Parshat Bamidbar (2012)

Parshat Bamidbar
Numbers 1 – 4:20

Pedigree: Is our tradition all about ancestry, or does heritage run deeper?

Inspecting the Family TreeIn the Jewish tradition it is undeniable that ancestry and pedigree has traditionally been of paramount importance. This is because our Yiddishkeit – our Jewishness – is not merely a belief system. It’s a culture that has religious significance.

The “wilderness experience” is something that all of us recognize as the last place of trial for the Children of Israel, in which could be build a sense of people-hood in this band of diverse tribes and converts. The people had taken position in the wilderness around Mount Sinai. Our book and parsha is thus named Bamidbar, in references to this wilderness. This is where Israel would continuously dwell in the shadow the holy mountain until it was time for their spiritual focus to take place around the Mishkan – the traveling tent sanctuary. Our text begins:

“And Hashem said to Moses

in the wilderness of Sinai,

in the Tent of Meeting:

On the first of the month in the second year

from their coming out from the land of Egypt


Take a census of the all the congregation

of the children of Israel;

by family,

accordingly to their father’s house

the number of all the names of every male

is to be head-counted [individually.]”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe

| bamidbar Sinai

| be’Ohel Mo’ed

| be’echad lachodesh hasheni bashanah

| hashenit letzetam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| lemor

| Se’u et-rosh kol-adat

| benei-Yisra’el

| lemishpechotam

| leveit avotam

| bemispar shemot kol-zachar

| legulgelotam.

Numbers 1:1-2

Now there were certain rules that were to be applied to this census. Every males that was twenty years old and older, which was the age to be drafted to war among the Israelites, was to be accounted for. Everyone was to be counted according to their tzavah – translated as host, meaning their unit and encampment. (v. 3) Eat legitimate male of age was to appear and donate a half-shekel of silver. (see Exodus 30:12-13 for comparison) Each man was supposed to declare his tribe and clan at the time of his donation. The donations of each tribe would be pooled together, once tabulated it would thus reveal the number of people in each tribe. There was to be a man assigned from every tribe to oversee the collection. (v. 4) Thus our parsha will begin by naming these people who are overseers and what tribe they represent (v. 5-15), once they are named the Torah continues by stating:

“And these are the ones that were called up

from the congregation,


of their paternal tribes,

they were leaders

of the thousands of Israelites.

And Moses and Aaron took these men

that were called out by name.

And all of the congregation was assembled


on the first day of the second month,

and they declared their pedigree

by their father’s household.

The names of those of the age of

twenty years old and upwards

to be head-counted.”

| Eleh kru’ei

| ha’edah

| nesi’ei

| matot avotam

| rashei

| alfei Yisra’el hem.

| Vayikach Moshe ve’Aharon et ha’anashim

| ha’eleh asher nikvu beshemot.

| Ve’et kol-ha’edah hikhilu

| be’echad

| lachodesh hasheni

| vayityaldu al-mishpechotam

| leveit avotam

| bemispar shemot miben

| esrim shanah vamalah

| legulgelotam.

Numbers 1:16-18

As our text continues is makes mention of the nesi’ei – which simply means that they were leaders and officers among the people. The people were arranged in camp units like an army, and this was their captain. They were representatives and ministers of the people, representing their tribe. These people had to not only oversee the collection of the donations for the census, they also needed to help identify the people of their tribe as they came to register. For this reason this person had to be someone who was known, and beyond impeachment. Rashi makes note of this with this commentary:

And they declared their pedigrees

according to their families:

They brought the records of their genealogy

and witnesses of their birth claims,

so that each one

should trace his genealogy to a tribe.”

ויתילדו |

על משפחתם: |

הביאו ספרי יחוסיהם |

ועידי חזקת (לידתם) [לידת] |

כל אחד ואחד |

להתייחס על השבט: |

Rashi for Numbers 1:18

On one level we have to keep in mind the context of what is going on. The people are being arranged in their camps, each tribe and their clans assigned and ordered like army camps; with a commander-in-chief over each of them. They needed to sign themselves up for the draft and national military service; this is the reason that they were to be counted from the age of twenty and up and organized in their camps appropriately. This was the primary purpose of the census.

But these leaders weren’t just simply providing their individual names, and standing on their own merit and notoriety. As representatives of the congregation and the law they were required to adhere to the law by proving their lineage both with documentation and witnesses of their birth. One person selected from each tribe was called up, these kru’im (spelled with a vav) – honored and invited guests or appointments – followed a procedure that most of us recognize today, during the k’riah haTorah (spelled with a yud) – when people are called up to declare themselves and their paternal lineage, and then the called person reads from the Torah for the congregation.

These terms are very similar, and their close connection in our tradition one to another easily lends to juxtaposition and joint association for these two terms; which explains for the reason the Mesoretic reading differs from the obvious textual reading. Whereas in verse 16 we see in the actual Sefer Torah (the scroll) the spelling the word as kri’ei (to be called to proclaim and read) the mesoretic rabbinic tradition asks us to focus on the appointment which is the current context, and less on the details of their service right here by reading this as a vav; thus explaining the spelling/reading variation. [אֵלֶּה קריאי (קְרוּאֵי) הָעֵדָה]

Our traditional reading harmonizes the ideas by using a more inclusive terminology, though the actual text seems to focus much more on the documentation of ones tribal heritage and claim. Whereas to most people it is apparent that this proving of ones citizenship is demanded of the leaders, people often miss that this was also required of the individuals of the tribes as well. Their declaration was not enough, they had to also prove their lineage with documentation. This individual mandate is spelled out for us in the terms it uses for census (se’u et rosh) – which literally means to lift the head of each person and consider them. Only then would they be head-counted (legulgelotam). Thus the officers would register the person’s identity, and their donation would be taken to be calculated with the others.

On one level we can understand this, as we have been discussing in recent weeks the seriousness of maintaining proper usage and allotment of the tribal holdings; the land and ancestral holding remaining as a continual trust, that could not be perpetually sold or transferred. These lands were given priority to the ancestral holders before anyone else of the tribe, then to others who wished to redeem it for their tribe and hold it in trust, as we have previously discussed. (see Parshat Emor and Parshat Behar) It was proper that people prove their claim.

But on another level I’m sure that many people are left unsettled by the idea of documenting and declaring their heritage. But in order to get beyond this we need to step outside of the conflicts between Jewish religious movements and Israeli bureaucratic breakdown that probably makes this topic less than appealing for most contemporary people. Even then in reality, our proof of Judaism – our documents that prove our Jewishness (bris, naming, bar mitzvah, parents ketuba, conversion documents, etc.) – are rarely required of us in daily life. Of course when registering your marriage or making aliyah to Israel we see how these documents are necessary for both religious and civil usage; but usually in daily life it isn’t so. Even in religious life today the Gabbai (the Torah service leader) calls up people and they merely declare their Hebrew name (and lineage in the case of Kohanim and Levites), declared by their fathers line and they are thus called to Torah and honored by name. But usually, if one is new or unknown to a congregation ones eligibility is taken on their honor and word. We actually oddly pass right over the question of ones Jewishness all together that would be easily revealed by stating one’s maternal lineage. We aren’t forced to show a Jew-ID card; especially in Israel, where one’s Jewishness is just naturally assumed when at shul.

That is not to say that one who is called up for an aliyah – in the case meaning a religious honor, such as reading the Torah – one who is a convert or of uncertain lineage will not find themselves uncomfortably exposing the uncertainty of their heritage. Converts and those who are baal teshuvah (returnees) who were not raised religious often do not have a Hebrew name for their parents to cite; therefore they are called up by their name as a “ben Avraham Avinu / son of Abraham our Father.” When we pray for one’s health and healing during the Misheberach we however, appealing to the concept of maternal grace, we may refer to one as a “ben Sarah Immenu / son of Sarah our Mother.” One is as an adopted sons of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Israel. (see Parshat Ki Tavo) One might occasionally cause a bit of curious looks and peak interest into how you managed to become religious on your own, but not much else as there is no stigma in coming from a humble background.

Now as we look over this parsha, it becomes quite apparent to us that in the spirit of the law we should all be able to declare ourselves; we should all be able to be called up to service at any moment in the congregation of Israel. We should be ready to prove our heritage. Furthermore, we should be fully capable of documenting our Jewishness in writing as Rashi points out. Whether we are native-born or a convert we should not allow ourselves to be squatters, shirkers, infiltrators, draft dodgers, or disconnected from full service as an Israelite. For the native-born we should connect ourselves to our holy ancestry as part of our identity. For the convert we should show deference to the Law of Torah by submitting to its jurisdiction and declaring ourselves a full citizen of the Jewish people through official conversion.

Nonetheless, one of the reasons we can be so relaxed regarding declaration of our heritage today is that for the most part few of us are aware of our tribal ancestry, apart from the Kohanim and Levities. For the most part this is of little consequence to us. In the absence of the Temple and Sandheidrin we are not bound to trace our lineage back to our specific clan. In fact since the Temple was destroyed along with its archives which contained the official records of the genealogies most of us would find it impossible to accurately trace our heritage further back than our most recent generations. Additionally and most obvious to our rabbis, was the reality that after the Assyrian conquest ten of the Tribes of Israel were lost among the nations. Without them being present for us to account for them as well we are not to take such a severe census, nor mandate such application of pedigree. Logically it serves us no purpose yet until Temple service is resumed, and the entire Land of Israel is liberated and re-appropriated to their original tribal inheritors. This presumable will take place in the Messianic Age, in the world to come.

At that time, as we have learned everyone will be given an inheritance including the converts and resident aliens among us in the tribes in which they reside. (see Ezekiel 47:21-23, Parshat Emor) But what about for those of us who are actually Jewish by birth or of questionable lineage. How will we know what tribes we are in? Will we just be counted among the converts and residents as well? The Talmud actually answers this question for us.

“It is written of the Messiah:

“And the spirit of Hashem shall rest upon him;

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge of the fear

of Hashem…” (Isaiah 11:2)

And it is written:

“And shall make him of quick understanding

[va-hariho; lit. and he shall smell]

in the fear of Hashem.” (Isaiah 11:3)

Raba said:

“He smells [a man] and judges”

(Isaiah 11:3);

as it is written:

“And he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes

[…neither reprove after the hearing of his ears…]

Yet with righteousness shall he judge the poor,

and decide equity for the suffering of the Land.”

(Isaiah 11:3-4)

משיח דכתיב : |

ונחה עליו רוח ה’ |

רוח חכמה ובינה |

רוח עצה וגבורה |

רוח דעת ויראת |

ה’ וגו’ (ישעיהו יא) |

וכתיב: |

והריחו |


ביראת ה’ (ישעיהו יא)… |

רבא אמר: |

דמורח ודאין |

(ישעיהו יא) |

דכתיב: |

ולא למראה עיניו ישפוט |


ושפט בצדק דלים |

והוכיח במישור לענוי ארץ |

(ישעיהו יא) |

Talmud Bavli Sanheidrin 93b

When I was very young a great chassid brought this gemara to my attention. Our tradition says that the Melech haMashiach – the King Messiah – in the age to come will judge all matters. Among those matters to be determined will be to assign our tribe as well. Many people are actually descendants of Israel, from the dispersed tribes of Israel in exile. But with a lack of physical evidence the King Messiah will determine our heritage not by documentation, but by binah – by intuition. He will appear to be a quick learn in all matters, because he will judge not according to ordinary senses; not by hearing and seeing. Instead our tradition says he will instead judge according to our ruach – which literally means by smells or by wind, but is also hints at the symbolic meaning of this word, according to our spirit inside of us. Furthermore, the Messiah will judge our true heritage according to our deeds; as it is written in the Talmud as well that the righteous and their deeds are compared to a fragrant smell of herbs and spices. (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 13a) He will smell our deeds on us. The King Messiah will determine our true heritage according to our spirit and our deeds, by holy intuition. None of us will be left without a heritage to claim.

Legacy and Heritage from Our Teachers

As the text of our parsha continues it gives the census counts of each tribe. (v. 19-47) However we are told that the count of the Levites was not be counted among the general population of Israel (v. 48), the continuation of chapter one details how they were set apart. The next chapter, Numbers chapter two, details how each of the tribes were encamped, with the Levites positioned in the middle with the Mishkan sanctuary.

But when our parsha finally comes around to taking the census of the families of the Levitical priesthood the Torah begins by making an interesting statement:

“And these are the descendants

of Aaron and Moses,

on the day that Hashem spoke to Moses

at Mount Sinai.”

| Ve’eleh toldot

| Aharon uMoshe

| beyom diber Hashem et-Moshe

| behar Sinai.

Numbers 3:1

Then our parsha will continue on by naming the sons of Aaron and the tribe of Levi that he was from. It will further break down the families among the priestly cast, determining which families are assigned to which tasks. But curiously we do not ever see the sons of Moses accounted for herein. Rashi takes notice of this, with the following commentary:

And these are the descendants

of Aaron and Moses:

Yet it only mentions the sons of Aaron.

However, they are considered descendants

of Moses because he taught them Torah.

This teaches us that whoever teaches

the son of his fellow man the Torah

Scripture regards it

as if he had begotten him.” [Sanheidrin 19b]

ואלה תולדת |

אהרן ומשה: |

ואינו מזכיר אלא בני אהרן. |

ונקראו תולדות |

משה, לפי שלמדן תורה. |

מלמד שכל המלמד |

את בן חבירו תורה, |

מעלה עליו הכתוב |

כאלו ילדו: |

Rashi for Numbers 3:1

As we see here, legacy and even the honor of heritage is not so clear cut and dry. This understanding of Rashi’s provides for us two beautiful thoughts. For the student we can receive it as a truth, that we are provided a heritage and identity that is reinforced and nurtured in us by our teachers. Their nurture is just as influential as our nature. And conversely, according to the plain meaning of this commentary, it also give us a promises that we are all capable of passing on a heritage as well. One that runs deeper than blood. When we teach Torah to another they become part of our own personal heritage and spiritual legacy as well. There is more than enough legacy to go around, and more than one way to receive and pass it on.

Something To Think About:

This parsha seems to limit authority to only be held by a person who is of notorious and indisputable lineage. However as discussed, since the dispersion of the Lost Tribes of Israel we do not apply such strict rules of pedigree. In fact some of the most notorious Nasi’im – meaning one of the presidents of the Sanheidrin, as the chief-authority and prince over the rabbinic assembly – were known to be converts or at the very least sons of converts; among them are Rabbi Shemayah and Rabbi Akiva.

Related articles:

  • Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: “Ezra Yisrael, The Citizen of Israel: How the Native-Born and Immigrant (convert) are both considered to be born in Zion: (

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