Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat BeMidbar

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Parashat Bemidbar 5758/1998 (erev Shavuot)

"How Fair Are Your Tents, O Jacob"

Dr. Gabriel H. Cohen

Bible Department

Parashat Bemidbar is devoted to the array of the Israelites' encampment. The reading begins with the census of the tribes, followed by the organization of the tribes in the camp. Lastly comes the census of the tribe of Levi and the division of tasks among the Levites, in the center of the encampment.

The census of the twelve tribes was taken after determining the chieftains. The chieftains were listed, in the usual manner, according to their relationship to Jacob's wives: first the sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; then the sons of Rachel: Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; and lastly the sons of the handmaids: Dan, Asher, Gad and Naphtali (Numbers 1:20-47). However, the totals of the census are listed otherwise: Reuben, Simeon, Gad; Judah, Issachar, Zebulun; Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; Dan, Asher, and Naphtali.

Why is Gad mentioned between Simeon and Judah? This change apparently has to do with the fact that the list of the tribes was made in preparation for detailing their order of encampment, and in this array Gad, the firstborn of Leah's handmaid, was indeed listed together with Reuben and Simeon.[1]

The arrangement of the encampment, based on twelve tribes (excluding the tribe of Levi, but including Ephraim and Manasseh) who were divided into four groups of three tribes, did not preserve the order of Jacob's sons according to their mothers. This is how the encampment of the Israelites was arranged in the wilderness:

(Figure taken from Encyclopedia of the Biblical World, Numbers, Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, ed., Jerusalem 1986, p. 23)

In the center of the encampment was the Tabernacle and its furnishings, surrounded by Moses and Aaron and the sons of Levi--Gershon, Kehat and Merari--each of them responsible for taking care of one part of the Tabernacle and its implements. Around them were twelve tribes, arranged in four groups: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun; Reuben, Simeon and Gad; Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; Dan, Asher and Naphtali.

That Gad is included in Reuben's group is not the only striking feature of this arrangement. It is also noteworthy that Judah and the tribes with him are mentioned at the head of all the tribes, with Moses, Aaron, and the rest of the priests across from them in the inner Levite encampment. The centrality of the tribe of Judah is gradually brought out, starting with the list of chieftains, proceeding through the names of the tribes, and finally with the description of their encampment. It should be stressed that Judah was mentioned first not only in connection with the order in which the tribes camped, but also with regard to the order in which they marched, the tribe of Judah being in the lead as they proceeded through the wilderness (cf. Numbers 10:12-28).

Over the years many explanations have been given for this structure of the camp, with Judah at the head. Some commentators stressed the practical and security aspects of this arrangement, and others laid emphasis on eternal spiritual and symbolic aspects of the arrangement of the camp.


Don Isaac Abarbanel, basing his interpretation on earlier commentators, analyzes the arrangement of the tribes around the Tabernacle in both directions, practical and symbolic. A close look at his commentary resolves many questions.

Since in time of war the greater threat faced the group which took the lead, insofar as the enemy would most likely attack there, therefore the stronger and mightier tribes would always be positioned in that camp. In fact, this leading side is called in the vernacular avant garde, to indicate that it must be well protected. Therefore, encamped on the east were the standards (i.e. flags) of Judah, and with him Issachar and Zebulun, who had so many of the host that their numbers exceeded 186,400; therefore Scriptures had to mention the census numbers according to the standards yet another time.

Abarbanel stresses that the number of people in each tribe was mentioned twice: once in the list of the tribes (ch. 1), and again when the location of each tribe was specified in the array of the tribal encampment (ch. 2). Moreover, the Torah sums up the total number of people in each group of three tribes on each side of the Tabernacle. Thus, the number of people in the tribe of Judah is mentioned twice (1:21; 2:4), and the total number encamping along with this tribe: 186,400 (2:9). From this we conclude that the number of people in each camp was a fundamental element in the arrangement of the camps.

The leader of the camp, the first into battle, was the largest and strongest; and the camp bringing up the rear, having to fight off attacks on the rear, was relatively large (2:31). The two camps protecting the sides, the camp of Reuben and of Ephraim, were smaller (2:17, 24).


But the encampment of the Israelites is also a model for all time and should not be explained solely in terms of practical defense needs. The Midrash gives a homiletical explanation of the placement of the tribes (Numbers Rabbah 2.10). The classical exegetes (such as Ralbag, 1288-1344) further develop the idea that the array of the Israelites should be seen as a supra-historical model of the inner structure of the Israelite camp and its place in the world. Abarbanel also summarizes his views and those of his predecessors on this point, commenting extensively on the organization of the tribes in the desert, their earthly camp being seen in juxtaposition to the heavenly camp. Abarbanel concludes his analysis as follows:

The matter of the camps was not a separate issue from that of proper and decent political leadership, although here too we find a model of the world in general... Just as everywhere in the world in general we find different ranks with barriers between them, so too, in the encampment in the desert. Thus, along the preferred side, namely to the east, where the sun rises and where one enters the Tabernacle, were Moses and Aaron and his sons... So, too, the standards surrounding the camps were according to rank, for the standard of Judah was to the east, near the sons of Kehat, because Judah merited kingship. Reuben and Simeon were not beneath him, being his older brothers; for how could they be subordinate to him in their standards? But Issachar and Zebulun were under him, being his younger brothers... This is the divine order, each person in the place befitting him.

According to Abarbanel, Judah was placed in the lead of the camp not only because of size, but also because it was the tribe destined for the monarchy. He continues to explain the place of each tribe, both in terms of its relationship to the other two tribes on the same side, and in terms of its general location in the camp and its proximity to one of the sons of the tribe of Levi surrounding the Tabernacle.


The importance ascribed to the order of encampment of the tribes is reflected in various ways in Jewish history and culture. We shall mention but three of them.

A) Apparently even the land of Israel was apportioned to the tribes largely according to their order of encampment in the desert, as has been pointed out by several biblical commentators. Except for the royal tribe of Judah, located in the "center" of the country around Jerusalem and not near the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun that encamped with Judah in the desert, the rest of the tribes remained close to the allotments of their brethren for long periods of time, just as they marched with them in the desert according to the array set out in this week's reading.

B) The Sages' sayings that a good neighbor is one of the foundations of social existence (Avot 2.13), and "woe to the wicked man and woe to his neighbor; fortunate is the righteous and fortunate is his neighbor" (Sukkah 56b) are illustrated by the array of the tribes in the desert. Certain tribes appear to have banded together, for better or for worse, as they proceeded jointly through the desert. Issachar and Zebulun set up a multi-faceted partnership, whereas Korah sof Kehat and members of the tribe of Reuben (Dathan, Abiram and On son of Peleth) conspired together to revolt against Moses, since they felt disadvantaged in terms of their family and status. Similarly, Reuben, Gad and part of the tribe of Manasseh, also neighbors in the tribal encampment, planned together to remain east of the Jordan.

C) Jewish folklore describes the encampment of the tribes in the desert as forming a Star of David, twelve focal points being connected one to another, and all of these arranged around a central, thirteenth, focus--the Tabernacle and the tribe of Levi ministering the sacred service.[2]

A Yiddish anthology for the holidays describes the unique arrangement of the Israelite camp and its symbolism as follows:

According to this picture, the Star of David is the symbol of tribal unity in Israel, a single formation protecting the Sanctuary shared by all.

[1] Cf. the article by Dr. Meir Gruzman, Sidram Shel Shivtei Yisrael ba-Torah, Niv Ha-Midrashiya 13 (1978-1979), 105-118.

[2] T. Nussblat, Der Mogen Dovid Ufstamm, Yalkut ha-Moadim - Unsere Yomim Tovim (ed., Z. Y. Rabinowitz), Buenos Aires, 1942, 1131-1140.