Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Naso 5767/ May 26, 2007

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,



The Chieftains’ Offerings


Yosef Priel




Chapter 7 in the book of Numbers, the longest chapter of the Torah (89 verses), situated in the longest weekly reading, presents a problem. This chapter describes the offerings brought to the Sanctuary by the Nesi’im on the day of its dedication and for a total of twelve days. It repeats the same formulation, six verses long, word for word, twelve times over: [1]   “On the n-th day, it was the chieftain of … so-and-so.  His offering…”  Would it not have sufficed to say:  “Each one brought his offering, first the chieftain of the tribe of Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab; on the second day, Nethanel son of Zuar, chieftain of Issachar,” etc., giving the details of the offerings only for the first or last chieftain?

Traditional commentators have not paid much attention to this question, which in itself is interesting.   Below we shall present several familiar approaches, as well as one innovative approach, which in our opinion necessarily follows from the context of the biblical text, in an attempt to explain the exceptional length of the narrative.

The Homiletical Explanation:

According to Numbers Rabbah on this week’s reading (ch. 13-14), which is the longest midrash on a single subject, one chieftain’s offering was not like the next, even if in the description of the offerings we read the exact same phrase:  “one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels,” or “one bull of the herd.”   The midrash claims that each one of the chieftains had different intent regarding each detail of his offering that was identical to the others.

Some tribal chieftains were ascribed intentions by the midrash that seem fitting to them, such as the crown to Judah, Torah to Issachar, the agreement with Zebulun that appears in the intentions of the chieftain of Issachar, [2] the intentions of the chieftain of the Reubenites that deal with the father of the tribe, and likewise the chieftain of Manasseh concerning Joseph, also the chieftains of Benjamin and Dan, whose intentions alluded to the future of their tribes.  It is more difficult, however, to understand the explanations given by the midrash that associate the intentions of the chieftain of Simeon with making the Tabernacle and the intentions of the chieftain of Gad with respect to the exodus from Egypt, or why the intentions of Ephraim, Jacob’s grandson, allude to his grandfather, or why specifically the tribe of Asher was chosen to allude to the chosenness of the Israelites, or why specifically Naphtali alluded to the patriarchs and matriarchs?

Explanations that follow the plain sense or that have a moral lesson:

Nahmanides (1194-1270) on Numbers 7:2-5:

For the Holy One, blessed be He, gives honor to those who fear Him, as He said:   “For I honor those who honor Me.”   …He wished to mention them all by name and specify their offerings, and to mention the day for each one, not that He cite only the first one and then say “and all the others sacrificed likewise, each on his day,” for this would have diminished the honor of the others.   And afterwards He repeated a summation for them all, to indicate that they were all equal before Him.

In other words, this passage encodes a spiritual message for that generation and for ones to follow, about honoring people and about the greatness of the chieftains. The identical quality of the chieftains’ offerings could be presented by repeating the offerings for each, and this is what the Torah did. Nevertheless, one day had to precede another, since each day had its own sequential number.   The order was then set according to the order of journeying of the tribes, [3] but even this “partiality” was overcome by giving a summation of all the offerings together at the end of the passage.  

Individual Initiative

Ralbag (1288-1344):   “To indicate that they were all equal in this regard, no one being better than the other, since each one himself was roused to bring this offering” (7:10).

Ralbag as well, relying on Sifre (Naso 13), viewed the lengthy exposition as conveying a message in praise of all the tribal chieftains, each having in mind exactly the same offering.

Abarbanel (1437-1508):   “This was a consensus that they had reached so that there would be no jealousy or competition between them ...   thus the Torah is attesting that the offering of the lesser of the chieftains was just as great and elevated and plentiful as the offering of the most distinguished of them” (Numbers 7, middle of s.v. ve-omnam).

Abarbanel finds a spiritual and psychological message in the text, attesting to the wisdom of the chieftains who, in desiring to prevent dissension among the people who were divided into twelve different tribes, decided to bring identical offerings.  The repetition of the description of the offerings indicates that in the Lord’s eyes all the tribes were equal.

Collective Contributions

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888):   “In inaugurating the altar they expressed the attitude of the individual tribes to the common altar of all the people; they expressed this attitude with oneness of heart and consensus of opinion” (on Num. 7:12).

The absolute equality with which they approached the sacred worship indicates proper subservience to it.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, author of Oznayim la-Torah (1881-1966) (Num. 7:18):

The Torah spoke in praise of the chieftains, the second not outdoing the first, and the third not outdoing the second, and likewise all of them; unlike most people, who are accustomed in such circumstances, on public occasions in front of the entire Jewish people, to exult in their generosity and show everyone how superior they are to their fellows; but they did not do so.   Since, if the second chieftain had added to what the first one had brought, his contribution would have had to be specified, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not wish, on account of the second one acting properly and not competing with the first, to have him lose out and not have his offering spelled out in full detail in the Torah.

It is evident that Rabbi Sorotzkin was speaking as someone experienced in public affairs (he was head of Agudat Yisrael after the establishment of the State), and wanted to teach us a social lesson. At such a ceremonial event that took place in front of the entire nation, those in the limelight would only naturally be vying for honor; the Torah sings the praises of the chieftains for not doing so, having agreed to bring equal offerings; therefore the offerings of all of them were each listed in detail.

An Original Interpretation

We propose an interpretation based on relating this passage to its context:

All the weekly readings dealing with the Tabernacle are characterized by being quite lengthy. [4]   In the chapters of Leviticus that deal with the preparatory days before inauguration of the altar, the Torah emphasizes the fact that the people were congregated to observe the spectacle.  Thus it was at the beginning of these days:  “... the community was assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 8:4); thus on the morning of the eighth day:  “the whole community came forward and stood before the Lord” (Lev. 9:5); and thus in the course of that day:  “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting.   When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people.   Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.   And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:23-24).

We may presume that the Torah’s objective in this account is to show the people’s involvement, following all that took place with great interest and excitement, this event being for them the fulfillment of their dreams of a Sanctuary of their own after having been enslaved to the Egyptian pantheon, as well as repairing their relationship with the Lord, which had suffered as a result of the sin of the golden calf. [5]

It appears that one thing grew out of the other.   The lengthiness of the text lends expression to the religious importance of the Tabernacle, but it also represents to us the people’s involvement in the process.   Indeed, from the moment the people were commanded to build the Tabernacle, they applied themselves to the task with great enthusiasm. [6]

On the eighth day came the tragic death of Aaron’s son.  Considering the expectation which had built up and the release of tension that occurred after fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar (Num. 9:24), presumably this tragic event caused a tremendous crisis, as if all the people’s effort had been in vain.  That being so, the people had to undergo a process of recovery from this blow, and apparently the description of these twelve days is the Torah’s way of lending expression to this.  Had the Torah made do with simply listing the people who brought the offerings, the reader would not sense that we are dealing with twelve days that also conveyed a special message to the people, the passive onlookers.   The length of the reading also expresses the lingering time that elapsed.  The fact that on each of these days each chieftain brought his offerings and that they were favorably received, and that no human-consuming fire descended again from heaven – all this constituted the process of rehabilitation for the people.  This, in our opinion, is the point of this chapter and the reason for its great length.

Perhaps there is also another idea at work here.   It is the practice not to recite Tahanun during the month of Nisan primarily because these twelve days, taken with the days of the Passover festival, turn most of the month into days of festivity. [7]   That is to say, we recognize these days as being festivals, but what festivals are they?

As far as we can tell, in that generation the first of Nisan was a festive day for the tribe of Judah, the fourth of Nisan, for the tribe of Reuben, and so on.  Viewed from a modern-day perspective, the text appears tediously long; but we are not reading the text from the point of view of the slaves who had just become a people comprised of twelve tribes, for if we did we would sense the pride of each tribe watching as its chieftain brought the offering of his tribe.   Apparently also the depiction of the festive day of each of the tribes lies behind this lengthy narrative. [8]

[1] There are subtle differences only in the beginnings of the accounts of the first two chieftains (7:12-18):   “The one who presented his offering on the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah.   His offering …   On the second day, Nethanel son of Zuar, chieftain of Issachar, made his offering.”  The word atudim in the offering brought by Nahshon is written with plene spelling.  On the reason for these differences, see Numbers Rabbah ch. 13, 9-12,15-17; Sifre Bemidbar, Naso 51, 52, and an original explanation in the commentary, Or ha-Hayyim, by Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar (1696-1743), on verse 12.

[2] “Zebulun was given the privilege of bringing his offering third because he was fond of the Torah and generously extended of his wealth to Issachar, so that the tribe of Issachar would not have a hard time earning a living and consequently not be able to apply themselves to studying Torah; hence Zebulun was given the privilege of being in partnership with the Torah and was the friend of Issachar” (Numbers Rabbah 13.17).

[3] This is according to Rashi on verse 19.

[4] Thirteen chapters of Exodus (28-31, 38-40) deal in great detail with the process of building the Tabernacle.  The commandment and the course of the preparatory days to the inauguration are described at great length in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8.   The events of the eighth day – the first of Nisan --  also appear in Exodus 40, as well as Leviticus 9-11 and in the chapter at hand, Numbers 7, which begins with the words, “On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle.”  Regarding identification of the eighth day as the first of Nisan, this is the view of most commentators, based on Sifre (Naso 44) and Sifra (Tzav, Mekhilta de-Miluim 1).  Ibn Ezra maintains that it was the eighth of Nisan (in his long commentary on Exodus 40:2).  See the discussion of the subject in Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Farashat ha-Shavua, Genesis-Exodus, Second Series, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 405-407.   Abarbanel, at the beginning of his commentary on chapter 7, maintains that the offerings must have started after the census of the people during the month of Iyyar, and therefore the suggestion which we make below does not fit with his approach.

[5] See, in this forum, the article of Yitzhak-Dov Paris on Parashat Va-Yakhel  2003 (no. 485) on the connection between the Tabernacle and the sin of the golden calf, as well as Yair Barkai’s article on Parashat Shemini 2005 (no.594) on the impact of that sin on the offerings made on the eighth day.

[6] According to the midrash, proof of this lies in the rate of donation – “in two mornings they brought all the contributions needed for the Tabernacle” (Tanhuma, Terumah 4) – despite the difficulty in obtaining building materials and dyes in the wilderness, and in the rapid rate of executing the work, which in Rabbi Hanina’s opinion took only nine weeks (Yalkut Shimoni,  I Kings, 6), and in the opinion of others in the midrash took four and a half or five months (Tanhuma, Pekudei 11).

[7] This is the reason given by the author of Mishnah Berurah 107 for the halakhah that is established in Orah Hayyim 429, 2.

[8] Should you ask why the Torah does not state these ideas explicitly, we would say that someone who is accustomed to the language of the Bible knows that the Torah does not always mention dates and names, and when it does mention them it is to note the importance of the date or name.  Here we have a numerical date for each name and a tribal chieftain who is the subject of all that is written about that day (all the names are re-mentioned in the last verse of the passage on each day), so we have a strong foundation for saying that indeed the Torah did hint to us about the importance of these days and the importance of the tribes, as we are suggesting.