By Israel Drazin


The following are surprising interpretations of the biblical portion Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) contained in Midrash Sifrei, Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, Rashi, and Arnold Ehrlich.


  1. 8:15      states l’avod ohel moed, which      is an awkward phrase literally meaning “to work the tent of meeting.” Ehrlich      suggests that this is a scribal error: a lost word. The original phrase      was l’avod avodat ohel moed,      “to do the work of the tent of meeting.” This is the usual biblical wording      found in 4:30, 7:15, and 18:21, 23. The truncated version is not found      elsewhere.
  2. 8:24      states that Levites serve in the tabernacle from age 25, while 4:23      reports the age as 30. While both use the same terminology, the Babylonian      Talmud, Chullin 27 clarifies that Levites go to the tabernacle at age 25 to      learn their work, a course focusing on a single subject for five years,      longer than our current college courses. A similar discrepancy in numbers      occurs in I Chronicles 23:3, which states that the age is 30, and 23:24,      which has a third age, 20. Unafraid to states that errors crept into the      Torah text and not acknowledging the divine origin of the texts, Ehrlich      supposes that the authors of these divergent numbers did not know which      age is correct.
  3. Sifrei to      9:1 reveals that the Israelites only observed the Pascal sacrifice ceremony      once during the forty year trek through the desert from Egypt to Canaan.
  4. 9:4 has      the law that a geir offers the      Pascal sacrifice as do Israelites. The term geir means a stranger, a non-citizen. The Torah states that      Israelites were geirim (the      plural of geir) in Egypt. Thus, the verse encourages even non-Israelites      living temporarily in Canaan to join Israelites in celebrating the exodus      from Egypt in a kind of Thanksgiving holiday. Although, there is no      explicit mention of converts in the Hebrew Bible,[1]      the ancient rabbis wanted to emphasize that Jews should treat converts      well, just as they treat Jews who were born Jewish. Since the Torah      mentions that the Israelites should love the geir, stranger, 36 times, they decided to use geir to mean convert: one should      love converts.[2]      Basing its teaching on this midrashic use of geir, Sifrei states that this section teaches that a convert      must observe all the laws of Judaism, just as born Jews. [3]
  5. Ehrlich      suggests that Moses’s conversation with his father-in-law in 10:29-37,      where Moses is requests that he, who had lived in the desert, accompany      the Israelites through the desert to show them where to travel, occurred      before the beginning of the forty-year desert journey. Ehrlich agrees with      the sages who say that there is no chronological order to the Torah.[4]      This explains why Moses felt he needed a guide: he did not know at that      time that God would later supply his people with a cloud to lead them      through the desert.
  6. The Torah      does not reveal whether Moses’ father-in-law complied with Moses’s request      and accompanied the Israelites. This is one of several biblical episodes      that stop tales before their ending. However Judges 1:16 and 4:11 indicate      that his father-in-law’s descendants lived among the Israelites in Canaan.
  7. 10:36      contains an obscure phrase: when the Israelites ceased traveling and rested      at one site for a period of time, they prayed “Return Lord many thousands      of Israel.” Rashi explains that it means “to the many thousands of      Israel.” Ehrlich suggests that “to the” need not be added; “many thousands      of Israel” is a description of God: “Return Lord (the one who is as mighty      as) many thousands of Israel.”
  8. What is      the significance of 12:14 where after Moses prays to God to heal his      sister Miriam from leprosy, God tells him that if her father spit in her      eyes she would hide from shame for seven days? Ehrlich explains that the      ancients believed that spit had magic powers. In the Jerusalem Talmud      Sotah 1, Rabbi Meir allows a woman to spit in his eye to cure an eye      ailment. In Mark 8:23 Jesus spit into the eyes of a blind man and cured      him so that he could see.[5]      However, despite its curative power, spitting is disgraceful. Thus God is      saying to Moses: if Miriam’s father would spit on her to cure her of the      leprosy wouldn’t she be embarrassed because of the spit and seclude      herself for seven days to hide her embarrassment? So, as punishment,      Miriam must remain outside the camp for seven days.

[1] The midrashic interpretations of Genesis 12:5 that Abram and Sarai took with them “the souls they had gotten in Haran” does not literally mean converts. The term nefesh is translated today as “soul,” but it means a person in the Torah, so the verse is saying that the couple took along the people (slaves) they acquired in Haran. So, too, the midrashic understanding of Ruth saying to her mother in law in Ruth 1:16 and 17 that she wants to accompany her to Judea, “where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people; your God my God; where you are buried, I will be buried” does not imply conversion to Judaism. People at that time believed that every country had its own god. Ruth was telling her mother-in-law that she wanted to join her and be a citizen of Judea. The concept of conversion did not enter Judaism until around 150 BCE. If conversion existed, the Bible would have said so. Ruth went through no conversion ceremony. Joseph and Moses did not convert the daughters of pagan priests that they married. Ezra and Nehemiah knew nothing about conversion and insisted that the Judeans who married pagan wives send them away. Some Judeans did so, but others did not. If conversion existed at the time, the solution would have been conversion, not the disruption of families.

[2] The term proselyte is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, called Septuagint, as the Greek translation of geir. The meaning of the Greek word is “stranger,” as is the Hebrew word, and only later came to mean as person who converted to another religion.

[3] This contrasts with the teaching of Paul who said that pagans who converted to Judaism need not undergo circumcision or obey the kosher laws. These Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah were later called Christians.

[4] For example, Rashi states that the worship of the golden calf occurred before the laws of the tabernacle were promulgated, even though this idolatrous episode appears in the Torah after some laws of the tabernacle.

[5] Today, many superstitious Jews spit three times to ward off the evil eye when confronted with an unwanted occurrence. Three is a magic number; it was believed that if a person asked for something three times it would occur.