By Israel Drazin


Rashi (1040-1105) reports a teaching of Rabbi Ishmael (second century CE) contained in Midrash Sifrei Numbers 30 in his commentary on Numbers 6:13. I think that Sifrei may have erred because what it says doesn’t seem logical or consistent with the interpretive methodology of Rabbi Ishmael.


Chapter 6 details the laws of the Nazirite, a person who vowed to abstain from drinking wine or other strong beverages. He must abstain from these drinks, not cut his hair, or come near a dead person for the period of his vow. When the period is completed, 6:13 states, “he must bring oto (a word that could mean ‘it’ or ‘him’) to the door of the tent of meeting and present (certain prescribed) offerings to the Lord.” How do we translate oto here?


Relying on Sifrei, Rashi states “He shall bring himself. This is one of three (instances) of (variations of the word) et where Rabbi Ishmael explains (the text) in this way, as in Leviticus 22:16, ‘And they will bring upon otom (themselves) the guilt’; and as in Deuteronomy 34:6, ‘And he buried oto in the valley,’ meaning he (Moses) buried himself.”[1]


Rabbi Ishmael taught “the Torah speaks in human language” and emphasized that we should read what the Torah text states and not search it for meaning not contained in the plain reading of the text. Yet here and in the two other instances, Sifrei states Rabbi Ishmael rejected the simple meaning of the verse.


Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, who followed the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael and not the midrashic manner of his grandfather and Sifrei, offers the verse’s simple meaning: he should bring the offering that is stated in the next verse. This interpretation is consistent with verse 10 where the same Hebrew word yavi, “he shall bring,” appears and is followed by the offering: “he shall bring two turtle-doves or two young pigeons to the priest to the door of the tent of meeting.” Additionally, the word yavi, “he shall bring,” means that he is coming with something and there is no need to say “he shall bring himself.” Thus it seems unreasonable to suppose that Rabbi Ishmael would deviate from his usual interpretive methodology and suggest what Sifrei attributes to him.


Similarly, Leviticus 22 speaks about a man in the singular who eats holy food (food designated for priests) by mistake. He is penalized by having to pay priests the value of the consumed food with an added fifth. Verse 16 continues: “And so otom (‘they’ in the plural) shall bear the guilt for eating the holy (foods).” Sifrei states that the plural otom refers to the people who ate the food.[2] The plain meaning of the verse is that the payment of the cost of the food and the added penalty of a fifth discharge the guilt. The chapter is not speaking of many men, but only a single man, so the plural otom cannot refer to this man.

Again, Deuteronomy 34:6 describes the death and burial of Moses, “and he buried oto in the valley in the land of Moab.” Rashi recognizes the verse’s plain meaning here and states that God buried Moses, because a dead person cannot bury himself; although Rashi mentions Sifrei’s view of Rabbi Ishmael that Moses buried himself.[3]


Thus because of consistency with Rabbi Ishmael’s methodology and the clear meaning of the texts, it seems that Sifrei erred.


However, there is another possibility. Perhaps it was not Sifrei that erred but the person who copied the text. It may be that the original text did not have Rabbi Ishmael but an abbreviation RI. Ancient scribes abbreviated words and names to save space, which was costly. A famous case is TY, which was understood to be Targum Yonatan, but which scholars later pointed out was meant to stand for Targum Yerushalmi. RI was understood as Rabbi Ishmael in Leviticus Rabba 9:104, but we know from other sources that it stood for Rabbi Yehuda.

[1] Apparently, what bothered “Rabbi Ishmael” is that if we translate oto as “it” in Leviticus 6:13, we do not know what “it” is.

[2] It may be that “Rabbi Ishmael” could not figure out what was “bearing the guilt.”

[3] Perhaps, “Rabbi Ishmael” felt that it is unseemly to think that God would bury someone.