Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be- Midbar 5765/ June 4, 2005

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




“Each with his division, each with his standard”

In Honor of the Flag and Jerusalem Day (June 6)


 Rabbi Dr. Isaac Krauss


Midrasha for Women


The book of Numbers, which describes the great journey of the people of Israel to the land of Israel, begins with a description of the Israelites’ encampment in the wilderness.     The Torah notes that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Moses regarding the arrangement of the camp:   “The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division (mahanehu) and each under his standard” (1:52), and with greater detail, in the command given Moses and Aaron:  “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard (diglo), under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (2:2).

According to the plain sense of the text, it appears that determining the arrangement of the Israelite camp was done to create order in such a large camp.  That is how Rashi explains the phrase, “Each with his standard, under the banners”:  “Each standard ( degel) was to have a sign, a colored banner, hanging from it.  The color of each banner would be different from the next, each color matching the hue of its stone in the breastplate, so that each person would recognize his standard.”   In other words, the division was two-fold: “Each man with his division” ish ‘al mahanehu--was a division into camps, with three tribes in each camp, and  “each with his standard” –ish ‘al diglo--was a tribal division.  According to Rashi, each standard, i.e., each tribe, had a sign – a “colored banner” (or flag, in our way of speaking), and this identification sign would help everyone find his place of encampment in the wilderness.

The homilies of the Sages indicate that flags have another significance (Midrash Rabbah (Vilna ed.), ch. 2):

Each with his standard, under the banners – as in the verse, “Who is she that shines through, etc.” (Song 6:10).   The Israelites were holy and magnificent encamped with their flags, and all the other nations would look at them in wonder, saying, “Who is she, etc.”  The nations then said to them, “Turn back, turn back, O maid of Shulem,” draw close to us and come to us and we shall make you rulers and hegemons, dukes and governors.   “Turn back, turn back, that we may gaze upon you [Heb. ve-nehezeh]” –gazing here means ‘we shall empower you’, as Jethro said to Moses, “You shall also appoint” [Heb. tehezeh] (Ex. 18:21).  “Turn back, turn back, that we may gaze upon you,” [they say],   and Israel would say, “Why will you gaze at the Shulamite”?   What greatness do you offer us?   Could it be like the Mahanaim dance [a play on the word mahanaim in Song of Songs 7:1 and mahanehu in Num.1:52   referring to the Israelite encampment]; could you do for us the great things that G-d did in the wilderness, with the flag of the camp of Judah, the flag of the camp of Reuben, the flag of the camp of Dan, and the flag of the camp of Ephraim?  Could you do such things for us?

What is the great thing that the nations of the world are incapable of doing for Israel?

The term degel, which in modern Hebrew means “flag,” has several meanings.   According to rabbinic interpretation, it indicates a group of people who have a common ideal and are united in a single group, as the midrash says:   Degalim means none other than troops” (Exodus Rabbah ch. 15.7).  The Israelites were indeed enviable when they stood in organized formations, as the above Midrash brought out. However the objective of the Israelites to be formed in organized groups is different from that of other nations.  The source of their desire to be organized as “troops” is brought out in the following Aggadah, also from Numbers Rabbah, loc. sit:  

When the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed on Mount Sinai, twenty-two ten thousands (a myriad, revavah) of angels descended with him, as it is said:  “G-d’s chariots are myriads upon myriads (ribbotayim), thousands upon thousands” (Ps. 68:18), and they would all assemble in troops, as it is said: “Preeminent [Heb. dagul; a play on the word degel] among ten thousand [ merevavah]” (Song 5:10).   When the Israelites saw that the angels were arranged in troops, they said:  Would that we were arranged in troops like them…  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them:   If you so crave to be arranged in troops, by your life, I shall fulfill your desire (Ps. 20:6):   “May the Lord fulfill your every wish” (Ps. 20:6).  Immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, informed Israel and said to Moses:  Go, make them into troops, just as they craved.

The author of the biblical commentary Maor ve-Shemesh,  Rabbi Kolonymos Epstein, tried to fathom this midrash aggadah (Numbers, s.v. ba-midrash):

If we say that they desired to serve the Lord, blessed be He, like the angels, why did they need to be organized like troops? . . . Moreover, we need to understand what ‘flags of the angels’ means.  Did they have flags of cloth?

The answer to this question lies in additional implications of the term degel.   This is how Rabbi Ephraim Solomon ben Aharon of Luntshitz, the Kli Yakar, explains the Israelites’ craving for degalim:

It seems to me that Israel wished to show all the other nations that the name of the Lord is upon them, so that they would be in awe of them. They desired to carry this banner ( degel) of majesty and victory to all four corners of the earth; for surrounded by flags from all four directions, with the Divine Presence and the Ark in the center. . . this flag is in the name of G-d, for they were not to inherit the land by the sword, rather by the name of G-d.   Likewise, the angels, who surround the throne of the Almighty, cast awe over all that are present, as it is said, “Awesome as bannered hosts” (Song. 6:10)…    Hence it is said [in our Parasha]“under the banners” ( be’otot) –the Divine Presence was for them as a banner and standard to which they lifted their eyes.

What the Israelites wished for in their formation as troops was to serve as the banner and standard of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the world.  Therefore they did not settle for military formations and troop standards like all other nations, which are but human groupings.   The aim of the Israelites was to fulfill here, on earth, the function of the ministering angels above, who call in the name of the Lord, to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).  

In light of the Kli Yakar’ s ideas, we can understand the following homily that describes the reciprocal relations between Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He:  “‘Thus the Lord delivered [Heb. va-yosha] Israel that day’ (Ex. 14:30)– it says va-yosha [verb ambiguous if we disregard the vocalization], as if the Israelites were being delivered and as if He were delivered; ‘In the name of our G-d we set up our banner’(Ps. 20:6) – for the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His name on our name and made us into banners (degalim)” (Numbers Rabbah, ch. 2).


A flag is one of the trappings of sovereignty.  In the midrash we read:  “When the Israelites came out of the sea, the Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses:  Form them into troops ( degalim, marching under a banner) so that they march with the pomp and ceremony of royalty” (Deuteronomy Rabbah Lieberman, parashat Devarim, 16).  A people liberated from bondage waves a flag as an indication of their liberty; thus the Israelites did after the splitting of the Red Sea, according to Nahmanides’ commentary (Ex. 14:8):   “That is the meaning of ‘the Israelites were departing with upraised hand’ –they made themselves a flag and banner to wave on high, and they left singing joyously, playing drums and harps, as people delivered from bondage to freedom, not as slaves who are destined to return to the toil.”

The rebirth of the people of Israel in their land after a lengthy period of exile was accompanied by a flag.   As we said, the flag symbolizes the sovereignty of a free people and the desire of Israel to call on the name of the Lord.  Indeed, divine providence directed things such that the flag of the Zionist Organization and the official flag of the State of Israel would look like a tallit:

At the behest of our leader Herzl, I cam to Basel to prepare for the Congress, … Among the many questions that occupied me was … what flag should decorate the congress hall?  What color should it be?  After all, we did not have a flag…  Suddenly I had an inspiration:  do we not have a white and blue flag – the tallit in which we wrap ourselves in prayer?  This prayer shawl is our symbol.  We shall take the tallit out of its bag and unfurl it before Israel and all the nations.  It was then that I ordered a white and blue flag with a star of David on it. [1]

In 1978 a group of yeshiva students asked Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah ha-Cohen Kook of blessed memory “a boorish question,” as he called it, regarding the attitude toward the Israeli flag.  This is what he answered:

I was pained and upset to see the letter from you and in the name of your friends, regarding the boorish question whether attributing sanctity to the flag of the State of Israel should be interpreted as coming under the injunction, “nor shall you follow their laws [the laws of the gentiles].”  You, my dear ones, ought to wholly repent and turn back from this distorted path.  In line with the guidance and sacred instruction of Nahmanides, “father of Israel,” the rebirth of the State of Israel, conquering the land and settling it, and governing it ourselves is one of the positive commandments of the Torah.   Rejecting a part of the Torah is considered the same as rejecting the Torah entirely.  The existence of flags for leading the body politic of Israel is explicitly stated in the Torah, and is sacred and important.   We are fortunate to have been so graced by the Creator of the Universe and the maker of history.   An attitude of fond respect and awe for our privilege of fulfilling the commandment of reestablishing our state, and for the glory of its institutions and symbols, is a wholesome expression of the sanctity of the people of Israel, recognizing, giving thanks and blessing the Lord for His grace to us.   It [the flag] is also tangibly sacred, and denying this attests to an unhealthy weakness, a denial of the vitality of the Jewish people and the character of Israel. From such a weakness one must strive to sanctify, purify and totally free oneself, thereby magnifying and intensifying love and faith in the Torah, studying and observing it. For when earthly Jerusalem is strengthened the heavenly Jerusalem is strengthened and exalted. [2]

Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah’s letter is indicative of a national religious perception of Jewish rule in the land of Israel as fulfilling Nahmanides’ words regarding the commandment of settling the land of Israel.   It also fits in with Nahmanides’ remarks cited above, on the verse, “the Israelites were departing with upraised hand.”

Let me conclude by citing Dr. Zerah Wahrhaftig, who was among those who fought to establish traditional Jewish symbols for the new State of Israel:  “Symbols should not be taken lightly.  They provoke thought and concealed longing for the tradition of past generations, for origins and originality, magical chords that maintain the unbroken chain bonding together past, present and future.” [3]

[1] D. Wolfson, “The Flag and the Shekel,” L. Yaffe (ed.), Sefer ha- Yovel le-Melot Hamesh ve-Esrim Shanah la-Kongress ha- Tziyoni ha-Rishon (Jubilee Book in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the First Zionist Congress), Jerusalem 1923, pp. 296-297.  For a history of the Zionist flag, see M. Eliav, “Le-Korotav shel ha-Degel ha- Tziyoni,” Kivunim: Ketav-et le-Yahadut u-le-Tziyonut (Journal of Judaism and Zionism), 3 (June 1979), pp. 45-49.  Dr. Zerah Wahrhaftig describes the efforts at deciding on the emblems of the state, in anticipation of its establishment in 1948, in his article:  Semalim le-Tehiyyat ha- Medinah,” in Yeshuot Uzo, Memorial to Rabbi Uzi Kalcheim, Ariel, Jerusalem 1996, pp. 488-493.  On the place of the flag in Independence Day customs, see A. Arendt, Pirkei Mehkar le-Yom ha-Atzma’ut, Ramat Gan 1998, pp. 105-107.

[2] From a manuscript that I have.  Due to lack of space, I have omitted his warm words of conclusion.   The letter was first published by Rabbi Shimon Golan, Dappei Iyyun le-Parashat ha-Shavua, Parashat Be-Midbar, Efrat, 1999.

[3] Wahrhaftig, loc. sit. P. 489.