Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5760/2000

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 5760 / 15 July 2000

Balaam's Oracles and the Shema

Prof. Yosef Tabory

Department of Talmud

This week's reading has three names. The best known is Parashat Balak, since Balak's name appears in the beginning of the reading (Num. 22:2). [1] Insofar as the reading also concludes by mentioning Balak -- "and Balak also went his way" (Num. 25:25) -- the Torah hints that Balak will be a key figure in the story. The Babylonian Talmud, however, uses another name, noting: "Moses wrote his book and the stories of Balaam and of Job" (Bava Batra 14b-15a). [2] Surely the Talmud had in mind not only what Balaam actually says in Parashat Balak, but also the entire account, which it calls after Balaam, the true hero of the story. The Jerusalem Talmud provides yet a third name, calling this section Parashat Balak u-Bil'am (Ber. 1,8. [3c]). In short, all these names refer to the entire section, which constitutes an integral narrative unit.

Rabbi Judah ben Zbeda (or Zboda) remarked that the Sages wished to include this section in the passages of the Shema which we are commanded to recite every evening and morning. They did not do so only for the reason of not overburdening the community (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 1,5; Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 12b). As we shall see further on, both Talmuds understood that only a verse or two from the story of Balak, and not the entire passage, was what the Sages wished to include in the recitation of Shema. Indeed, a single verse could not be viewed as a burden to the community, but the Babylonian Talmud noted that one cannot read a single verse out of an entire passage, because we are not entitled to select a passage that was not sectioned off by Moses. Since the story of Balak is an integral unit in the Torah and is not divided into open or closed paragraphs, that meant it had been written by Moses as a single unit, and the Sages were not entitled to rule that one should recite a single verse out of that unit. [3]

The question is, which verse in Parashat Balak is important enough to have been included in the Shema? Two answers are given in the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds. One appears in the Jerusalem Talmud in the name of R. Jose bar Avin, who suggests including a certain verse -- which verse exactly is not specified-- because it refers to "the exodus and the kingdom of Heaven." The parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud explains that we are speaking of the exodus from Egypt which is mentioned in Balaam's second oracle: "G-d who freed them from Egypt" (Num. 23:22). "Kingdom" is not explained in the Talmud, but apparently was an allusion to the previous verse, "and their King's acclaim in their midst" - uteruat melek bo- (Num. 23:21). [4] There is reason to suppose Rabbi Jose bar Avin intended that we should recite Balaam's words in the reading of the Shema because they refer both to the exodus and to the Lord's kingdom, instead of the paragraph about tzitzit, which mentions only the exodus from Egypt.

The Babylonian Talmud, however, does not mention the subject of kingdom as one of Rabbi Jose's arguments, but only the subject of the exodus. The Talmud questions why one should particularly prefer the passage from the story of Balaam when there are many passages in the Torah that mention the exodus. In response the Talmud cites the second explanation given in the Jerusalem Talmud, namely, that the verse chosen from the story of Balaam is the one that appears in his third oracle: "They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?" (Num. 24:9). The importance of this verse lies not in the remarkable depiction of the people of Israel and its strength but, as the Jerusalem Talmud explains, in its reference to "lying down and getting up" (kara shakhav ke-ari...mi yekimenu). In other words, it is connected to the halakhic subject of when to read the Shema -- "when you lie down and when you get up" -- beshokhbeka uvqumekha. As Rashi comments on the Babylonian Talmud: "The Holy One, blessed be He, watches over us when we lie down and when we get up, to lay us down peacefully and quietly as a lion" (Ber. 12b, s.v. "kara shakhav").

We can cite a homiletical interpretation about the Shema which is based on Balaam's oracle, but instead of the verse cited by the Jerusalem Talmud, it refers to a verse in Balaam's second oracle, "Lo, a people that rises (yaqum) like a lion, ... rests not (lo yishkav) till it has feasted on prey" (Num. 23:24), applying it to the recitation of the Shema in the morning and the evening:

"Lo, a people that rises like a lion" -- there is no other people in the world quite like them. For they slumber [at night] from the Torah and the commandments, but rise from their slumber like lions, swiftly reciting the Shema and pronouncing the Holy One, blessed be He, King; they become as lions, after which they set off to their daily activities and business. If an enemy encounters all of them, or if one of them is attacked, they again recite the Shema and crown the Holy One, blessed be he, as King. "Rests not till it has feasted on prey" -- as he [who is attacked] recites "the Lord is one," the attackers are devoured before him (Numbers Rabbah, Balak, 20, s.v. "va-yiven shiv'ah"; Tanhuma, Balak 14)

Maharsha concluded that this verse is a more appropriate referent. [5] If we accept Maharsha's view, we find that all the Talmudic discussions which we have cited revolve around the verses in Balaam's second oracle, which are therefore the gist of the Balaam story. [6]

The explanations presented above have a theme in common, namely that the story of Balaam has a motif which is shared with the motifs in the recitation of the Shema, and that this motif (or motifs) justifies reciting a passage from the Balaam narrative in the recitation of Shema.

The Jerusalem Talmud offers a third explanation for the assertion that a section from the Balaam story should be recited every day. This explanation, cited in the name of Rabbi Eleazar, is as follows: "Because [Parashat Balaam] is written in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings." Aside from appearing in this week's reading, the story of Balaam is also mentioned in the Torah in Moses' final speech: "But The L-rd your G-d refused to heed Balaam; instead, The L-rd our G-d turned the curse into a blessing for you, for The L-rd your G-d loves you" (Deut. 23:6). G-d's grace in this regard is also mentioned in Joshua's final oration, in which he reviews the history of the Israelites and notes, almost in identical words to those used by Moses: "but I refused to listen to Balaam; he had to bless you, and thus I saved you from him" (Josh. 24:10). Likewise, the prophet Micah recapitulates: "My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gilgal -- and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord" (Micah 6:5). In the Writings, we have the words of Nehemiah: "they ... hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our G-d turned the curse into a blessing" (Neh. 13:2). According to this argument, it would not suffice to read one or two verses from the Balaam story, rather one would have to read the entire passage in order to understand the matter fully. Note that in certain respects this approach contradicts the opening question, in which the theoretical obligation to recite a passage from Balaam stems from the desire to recall just one or two verses from the passage and not the entire story.

We have yet to clarify why the fact that this episode is mentioned in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings makes it obligatory to recite it every day. Professor Louis Ginzberg has offered a unique solution to the problem. He addresses the Talmud's remark that, "Moses wrote his book and the story of Balaam," and notes that its purpose was to counter the heretical claim that the story of Balaam was not written by Moses, but by Balaam. From this the heretics deduced that not all the Torah was written by Moses. To fight this claim, the entire passage on Balaam deserved to be recited daily, in order to show that it, too, was part of the Torah of Moses; thus, inferring from minor to major (kal va-homer), it followed that all the rest was written by Moses. This approach is well-suited to the Talmudic discussion, since previously the Talmud had just noted that the Ten Commandments had been removed from the recitation of Shema because heretics were claiming that the Decalogue alone was the heart of the Torah. Thus the issue of the Balaam narrative represents a continuation of the fight against the same heretics who claimed that only part of the Torah was written by Moses, and only that part was the most important, the rest being only of secondary significance. The Sages countered this view in two ways: they cancelled recitation of the Ten Commandments in order not to give them undue importance, and saw fit, at least in theory, to establish the Balaam narrative as part of the obligatory daily recitation in order to stress that it, as well, was part of the Torah of Moses. [7]

Ginzberg's explanation does not adequately clarify the connection between the importance of this passage and the fact that it is mentioned in the Prophets and Writings. Rabbi David Tamar viewed the obligation to recite this passage every day as based on the call of the prophet Micah: [8] "My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gilgal -- and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord" (Micah 6:5)." In view of these words Rabbi Tamar determined that we have a positive commandment here from our oral tradition, the object of the command being to remember the Lord's gracious acts that turned curses into blessings. This lesson is repeated throughout the Bible and is not a one-time event described only in this week's reading. Yet even if there is no positive precept to be observed here, surely we should consider every day how The L-rd wishes to turn the curses against us into blessings, if only we be worthy of such grace.

[1] The fact that the weekly reading begins with verse 2 of the chapter is further proof that the numbered chapter divisions are not connected with Jewish tradition.

[2] Likewise in Midrash Tanhuma, Balak 20:1, and the parallel in the Buber edition, Parashat Balak, § 1. At the end of the section, however, it says, "This concludes the story of Balak."

[3] The triennial cycle of Torah reading, however, divides the passage into four sedarim: the second begins with "That night G-d came to Balaam" (Num. 22:20); the third with "He took up his theme and said" (Num. 23:7); and the fourth, "Who can count the dust of Jacob?" (Num. 23:10). The Talmud's assertion that one is not to break up a paragraph that was not sectioned off by Moses contradicts the reality, since in the usual division of Torah readings there are several instances in which we begin to read in the middle of a parasha or conclude in the middle of a parasha. Cf. R. N. N. Rabinowitz, Dikdukei Soferim, Berakhot, p. 56, n. 10; Issaschar Tamar, Alei Tamar, Berakhot, vol. 1, p. 24.

[4] It should be noted that the themes of "exodus and kingdom" also figure in Balaam's third oracle: "Their king shall rise above Agag. Their kingdom shall be exalted. G-d who freed them from Egypt" (Num. 24:7-8). Here, however, the kingdom belongs to human beings, not the Lord.

[5] It should be noted that the order of the expressions in the verse, "They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?" matches the order in the Shema, "when you lie down and when you get up," as is also reflected in the fact that the Mishnah begins with the discussion of the recitation of Shema in the evening and continues with the discussion of the recitation of Shema in the morning; this is not the case with the verse, "Lo, a people that rises like a lion, ... rests not till it has feasted on prey," in which the order is morning then evening.

[6] Another point ought to be noted regarding the connection between these verses and recitation of Shema. The Talmud observes that recitation of Shema ought to include verses that mention lying down and getting up. Both passages established as part of the Shema [but not the parasha of tzitzit--ed.] are sections that refer to the command when you lie down and when you get up, just as the four passages in the tefillin are sections that mention the commandment of tefillin, and the two passages in the mezuzah are ones that mention the duty of mezuzah. Thus, a passage that includes the subject of lying down and getting up is most appropriate for fulfilling the command of "when you lie down and when you get up." Cf. my article, "The Prayer Book (Siddur) as an Anthology of Judaism," Prooftexts, 17/2 (1997), pp. 115-132.

[7] Louis Ginzberg, Perushim ve-Hiddushim ba-Yerushalmi, New York 1941, p. 167.

[8] Alei Tamar, pp.24-25.

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