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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashat Bamidbar

We now begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps fitting that we read these parshios in the summer because they relate events that happened while Israel was traversing the hot desert.

The Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) begins with G-d's command to Moses to take the count of the Children of Israel. Each of the Twelve Tribes had a leader - Prince - who would be in charge of the census of his tribe. After the names of these princes are enumerated, we find the following summary sentence.

Numbers 1:17.

"And Moses ands Aaron took these men who were designated by name."


"These men": Rashi: These twelve princes .

"Who were designated": Rashi: here, by [their] names.

This Rashi comment has puzzled all the major Rashi commentators, without exception.

What do you think bothered them about this comment?

Your Question:


A Question: What has he added, they ask, to our understanding by his comment? What he says, we already know from the verse itself. Certainly Rashi wouldn't waste ink to repeat in his own words what the Torah itself tells us.

Can you think of an answer that explains the necessity of this comment?

Your Answer:


If you don't have an answer yet, let me show you what some of the major commentators suggest as the reason for Rashi's comment.

The Mizrachi (the most famous of Rashi commentators) says:

The verse ordinarily should have used a pronoun and said "And Moses and Aaron took THEM ..." But since it went out of its way to elaborate and say "these men who were designated by name" we might have mistakenly thought that these were some other men than those mentioned in the previous list. Therefore Rashi comes to set us straight; he tells us that in fact these are the very same men referred to above.

But this answer is problematic. Why would you say it is problematic?

Your Answer:

The Problem

Answer: First of all, maybe they are different men! How does Rashi know they are not? Rashi's sole source of information are the words of the Torah unless he cites a midrash. Here he doesn't cite a midrash, so he knows what he knows from the Torah itself. How does he know that these are not different men? And if we insist that they are the same men, then why did the Torah use all these extra words?! They actually tell us nothing more than the single word "them" would have told us. This question seriously weakens the validity of the Mizrachi's answer.

The Gur Aryeh (this is the Maharal of Prague) offers his answer:

The words "these men" makes them sound like ordinary men. But they were of a higher stature, they were princes. Therefore Rashi changes the wording by saying "these twelve PRINCES."

But there're are problems with this answer as well. What?

The Problems

Some Problems: Again we ask: So why did the Torah refer them as "men" and not as princes, as the Maharal thinks they should be called? It wouldn't be wise to think that Rashi was smarter than the Torah itself!

Another problem is that Rashi himself says (Numbers 13:3), when the Torah calls the spies "anashim" ("men"), that the term "anashim" always means important people, not ordinary people.

So the Gur Aryeh's answer is twice weakened!

Another early commentator, the Mesiach Illmim, offers the following strange answer:

Since the names of the princes include the father's name, like Nachshon son of Aminadav, I might have thought these are two different people (Nachshon AND Aminadav ) and that there were in fact 24 (!) men. Therefore, Rashi's comment is meant to straighten us out by saying "these TWELVE princes."

The Problem

The problem here should be obvious: No one would ever make such a mistake and think that Nachshon the son of Aminadav were two separate people. . Therefore Rashi does not need to tell us there are only 12 and not 24 men here, I understand that on my own.

Why then does Rashi make this comment? This is a real brainteaser.

Can you think of an answer?

Your Answer:

Do you want a hint?

See Rashi Exodus 28:10.


An Answer:

The previous time, before this verse, where the Torah refers to the princes of the tribes is in Exodus 35:27. (There is no mention of them in the book of Vayikra.) There it says that the princes brought the stones for the ephod and the choshen mishpat. In them were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes. We gave a hint to look at Rashi's comment on Exodus 28:10. There Rashi tells us who the twelve tribes were who were inscribed in the stones in the High Priest's ephod. He names them. Did you notice a difference between those twelve tribes and the twelve tribes listed here?

Of course you did (right?). On the stones of the ephod the tribe of Levi was included while the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe were excluded. We can reasonably assume that the princes who brought these stones were the princes of these twelve tribes. But in our listing here in Bamidbar Levi is out and Ephraim & Menashe are in. So, it turns out that the twelve princes enumerated here in Bamidbar were not the same princes referred to earlier. That is Rashi's point. He is stressing that these men, THESE PRINCES, and not those princes in Exodus. Therefore the Torah does not say just "Moses...took THEM" as we would have expected, but it rather states explicitly "THESE MEN WHO WERE DESIGNATED by NAME." And the second Rash-comment reflects this precisely. Rashi adds the word "here." Who were designated here by name. His one word addition is precise and significant, because these princes are designated by name only here, while those in Exodus were never designated by name. (Only Rashi just tells which tribes they came from). The Torah itself here stresses this because this is the first time in the Torah that Menashe and Ephraim take their place among the twelve tribes. This necessarily must push one of the tribes out (because there can only be a total of twelve tribes). Levi is the tribe excluded And because this is unusual, (being the first time, though not the last) the Torah stresses this and repeats this three different times in this chapter. See 1:47 "But the Levites...were not numbered among them." Again in verse 1:49; and again in verse 2:33.

This I believe is the point of Rashi enigmatic comment. Each of his words in these brief comments is chosen judiciously.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek "What's Bothering Rashi?" is a product of the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. All 5 volumes on What's Bothering Rashi? are available in Jewish book stores.

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