Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mattoth 5761/2001

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.
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Parashat Mattoth-Mas'ei 5761/July 21, 2001

Gad, Reuben, and the Half-tribe of Manasseh

Menashe Elyashiv

Jewish Studies Library

In Parashat Mattot, which generally is read along with Masei,[1] we learn that the tribes of Reuben and Gad requested to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Moses accepted their request, but stipulated certain conditions,[2] and included part of the tribe of Manasseh in this settlement.[3] Three questions arise from the narrative:

1) The introduction of the story (verse 1) mentions the "Reubenites and the Gadites", but later on (verse 2) the order is reversed: "the Gadites and the Reubenites." Likewise, the Sages refer to Moses' stipulations as the "conditions placed on the Gadites and the Reubenites" (Mishna Kiddushin 3, 4). What does this change of order signify?

2) Why precisely did these two tribes ask to settle on the other side of the Jordan River?

3) How and why did the tribe of Manasseh join this settlement (v. 33), and why only part of the tribe?

According to the order of the text, the petition by the Gadites and Reubenites was made after the second census of the Israelites and the war against Midian, in the fortieth year of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness, so that the request of these two tribes to remain on the other side of the Jordan came shortly before the people were supposed to enter the land. Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, arguing that the Bible is not necessarily narrated in historical sequence, believes that the event took place after the war against Sihon and Og (Num. 21:21-35), when the tribes had acquired not only much plunder from battle but also large numbers of flocks. Abarbanel mentions an additional interpretation: Since Reuben had lost the rights of the firstborn[4] and the kingship (Gen. 49:3-4), it was humiliating for him to dwell in the Land of Canaan along with Judah who held the crown and the sons of Joseph who inherited a double portion in the land, the right of the first-born. Therefore the tribe of Reuben joined forces with Gad, its fellow tribe in the Israelite encampment in the wilderness, and together they petitioned Moses. Abarbanel notes a third interpretation, namely that Scripture deliberately reversed the order of the names to indicate that both tribes were equal in this matter.

According to Nahmanides, in verse 1 Reuben is mentioned first because he is legally the firstborn, but later Gad is mentioned first because they were the ones who suggested the idea. Also they were heroes, since Moses had blessed them, "to tear off arm and scalp" (Deut. 33:20). But why didn't Simeon, the third partner in Reuben's encampment site, also join in this request? It was clear to Simeon that they were not in a position to make any demands. Jacob, in his blessings, had reproved Simeon together with Levi. But unlike Levi, whose descendants in the interim mended their ways and were awarded the priesthood and levitical service, Simeon had been party to the sin involving Baal Peor (Num. 25) and did not receive an explicit blessing from Moses (according to Deut. 33:7).

Now for the third question which we raised, why was it half the tribe of Manasseh?

The Transjordan was settled by Machir and Jair,[5] sons of Manasseh (so too, in Deut. 3:14-15), while Manasseh's portion west of the Jordan was allotted to the great-grandsons of Joshua and the daughters of Zelophehad (see Mishna Bava Batra 8, 3). In Abarbanel's opinion, the land of Sihon and Og was too large for the Gadites and Reubenites, and therefore Moses added half of Manasseh; in Nahmanides' opinion, only the families of Machir and Jair wished to separate from the rest of the people and the tribes and to remain in Transjordan.

The Midrash presents the division of this tribes' inheritance as a punishment. Manasseh caused the tribes to rend their garments (according to Gen. 44:13), and the Sages identified Manasseh with Joseph's interpreter (Gen. 42:23); therefore the inheritance of Manasseh was rent in two (Genesis Rabbah, 84, s.v. "vayikra Yaakov"). According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the reasons for Manasseh joining in the settlement of the Transjordan are not given.

Let us venture to give our own explanation for the strange request made by Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh: Jacob had four wives and four firstborn sons. According to the halakhah, a father can only give one son the birthright insofar as inheritance is concerned, but each mother has a firstborn son regarding redemption (Mishna Bekhorot 8, 1). Reuben, Joseph, Gad, and Dan were firstborns, and in the wilderness there were four camps:

Head tribe: Reuben Judah Ephraim Dan

Others in the camp Simeon Issachar Manasseh Asher

Gad Zebulun Benjamin Naphtali

Mother: Leah and Zilpa Leah Rachel Bilhah and Zilpah

Reuben, Leah's firstborn, was the head of his camp. Judah, who was destined for the crown, was the head of the camp which included the other brothers born to his mother. Ephraim headed the camp comprised of Rachel's sons, after Joseph was awarded the birthright and split into two tribes (Gen. 48:8; I Chron. 8:1). Note that in this matter, Ephraim, the younger brother, preceded Manasseh (Gen. 48:15, 19-20). Also Dan, Bilhah's firstborn, headed a camp. But Gad, Zilpah's firstborn, did not head a camp, and Zilpah's sons were divided among the camps of Reuben and Dan.

Encamping next to the tribe of Reuben were the Levites, sons of Kohath. Due to this proximity--"Woe to the wicked man, woe to his neighbor"-- Korah, who was of the Kohath family, was joined in rebellion by Reuben's sons, Dathan and Abiram (Num. 16:1). Two tribes here felt disadvantaged: Reuben, who had lost the right of firstborn, and Gad, who did not head a camp nor dwell in the same camp with his brother Naphtali. Therefore these tribes came before Moses, petitioning to settle in the Transjordan as compensation for having been slighted. Moses granted their request, but added to them part of the tribe of Manasseh, who also had been shortchanged as firstborn but had not demanded anything on that account. The tribe of Manasseh did not forfeit its inheritance in the land of Israel, inheriting a full allotment there, because 90% of them had crossed the Jordan River. In addition they received part of the land in the Transjordan.

A baraitha in the Jerusalem Talmud separates the land given to the Gadites from that given to the Reubenites and that given to the half-tribe of Manasseh. The passage on bikkurim, first fruits, mentions "the soil which You, O Lord, have given me" (Deut. 26:10), which is interpreted as "excluding the soil which I took for myself". According to this approach, the Torah requires first fruits to be brought from the land of the half-tribe of Manasseh,[6] because they received that inheritance without asking for it; whereas the Reubenites and Gadites asked for that inheritance and therefore do not bring first fruits from their land.

Later the Danites also received a sort of birthright when territory from the center of the land was added to their inheritance (Josh. 19:40-48). They also received Leshem in the northern part of the land (Judges 18).

Thus it turns out according to our explanation that the Gadites and Reubenites were not after wealth, nor were they afraid to participate in the conquest of the land; rather, they were demanding redress of their wounded honor.[7]

[1] The parashot of Mattot-Masei are generally read together. In leap years when the seventh day of Passover falls on a Friday, which means that Saturday is the additional festival day observed in the Diaspora, the parashot read separately in Israel in order to keep in sequence with the Jews of the Diaspora. In leap years when Passover begins on Sunday, or when Passover begins on Tuesday and the New Month on a Thursday (which rarely occurs), the readings are read individually in the Diaspora too. For a different division of these readings, cf. M. Gavra, "What is the Torah Reading for this Sabbath?" Daf Shavua no. 139.

[2] On the style and language used by the Gadites and Reubenites, see A. Frisch, "The Gadites' and Reubenites' Request – Criticism and Balance," Daf Shavua no. 246.

[3] On the borders of the land of Israel, see M. ha-Cohen, "The Borders of the Promised Land," Daf Shavua no. 296.

[4] He was however still considered firstborn to be listed first (Num. 1:20, 26:5, I Chron. 5:1).

[5] Was Jair the son of Manasseh? Commentators question about this, insofar as I Chron. 7:14 makes his relation to Manasseh unclear.

[6] For a summary of the different approaches, see the entry Bikkurim in the Encyclopedia Talmudit.

[7] I wish to thank Rabbi M. Meislish, author of "Ha-Arukh al ha-Bavli ve-ha-Yerushalmi," for raising this point.