Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parashat Mattoth - Massey

"Some Names Being Changed"--

Musabot Shem (Num. 32:38)

A New Interpretation of a Biblical Phrase

Dr. Zvi Betzer

The Department of Hebrew Language

The tribes of Gad and Reuven had promised that once their children, wives, and flocks were settled in the cities of the Gilad in the Transjordan, the men would go forward in the vanguard of the army to fight until the entire Land of Israel was conquered. Only then would they return to their homes. As a result of this arrangement the two tribes had to fortify their cities to the east of the Jordan with protected pens for the sheep, for it would have been inconceivable to leave the women and the multitude of sheep without suitable protection. The problem of the flocks, however, concerned only the tribes of Gad and Reuven. The tribe of Menashe did not participate at all in the negotiations with Moses and became party to the arrangement only in its final stages (see, for example, Nachmanides' commentary on verse 33).

Immediately upon the completion of the negotiations, the tribe of Gad began to carry out its obligations: "The Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth ... as fortified towns or as enclosures for flocks" (32:34-36). However, in the description of the efforts of the sons of Reuven, all that we are told of their activities in their cities is that the towns were musabot shem : "The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh... Ba'al- Me'on, musabot shem ..." (32:37-38). The accepted translation of "musabot shem" is "some names being changed", that is: the pagan names of these cities (some or all of them) were changed to other names (see the comments of Rashi and Nachmanides on these verses).

This is a considerable surprise . Why didn't the sons of Reuven, like their brethren of Gad, see to it that their wives and flocks were settled in fortified, enclosed cities ? As to changing the names of the cities, is it not sufficient that the Torah tells us "They gave [their own names] to towns that they rebuilt" (38), which can be taken as referring to both the cities of Reuven and the cities of Gad? Why was this idea doubled in the phrase musabot shem - "their names being changed"?

Years ago Yehudah Kiel [a foremost educator who is one of the editors of the Daat Mikra Bible Commentary series] mentioned to me, that R. Moshe Zeidel (Remez) had an explanation for this. Remez used to note handwritten comments on the pages of his Bible, and on the words musabot shem he made reference to the "Targum Eretz Yisrael" [Palestinian Targum]. Indeed, in the Aramaic translation of the Bible known as Targum Neophyti* we find a novel explanation of the phrase: musabot shem is translated (into Aramaic) as "mukafin shurin ramin", 'surrounded by high walls'. Musabot is to be understood as mesubavot, 'surrounded', and shem is taken to mean 'high walls' (This matter is not even hinted at in his books Chikrei Mikra and Chikrei Lashon).

Diez Macho, the Spanish scholar who edited the Neophyti translation, notes in his textual apparatus another version: 'a city completely surrounded by towers, and the names of its great men and heroes are carved upon them'.

Looking into the matter, I found that such translations were actually quite well-known. The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel (D. Reider edition, according to MS. Add. 27031, British Museum) translates in a manner equivalent to the second version of the Neophyti above. The Septuagint also translates "surrounded by walls". In light of these translations, I tend to think that the Targum Onkelos which translated "makfan shemahan" - 'surrounded by names'--meant "walls" and not "names", since the meaning of the word "makfan" almost rules out any connection with the word "names" in the sense we usually understand it.

The commentary to the words "musabot shem" in the Da'at Mikra book of Numbers cites a reference to II Samuel 8:13, where, in the Da'at Mikra commentary, additional verses are brought to support the idea that in the Bible, the word shem also means a wall or a tower.

In II Sam. 8:13 we find: "And David made a name (Vaya'as David shem) when he returned from smiting Aram in the valley of salt". It is difficult to translate shem as 'name' or 'fame' since the Biblical combination "asah shem," 'to make a name for oneself; become famous,' demands to be followed by the preposition le-"for". Rather, David erected a tower which would serve as a monument to commemorate his conquests.

Further examples can be found in Da'at Mikra on Samuel(where Kiel, who wrote the commentary, mentions Remez). From the Tower of Babel narrative comes this verse: "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves (vena'aseh lanu shem)" (Genesis 11:4). The suggested plan was to fortify themselves and erect a tower, otherwise "we will be scattered all over the face of the earth". Therefore "na'aseh lanu shem" does not describe the end result of their plans, to gain fame, but is parallel to the first half of the verse, and simply means, 'and let us construct a tower'.

Similarly, in Isaiah 56:5 we have the famous phrase "yad vashem" which is generally translated as "an everlasting memorial". Here,too, shem is parallel to yad, 'monument' ( as in Yad Avshalom). Compare also Genesis 25:13, "These are the names(shemot) of the sons of Ishmael by their names (bishmotam) according to their generations", which contains an obvious repetition, to verse 25:16, "And these are their names by their villages and encampments"(betirotam). Here too , bishmotam, parallel to the word tirotam, does not mean names but rather 'fortified towers' or encampments.

It is therefore possible to maintain that in Biblical Hebrew the word shem underwent a process of metonymy (the use of one word for another which it in some way suggests). The word shem came to signify not "name" alone, but also the object on which names were carved (a wall, tower, or memorial).

This year marks twenty-six years since the death of Remez, of blessed memory. May these few lines constitute an appropriate "shem" - name and memorial - to honor that worthy man.

* Targum Neophyti (or Neofiti) is the Targum Yerushalmi (Palestinian Targum) to the Torah which was discovered by Diez Macho in 1956 and published by him in 1971. The manuscript of the Neofiti dates from the early 16th century.

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