Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Matot-Mas’ei 5766/ July 22, 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,



Musabbot Shem – On Walls and Names


 Dr. Yisrael Rosenson




Scripture describes the settlement of the tribes of Gad and Reuben in the land conquered east of the Jordan, giving the following details (Num. 32:34-38):

The Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth, Arorer, Atroth-Shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran as fortified towns or as enclosures for flocks. The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, Nebo, Baal-meonsome names being changed [Heb. musabbot shem] – and Sibmah; they gave names to towns that they rebuilt.

Plainly the Hebrew expression musabbot shem applies to cities whose name had been changed, in order to obliterate  pagan names. [1]   Perhaps some substantiation for this is provided by the proximity between what appears to be a summary listing – “and Ataroth and Arorer…their names being changed” and the place name Baal-meon, which concludes the list.

Change of geographical names does occur in Scripture, although it is not particularly common. [2]   For our purposes, of particular importance is a change of name found at the end of the parashah:   “And Nobah went and captured Kenath and its dependencies, renaming it Nobah after himself” (Num. 32:42).   The proximity between this verse and the account of the Gadites and Reubenites settling cities on the East Bank of the Jordan (the verses cited above) indicates by way of contrast that the two tribes above did not call the names of the cities after their own names, to perpetuate the conquest; “They gave names to towns that they rebuilt” – the emphasis here is on the rebuilding and not, as in the case of Nobah, who renamed Kenath after himself, on the military conquest.   Thus we conclude that the Gadite and Reubenite cities had their names changed for ideological reasons and not to glorify their conquest.

Does this distinction hold elsewhere in Scripture?   If we examine such books as Joshua and Judges we see that the conquest was characterized by an effort to maintain stability and generally the place names were not changed in the wake of conquest, not even for ideological/religious reasons.   Even though the guidelines given were to “tear down their altars ... obliterating their name from that site” (Deut. 12:3), and clearly obliterating the name was connected with obliterating the pagan cult; however we have no explicit evidence that this was indeed done.

The Sages, however, describe a situation during the conquest of the land in which pagan names were often changed or obliterated:   “It used to be called Beit Gali but now is called Beit Kari; Ein Kol, [now called] Ein Kotz” (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 46a).   Can this be taken as evidence that names were changed in every location,  as a matter of course?  Perhaps.   But perhaps this homily serves to bring out precisely those cases in which the name of the place could potentially be interpreted according to its antonym, so that by plays on the meaning and sound of words, characteristic of the creative art of midrash, Gali (= elevated) becomes Kari (=low), and the positive Kol (=all) becomes the negative Kotz (=thorn).  Similarly, other sources mention names that were “midrashized” via dual meanings, for example (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 23b):

They were asked:  is it Beit Ye’azek or Beit Yazek?   Beit Ye’azek denotes a good name, as it is written, “He broke the ground [Heb. va-ye’azkehu], cleared it of stones” (Isa. 5:2); or perhaps it is Beit Yazek, denoting a sad name, as in the verse, “chained in fetters [Heb. be-azikim]?” (Jer. 40:1).

The Sages, well aware of the value of names, identified instances in which it was important to reverse the significance of a name by applying midrashic techniques, in this way making a proclamation against idolatry.  An illustration of this might be found in Scripture itself, as follows from Rashi’s commentary:  “To the Mount of the Destroyer [Heb. Har ha-Mashhit] (2Kings 22:13) – this is the Mount of Olives, actually called “the mountain of anointing” [Heb. Har ha-mishhah], but since its name was mentioned here by idolaters, the name was changed to one of opprobrium.”  Here, too, not only the name is important but also the opportunity for making an ideological pronouncement.

Name [Heb. shem] as meaning “wall”

A brief linguistic note by Tzvi Betzer provides an unusual explanation of the Hebrew phrase, musabbot shem.  He maintains that shem (usually rendered as “name”) denotes “wall,” and the expression musabbot shem denotes cities surrounded or encircled (musabbot) by a wall. [3]   In his explanation of the need for this additional interpretation, Betzer points out the difficulties in understanding the special circumstances in which the Reubenites found themselves, and shows the advantages of his interpretation of musabbot shem.   According to him, if this expression were to denote cities whose names had been changed, and not walled cities, then we would have to ask why the Reubenites did not see to it that they left their wives dwelling in fortified, well-defended cities (see 32:26—“our wives...will stay behind in the towns of Gilead”)?  And if Scripture seeks to emphasize only the linguistic act, the question arises why it did not suffice to state that “they gave names to towns that they rebuilt” without adding the words, “some names being changed” [musabbot shem]?  He claims that the meaning of “wall” for the word shem follows from Aramaic translations that take musabbot shem to mean “surrounded by a wall” and from places in Scripture where shem is likely to refer to a wall.    Especially interesting is his explanation of the linguistic association between shem in its plain sense, “name,” and shem in the sense of “wall”:   “In the language of the Bible the word shem may have undergone a process of metonymy.  The word shem came to signify not only ‘name’ but also the object on which the name was inscribed (the wall, tower, or memorial).”

Given Betzer’s hypothesis, we can extend it further and say that a significant relationship developed here between “outside” (=the wall) and “inside” (=the name as signifying the inner essence). [4]   Moreover, in my opinion there is an important advantage to interpretating musabbot shem in the sense of surrounded by a wall, since it contributes to thematic unity in the verse and in the entire passage.  Betzer’s interpretation provides complete parallelism between the description of city-building by the Gadites and the Reubenites:   “The Gadites built ... fortified towns and enclosures for flocks. The Reubenites built ... walled cities.”   In abbreviated form we have a complementary parallel structure formed by “fortified towns” (and enclosures for flocks) as opposed to “walled cities.”  According to this interpretation, the Gadites and Reubenites followed a similar pattern:  both fortified, as necessary, the place where their women and children were to live.   This unity can be shown in other parts of the parashah, [5] thus strengthening our interpretation.

The significance of the dual definition

The question now arises as to the significance of using the word shem in this special way.   Why, according to Betzer, would Scripture switch from the straightforward expression, “fortified towns,” to the poetic “musabbot shem” (walled cities)?   The simplest explanation is that here we have a stylistic variation such as is generally found in the parallel stochastic structure of biblical poetry, and not uncommonly also in biblical prose. [6]   All the same, shem in the sense of “wall” is certainly not a common usage; it might denote a commemorative site, but in biblical lexicons there is no outright definition of shem as wall. [7]   That is to say, this is not a simple, technical definition, rather, as Betzer himself admits incidentally, a definition related primarily to a memory associated with a wall.

The idea of a commemorative place name in connection with a wall comes up in the story of Saul and his sons being impaled on the wall of Beth-Shan.   There presumably the bodies would not remain on the wall for all eternity, but one can see that the wall was not being used simply for humiliation; a rite was involved here and the wall was to serve as the foundation for the Philistine’s memory that would remain inscribed in the hearts of the spectators. [8]

Why was the definition of shem that is associated with memory used specifically for the Reubenites?  Shem in the sense of “wall” reinforces the connection with the motif of building and establishing a foothold in the land, and shem in the sense of “name” ties us to the need for remembrance.  The primacy of Reuben, first-born of all the sons and first to establish a foothold in the land, creates a sort of proto-structure to serve as a significant model for what is to come, contemplating the essence of the process of settling the land, combining jointly the acts of building and commemorating that are a necessary part of eradicating the memory of idolatry.   In this sense, here we have almost the opposite mechanism to the notion of “eradicate their name” that appears in Deuteronomy:  there, we encounter physical destruction and change of name for the worse, whereas in this week’s reading we have physical construction and change of name for the better, since these were the places where they would later settle.   Changing the physical map by building and the cognitive map by commemorating are what characterize the act of settling the land.


[1] Thus according to modern commentators:  Y. Z. Moscovitz, Numbers, Da’at Mikra, Jerusalem 1988, p. 392; J. Milgrom, Encyclopedia Olam ha-Tanakh le-Be-Midbar (ed. M. Weinfeld), Jerusalem and Ramat-Gan 1986, p. 190; Y. Licht, Perush al Sefer Be-Midbar, 3, Jerusalem 1995, pp. 145-146.

[2]He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz” (Gen. 28:19).   “David occupied the stronghold and renamed it the City of David” (II Sam. 5:9); “Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it; otherwise I will capture the city myself, and my name will be connected with it” (II Sam. 12:28).   The opposite is illustrated by the following verse:  “Then he bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver; he built [a town] on the hill and named the town which he built Samaria, after Shemer, the owner of the hill” (I Kings 16:24).

[3] Z. Betzer, “Musabot Shem” (Num. 32:38), Weekly Torah Study on Parashat Matot, 1997, in English.

[4] A similar manifestation is understood to pertain to leprosy – an outer manifestation (on the skin), reflecting an inner essence (pride, gossip).

[5] More can be said about the entire passage, which I cover in my book:  Devarim Ba-Midbar:  Iyyunim Parshaniyim be-Sefer Be-Midbar, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 405-411.

[6] Although in prose it occurs primarily in verses attempting to portray a festive or special atmosphere, such as:  “Until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken.   For dust you are, and to dust   you shall return” (Gen.3:19).

[7] Cf. Genesis, in the story of the Tower of Babel.   Also David:   “David gained fame [lit. made a name] when he returned from defeating Edom in the Valley of Salt” (II Sam. 8:13).   In Isaiah:  “I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name” (Isa. 56:5).  “A monument and a name” stand in the usual parallel structure to “House and walls.”   The new Evan Shoshan Concordance lists hundreds of occurrences of the word shem in a variety of constructions, some of them parallel, of which eleven are in the sense of a commemorative marker, and only a few of them can be seen as connected to an edifice or wall.  The definition as a commemorative site, monument, etc. also appears in Ts. Radi and H. Rabin, Ha-Milon he-Hadash la-Tanakh, p. 600; Steinberg, Milon ha-Tanah (Mishpat ha-Urim),p. 851;  and in B.D.B., p. 1028. [Isaac, do you think it necessary to spell out:   Brown, Driver and Briggs?]

[8] Of course the Philistines failed to achieve their objective.  In this context we note the poem by Amir Gilboa which tells of an encounter with the impaled body (head).  He ends his poem saying, “Come Saul, come!   The Children of Israel are living in Beth-shan.”