Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Balak 5762/ June 22, 2002
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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Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Balak 5762/ June 22, 2002
"A Houseful of Money"
Prof. Yaakov Spiegel
Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud
This week's reading recounts how Balak King of Moab sent
the elders of Moab and of Midian to Balaam, requesting him to put a curse on the
Israelites. Balaam did not answer them on the spot, but invited them to spend
the night in his house so that he could receive instructions from the Lord how
to respond. Indeed, that night the Lord was revealed to him and said:
"Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are
blessed" (Num. 22:12). Accordingly, Balaam told them the next morning,
"Go back to your own country, for the Lord will not let me go with
you" (v. 13). Balak, however, did not give up, and sent Balaam a second
group, comprised of "dignitaries, more numerous and distinguished than the
first." They turned to Balaam, saying, "Thus says Balak son of
Zippor: Please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I
will do anything you ask of me" (vv. 16-17). To this entreaty Balaam
answered forthwith, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver
and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the
Lord my G-d" (v. 18).
Balaam's response calls to mind what we read in Song of
Songs (8:7): "If a man offered all his wealth for love, he would be
laughed to scorn." The straightforward interpretation of this verse is
that one cannot buy love, and anyone who tries to do so will be scorned, his
love will be rejected. In other words, as in the case of Balaam, the expression
"to give all of one's wealth" denotes hyperbole and
To this we add the passage in I Kings 13:1-9. As we recall,
Jeroboam's hand became rigid, fulfilling the portent given by the man of
G-d. Jeroboam requested the man of G-d to entreat the Lord for him, which the
man of G-d did, and Jeroboam's hand was restored as it had been before.
The text continues, "The king said to the man of G-d, 'Come with me
to my house and have some refreshment; and I shall give you a gift.' But
the man of G-d replied to the king, 'Even if you give me half your wealth,
I will not go in with you, nor will I eat bread or drink water in this place;
for so I was commanded by the word of the Lord: You shall eat no
bread...'" Here, too, we find "half your wealth" as an
expression of exaggeration, just as in the previous examples.
Thus, our initial impression is that Balaam's response
was well in line. He knew that the Lord had forbidden him to go curse Israel,
and since he did not want to go against the world of the Lord he flatly refused
Balak's emissaries: The word of the Lord is not to be transgressed, even
for vast riches.
The Sages, however, understood this passage differently. In
Pirkei Avot (8.19) we read:
Whoever has these three qualities is of the disciples of our
patriarch Abraham, but whomever has three other attributes is of the disciples
of the wicked Balaam: a non-jealous eye, a lowly mind and a humble soul -
is of the disciples of Abraham; a jealous eye, a haughty mind, and a proud soul
- is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam.
Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (version B, ch. 48) explains these
three traits on the basis of the verses in our parasha. We shall quote only the
parts relevant to our subject: "How so, a proud soul? As it is
written, Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and
gold." Midrash Tanhuma (loc. sit., par. 6 = Numbers
Rabbah 20.10) is more explicit:
A proud soul - as it is written, "Though
Balak were to give me..." If he [Balaam] had to hire mercenaries to fight
them, they might be victorious or they might fall in battle. So he should be
satisfied to pay that much to me in order to win. From this we learn that he
did ask [for money].
Based on this, Rashi commented on Balaam's response as
His house full of silver and gold - this tells us
that he was avaricious and covetous of other people's wealth. He said: He
ought to give me so much of his silver and gold, since he would have to hire
many mercenaries and [yet] would not be sure of being victorious, but I would
certainly be victorious.
We must ask how the Sages deduced from the words,
"though Balak were to give me" that Balaam was avaricious. On the
face of it, Balaam's answer was a rejection of the offer, using an
expression of exaggeration in the accepted way.
Many commentators on Rashi addressed this question. Here we
present answers given by two earlier commentators. First, the explanation by R.
Elijah Mizrahi (=Re'em), whose brief remark we cite: "Were this not
so, why did he make contingent on money the possibility of contravening the word
of the Lord? He should have said, 'Though they were to kill me, I could
not do anything contrary to the word of the Lord.'"
In response to this explanation, R. David
noted that Balaam's response to
Balak spoke of money since Balak had made him an offer of money. The
distinguished emissaries which he sent him had said, after all, "I will
reward you richly," meaning, as Rashi interpreted, "I shall give you
even more than you were accustomed to receiving in the
In other words, he promised
Balaam a large financial reward. That being so, Balaam could not respond to
Balak's emissaries, 'I shall not come even if you kill me,'
since a person's response is generally given in terms of what was said to
him. Therefore Balaam answered in terms of money, and this does not necessarily
prove that he was avaricious.
R. Jacob Kneizel
the Sages' words differently, relying on a linguistic analysis of Numbers
22:18. The second half of Balaam's response, "I could not do
anything ... contrary...,"
interpreted in two ways. One, that I have not the ability
to do anything
contrary to G-d's will; the other, that I have no permission
contrary, as indeed Onkelos rendered it. Rabbi Kneizel illustrated why this
sentence of Balaam's was not logical either way, by drawing on examples
from a totally different realm.
According to the first understanding of "I could not do
anything," he asked whether could a person make a statement such as,
"Though you were to give me your house full of silver and gold, I could
not fly up to heaven"? Clearly such a statement is not sensible,
since in any event a person cannot fly up to heaven. According to the second
understanding of "I could not," the appropriate statement would be:
"Though you give me ... I am not permitted to fly up to
heaven." This sentence, as well, is not sensible, since permission does
not depend on the silver and gold that a person is given, and receiving money
does not change the proscription that applies to him. The only sensible reading
of Balaam's words is as follows: Even if you give me silver and gold, I
shall not act contrary to the words of the Lord." Such a statement
expresses a person's free choice, that if he chooses to act contrary to
the word of the Lord for the sake of financial gain, he can do so.
However, as Kneizel pointed out, these were not the words
enunciated by Balaam and what Balaam actually said was devoid of logic.
Therefore, the Sages concluded that Balaam's response was essentially
composed of two clauses: the first - If Balak were to give me his house
full of silver and gold; and the second - I cannot act contrary to the
words of the Lord. The first clause was in response to Balak's words,
"I will reward you richly," and refers to money, as Rashi
interpreted. Balaam's answer to this was that he deserved to be paid
highly, since, as Rashi explained, Balak might be victorious or he might be
vanquished, but Balaam would surely be victorious. The second clause, which
Rashi himself presented as a separate statement, meant: I am not capable
of acting contrary to the words of the Lord. As Rashi wrote: "Against
his will he acknowledged that he is controlled by others, and received a
prophecy here that he could not undo the blessings that the patriarchs had
received from G-d."
This explanation also resolves the difficulty in the words of
the man of G-d in Kings, who actually said: "Even if you give me ..., I
will not go in with you, nor will I eat bread." Neither ability nor
permission are mentioned here, for it was a matter of free choice that depended
on the person himself.
, Venice 1961.
The first printed edition of
Rashi's commentary, Regio de Calabria, 1475, does not include these words.
But this does not answer R. Elijah Mizrahi's point, since R. Elijah
Mizrahi had this text before him and even commented on it.
His work was printed once
in Constantinople, 1524, and published in a new edition based on manuscripts by
R. Moses Phillip, Petah Tikva, 1998. Not much is known about him, except that
he was lived in the same time as Re'em, although they not make reference
to each other's works.
The difference between
saying "I could not do anything contrary" and "I shall not
..." is also discussed by Rabbi J. Toledano in his book, Ohel
, Jerusalem 1997, and in Mishmeret ha-Kodesh
Rabbi H. Almosnino, Leghorn 1824.