Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Counting and Remaining Uncounted

This week’s Dvar Torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

Our sages called Sefer Bemdibar “Chumash HaP’kudim” because of the censuses that bookend the book, right at the start of Sefer Bemidbar and then again in Parshat Pinchas, after the sin at Ba’al Peor. If you’re old enough to remember real bookends, you know that if you put a whole pile of books outside the bookend – analogous to the placement of this week’s parsha outside the ‘closing bookend’ in Parshat Pinchas – your last few books will fall off the shelf.

It is not my objective to look at every section in these two parshiyot, either to attempt to artificially ‘cram’ them in or to explain why they remain out. However, thematically there is much in Matot that we can see as a natural progression from Pinchas, as well as a natural conclusion to Parshat – and indeed, Sefer – Bemidbar.

Let us begin with the well-known fact that we have a prohibition (dislike?) against counting Jews, which stems from the opening lines of Shmot 30:11-12:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַה’ בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Translations from Sefaria unless otherwise indicated.)

It is acknowledged that sometimes we need to count the people, such as when determining how many warriors we have going out to battle (in early Bemidbar) or to determine how many are left after a plague (such as in Parshat Pinchas, after the plague of Ba’al Peor.) It is also clear that last week’s parsha’s census is tied to apportioning of the land.

This week, we tie up loose ends by exacting vengeance on Midian for their role in the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, as described in Bemidbar (Numbers) 31:25-54. The Jews are told to select 1,000 soldiers from each tribe to battle Midian, a total of 12,000. After a decisive victory, we get an extensive list of the spoils and booty the Jews were allowed to keep, presuming they divided it 50-50 between the warriors and those who stayed behind.

Here, an extraordinary number of verses are devoted to enumerating:

  • how many total of each type of spoils the Jews acquired;
  • what number corresponds to the 50% of each type that went to the warriors;
  • the number that was given to God via Elazar HaKohen, called “מֶּ֥כֶס” – a tax levy or duty. (Elazar is generally understood to be taking this share for the Kohanim overall as a result of their service. The overall amount was 1/500 of the warriors’ share or 0.1% of the original total.)

Finally, the exact same numbers are listed again to enumerate the 50% given to the remaining Israelites, of which 1/50 is given to the Leviim. (Interestingly, we are not given the exact numbers for the Levi’im but are told their share as a fraction.)

After the spoils are divided up, the officers of the warriors come forward and give as tribute all of the gold jewelry they had taken as their personal booty (which was apparently allowed). They state:

(מט) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עֲבָדֶ֣יךָ נָֽשְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּיָדֵ֑נוּ וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ

(49) They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us is missing (נִפְקַ֥ד).

The word נִפְקַ֥ד has to be translated a little oddly here, as missing, which Rashi takes the lead on stating and virtually everyone seems to agree. The use of the root פ.ק.ד, which sometimes means ‘to count’ reminds us of the censuses. After all, they must be counted (the more common נ.ש.א. here) in order to determine if any are missing.

Of course, we must ask: Why might anyone be missing? What is the implication here?

Before we proceed with this specific question, we must first address the more obvious omnisignificance in the room: Why do we need all these verses at all? At least in the eyes of the more traditional, midrashic commentaries, every verse needs to be justified. This text section gets 20+ psukim with numbers of sheep and types of gold jewelry.

In a traditional take on the Gemara in Shabbat 64, Chizkuni writes that the warrior officers were concerned about having been counted: They therefore stated:

(א) ונקרב את קרבן ה’, לכפר על נפשתינו שנדרנו מלפני החשבון שנמנינו כדי שלא ישלוט בנו נגף ולכך הביאונוהו אל אהל מועד. וכן מצינו ולקחת את כסף הכפורים ונתת אותו על עבודת אהל מועד.  

“We had made this commitment already before having been counted in order to protect us against the potential harm that might befall us on account of the count.  This is why we have now brought it to the Tabernacle.”

To forestall a potential epidemic, they vowed before they left to give from the spoils to Hashem. Chizkuni continues by citing the source for this as Shmot 30:16, our original source about not counting Jews, where “כסף הכפורים” or atonement money is given as a result of the census.

According to tradition, the count is not apparently sinful in and of itself; instead, counting the Jews exposes their sins.

Chizkuni writes regarding v. 49:

ורבותינו אמרו לא נפקד ממנו לדבר עבירה.

Our sages therefore do not understand the word נפקד here in the conventional sense, but they translate it to mean that none of the 12000 soldiers in this campaign had become guilty of a personal sin, which might have resulted in Satan having an excuse to kill him.”

Chizkuni says that being counted could have lead to a plague, but the phrase “ולא נפקד ממנו איש” means that no individual of the 12,000 men (or perhaps their officers) had a personal sin that would increase the likelihood he would die in battle.

Chizkuni here refers back to Rashi and the same Gemara in Shabbat when he says that these officers, who did not sin, are nonetheless atoning from having been tempted to sin. The classical interpretation of these verses, then, is that the donation of these officers is a rare example of leadership gone right in Sefer Bemidbar – leaders confronted with a bad choice who made a good one, which becomes a significant positive part of a story (Ba’al Pe’or) whose ending could have been much worse.

Rashi does something very characteristic on these verses: he lists the words that describe the gold items donated and explains which types of jewelry were included in the list. He notes that the final one is an item in the shape of a uterus to atone for the same sin – the unfulfilled desire the warriors felt for the women of Midian.

אצעדה. אֵלּוּ צְמִידִים שֶׁל רֶגֶל: (ב) וצמיד. שֶׁל יָד: (ג) עגיל. נִזְמֵי אֹזֶן: (ד) וכומז. דְּפוּס שֶׁל בֵּית הָרֶחֶם, לְכַפֵּר הִרְהוּר הַלֵּב שֶׁל בְּנוֹת מִדְיָן (שבת ס”ד):

We expect something like this from Rashi because he likes to take apart lists and give every item on the list additional meaning or detail (see, for example, his commentary on the first few verses of Sefer Devarim.). However, though this type of commentary is characteristic of Rashi, it does make a careful reader aware that he is focusing on the detail in these few verses without saying much about the detail in the lists of spoils.

A more ‘plain text’ approach to the phrase “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ” is given by Nachmanides, who writes

הנה השם עשה תשועה גדולה על ידינו שלא מת במלחמה אחד מכל אנשי הצבא אשר בידינו

Behold, Hashem made through us a great salvation that no one from all of our army died in the war. (Translation mine)

When Nachmanides says no one died, he’s continuing a theme he has built in many places. What do we think about the possibility that there were no casualties? While this seems unlikely, it is nonetheless a possible outcome if the Midianites were truly outmatched, says Rabbi Michael Hattin. (See Part 2 of this shiur from Similarly, Rashbam writes that the real miracle was that no one died of a plague (presumably of the type that were common among encamped soldiers lacking a modern understanding of germ theory.)

Nachmanides’ take on the ‘too much detail question’ is along the same lines as his later commentary (on 31:49):

הוצרך הכתוב לפרט הזה להזכיר כמה המחצה וכמה המכס להודיע כי מיום שלקחו המלקוח עד שמנו אותו וחצו אותו והפרישו ממנו המכס ונתנו לאלעזר הכהן לא מת מכל המקנה הגדול הזה אחד וכן במחצת העדה ללויים וזה נס:  

The Torah needed to include this much detail, noting how much was each half, to let us know that from the day they took the spoils, through the time they counted it and divided it in half, separated the ‘duty’ share and gave it to Elazar the Cohen, not one animal of this great amount died. Also, when the nation divided it up and gave their share to the Leviim [none died either] – which was a miracle. (31:36, translation mine)

This position of Nachmanides here in 31:36 foreshadows the officers later: just as not one of the officers died, so too, none of the animals died. This commentary is similar to Nachmanides’ commentary in 2:4, where he says that the two censuses (In Shmot 30 and Bemidbar 2) have the same count because no one died. We can tell he’s reading ahead to our text at that time because he uses the phrase “לא נפקד מהם איש”, reminiscent of verse 49’s “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ׃”. (Indeed, our text is the only place in Tanach where the phrase “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד … אִֽישׁ׃” is used, but all kinds of commentaries pick it up later (Rashi, Radak, Metzudat David and others) and use it to mean ‘not one is missing.’)

So now we have a war where no soldier sinned and an aftermath where no sheep died. These might be pretty extraordinary miracles. I said earlier that we are perhaps commending the leaders for finishing the terrible story of Ba’al Pe’or off well, with retribution to those who scorned the will of God and a taking of responsibility by the new tribal leaders. The idea that not one died – neither soldier nor animal – can also be showing God’s total forgiveness – no remnant of the sin remains.

However, we might also be hesitant to see these as out-of-the-ordinary miracles (after all, Sihon and Og were more mighty and we defeated them, too.) Other commentaries explore alternate avenues.

The Ohr Hachaim accepts Ramban’s question, writing, “למה האריך כל כך בפרטי החשבון בדבר שיכול כל הבא למנות לידע ”, hilariously translated by Rav Eliyahu Munk as “Who amongst us cannot figure out what half of a total of 675,000 sheep amounts to?” Ohr Hachaim does not consider it to be miraculous that no animal died, in a time span he calls “מועט” – brief – but when he says “ומה גם שיצטרך הכתוב לכתוב כל הדברים בשבילו” – that this so-called ‘miracle’ would not be significant enough to make it worth recording in great detail in the Torah, he sets a high bar for his own answer!

Instead, he says

לא שהיה מונה חמש מאות ונותן אחד לה’ מפאת המכס אלא מונה תצ”ט ונותן אחד

(2) I believe that the reason that the Torah tells us what half the total of these flocks amounted to was to teach us that the calculation of the tax was based on the 500th animal being the tax rather than the 501st. This is the reason the Torah had to repeat this calculation in each instance. In other words, the tax amounted to one in 499 and not as we might have thought one in 500.

Ohr Hachaim says the Torah wants to make sure we don’t think it is a ratio of 1:500, where the 1 given to the duty is not from among the 500. By listing that 675 sheep went to Elazar for the duty, etc., we see that it is the fraction 1/500 (or 1:499). We math types would call this part-to-part as opposed to part-to-whole.

However, Ohr HaChaim’s comment might not even pass his own significance test – this is not a frequently repeated case or one with any practical ramification. 1/501 calculated as a decimal, 0.00199600798403 (repeating), can hardly be said to be much different than 0.002 as to make it worth so many extra verses from the vantage point of someone who, like Ohr Hachaim, does not like extra verses.

Ohr Hachaim, of course, has not resolved all of his problems yet. He still needs to account for the first, very long list. His second point, more meaningfully, is that the Torah’s way of writing makes it clear that the מכס – duty – was taken only out of the warriors’ share, after it was divided in half (where you might have thought it was taken off the top) and the Levites were given their share out of the half that the nation was awarded. This answer accounts for the listing of all the halves twice, to show that both sides started out with half of the original amount of spoils. It can even be argued that after the other sets of numbers are listed, we don’t need to know the exact numbers for the Levites, since we know what fraction of what whole we are calculating. Whatever we think of this answer, we can’t argue that the numbers are not significant enough to matter. This answer deals with much larger numbers. 1/500 off the top of 675,000 versus 1/500 out of 337,500 is 1350 sheep for God versus 675.

(For what it’s worth, Ohr Hachaim is completely on board with the ideas from Shabbat 64a that the soldiers donated the gold to atone for fantasizing about sin, even though none of them sinned and all came back alive.)

Our other reliable omnisignificance booster is the Malbim, who is less explicit but nonetheless does not disappoint. He connects the two sets of numbers, noting that the number of soldiers as a fraction of the nation as a whole corresponds to the fraction of the spoils given to the Levites, who are described in 31:47 as “שומרי משמרת משכן ה’”. Malbim attributes the nation’s success to the prayers of the Levites on behalf of the soldiers.


Since the Levites had an instrumental role through prayer, they are entitled to 1/50 of the spoils for protecting the 1/50 of the nation who went to fight in the war. While Malbim does not explicitly address the omnisignificance question, he clearly believes the specific numbers are significant.

As a longtime ‘math person’, I’ve always resisted any anti-counting bias I felt from the Torah’s census squeamishness. The idea that by counting you risk loss, and superstition in general, is a bit much for my Litvish way of being. Details matter!

Fortunately, I am not the first, or only, one to ever notice that counting can be an expression of love. In his first comment on the book of Bemidbar, Rashi writes, “מִתּוֹךְ חִבָּתָן לְפָנָיו מוֹנֶה אוֹתָם כָּל שָׁעָה” – “Because they were dear to him, He counts them every now and then.” This is indeed a beautiful bookend to our Sefer. For a God committed to His people’s welfare, no detail is too small to escape His care and notice – not even the number of sheep. Especially in the aftermath of Ba’al Pe’or, Hashem takes time and care to show that the relationship is mended. He enables the people to act themselves to accomplish something significant. He then lists the exact number who did so, and the exact numbers of items they earned. In this coda to the Pinchas census, we can imagine that the relationship that’s been on the rocks since Parshat BeHa’alotcha is finally on its way to being mended.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ‘06) teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.


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Pinchas: Fundamentalist Zealot or Centrist Yeshiva Bochur?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

Pinchas is such a fascinating character for the observant Jew. There is something seductively appealing about a zealot’s ability to do the right thing in reaction to shocking acts that paralyze the ordinary arbiters of halakhah.  Even though we are never halachically allowed to instruct anyone in a specific situation that the halacha is “zealots strike him”, still this is the halacha and Pinchas got it right. 

We usually imagine Pinchas rising to action in the moment. But the Gemara on Sanhedrin 82a offers a very different description of the episode.  In the Gemara’s telling of the story, Zimri grabs Cozbi by the hair, drags her in front of Moshe, and asks:

בן עמרם, זו אסורה או מותרת?

ואם תאמר: אסורה, בת יתרו מי התירה לך?

“Son of Amram, is this woman forbidden or permitted?

And if you say that she is forbidden, as for the daughter of Yitro, who permitted her to you?”

Moshe is literally at a loss for words, as the Gemara tells us:

נתעלמה ממנו הלכה –

געו כולם בבכיה

the Halacha eluded him,

 causing the entire nation to cry

It is at this point that Pinchas acts.  But before striking Zimri and Cozbi, the Torah records (Bamidbar 25:7):

וירא פינחס בן־אלעזר בן־אהרן הכהן

ויקם מתוך העדה ויקח רמח בידו

When Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this,

he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand…

On a peshat level, it is clear that Pinchas saw Zimri and Cozbi coupling. But the Gemara’s retelling adds a step in the sequence of Pinchas’ actions:

מה ראה?

אמר רב: ראה מעשה ונזכר הלכה.

אמר לו: אחי אבי אבא, לא כך לימדתני ברדתך מהר סיני: הבועל את כותית קנאין פוגעין בו?

אמר לו: קריינא דאיגרתא איהו ליהוי פרוונקא

What did Pinchas see (that led him to act)?

Rav says: He saw the incident and he remembered the halakha.

He said [to Moses]: “Did you not teach me when you descended from Mt. Sinai that “One who has intercourse with a Gentile – zealots strike him”?

[Moses] said to him: “Let the one who reads the letter be the agent [to fulfill its contents].”

In this version, Pinchas no longer rises to action following his gut instinct. He acts only after receiving confirmation from Moshe that the Halacha does indeed condone killing the perpetrators of such an act.  It is the modern-day equivalent of consulting with a Rabbi or checking in the Shulchan Arukh before acting.  The irony is that this version directly contradicts Rav Chisda’s ruling of הבא לימלך אין מורין לו – if [the zealot] takes counsel, we do not instruct him so. 

Rav’s retelling of the Pinchas story highlights one of the major questions posed by a commitment to Halacha:  To what extent, if any, can we trust our instincts when facing ethical dilemmas, or must we always consult with Halakhic sources and/or authorities?

In this regard, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l relates a powerful story from his early years living in Israel.  While walking with his family in a charedi neighborhood, they came across a presumably non-observant merchant whose car had broken down and was in need of assistance.  A number of the neighborhood kids got into an argument whether they should help him, based on the Gemara Pesachim 113b’s discussion of the status of wanton sinners as relates to the mitzvah of perika u-te’inah (helping one load or unload a burden).  Rav Lichtenstein recalls that he wrote his father-in-law, Rabbi Soloveitchik, a letter in which he concluded: “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” Rav Lichtenstein continues: “My feeling then was: ‘Why, Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.’” (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein z”l. “Developing a Torah Personality—Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting”) 

The dilemma outlined by Rav Lichtenstein has always defined our community, and will continue to do so.  To trust our instincts and internal morality – which HAS been shaped by our Torah education – or  to consult our sefarim and posekim before doing anything.  This dilemma is seen in the two versions of Pinchas presented above.  The question and challenge for us is which model of Pinchas do we choose to follow.


Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz (SBM 2001) is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, MD.

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Fear of Others and Its Consequences

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

The historian Salo Baron famously critiqued the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” that we often associate with Jewish identity. But at the Pesach seder every year, we declare that in every generation, we have enemies that threaten to annihilate the Jewish people, but God saves us each time.

The experience of the generation that left Egypt is the paradigmatic Exodus. But by the time we reach Parashat Balak, that entire generation has passed on, per the decree resulting from the episode of the spies. There is now a new generation. Did this generation experience any sort of similar threat of annihilation? And if so, is this instructive for how we should view Jewish history?

A close reading of Parashat Balak reveals striking thematic and literary parallels to Parashat Shemot. Here are some of the examples of the similarities in language:

ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא… ועתה לכה נא ארה לי את העם הזה כי עצום הוא ממני (במדבר כב, ג; ו)

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ (שמות א, ט)
ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל (כב, ג) וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (שמות א, ו)

In each case, we have a king who is very afraid of B’nei Yisrael because they are a “large nation” who might harm his core constituency, and as a result of that, the king attempts a solution to “deal” with the problem.  

But there are some key differences:

In Shemot, the king is afraid and imposes his fear on his people, while in Balak, the fear begins with the people, who then appoint a king to deal with the problem.

The fears, and therefore solutions, of each king differ as well. In Shemot, Pharaoh’s fear is that B’nei Yisrael would go to war with Egypt.  He, therefore, seeks to weaken them through hard labor and to kill their baby boys so that they won’t grow up to be enemy soldiers. Balak’s fear, however, is that B’nei Yisrael would deplete the resources of Moav. Cursing them to stunt their growth might be a sufficient solution.

Despite these differences, though, the Gemara in Sotah suggests that Bilam, the sorcerer that Balak sought out to curse B’nei Yisrael, was the advisor to Pharaoh who suggested killing the Jewish male infants. This suggests that the comparison is worth exploring.

Do these two experiences indicate a pattern? The anti-Semitic tropes of Pharaoh and Balak can still be heard in our times, even though  many of us in America do not face daily threats of anti-Semitism. Last summer, marchers in Charlottesville who chanted, “the Jews will not replace us.” In February, a faith leader remarked “the Powerful Jews are my enemy.” In March, a councilman in Washington, D.C. declared that the “Rothschilds” control the climate and the federal government. The common thread between all of these scenarios is an unfounded fear of Jews being too powerful, like that we see twice in the Torah. Hopefully, these parallels give us a greater insight into our own history, although Baron is likely correct that the sum-total of our history is not just these trying times.

But more than that, these experiences should teach us about how we relate to others. Americans are in constant debate about how we relate to others – whether it is those throughout the world who wish to enter the United States or minorities already within our borders. Security is one side of the conversation that must be dealt with, but the question is, what results from our seeking security? Does fear lead us to unnecessarily oppressing an “other,” like Pharaoh and Balak did? With awareness of our own history, hopefully we will cultivate sufficient self-awareness to not allow fear to guide us towards an unwarranted hatred of others.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is a student at RIETS and the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and he served this year as rabbinic intern at Young Israel of Plainview.

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A Look of Tumat Met

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jared Anstandig

Regarding the Mitzvah of the פרה אדומה, the Torah states, “זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה ה’ לֵאמֹר.”  On this Pasuk, רש”י draws attention to the תורה’s usage of the term “חוקה,”

לְפִי שֶׁהַשָּׂטָן וְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם מוֹנִין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לוֹמַר מָה הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת וּמַה טַּעַם יֵשׁ בָּהּ? לְפִיכָךְ כָּתַב בָּהּ חֻקָּה — גְּזֵרָה הִיא מִלְּפָנַי, אֵין לְךָ רְשׁוּת לְהַרְהֵר אַחֲרֶיהָ.

Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this command and what reason is there for it”, on this account it (Scripture) writes (uses) the term חקה about it, implying: It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to criticize it.

The traditional approach to the פרה אדומה aligns with רש״י’s comment, and so Judaism takes the פרה אדומה as the quintessential חוק, a law which we will never be able to fully understand. The mystery of פרה אדומה notwithstanding, it is worth exploring the issue that פרה אדומה resolves, namely טומאת מת.

The deceased human being is the highest level of טומאה that exists: in the language of רש”י in this week’s parsha, a corpse is an אבי אבות הטומאה.  This טומאה requires a specific process, the פרה אדומה, in order to become טהור again.

There are three main ways a person becomes טמא from a מת – touching a corpse, carrying a corpse, or being in the same room or above a corpse.  Being in same room (or tent) or above the corpse is known as טומאת אהל.

The Gemara in .יבמות דף סא addresses who can transmit טומאת אהל:

ר”ש בן יוחאי אומר: קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל שנא’ (יחזקאל לד, לא) “ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם” אתם קרויין “אדם,” ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין “אדם.”

The graves of gentiles do not render items impure through a tent, as it is stated: “And you My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are men [adam]” (Ezekiel 34:31), from which it is derived that you, the Jewish people, are called men [adam] but gentiles are not called men [adam].

As evidenced from the continuation of the Gemara, רשב״י’s explanation draws on the opening of the section that deals with טומאת מת –i “אדם כי ימות באהל,” “when a man dies in a tent.”  In this context, “a man,” רשב”י argues, refers to a Jewish body, to the exclusion of non-Jews.

Along these lines, בבא מציעא קיד א-ב tells the following story:

אשכחיה רבה בר אבוה לאליהו דקאי בבית הקברות של עובדי כוכבים… אמר ליה לאו כהן הוא מר מאי טעמא קאי מר בבית הקברות א”ל לא מתני מר טהרות דתניא ר”ש בן יוחי אומר קבריהן של עובדי כוכבים אין מטמאין שנאמר (יחזקאל לד, לא) ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם אתם קרויין אדם ואין עובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם

The Gemara relates: Rabba bar Avuh found Elijah standing in a graveyard of gentiles… he said to him: Is not the Master a priest?[1] What is the reason that the Master is standing in a cemetery? Elijah said to him: Has the Master not studied the mishnaic order of Teharot? As it is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says that the graves of gentiles do not render one impure, as it is stated: “And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are man” (Ezekiel 34:31), which teaches that you, i.e., the Jewish people, are called “man,” but gentiles are not called “man.”

It appears from this Gemara that אליהו himself subscribes to רשב”י’s opinion, arguing that he may stand in a non-Jewish cemetery since there is no concern of טומאת האהל from the non-Jewish bodies therein.

In practice, רמב”ם פרק א’ מהלכות טומאת מת הלכה יג follows the opinion of רשב”י:

וְאֵין הָעַכּוּ”ם מְטַמֵּא בְּאֹהֶל… וְכֵן הָעַכּוּ”ם אֵינוֹ נַעֲשֶׂה טְמֵא מֵת אֶלָּא עַכּוּ”ם שֶׁנָּגַע בְּמֵת אוֹ נְשָׂאוֹ אוֹ הֶאֱהִיל עָלָיו הֲרֵי הוּא כְּמִי שֶׁלֹּא נָגַע.

A non-Jew cannot transmit טומאה through a tent… And, likewise, a non-Jew cannot become impure from a dead body.  Rather, a non-Jew that touches a corpse, or carries it, or stands above it, he is like someone who did not touch the corpse.

For רמב״ם, a non-Jew is completely removed from the world of טומאת מת.  A non-Jew cannot become טמא, and so a non-Jew cannot transmit טומאה. This position appears to fit perfectly with the both יבמות and בבא מציעא, which both indicate that a non-Jewish corpse does not create טומאת מת through an אהל.

However, תוספות (in יבמות סא א ד”ה ממגע) side against רשב”ג:

ואר”י דאין הלכה כר”ש… וצריכים כהנים ליזהר מקברי עובדי כוכבים, ובפרק המקבל (ב”מ קיד:) בעובדא דאליהו דהשיב לרבה בר אבוה כר’ שמעון בן יוחי דהכא דחויי קא מדחי לה…

Ri says that the halacha does not follow Rabbi Shimon… and Kohanim must be careful about the graves of non-Jews, and in Perek Hamekabel (in Baba Metzia), concerning the story of Eliyahu, that he responded to Rabba Bar Avuh that the halacha follows Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, this was merely to push off the question…[2]

תוספות understand that רשב”י’s position about טומאת אהל is subject to a מחלוקת and side against him.  This forces תוספות to take a different approach to the story with אליהו, explaining that אליהו’s words are not to be taken as a halachic argument, but merely something to prevent further question. [3]

When it comes to practice, both the שולחן ערוך and רמ”א hesitate to rule as leniently as רמב”ם and rule, somewhat indecisively, in accordance with תוספות.  They write (in יורה דעה שעב:ב):

קברי עובדי כוכבים, נכון ליזהר הכהן מלילך עליהם; (מהר”מ ותוס’ פ’ המקבל) (אע”פ שיש מקילין (רמב”ם והגמי”י בשם ס’ יראים). ונכון להחמיר.)

The graves of non-Jews, it is appropriate for a Kohen to be careful not to walk on them. (Even though there are those who are lenient, it is appropriate to be strict.)

Given that the position of תוספות prevails in practice, it is worth considering the deeper significance of תוספות’s position.  After all, רמב”ם’s position not only fits better with the read in both Gemaras, but would seem to be more logical – across the board non-Jews are excluded from טומאת מת.  On the other hand, it appears that תוספות agree that a non-Jew cannot contract טומאת מת. Nonetheless, תוספות maintain that a non-Jewish corpse still transmits טומאה.  Why should this be the case?

The answer to this question could be the very nature for the reason for טומאת מת exists in the first place.  Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky in גשר החיים (in a footnote to the beginning of פרק ו’ – דיני טומאה page עה), provides the following explanation for the concept of טומאת מת:

מעלת האדם, בחיר יצורי האדמה, שבכחו להתעלות בקדושה  – היא הגורמת שנמשכים ונאחזים באדם יצירי הטומאה… בדבר שאין לחלוחית קדושה אין להם אחיזה…

The greatness of Man, the chosen creation of earth, is his ability to ascend in holiness – this causes impurity to follow and adhere to a person… impurity does not take hold to something without even the slightest amount of holiness to it.

טומאת מת exists because of the unique holiness of humans.  It is not limited specifically to Jews, but to all mankind.  The human being, endowed with free will, has the potential to ascend to the greatest of heights.  This, alone, bestows a certain level of קדושה to all humanity. In this vein, בראשית רבה ח:א notes the following about all people:

אִם זָכָה אָדָם אוֹמְרִים לוֹ אַתָּה קָדַמְתָּ לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת, וְאִם לָאו אוֹמְרִים לוֹ זְבוּב קְדָמְךָ, יַתּוּשׁ קְדָמְךָ, שִׁלְשׁוּל זֶה קְדָמְךָ.

If a person merits it, they say to him “your creation preceded the creation of angels.”  If not, they saw to him the fly preceded you, the mosquito preceded you, the word preceded you.

The laws that dictate when and how a person becomes טמא may be uniquely Jewish rules.  However, our innate sanctity as people is not based on commandedness or religion. Our potential to change, grow, and develop endows each of us, as people, with an internal holiness.  It is the vacuum of kedusha created by the loss of human life and ability to grow that creates טומאת מת. Let us therefore be mindful of the significance of what it means to be human and recognize that universally, we are holy and capable of profound growth and development.


[1] As per רש”י there, רבה בר אבוה identifies אליהו as being פנחס, a כהן

[2] תוספות supports his ruling based on רבן שמעון בן גמליאל’s position in משנה אהלות יח:ט which implies that there is a concern of אוהל for a קבר עכו”ם.

[3] There is also a larger question about the concept of לא בשמים היא and deriving halacha from supernatural occurrences.

Jared Anstandig (SBM 2011) currently teaches Tanach and Gemara at Ramaz Upper School. This summer, Jared will be moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan and will serve as rabbi for the Orthodox community at the University of Michigan.

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Korach in Context

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz

On some level, we’re not as surprised by the events of this week’s parsha as we should be. We know from history and current events that people often come forward when they’re dissatisfied with the leadership and insist on a change in the power structure. As students of Tanach, we’re very familiar with stories of both peaceful and violent leadership transitions. This story may also be familiar to those of us who can remember learning year after year about a rebellion swallowed up by the earth. However, in the context of the Chumash, the Korach story is actually pretty surprising.

Moshe has been the undisputed leader of Bnei Yisrael since they were in Mitzrayim. The people complain, sometimes very bitterly, and moan that he shouldn’t have led them into the desert, but they continue to rely on him. Suddenly, however, Korach gets up and declares that some changes need to be made: He and his group come before Moshe and Aharon and say “Rav Lachem! It’s too much[1]! All of the community are holy, and Hashem is among them, so why do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?[2]”

The parshanim offer several explanations for Korach’s behavior, and emphasize that he may be furious that Moshe chose their cousin, Elitzaphan, to be the Nasi of Shevet Levi. As Rashi puts it, Korach reasons that he should have been chosen to be Nasi, as his father comes before Elitzaphan’s in the order of Kehat’s sons. It’s certainly possible that Korach is seething with jealousy, but I believe it’s also important to bring up the role of the Nasi here to demonstrate the new power structure that has come up in Sefer Bamidbar: a plurality of leaders. In Shemot, Moshe was in charge, other than specific people chosen by Hashem to build the Mishkan or chosen by Moshe to help teach and judge. In Vayikra, the new leaders we meet are the Kohanim. In Bamidbar, however, we have the Nesiim of each tribe (including Levi), more responsibilities for the Leviim, and, when Moshe feels that his role is too much for him, seventy secondary leaders. Perhaps Korach and his contingent feel that they can ask Moshe to share or give up his authority because they’ve now seen that he’s not the only one who can lead.

One small problem with the theory that Korach is bitter over Elitzaphan’s appointment is that the appointment takes place many perakim earlier. Why would Korach only react now? Some parshanim, such as Abarbanel and Shadal, suggest that Korach protests now, after the sin of the meraglim, to take advantage of the nation’s despair over the spies’ report and the communal punishment. He knows people will be more likely to join him if they have a reason to be mad at Moshe. This makes sense, but I believe Korach may have additionally been inspired by the aftermath of the sin.

After Hashem declares that no one above the age of twenty will enter Israel, one group decides to conquer the land anyway. Moshe warns them not to go, stating twice that Hashem will not be with them. They proceed anyway, and are attacked by the Canaanite nations because, the Torah tells us, “the Ark of Hashem’s covenant and Moshe did not leave the camp[3].” This is one of the few times in the Torah that members of Bnei Yisrael go against Moshe’s direct orders and warnings. They suffer the consequences, but perhaps Korach was inspired by this group of people who chose not to heed Moshe’s word as law. Note that he is careful to point out to Moshe and Aharon in our parsha that the nation is holy and “Hashem is among them.” Perhaps he’s insisting that Bnei Yisrael doesn’t need Moshe’s leadership to access Hashem, but perhaps he’s also arguing that he and his group are not like the group of dissenters who tried to go to Israel and were punished. He’s seen that listening to Moshe may not be the only option, but he’s also seen the wrong way of going against Moshe. After all, there have been very few instances so far of standing up to or going against Moshe, and Korach presumably needs to gather some data, based on prior experience, before staging the first rebellion in the nation’s history.

As the mishnah states that Korach’s rebellion is the epitome of an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven[4], we shouldn’t fight for power the way he did. However, Korach can teach us lessons about how and when to effectively protest when we have something worthwhile to advocate for.



[1] The translation of רב לבם is somewhat unclear. JPS translates it as “you take too much upon you,” while Sefaria translates it as “you go too far.”

[2] Bamidbar 16:3

[3] 14:4

[4] Pirkei Avot 5:17


Dina Kritz (SBM 2015) is pursuing a Master’s in Jewish Education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.


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Cast Aside but Not Abandoned

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Benzion Chinn

Parashat Shelach is the middle of the Torah’s extended effort, starting last week and continuing through Chukat, to shoot down in advance any attempt to write an “Artscroll history” of our ancestors. We are presented with an almost non-stop parade of Israelite missteps to anger God that somehow ensnares even their leaders.

This week’s episode of the spies represents a critical low point in this parade of follies. Moses sends out spies to scout out the Land of Canaan and they bring back a negative report, causing the Israelites to refuse to enter the land. In contrast to the previously established pattern of event, God becomes angry – Moses prays – God forgives the people until the next incident = this time God washes his hands of the Exodus generation and declares that Bnei Yisroel will now have to wait thirty-eight years, until this generation has passed away, to finally inherit the land.

As with all great tragedies, there is a gleam of hope to save us from utter despair. Yes, God temporarily cast Israel aside and hid his face, but even in the depth of anger, He did not abandon us.

Perhaps more than the highs of the biblical narrative, it is this low that binds God to us. We can pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  but in seeking that protection there is a trap. Do any of us really live up to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, so that we can honestly call ourselves their children?

I do not know about you but, for myself, I confess that Pauline Christians have the first part of their argument right. I am a Jew descended of the wrong Israelites; my ancestors complained in the desert, built the Golden Calf, danced in a non G-rated orgy and later listened to the falsehoods of the spies. Again and again, they tested God and whether He would destroy them, to the extent that He took a step back from them for a generation. Yet, in the end, God did not abandon them. More than any promise to any righteous ancestors, it is this promise to Israel’s sinners that gives me faith that we too will not be abandoned.  

This has implications for how we understand the upcoming period of the Three Weeks. If the biblical narrative encapsulates Jewish History, the episode of the spies represents the destruction of the two temples. According to rabbinic tradition, the spies returned on the ninth day of the month of Av. God promised that, because the Israelites cried for nothing, in the future he would give them something to mourn. Tisha B’Av is contrasted with the holiday of Passover as the day we left Jerusalem instead of Egypt. On the surface, Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning but, as R’ Akiba taught us, there is a mysterious laughter to accompany the crying.

R’ Akiba could laugh at the ruins of the Temple because he saw in those same ruins the reality of redemption; if God has fulfilled His curses, He is bound now to carry out his promised blessings. In a sense, Tisha B’Av is not the opposite of Passover but a twin that safeguards its promise. If Passover is God’s redemption, Tisha B’Av is the guarantee that God would not abandon Israel like a romantic couple that gets divorced a few years later. In Lamentations, Jerusalem is compared to a woman in a state of niddah. That is a curse, a blessing and a promise. Niddah can be a very difficult and solitary time.  But it is a status within an ongoing committed relationship, not a divorce. The comparison carries the promise of a time of taharah and togetherness. If you say that God has declared us impure and put us aside then you implicitly concede that no divorce happened and we are coming back.

Benzion N. Chinn (SBM 2003) lives in Pasadena with his family, where he works as an academic and special needs tutor. He pontificates on religion, politics, and sci-fi/fantasy on his blog,

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff

Parshat Baha’alotcha begins with God commanding Moshe to instruct his brother Aharon to light the Menorah as part of the daily service in the Mishkan.

Rashi, quoting Midrash Rabba and Midrash Yelamdeinu, the proto-Midrash Tanchuma, says that this section is placed here, immediately after the offerings by the twelve Nesi’im (princes) during the dedication of the Mishkan in Pashat Naso, because Aharon was distressed when he saw the princes’ contributions from which both he and his tribe, the Levi’im, were excluded. God responds to Aharon’s distress with the commandment of the lighting of the Menorah implicitly telling Aharon that his “portion” was superior to that of the princes.

The Ramban asks how the voluntary dedication offerings of the tribal leaders was similar to the daily lighting of the Menorah. Remarkably, he eventually concludes that God, in these Midrashim is actually alluding to the story of Chanukah. The role of the tribal princes and their offerings during the dedication of the Mishkan pales in comparison to the centrality of Aharon’s descendants, the Chashmonaim in the future salvation and rededication of the second Beit ha-Mikdash.

While the Ramban’s explanation of these Midrashim is compelling by making Aharon’s “portion” directly parallel to the “portion” of the princes, the assumption that God is alluding to events over 1,000 years in the future is problematic.

Additionally, the Midrash itself, as quoted by Rashi is odd. In Sefer Vayikra, Aharon and his sons play a central role in the sanctification and dedication of the Mishkan. Why then, would the contributions of the tribal princes so bother him?  Are we to assume that Aharon wanted a monopoly over the Mishkan and was unable to grant anyone else a distinct role in its worship?

I would like to suggest an interpretation of the Ramban’s comments and their underlying dynamic.

When Aharon was chosen to be the Kohein Gadol, the religious leader of Bnei Yisroel, and the prince of the tribe of Levi, designated to serve in the Mishkan, he gave up his role in the conquering and settlement of the land of Israel. He was effectively removed from the military and political realms. This is why his tribe Levi were not counted with the rest of the nation in the beginning of Bamidbar. That census was to create an accurate assessment of their military forces as Bnei Yisroel prepared for war.

Aharon freely relinquished these powers when he became the Kohein Gadol. And the implicit assumption in that exchange was that the princes, the political and military leaders of B’nei Yisroel, would have lesser roles in the religious realm whose locus in the desert was the Mishkan.

However, at their own initiative, the princes contributed to the dedication of the Mishkan, and, as portrayed in the Sefer Bamidbar narrative, their offerings were the central focus of that dedication.

When Aharon saw that the princes, the political and military leadership, were central in the dedication of the Mishkan, he became distressed about relinquishing his political and military authority on becoming Kohein Gadol.

I am not suggesting that Aharon desired political or military power for its own sake. Rather, by correctly wielding his authority and leading Bnei Yisroel, he could guide them in the proper direction.

When he saw the princes having both political and religious roles, he felt distressed that he had given up the political sphere.

God’s response in the Midrash now takes on new meaning. During the story of Chanukah, the Chashmonaim, in addition to their birthright religious positions, took on the military and political leadership. God’s reply to Aharon’s pain was that in the future the political and military leadership would return to Aharon’s descendants.

And yet Aharon’s perspective is completely understandable. Even today, many people chose a career in either Avodas ha-Kodesh or the “secular” world and thereby forego a profession in the other realm. And witnessing others who are successful in both realms can easily invite regret for one’s choices.

And yet we see from God’s original model of Aharon the Kohein Gadol that keeping the leadership of these realms separate may be the best way to maintain the integrity of both.


Yonatan Kaganoff (SBM 1997)lives in Passaic, NJ with his family, where he works in cryptocurrency and is an amateur puppeteer.

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