According to the Torah, there are seventy primary nations which are the roots of the diverse national groups and cultures which we have today. This figure is based on the number of the descendants of Noah which are listed in the Book of Genesis, after the story of the great flood. Seventy names are recorded, and at the end of the section it states, “These are the families of Noah’s descendants, according to their generations, by their nations; and from these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32). The Midrash therefore teaches that seventy nations emerged from Noah (Numbers Rabbah 14:12).
There is a special mitzvah that we are to fulfill in the Temple of Zion which instills in our consciousness a universal concern for the well-being of the seventy nations. It is the mitzvah to bring seventy bull-offerings to the Temple during the seven days of the Festival of Succos (Numbers 29:12-34). There are 13 bull-offerings on the first day of the Festival, 12 on the second day, eleven on the third day, ten on the fourth day, nine on the fifth day, eight on the sixth day, and seven on the seventh day – totaling seventy (ibid). The Talmud explains that these offerings are on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the world (Succos 55b). In his commentary on this Talmudic passage, the commentator, Rashi, explains that the purpose of these offerings is to seek atonement on behalf of the seventy nations so that the entire world will merit rain during the coming year. Succos is also known as the “Festival of the Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), and during the seven days of this harvest festival, we are to ask Hashem – the Compassionate and Life-Giving One – to give the seventy nations continued life and sustenance through the blessing of rain. This mitzvah therefore serves as a reminder that we are to live in the Land of Zion with a universal consciousness.
Rashi, in his commentary on the biblical passage about these seventy offerings, mentions another teaching which seems to contradict the universal interpretation he stresses in his commentary on the Talmud. In his biblical commentary, he writes:
“The bulls of the Festival are seventy, corresponding to the seventy nations, and they progressively decrease in number (as each day, fewer bulls are offered than the day before). This alludes to the destruction of the nations.” (Commentary to Numbers 29:12-34)
In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi states that the purpose of the seventy offerings is to preserve the seventy nations, and in his commentary on the biblical text, Rashi adds that the decreasing number of offerings on each day alludes to the eventual destruction of the seventy nations. How do we understand this contradiction? In addition, Rashi’s teaching regarding the destruction of the nations seems to contradict all the biblical prophecies which describe the redemption of the nations during the messianic age! For example, it is written, “It will happen in the end of days: The mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). How, then, are we to understand Rashi's statement regarding the “destruction” of the nations? I discussed this question with my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman; moreover, this question is discussed in a book on Succos, Zman Simchaseinu, written by Rav David Cohen of the Chevron Yeshiva. The following resolution was inspired by the insights cited by Rav Feldman and Rav Cohen:
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we chant the following prayer regarding world unity: “Let them all become one society to do Your will wholeheartedly.” The Divine goal for human history is “one” society dedicated to serving the unifying Divine purpose; thus, the daily decrease in the number of offerings alludes to the elimination of seventy separate nation-states that currently oppose the purpose of the Unifying One. Humanity will enter a new stage of history when there will be one society composed of diverse peoples that will be aligned with Israel in the service of the Unifying One. The Prophet Zephaniah therefore proclaimed the following Divine message:
“For then I will cause the peoples to speak a purified language, so that they all will proclaim the Name of Hashem, to serve Him with a united resolve” (Zephaniah 3:9).
May we soon welcome the arrival of the unifying age, when the rebuilt Temple in Zion “will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Have a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Samayach – A Joyous Festival,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the future demise of the nation-state in his commentary to Psalm 67:5. Rabbi Hirsch writes that there will still be diverse peoples, each with its own characteristics, but all these peoples will be united through their acceptance of the Divine sovereignty and through their fulfillment of the Divine will.
2. A term for “people” in biblical Hebrew is am, and a term for “nation” in biblical Hebrew is goy (plural form - goyim). The root meaning of goy is “body”; thus, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the term goy refers to the outer structure or “body” of a nation. He writes: “Goy denotes the nation that shows itself to the outside as united in one body” (commentary to Psalm 67:5). These structures, known as goyim, will disappear in the final stage of human history, explains Rabbi Hirsch, and he writes:
“At present, the nations, each an isolated unit to itself, stand against each other, armed to the teeth. But these differences will come to an end when the one God will one day reign supreme over them all.”
Rabbi Hirsch adds that a reference to the disappearance of these isolated structures is found in the verse which states, “Goyim shall perish from the earth” (Psalm 10:16).
3. When Hashem promised Abraham, our father, that a great nation will emerge from him, Hashem added: “And through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:30). The verse does not mention “nations” or even “peoples”; instead it refers to families. The verse is therefore alluding to the final stage of human history when the relationship of all the peoples of the earth to each other will be a relationship of families. (This insight is from Dr. Isaac Levy, the grandson of Rabbi Hirsch who did an English translation of Rabbi Hirsch’s German translation and commentary on the Torah. His comment in this edition appears in parenthesis in the commentary to Genesis 12:3.)
4. The Netziv, a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, cites the tradition that during the reign of King Solomon, sages from the nations would come to Jerusalem during the Festival of Succos, when Israel offered seventy offerings on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the earth. The Netziv writes that during the Intermediate Days of the Festival, the sages of the nations would hear King Solomon share his teachings from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Herchav Davar on Numbers 29:12).
The Book of Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, and Ashkenazic Jews have a custom to chant this book during the Shabbos of the Intermediate Days of the Festival of Succos. When the first day of Succos falls on a Shabbos, the Book of Ecclesiastes is read on the first day.