Bamidbar (parsha)

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Bamidbar, Bemidbar, BeMidbar, or B'midbar (בְּמִדְבַּרHebrew for "in the desert," the fifth word, and the first distinctive word, in the parshah) is the 34th weekly Torah portion (parshah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the first in the book of Numbers. It constitutes Numbers 1:1–4:20. Jews in the Diaspora generally read it in May or early June.

The parshah tells of the census and the priests’ duties.

"Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He added, "So shall your offspring be." (Genesis 15:5.)

Contents

Summary

Relative Population of the Tribes
Rank by PopulationTribePopulationPercentage
1Judah74,60012.4
2Dan62,70010.4
3Simeon59,3009.8
4Zebulun57,4009.5
5Issachar54,4009.0
6Naphtali53,4008.8
7Reuben46,5007.7
8Gad45,6507.5
9Asher41,5006.9
10Ephraim40,5006.7
11Benjamin35,4005.9
12Manasseh32,2005.3

Census

In the wilderness, in the second month of the second year following the Exodus from Egypt, God directed Moses to take a census of the Israelite men age 20 years and up, "all those in Israel who are able to bear arms." (Numbers 1:1–3.) The census showed the following populations by tribe (Numbers 1:20–46):

totaling 603,550 in all. God told Moses not to enroll the Levites, but to put them in charge of carrying, assembling, tending to, and guarding the Tabernacle and its furnishings. (Numbers 1:47–53.) Any outsider who encroached on the Tabernacle was to be put to death. (Numbers 1:51.)

The Encampment of the Israelites
North
AsherDANNaphtali
BenjaminMerariIssachar
WestEPHRAIMGershonTHE TABERNACLEPriestsJUDAHEast
ManassehKohathZebulun
GadREUBENSimeon
South

God told Moses that the Israelites were to encamp by tribe as follows (Numbers 1:52–2:34):

priest, Levite, and furnishings of the Tabernacle

Priestly duties

God instructed Moses to place the Levites in attendance upon Aaron to serve him and the priests. (Numbers 3:5–8.) God took the Levites in place of all the firstborn among the Israelites, whom God consecrated when God smote the firstborn in Egypt. (Numbers 3:11–13.) God then told Moses to record by ancestral house and by clan the Levite men from the age of one month up, and he did so. (Numbers 3:14–16.) The Levites divided by their ancestral houses, based on the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. (Numbers 3:17.)

Relative Population of the Levite Divisions
Rank by PopulationDivisionPopulationPercentage
1Kohathites8,60038.6
2Gershonites7,50033.6
3Merarites6,20027.8
Total22,300100.0
  • The Gershonites, numbered 7,500, camped behind the Tabernacle, to the west, and had charge of the Tabernacle, the tent, its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent, the hangings of the enclosure, the screen for the entrance of the enclosure that surrounded the Tabernacle, and the altar. (Numbers 3:21–26.)
  • The Kohathites, numbered 8,600, camped along the south side of the Tabernacle, and had charge of the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the sacred utensils, and the screen. (Numbers 3:27–31.)
  • The Merarites, numbered 6,200, camped along the north side of the Tabernacle, and had charge of the planks of the Tabernacle, its bars, posts, sockets, and furnishings, and the posts around the enclosure and their sockets, pegs, and cords. (Numbers 3:33–37.)
  • Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons camped in front of the Tabernacle, on the east. (Numbers 3:38.)
Carrying the Ark of the Covenant (illustration from a Bible card published circa 1896–1913 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

The total number of the Levites came to 22,000. (Numbers 3:39.) God instructed Moses to record every firstborn male of the Israelites one month old and up, and they came to 22,273. (Numbers 3:40–43.) God told Moses to take the Levites for God in place of all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the Levites’ cattle in place of the Israelites’ cattle. (Numbers 3:44–45.) And to redeem the 273 Israelite firstborn over and above the number of the Levites, God instructed Moses to take five shekels a head and give the money to the priests. (Numbers 3:46–51.)

God then directed Moses and Aaron to take a separate census of the Kohathites between the ages of 30 and 50, who were to perform tasks for the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:1–3.) The Kohathites had responsibility for the most sacred objects. (Numbers 4:4.) At the breaking of camp, Aaron and his sons were to take down the Ark, the table of display, the lampstand, and the service vessels, and cover them all with cloths and skins. (Numbers 4:5–14.) Only when Aaron and his sons had finished covering the sacred objects would the Kohathites come and lift them. (Numbers 4:15.) Aaron's son Eleazar had responsibility for the lighting oil, the aromatic incense, the regular meal offering, the anointing oil, and all the consecrated things in the Tabernacle. (Numbers 4:16.) God charged Moses and Aaron to take care not to let the Kohathites die because they went inside and witnessed the dismantling of the sanctuary. (Numbers 4:17–20.)

In inner-biblical interpretation

Three times in this parshah the Torah lists the tribes, and each time the Torah lists the tribes in a different order:

Order of the Tribes
123456789101112
Numbers 1:1–5ReubenSimeonJudahIssacharZebulunEphraimManassehBenjaminDanAsherGadNaphtali
Numbers 1:20–43ReubenSimeonGadJudahIssacharZebulunEphraimManassehBenjaminDanAsherNaphtali
Numbers 2:3–31JudahIssacharZebulunReubenSimeonGadEphraimManassehBenjaminDanAsherNaphtali

In classical rabbinic interpretation

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.)

Esther (1878 painting by Edwin Long)

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.)

Joseph Interpreting the Chief Butler’s and the Chief Baker’s Dreams (illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

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).

The Numbering of the Israelites (engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux)

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.)

Hillel (sculpture at the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem)

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 "[t]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.)

The Tabernacle that the Israelites Built (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

Numbers chapter 2

Rabbi Eliezer in the name of Rabbi Jose ben Zimra taught that whenever the Israelites were numbered for a proper purpose, they lost no numbers; but whenever they were numbered without a proper purpose, they suffered a diminution. Rabbi Eliezer taught that they were numbered for a proper purpose in connection with the standards (as reported in Numbers 2:2) and the division of the land, but were numbered without a proper purpose (as reported in 2 Samuel 24) in the days of David. (Numbers Rabbah 2:17.)

Of the banners (דֶּגֶל, degel) in Numbers 2:2, a Midrash taught that each tribe had a distinctive flag and a different color corresponding to the precious stones on Aaron's breastplate, and that it was from these banners that governments learned to provide themselves with flags of various colors. (Numbers Rabbah 2:7.) And another Midrash cited the words "his standard over me is love" in Song of Songs 2:4 to teach that it was with a sign of great love that God organized the Israelites under standards like the ministering angels. (Numbers Rabbah 2:3.)

A Midrash used the words "at a distance" in Numbers 2:2 to help define the distance that one may travel on the Sabbath, for the Israelites would need to be close enough to approach the ark on the Sabbath. (Numbers Rabbah 2:9.)

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh (17th century painting by Guercino)

The Gemara cited Numbers 2:18–21 to help examine the consequences of Jacob's blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48:5–6. Rav Aha bar Jacob taught that a tribe that had an inheritance of land was called a "congregation," but a tribe that had no possession was not a "congregation." Thus Rav Aha bar Jacob taught that the tribe of Levi was not called a "congregation." The Gemara questioned Rav Aha's teaching, asking whether there would then be fewer than 12 tribes. Abaye replied quoting Jacob's words in Genesis 48:5: "Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine." But Rava interpreted the words "They shall be called after the name of their brethren in their inheritance" in Genesis 48:6 to show that Ephraim and Manasseh were thereafter regarded as comparable to other tribes only in regard to their inheritance of the land, not in any other respect. The Gemara challenged Rava's interpretation, noting that Numbers 2:18–21 mentions Ephraim and Manasseh separately as tribes in connection with their assembling around the camp by their banners. The Gemara replied to its own challenge by positing that their campings were like their possessions, in order to show respect to their banners. The Gemara persisted in arguing that Ephraim and Manasseh were treated separately by noting that they were also separated with regard to their princes. The Gemara responded that this was done in order to show honor to the princes and to avoid having to choose the prince of one tribe to rule over the other. 1 Kings 8:65 indicates that Solomon celebrated seven days of dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Moses celebrated twelve days of dedication of the Tabernacle instead of seven in order to show honor to the princes and to avoid having to choose the prince of one tribe over the other. (Babylonian Talmud Horayot 6b.)

Numbers chapter 3

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani taught in Rabbi Jonathan's name that Numbers 3:1–2 referred to Aaron's sons as descendants of Aaron and Moses because Moses taught them, showing that Scripture ascribes merit to one who teaches Torah to a neighbor's child as if the teacher had begotten the child. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 19b.)

A Midrash noted that Scripture records the death of Nadab and Abihu in numerous places (Leviticus 10:2 and 16:1; Numbers 3:4 and 26:61; and 1 Chronicles 24:2). This teaches that God grieved for Nadab and Abihu, for they were dear to God. And thus Leviticus 10:3 quotes God to say: “Through them who are near to Me I will be sanctified.” (Numbers Rabbah 2:23.)

Priest, High Priest, and Levite (illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible)

The Mishnah taught that as the Levites exempted the Israelites’ firstborn in the wilderness, it followed a fortiori that they should exempt their own animals from the requirement to offer the firstborn. (Mishnah Bekhorot 1:1; Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot 3b.) The Gemara questioned whether Numbers 3:45 taught that the Levites’ animals exempted the Israelites’ animals. Abaye read the Mishnah to mean that if the Levites’ animals released the Israelites’ animals, it followed a fortiori that the Levites’ animals should release their own firstborn. But Raba countered that the Mishnah meant that the Levites themselves exempted the Israelites’ firstborn. (Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot 4a.)

Tractate Bekhorot in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Babylonian Talmud interpreted the laws of the firstborn in Numbers 3:11–13. (Mishnah Bekhorot 1:1–9:8; Tosefta Bekhorot 1:1–7:15; Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot 2a–61a.)

the lampstand, the responsibility of the Kohathites

A Midrash taught that the Levites camped on the four sides of the Tabernacle in accordance with their duties. The Midrash explained that from the west came snow, hail, cold, and heat, and thus God placed the Gershonites on the west, as Numbers 3:25 indicates that their service was "the tent, the covering thereof, and the screen for the door of the tent of meeting," which could shield against snow, hail, cold, and heat. The Midrash explained that from the south came the dew and rain that bring blessing to the world, and there God placed the Kohathites, who bore the ark that carried the Torah, for as Leviticus 26:3–4 and 15–19 teach, the rains depend on the observance of the Torah. The Midrash explained that from the north came darkness, and thus the Merarites camped there, as Numbers 4:31 indicates that their service was the carrying of wood ("the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and the sockets thereof") which Jeremiah 10:8 teaches counteract idolatrous influences when it says, "The chastisement of vanities is wood." And the Midrash explained that from the east comes light, and thus Moses, Aaron, and his sons camped there, because they were scholars and men of pious deeds, bringing atonement by their prayer and sacrifices. (Numbers Rabbah 3:12.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Levi
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Kohath
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Amram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Izhar
 
 
 
Hebron
 
 
 
Uzziel
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Miriam
 
Aaron
 
Moses
 
Korah
 
Nepheg
 
Zichri
 
Mishael
 
Elzaphan
 
Sithri
 
 

A Midrash taught that Korah took issue with Moses in Numbers 16:1 because Moses had (as Numbers 3:30 reports) appointed Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as prince of the Kohathites, and Korah was (as Exodus 6:21 reports) son of Uzziel's older brother Izhar, and thus had a claim to leadership prior to Elizaphan. (Midrash Tanhuma Korah 1.)

Priests replacing the showbread, the table for which was the responsibility of the Kohathites (19th century illustration)

Numbers chapter 4

A Midrash noted that God ordered the Kohathites counted first in Numbers 4:1 and only thereafter ordered the Gershonites counted in Numbers 4:21, even though Gershon was the firstborn and Scripture generally honors the firstborn. The Midrash taught that Scripture gives Kohath precedence over Gershon because the Kohathites bore the ark that carried the Torah. (Numbers Rabbah 6:1.) Similarly, another Midrash taught that God ordered the Kohathites counted first because Kohath was most holy, for Aaron the priest — who was most holy — descended from Kohath, while Gershon was only holy. But the Midrash taught that Gershon did not forfeit his status as firstborn, because Scripture uses the same language, "Lift up the head of the sons of," with regard to Kohath in Numbers 4:2 and with regard to Gershon in Numbers 4:22. And Numbers 4:22 says "they also" with regard to the Gershonites so that one should not suppose that the Gershonites were numbered second because they were inferior to the Kohathites; rather Numbers 4:22 says "they also" to indicate that the Gershonites were also like the Kohathites in every respect, and the Kohathites were placed first in this connection as a mark of respect to the Torah. In other places (for example, Genesis 46:11, Exodus 6:16, Numbers 3:17 and 26:57, and 1 Chronicles 6:1 and 23:6), however, Scripture places Gershon before Kohath. (Numbers Rabbah 6:2.)

A Midrash noted that in Numbers 4:1 "the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron" to direct them to count the Kohathites and in Numbers 4:21 "the Lord spoke to Moses" to direct him to count the Gershonites, but Numbers 4:29 does not report that "the Lord spoke" to direct them to count the Merarites. The Midrash deduced that Numbers 4:29 employed the words "the Lord spoke" so as to give honor to Gershon as the firstborn, and to give him the same status as Kohath. The Midrash then noted that Numbers 4:1 reported that God spoke "to Aaron" with regard to the Kohathites but Numbers 4:21 did not report communication to Aaron with regard to the Gershonites. The Midrash taught that God excluded Aaron from all Divine communications to Moses and that passages that mention Aaron do not report that God spoke to Aaron, but include Aaron's name in sections that concern Aaron to indicate that God spoke to Moses so that he might repeat what he heard to Aaron. Thus Numbers 4:1 mentions Aaron regarding the Kohathites because Aaron and his sons assigned the Kohathites their duties, since (as Numbers 4:15 relates) the Kohathites were not permitted to touch the ark or any of the vessels until Aaron and his sons had covered them. In the case of the Gershonites, however, the Midrash finds no evidence that Aaron personally interfered with them, as Ithamar supervised their tasks, and thus Numbers 4:21 does not mention Aaron in connection with the Gershonites. (Numbers Rabbah 6:5.)

A Midrash noted that in Numbers 4:2 and Numbers 4:22, God used the expression "lift up the head" to direct counting the Kohathites and Gershonites, but in Numbers 4:29, God does not use that expression to direct counting the Merarites. The Midrash deduced that God honored the Kohathites on account of the honor of the ark and the Gershonites because Gershon was a firstborn. But since the Merarites neither cared for the ark nor descended from a firstborn, God did not use the expression "lift up the head." (Numbers Rabbah 6:4.)

A Midrash noted that Numbers 4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, and 47 say that Levites "30 years old and upward" did service in the tent of meeting, while Numbers 8:24 says, "from 25 years old and upward they shall go in to perform the service in the work of the tent of meeting." The Midrash deduced that the difference teaches that all those five years, from the age of 25 to the age of 30, Levites served apprenticeships, and from that time onward they were allowed to draw near to do service. The Midrash concluded that a Levite could not enter the Temple courtyard to do service unless he had served an apprenticeship of five years. And the Midrash inferred from this that students who see no sign of success in their studies within a period of five years will never see any. Rabbi Jose said that students had to see success within three years, basing his position on the words "that they should be nourished three years" in Daniel 1:5. (Numbers Rabbah 6:3.)

Rav Hamnuna taught that God's decree that the generation of the spies would die in the wilderness did not apply to the Levites, for Numbers 14:29 says, "your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from 20 years old and upward," and this implies that those who were numbered from 20 years old and upward came under the decree, while the tribe of Levi — which Numbers 4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, and 47 say was numbered from 30 years old and upward — was excluded from the decree. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 121b.)

The Mishnah taught that one who stole one of the sacred vessels (kisvot) described in Exodus 25:29 and Numbers 4:7 was struck down by zealots on the spot. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 81b.)

The Jerusalem Talmud found support in Numbers 4:18–20 for the proposition in a Baraita that one who dies before age 50 has died a death of karet, of being cut off from the Jewish people. The Gemara there noted that Numbers 4:18–19 spoke of what the Kohathites should avoid doing so "that they may live, and not die." And Numbers 4:20 enjoined that "they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die." And since Numbers 8:25 indicates that the Kohathites ceased working near the holy things at age 50, these deaths of karet would have to have occurred before the age of 50. (Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim 11b.) The Babylonian Talmud reports that Rabbah said that deaths between the ages of 50 and 60 are also deaths by karet. (Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 28a.)

Commandments

According to Maimonides and Sefer ha-Chinuch, there are no commandments in the parshah. (Maimonides. Mishneh Torah. Cairo, Egypt, 1170–1180. Reprinted in Maimonides. The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides. Translated by Charles B. Chavel, 2 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1967. ISBN 0-900689-71-4. Sefer HaHinnuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education. Translated by Charles Wengrov, 4:3. Jerusalem: Feldheim Pub., 1988. ISBN 0-87306-457-7.)

The Weekly Maqam

Hosea (painting from Siena's Duomo)

In the Weekly Maqam, Sephardi Jews each week base the songs of the services on the content of that week's parshah. For parshah Bamidbar, Sephardi Jews apply Maqam Rast, the maqam that shows a beginning or an initiation of something. This is appropriate because the parshah initiates the Book of Numbers. In the very common case where this parshah precedes the holiday of Shavuot, then the maqam that is applied is Hoseni, the maqam that symbolizes the beauty of receiving the Torah.

Haftarah

Generally

The haftarah for the parshah is Hosea 2:1–22. Both the parshah and the haftarah recount Israel's numbers, the parshah in the census (in Numbers 1:1–2:34), and the haftarah in reference to numbers "like that of the sands of the sea." (Hosea 2:1). Both the parshah and the haftarah place Israel in the wilderness (midbar). (Numbers 1:1; Hosea 2:5, 16.)

On Shabbat Machar Chodesh

When parshah Bamidbar coincides with Shabbat Machar Chodesh (as it did in 2009), the parshah is 1 Samuel 20:18–42.

Further reading

The parshah has parallels or is discussed in these sources:

Ancient

Biblical

Josephus

Early nonrabbinic

Classical rabbinic

Talmud
Rashi

Medieval

Modern

External links

Texts

Commentaries

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