the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
A Tale of Two Poles
Dr. Hazoniel Touitou
Department of Bible
Who is not familiar with the logo of Carmel Wines or of the Ministry of Tourism? The former depicts two people, facing left, carrying by its two ends a pole on the middle of which hangs a large, juicy cluster of grapes. The logo of the Ministry of Tourism can be seen on the vans of tour guides; it is similar, except that the figures face to the right. These pictures have entered the public domain, no longer signifying just those two bodies. Ostensibly, these images are the plain sense (peshat) of the scriptural passage, “It had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them” (Num. ), found in this week’s reading. As we shall show, however, there is apparently more than one way to understand this verse.
Scripture describes the
spies whom Moses sent, as they returned from the
If we look closely at the syntax of the verse, we observe that the word bi-shnayim (by two) is actually superfluous, as Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor has pointed out: “Bi-shnayim is superfluous, for since it has already been said ‘on a pole,’ is it not clear that there were two?” The plural verb (vayissa’uhu) itself indicates that there was more than one person carrying; so to what does the word bi-shnayim refer to?
This question has a long history of interpretation, from the homilies of the Sages and the Aramaic translations of the Torah, through medieval and modern commentaries. It turns out that the plain sense of the text of this sense tolerates two contradictory readings, as is attested by Ralbag:
“It had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them” – by the plain sense of the text it would appear that two men carried the frame that supported the cluster of grapes, one at one end and one at the other. Or perhaps the frame consisted of two poles, and it was carried by four. The first explanation seems more in accord with the plain sense. However, our Rabbis of blessed memory (Sotah 34a), said by way of exaggeration, that they were borne by means of a series of balancing poles (in the original: tortini ve-tortini de-tortini).
Despite the simple meaning that he presents as his first interpretation, Ralbag admits that there is another way of reading the sentence, such that the word shnayim refers to the pole, meaning there were two or more poles. Though he terms the view in the Talmud an exaggeration, perhaps their understanding could also be the plain sense, as we see from what is written in Sotah 34a:
“It had to be borne on a pole by two of them.” Do we not already know if it says “pole” that it must be carried by two? What are we being taught by the words “by two”? That there were two poles. Rabbi Isaac said: they were borne by means of a series of balancing poles. How so? Eight of them carried the cluster of grapes, one carried pomegranates, and another carried figs, and Joshua and Caleb did not carry anything. 
In Scriptures it turns out that the word mot (=pole) can denote two poles; so says Rashi on our verse, based on the above gemara. So too said the supercommentators who followed him-- Rabbi Abraham Bukhrat,  Rabbi Samuel Almosnino,  Rabbi Elijah Mizrahi,  Rabbi Isaac Horowitz,  and others. Also the Tosafists on the Torah arrived at a similar conclusion. For example, the Tosafist anthology Moshav Zekenim  comments: “The word bi-shnayim does not refer to people, rather to the pole; and when it says simply mot, that means two planks, as in Numbers 4:10: venatenu ‘al ha-mot ‘which they shall then put on a carrying frame [consisting of at least two poles]’.”
There are a variety of opinions regarding the number of poles in the carrying frame, the number of people who carried the cluster of grapes, and the manner in which the cluster was carried. Even among those who maintain that there were two poles and eight people carrying the cluster of grapes, there is still disagreement as to the form of the carrying mechanism, as shown in the following illustrations: 
In the manuscripts of
the commentary Minhat Yehudah, by Rabbi
Lutzky manuscript 787, catalogue no. 24017
Thus, we see that there are a variety of possible ways of understanding the plain sense of the biblical text, and that there are two levels of plain reading: the level on which we understand the text immediately, upon initial reading, and the level of understanding at which we arrive upon closer examination, in which the word mot is taken to refer to two poles, and hence the word bi-shnayim is taken to imply that there were four poles. This interpretation was suppressed because of the initial reading of the verse, according to which it the reader envisaged two people carried the cluster of grapes on a single pole, holding each end. This was the interpretation that was preserved and that apparently inspired artists, sculptors, and painters to produce the famous images referred to at the beginning of this article.
 This is also implied by the trope [cantillation signs] that relate bi-shnayim to the spies, since the preceding word, mot (= pole), takes a disjunctive trope, tiphah. Had those who pointed the signs wished to associate “by two” with the pole, the tiphah would have been placed on va-yissa’uhu and the meaning of the sentence would have been: “they bore it, the cluster, on a pole by two”, meaning they bore the grapes on two poles. This way, the sense is that “they bore it on a pole, by two (people).”
 Some held the opposite – that it was actually Joshua and Caleb who carried the cluster, while all the others carried nothing. See note 1, above.
 Sefer Zikaron al Perush Rashi la-Humash, ed. Moshe Philip, Petah Tikvah 1985, pp. 133-135.
 Sefer Rabbi Shemuel Almosnino al Perush Rashi, Petah Tikvah 1998, p. 242.
 Perush le-Ferush Rashi la-Torah, redacted by Moshe Philip, Petah Tikvah 1994, p. 123.
 Be’er Yitzhak, Perush al Perush Rashi la-Torah, Jerusalem 1967, p. 123.
 Sefer Moshav Zekenim al ha-Torah, S. Sasson ed., London 1959, p. 454.
illustrations come from Tractate Sotah, The
 Rabbi Judah ben Eleazar, Minhat Yehudah, Leghorn 1743. According to the testimony of the author in his introduction to the commentary, this work was written in 1313. The manuscript shown in our illustration dates to the end of the fourteenth century.