Parashat Be-Midbar 5766/ May 27, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Who Is A Jew? – The Age of Legal Majority
Dr. Eyal Regev
Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of
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). 
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.
It appears that Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi
shared this opinion (the baraitha in Niddah 47b).
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.
In the writings of the Sages one can
even find the view that the
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
A minimum age requirement for acceptance into the community
also exists in other sects that are part of the Protestant movement in
 namely sects belonging to a
group called Anabaptists. This
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
 In the
Mishnah, Avot 5.21, Rabbi
 Mishnah, Niddah 5.9; 6.11; Sanhedrin 8.1.
 See Y.
D. Gilat, “Ben Shelosh-esreh le-mitzvot?” in Y. D. Gilat, Perakim
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
 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.