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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Chukas(68)

This week's sedra tells us the laws of the purification rite by means of the Red Heifer. Also the death of Miriam is recorded and the sin of Moses of the waters of Mariva.

Numbers 19:7

And the priest should wash his clothes and wash his body with water and afterwards he may enter the camp; and the priest is impure until the evening.


And the priest is impure until the evening: Rashi: Reverse its order and read it: 'And he is impure until the evening and afterwards he may enter the camp.'


Rashi makes use of an interpretive rule of the Torah which says that sometimes when the wording of a verse looks like it is in a strange order, we can 'cut and paste', i.e. cut words out and paste them in a different place in the verse so that it makes better sense. Rashi cuts the words 'and the priest is impure until the evening' and pasted them before the words 'and he may enter the camp.'

Why did he do this?

This is not easy, you must know some laws of purity relating to the priests.

What is bothering Rashi?

Your Answer:


An Answer: From the verse as it is, it would seem that the priest could enter the camp after he has washed himself (in the mikva) even before sunset; but this is not so. A priest cannot even eat his trumah food, although he is outside the Temple, after his purification until the sunsets. So entering the sanctuary (which is what our verse is speaking of) - which requires a higher level of purity, certainly cannot be done until sunset. The wording of the verse as it is in the Torah would seem to say that he may enter even before sunset. This is how Rashi knows the word order is in need of change.


A Question: Why does the Torah write a verse whose word order must be changed to make sense of it?

I haven't seen any commentator ask this question, but I think it begs to be asked.

I will cite other examples of "mis- ordered" verses, so we can look for a principle.

Speaking of the punishment for eating leaven on Pesach we find this verse: Exodus:12:15

"..but on the first day you must remove leaven from your houses; for anyone who eats chametz, that soul will be cut off from Israel from the first day until the seventh day"

A soul is "cut off' means it dies. Can it be that he will die for a week?! Certainly not. We must rearrange the wording to read: "anyone who eats chametz from the first day until the seventh day will be cut off from Israel."

Another example also in Exodus (14:30):

"…and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore." On this verse Rashi gives us a midrashic interpretation of the verse. The Rashbam, on the other hand, explains the p'shat of he verse. He rearranges the words and reads the verse thus: "….and Israel [while] on the shore saw, the Egyptians dead."

These are just two additional examples of where we have to rearrange words in a Torah verse to have them make sense.

Do you see any reason the Torah phrased the verse as it did (in problematic word)?

Your Answer:


An Answer: I would suggest an answer. The Torah has a rule regarding word order. The rule is that the main point the Torah wants to make it puts first. There are many examples of this in the Torah and Nach. Maybe this explains the word order the Torah chose even though we may have to change that order to have it make the best sense.

In the case of the soul being cut off (Exodus 12:15) the Torah wants to drum home the severe penalty of death immediately, so it puts it right after the words "eats chametz".

In the other verse, too, the Torah wanted us to get the full impact of what Israel saw (dead Egyptians) as soon as possible so it placed these words right after 'and Israel saw."

And now to our verse. The Torah is telling us what purification rites the priest must do before he may enter the camp. So as soon as it tells us what he must do, it says "and then he may enter the camp." The setting of the sun, while necessary for total purification, is pushed to the end of the verse, because it not something the priest does in order to purify himself. Sunset happens as a matter of course.

Perhaps this explains why the Torah wrote the verse as it did but why we have to rearrange the word order in order to get its full correct meaning.

Or perhaps you have another explanation.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

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