Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5763/ July 12, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Balak 5763/ July 12, 2003
Magic and Miracles, Asses and Angels

Dr. Alexander Klein
Department of Mathematics and Ashkelon College

In this week's reading we are told that Balaam's she-ass refused to continue along the way when she saw an angel of the Lord blocking the way ahead of her. Balaam, who did not see the angel, beat her in order to force her to continue walking, until finally she began to talk and argue with her master (Num. 22:25-28). Later on in this week's reading we are told that the Lord forced Balaam to bless Israel and prevented him from cursing them.

Among the questions raised by Don Isaac Abarbanel are the following:[1]

1) What point was there in the miracle of the ass speaking?

The Lord does not introduce a miracle unless there is some necessity, and here we can find no other purpose than that the angel talk to Balaam, and that could have been done without the she-ass seeing the angel and without her talking at all.

2) Why did the Lord not let Balaam curse the people? It was, after all, in His hands to ignore the curse.

The first question, what purpose was served by the miracle of the ass speaking, is explained by Nahmanides (Num. 22:23) thus: The Lord wished to make it clear to Balaam that He alone "opens the mouth of the speechless, and all the more so, has the power to make those who speak become dumb; He also places words in their mouths for them to speak as He wishes, for all is in His hands." Nevertheless, one may ask, did the Holy One, blessed be He, have to perform a miracle in order to convey this message? Hence, there are commentators who maintain that the ass did not actually speak as a human does. This view was advocated by Samuel David Luzzato (Shadal) in his commentary on the Torah. For if the animal actually spoke, why did this miracle not make a great impression on Balaam or his entourage?

Did the she-ass speak, or did she not? It is not beyond G-d's abilities to make her speak; but it is impossible that Balaam and his two lads should not have been frightened to death by this, and it is impossible that he should have had the strength to answer her back. Hence, it might well be that she did not talk as a human being does. Note that it does not say, "and she spoke"; rather, her mouth let out a squeal from which he understood, "What have I done to you, that you have beaten me?" Then he was overcome with remorse and said, "No, indeed it is not characteristic of this beast to mistreat me." So it is true that the Lord "opened the ass's mouth" insofar as she brayed differently from usual, but the miracle was not so great as to alarm Balaam.

The second question is explained by Luzzato and Anselm Astruc[2] by arguing that if Balaam had cursed the people, that would have led to profanation of the lord. Luzzato emphasized:

Since the Israelites were not allowed to provoke Moab, had Balaam cursed them, then Balaam and Balak would have boasted that his curse had been effective and had saved the king and the people who hired him; for they did not know that the Lord had commanded, "Do not harass the Moabites" (Deut. 2:9), and that the Israelites were keeping their distance from them because of G-d's command, as they had done with Edom.. Thus the Lord's name would have been profaned.

Anselm Astruc took the argument a step further, explaining that if the Lord had permitted Balaam to curse Israel, other nations would be likely to think that the many hardships that befell Israel through the years had been caused by this curse.

In Meshekh Hokhmah, Rabbi Meir Simha Ha-Cohen of Dvinsk resolved both these questions in a different way, treating both questions as one. In his opinion, we are dealing with psychological warfare. In order to frighten the nations in the region and to make it easier for the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan, the Lord wished to show everyone that He intended to help His people. This objective was accomplished when the curses in Balaam's mouth turned to blessings in front of everyone.[3] To avoid the least suspicion that this was a show put on by Balaam and that the Israelites had sent him a vast fortune for him to bless them instead of cursing them, an additional miracle took place – that of the ass opening her mouth in front of the elders of Midian, so that there was not even a shadow of a doubt regarding G-d's direct intervention here.

According to Maimonides,[4] a corporeal person cannot see angels, which are ethereal. Hence he believed that whenever Scriptures tell us of a person seeing angels, it is a vision or dream, not an event that actually happened. According to this view, it is understood that many miracles, such as the residents of Sodom being blinded, as well as the ass opening her mouth, did not take place in reality.[5] If so, all that we are told about the ass opening her mouth took place in a prophetic vision, not in the real world; hence the problem which we raised above is nonexistent. On the other hand, Maimonides did not explain to us the purpose of this prophetic revelation. A further difficulty in Maimonides' position is that it ostensibly contradicts what is said in the Sayings of the Fathers (5.5): "Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath, at twilight, and these are they: ... the mouth of the she-ass...," which indicates according to the Mishnah that opening the she-ass's mouth was an actual miracle.[6]

Alongside what we have said thus far, we must also ask what message the Torah seeks to convey to us when it tells us of these two miracles: the ass opening her mouth and the curse turning into a blessing? Yehezkel Kaufman offered an answer to this question.[7] In his opinion, according to the plain sense of the text it appears that the Torah had not the least doubt about Balaam's ability to curse the people. This power of Balaam's was "natural" in the sense that it operated like other natural forces, except that it involved a sort of "wisdom" that only a selected few knew how to use. If so, his curse would indeed have been harmful to the Israelites, had the Lord allowed Balaam to curse. The Torah seeks to teach us that no human being, however wise, can oppose G-d, nor, all the more so, defeat Him. Human beings could exploit the forces of nature to satisfy their daily needs, but the notion, accepted in pagan thought, that G-d could be defeated by magical means was unthinkable. G-d showed His might by miraculously opening the she-ass's mouth and by forcing Balaam to bless Israel instead of cursing them.


[1] Commentary on the Torah by Don Isaac Abarbanel, Numbers 22:2, questions 11 and 9.
[2] In his Midreshei Halakhah, cited by Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Numbers, loc. sit.
[3] See Abarbanel's commentary on the Torah for similar comments.
[4] Guide for the Perplexed, 2.6.
[5] Loc. sit. 2:42. This position of Maimonides is in line with his general approach of minimizing the number of miracles.
[6] Many sources argue against Maimonides' approach; cf. especially Nahmanides' commentary on the Torah on Gen. 18:1, as well as Sefer Ha-Zikkaron by Ritba, which comes defends Maimonides against Nahmanides' reservations.
[7] Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, Chicago 1960, pp. 78-79; 84-85.