By Israel Drazin


I described the style of Rashi’s commentary in the past. It is brilliant, but it does not offer readers the plain meaning of the biblical text. Rashi (1040-1105) follows the worldview of the second century Rabbi Akiva: God composed the Torah, God is perfect, and must have written the Torah so that every letter and word has meaning. Readers must mine every detail and find the hidden meaning of every apparently unusual Torah reading. Rabbi Akiva’s colleague Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He taught that the Torah is written in a human manner: just as humans repeat themselves for emphasis or for the beauty of language, or sometimes say something one way and soon thereafter in another, so does the Torah, and readers should not read hidden meanings in this style. Rashi also fills his commentary with midrash, imaginative ideas of what transpired, events and teachings that are not mentioned or even hinted in the Torah.[1] We see both of these interpretive methods in Numbers 32.

Many Jews feel that their primary life obligation is to study Torah. However, all classic Jewish law codes state that a man’s most important duty is to provide financial means to his family. The biblical book Psalms 128:2 states “If you eat the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.” Midrash Genesis Rabba explains: “Work is more beloved than the merit of one’s forefathers since the merit of one’s forefathers[2] protects one’s money while work saves lives.” Joseph Karo (1488-1575) wrote in his Code, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 155, that a man is duty-bound to learn Torah, but Karo follows this statement in 156 by stating that men must make a living for their families. Yechiel Halevi Epstein (1829-1908) said the same in his Code, Aruch Hashulchan: after spending some time in prayer and study, men should be involved in business since Torah that is not combined with work will produce sin.  Rashi interpreted Numbers 32 in a homiletical manner to teach this lesson.

Rashi notes that Moses changed the order of the words in the petition of the two and a half tribes who requested permission to remain in Trans-Jordan and not enter Canaan with the other nine and a half tribes. Chapter 32:1-5 begins:

The people of Reuben and Gad had much livestock. They saw that the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead were (good) areas for livestock. The people of Gad and Reuben came and spoke to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the princes of the community, saying: “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, the land that the Lord smote before the Israelite community is (good) land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” They also said, “If it pleases you, give this land to your servants for a possession; do not bring us across the Jordan.”

Moses criticized them for abandoning the divine plan of conquering Canaan and for not helping other tribal members in doing so in verses 6-15. The two and a half tribes answer him in 16-19:

They came to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds for our cattle here and cities for our children. Then we will arm ourselves quickly (to go) in front of the Israelites (and remain with them) until we have brought them to their place. Our children will dwell in the fortified cities (during this time) because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our houses until the Israelites have taken hold of their possessions. For we will not take possession with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our possession has come to us on the other bank of the Jordan, on the east.”

Moses accepts their promise to aid the nine and a half tribes, but he changes their order of their words about children and cattle in 20-27:

Moses said to them, “If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before the Lord for war, and all your armed force cross the Jordan before the Lord until he has driven out his enemies before him, and the land will be conquered before the Lord, afterwards you (may) return, and you will be clear (of your duty) to the Lord and Israel. Then this land will become your possession before the Lord. But, if you don’t do this, then you will have done wrong against the Lord; know your wrong will find you. Build cities for your children and folds for your sheep, and do what you said.” The people of Gad and the people of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, “Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our cattle will remain there in the Gilead cities, while your servants will cross over, everyman who is armed for war before the Lord, to do battle, as my lord said.”

Rashi, basing his interpretation on Midrash Tanchuma, notes the change in wording. He states that the tribes “had consideration for their wealth more than their sons and daughters. They mentioned their cattle before their children. Moses said to them: ‘You must not act this way; what is of primary importance (should be) first, and what is of secondary should follow. First build cities for your children and then folds for your sheep.’” Rashi is interpreting the changes in wording in the exchanges in chapter 32, sermonically, to teach that the primary duty of fathers is to provide for their children.    

This is a good sermon and it reflects ancient and modern Jewish thought. However, it is a homiletical interpretation; it is not the plain meaning of the narrative. The fact that cattle and children are reversed is not remarkable, it is the general biblical style to do so; when ideas are repeated, the Torah usually reverses the order. We see this even in this chapter: the names Reuben and Gad are reversed. Furthermore, it is not surprising that the tribes put cattle first because this is why they were asking permission to remain in Trans-Jordan, because the land had good feed for their cattle. It is only when the decision to remain was settled that the people needed to decide how they will implement it: will their family accompany them to Canaan, and if not, they need to provide for them during their absence.

[1] Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who wrote a generally rational Bible commentary, criticized his grandfather harshly for inserting midrashic explanations into his commentary and not sticking to the plain meaning of the biblical passages. In his commentary on Genesis 37:1, he told his readers that he upbraided his grandfather for the way he explained the Torah, and that Rashi assured him that he agreed with him. Rashi told him that if he had years to write new explanations, he would write a book like Rashbam wrote his commentary.

In Genesis 49:17, where Rashi states that the verse is referring to the judge Samson, who would not be born for another couple of centuries, Rashbam angrily writes that anyone who thinks that this passage is speaking about Samson doesn’t know how to understand the Torah.

In Deuteronomy 15:18, Scripture mandates that slave owners must give their Hebrew slaves gifts when they set slaves free. The Torah continues: “It should not seem hard to you … because he gave you double the service of a hired man.” Rashi (based on Midrash Sifrei) proposes that Scripture’s “double” means that Hebrew slaves work day and night, while hired employees works only during the day; the nighttime work is when the master gives the slave a Canaanite slave so that he can have children from the union that would belong to him as slaves. Rashbam calls this interpretations “foolish” and “vapor.” The plain meaning of the verse, he says, is that the “master” should not feel bad in having paid for slaves twice, when he purchased slaves and now when he must also give them gifts.

The eleventh century rationalist Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived around the same time, wrote mockingly: Rashi states that he translates the Torah according to its plain meaning and he is correct – one time out of a thousand.

[2] Many ancients believed in a concept called in Hebrew zechut avot, “ancestral merit,” which is like a bank account. If one’s ancestor did a good deed and was not awarded for it, his or her descendants could benefit from it, like taking money from a bank.