deeper lesson. At the center of the camp stands the Mishkan, while at the center of this first unit of Sefer Bemidbar, which is devoted to the structure of the encampment, stands the simple Israelite, and it is to him that the Sefer is principally addressed.

 At the end of this unit the situation is ripe for the entry of Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land, but the next unit with its description of all their various complaints indicates their unworthiness.

 Part II - Stories of Complaints

 This unit is placed at the center of Sefer Bemidbar, and deals with a series of national scandals: Tav'era (11:1-3); the lusting for meat (11:4-35); Miriam's tzara'at ("leprosy") (12); the spies (13-14); Korach (16-18); the smiting of the rock for water (20:12-13); and the copper snake (21:4-9). (Ba'al Pe'or [25] is a case apart, not only because its subject matter concerns idolatry without any explicit complaint to God, but also because of its location in the Sefer. For these reasons it does not seem to form an integral part of this unit.) In Sefer Shemot, too, there are stories of complaints, and we may ask with some justification what the difference is between these cases. Is there a qualitative difference between these two books, or is the division of these stories made only according to the different time-frames? The great similarity between some of the stories simplifies their comparison: 

a. Manna and quails (Shemot 16) - Lust for meat (Bemidbar 11:4-5)

Sefer Shemot (16) records the story of how Bnei Yisrael complained upon reaching Midbar Sin: "If only we had died... in the land of Egypt... for you have brought us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by starvation" (Shemot 16:13). In response, God gives the nation manna and quails. But in Bemidbar we are told that each day the nation received only manna. Wearying of the manna and desiring meat, the nation indeed receives meat, but "the anger of God burned against the nation, and God smote the nation with a very heavy blow" (11:33). Various commentators address different aspects of these stories; we shall concentrate here on the question of the difference between them. In Sefer Shemot the nation generally behaves like a baby, crying out for food, and quieting when this demand is fulfilled. In Bemidbar the situation is more complicated. The nation cannot be allowed to continue behaving like a baby, and for this reason "God's anger burned against the nation". A second issue raised by this story is the problem of leadership: Moshe expresses despair: "I cannot... bear this entire nation... if this is what You will do to me then kill me, I pray You" (11:14-15). Subsequently a measure of authority is bestowed on the seventy elders. At the end of the story we find Eldad and Meidad prophesying, a phenomenon which undermines the hegemony of Moshe's prophecy. (Yehoshua therefore demands that Moshe restrain them.) Even the most superficial reading of the story reveals that its two central issues are the state of the nation and the leadership. These issues are repeated in all the stories of the various complaints. In Sefer Shemot the nation is comparable to a baby; now the nation has "grown up" and must be guided and educated in the right direction.

 b. Masa and Meriva (Shemot 17:1-7) - Mei Meriva (Smiting of the rock) (Bemidbar 20:2-3)

The story of the smiting of the rock raises two fundamental questions. Firstly, what was Moshe's actual sin? Secondly, what is the chronological relationship between this story and that of "Masa and Meriva"?

Generations of commentators have addressed both questions. We shall not attempt to deal with the issue of the chronological order of these events, but will rather point out the difference between them. For the sake of brevity, let us adopt one explanation without subjecting it to debate with others: Moshe's sin lay in hitting the rock with the staff that was in his hand. This act demonstrated power in Moshe's hand, while a verbal action, mentioning God's name, would have demonstrated that it was not Moshe who stood at the center of this wondrous event but rather God. (This explanation combines the view of Rashi, who regards the essence of the sin as hitting the rock, and the view of Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban, both of whom explain that Moshe's sin was his declaration, "We shall bring you water" instead of "God will bring you water.") During the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt, the "staff" style of leadership was sufficient; now the nation requires a new style to lead them into the Land. The sign of the new style is the fact that it is no longer a case of a lone leader standing before the nation; the nation in its entirety now stands before God. A person who fails to grasp this concept is not worthy of leading the nation into the land. The nation, too, behaves again like a baby - crying for water, and failing to acknowledge thanks when the request is fulfilled. For this they are punished: they will not enter the land via the shorter route, but will rather be led around the land of Edom.

 This analysis of Mei Meriva is sufficient to serve as a guide to all the "complaint stories" and to connect them to our first section. Sefer Bemidbar recounts the extension of leadership (Shemot) and kedusha (Vayikra) to the people as a whole. We shall return to a closer reading of the second section when we get to Parashat Shelach.

  (This shiur was translated by Kaeren Fish. It originally appeared in Megadim 9.)

The continuation may be found in our study of Parashat Shelach.

  Further Study:

You may have noticed that the bulk of this shiur seems to be based on Parashat Naso. The purpose was to analyze the theme of Sefer Bemidbar in general. But let us now concentrate on Parashat Bemidbar.

1. Read the opening verse (1,1). Previous parashot are either "be-midbar" or "be-Har Sinai" or "be-ohel mo'ed." This parasha is "be-Midbar Sinai be-ohel mo'ed." Why?

2. Why is there another counting (see Rashi)? What does counting the Jews here indicate, in contradistinction to the countings in Shemot? What is the difference between a counting using shekalim to the mishkan and one using the princes?

3. Are the Levi'im an extension of Aharon or of the Jewish peop(see 3,5-13; 40-51)?

4. What is the significance of the tribe of Levi being listed by "families" (Ch. 3)? Notice that the Jewish people in this parasha are not listed in this manner - but they are in Parashat Pinchas (ch. 26).


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