Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Midbar 5766/ May 27, 2006

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,



Who Is A Jew? – The Age of Legal Majority


Dr. Eyal Regev


The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology


Numbers begins with the census Moses took of the twelve Israelite tribes.   The census occupies a central place in the readings of Be-Midbar, Naso, and Phinehas.   In fact, the census is so central that in the writings of the Sages the book of Numbers was known as Homesh (or Humash) Hapekudim, the Census Book of the Pentateuch (cf., for example, Mishnah, Yoma 7.1).  The divine command given Moses at the beginning of the reading specifies the precise criteria for being included in the census:   “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.  You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Num. 1:2-3; also cf. Num. 1:45).   In other words, the census included only males, and only those twenty years and older.

A similar census is also mentioned with respect to the levy of a half-shekel in Parashat Ki Tissa; “This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay:  a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord.  Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering” (Ex. 30:13-14).   After the coins were collected and the work of building the Tabernacle was completed, Scriptures mention the total sum again and give the total number of people entered in the records, from twenty years and up (Ex.38:25-26). 

Why did the Torah set twenty years as the age for being enrolled in the records of the Israelite people?   What is the significance of this age and what impact did it have on later regulations and rules of halakhah? On the face of it, the answer seems to be intimated in the very beginning of the book of Numbers, for “Twenty” is there defined as the age at which a person is “able to bear arms” (Num. 1:3). [1]

How Old?

The tannaim disagreed over the age of legal majority for men and women.  The House of Shammai maintained that it is eighteen for both sexes, whereas Rabbi Eliezer held that twenty ought to be the age of majority for men. [2]   It appears that Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi shared this opinion (the baraitha in Niddah 47b). [3]   He even called for this age to be the minimum for eating sacred offerings from the altar, for serving as prayer leader, and for participating in the rite of giving the priestly blessing. [4]   In the writings of the Sages one can even find the view that the Heavenly Court does not punish those who have not yet reached the age of twenty. [5]

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Interesting testimony to the religious importance of the age of twenty can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.   In caves at Qumran, scrolls were discovered that comprised part of the library of a sect, active between the Hasmonean period and the destruction of the Second Temple, that had separated itself from mainstream Jewish society.   One of the characteristics of this sect was a criterion for acceptance into the sect.   Even those who born into the sect were not considered members until they reached majority.   According to the Damascus Covenant, twenty was the age at which vows of fidelity to the sect’s Covenant were taken:  “Entering the Covenant of all Israel as an everlasting law, their sons who reach the age to be enrolled in the records, taking the oath of the Covenant to uphold it” (Damascus Covenant 15:4-5).  In another scroll, the Community Rule, detailing the rules of the community at the End of Days, it says:  “From the age of twenty years up they shall be enrolled in the records, sharing in the fate within his family, entering the union of the holy community” (Community Rule 1.8-9). 

A minimum age requirement for acceptance into the community also exists in other sects that are part of the Protestant movement in Christianity, [6] namely sects belonging to a group called Anabaptists.  This group arose Central Europe in the early sixteenth century in response to the reforms of Martin Luther, believing that the Reformation had not gone far enough.  The Anabaptists’ principal argument was that one should not baptize infants to bring them into the Christian fold since infants do not yet have the intelligence to accept any faith upon themselves.   They instituted baptism at the age of physical maturity, as a conscious step taken by a person who has considered the action and arrived at personal religious conviction.   Descendants of the Anabaptists living in the United States and Canada follow this approach to this very day.  Among the Amish, known for their modest way of life, young members who have reached physical maturity are baptized, but preceding this ritual they go through a period of study and guidance by the leaders of the community, and all the members of the community participate in the baptism ceremony.   The Hutterites, as well, a group that lives in agricultural communes, baptize those members who are interested between the age of nineteen and twenty-six.   Only after being baptized is one permitted to participate in the religious ceremonies and activities of the sect.  Baptism is done only after obtaining the consent of all the members, after a period of study and guidance, and once the person to be baptized has shown maturity and dedication to the way of life and faith of the Hutterites.  The baptism ceremony also includes vows of fidelity to the sect.

Mental Maturity

This brief comparative survey of the age of majority among various religious groups reveals a latent message in this week’s reading.   It appears that the Torah views belonging to the people of Israel as a spiritual and religious process.  A young person who has not yet formulated his own views is not counted as an Israelite in every respect.  Only those who can accept the faith of Israel and devotion to the Torah of Israel are counted in the census of the Israelites.   The census in the Torah, after all, was not taken for the purpose of military preparations; rather, it was done in the context of worshipping the Lord and upholding the commandments of the Torah.  Perhaps from this we may conclude that only those who came forth to be counted were considered totally committed to the commandments of the Torah.   Perhaps it teaches that in order to belong to the people of Israel fully it is not sufficient to be born into the people, rather one must have proper education and a sense of awareness that is generally conditional upon having reached an age assuring mental maturity and spiritual.


[1] In the Mishnah, Avot 5.21, Rabbi Judah is quoted as saying, “At twenty years of age [one is ready] for pursuing [lirdof].”   Some interpreted this, in line with our parasha, as referring to pursuing the enemy.  However below we shall see that sources from the Second Temple period and the writings of the Sages viewed twenty years as a significant age in a person’s life, irrespective of military service.

[2] Mishnah, Niddah 5.9; 6.11; Sanhedrin 8.1.

[3] See Y. D. Gilat, “Ben Shelosh-esreh le-mitzvot?” in Y. D. Gilat, Perakim be-Hishtalshelut ha-Halakhah, Ramat Gan 1992, pp. 19-31.   Gilat showed that the Sages did not have a clear and uniform criterion in this regard.

[4] Tosefta, Hagigah 1.3; cf. Ezra 3:8, which implies that twenty years was the minimum age for Levite service, in contrast to Numbers 4:3 (age thirty) and Numbers 8:24 (age twenty-five).  It is interesting that in Jubilees, a pseudepigraphical work from the second century, B.C.E., the obligation to eat the Pascal sacrifice only applies from age twenty; likewise in the Temple Scroll from Qumran.   The Sages, in contrast, also allowed minors to participate.  Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 42b.

[5] Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 2.1/64c; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 11.7/30b; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 89b.   A baraitha in the Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 24b, reports that the priests in the Temple demanded that those who ministered at the Temple be at least twenty years of age.  According to the Jerusalem Talmud, judges on capital cases had to be at least twenty years old (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4.7(9) 22b).   For further reading on the significance of twenty years of age in the writings of the Sages and in the Dead Sea scrolls, see Y. Shifman, Halakhah, Halikhah u-Meshihiyut be-Khat Midbar Yehudah, Jerusalem 1993, pp. 146-168.

[6] For further details and bibliography, see Eyal Regev, “Comparing Sectarian Practice and Organization:  The Qumran Sect in Light of the Regulations of the Shakers, Hutterites, Mennonites and Amish,” Numen 51 (2004), pp. 146-181.