Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yakhel 5768/ March 1, 2008

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,



Earlier and Later in Exodus


Yossi Brachya, Attorney


Etz Ephraim



A skillfully written literary work is characterized, among other things, by harmony and organization, its events following in orderly sequence; all the more so when dealing with a divinely created work. [1]   Therefore, it would seem that the rule, “the Torah is not chronologically arranged,” [2] should rarely have to be applied, and only after the fact, for the Torah is said to be well-ordered.

The cases for which the Rabbis and commentators invoked the rule, “the Torah is not chronologically arranged,” can be divided into several categories:

  1. The clear case of explicit chronological disorder in the Torah.   The outstanding example of this (and, to my knowledge, the only one of such a glaring type of disorder) appears at the beginning of the book of Numbers.   The first verse of this book begins with the Lord talking to Moses on the first of Iyar in the second year after the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but in chapter 9:1 Scripture reports the Lord speaking to Moses in the month of Nisan in the same year.  Commentators [3] have gone to great effort to explain the lack of order in this matter, and this in itself proves that such a situation is the exception to the rule. [4]
  2. There are some instances in which the chapters of the Torah are without doubt not arranged in chronological order, but this is not immediately apparent.  Editorial considerations are the main explanation for the change of order.   The representative example of this type of occurrence is that Abraham’s death is mentioned at the end of Parashat Hayyei Sarah (Gen. 25:7-8), and only later, at the beginning of Parashat Toledot (Gen. 25:25-26), are we told of the birth of Abraham’s grandchildren, Jacob and Esau, even though by calculation of the chronology given in the Torah, Abraham was still alive when they were born, being 160 years old, and died when they were fifteen.   As we said, the text was this arranged thus because of editorial considerations. The Torah was interested in concluding the narrative about Abraham before moving on to his successor, Isaac. [5]
  3. There are further instances in which it is not essential to apply this rule, as in case 1, nor does it follow directly from a reading of the text, as in case 2. Nevertheless, applying the rule “the Torah is not chronologically arranged” solves certain problems in the story.  For example, the story of Judah and Tamar comes right after the sale of Joseph.  The plain sense of the text indicates that the affair of Judah and Tamar took place after Joseph had been sold, and that is indeed what Rashi believes to have been the case (see Rashi, Gen. 38:1).  However, in this interpretation, one must condense to a rather short time span (22 years) the birth of Judah’s sons and his grandsons, Hezron and Hamul, who were among those who went down to Egypt (Gen. 46:12), and one must assume that all of Judah’s sons had children at an inconceivably young age (7 years old, according to Seder Olam).   In contrast, Ibn Ezra [6] and Ralbag [7] maintain that the story of Judah and Tamar occurred before the sale of Joseph, which increases the span of time over which Judah’s descendants could have been born. For other reasons, it was placed following.

Contrary to what has been said above, Nahmanides was of the opinion that there was no need whatsoever to apply the rule, “the Torah is not chronologically arranged,” to anything in Exodus (see below), since the readings in this book indicate that the subjects discussed therein occurred one after the other, in chronological order.  But Rashi, who was not for changing the order in the story of Judah and Tamar (even at the cost of having to assume an almost impossible age for the marriage of Judah’s offspring), makes many changes in the order of events set forth in Exodus, due to exegetical difficulties which could easily have been solved otherwise, as other commentators indeed did do.

Rashi suggested a different chronological order for four events in Exodus:

  1. In the story of Jethro coming to Moses at Mount Sinai, Rashi is of the opinion that the second part of the narrative (Ex. 18:13, ff.) took place after Moses had descended from Mount Sinai on the tenth of Tishre, an event that is not recounted until later, in Parashat Va-Yakhel. [8]
  2. The end of Parashat Mishpatim. [9]   In Rashi’s opinion the events recounted in chapter 24:1-24, which took place on the fourth of Sivan, should be incorporated into the course of events that preceded the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which appears in Parashat Yitro.
  3. The commandment to build the Tabernacle.  According to Rashi (on Exodus 31:18 and 33:11), the commandments mentioned in Parashat Terumah, Tetzaveh, Va-Yakhel and Pekudei were actually given after the episode of the golden calf, described in Parashat Ki-Tisa (between the first of Elul and the tenth of Tishre).
  4. The description of Moses pitching his tent outside the camp is given in Exodus 33:7, in Parashat Ki-Tisa. But Rashi believes that Moses did so only after having descended from Mount Sinai, some time from the tenth of Tishre on – an event which is not recounted until the end of chapter 33 and the beginning of chapter 34, Parashat Va-Yakhel. [10]

Contrary to Rashi’s views, Nahmanides [11] is of the opinion that there is no reason to change the order of events in all four cases and that all the events are described neatly in the order in which they occurred; he also holds that all the difficulties can be resolved locally.  This is because Nahmanides believed that the Torah is in order:

As I have already written, it is my opinion that the Torah is entirely chronological, save for places where Scripture explicitly gives an earlier or later timing, and even in such instances it is done for a specific end and proper reason. (Ramban, commentary on Num. 16:1)

Indeed, Rashi’s approach is surprising.   It appears contrary to the plain sense of the text and makes of Exodus a book which lacks order, sometimes even when there is no patently clear reason for the reordering suggested by Rashi.   Nahmanides’ criticism of Rashi is well-taken in all the questions discussed, save for the issue of the timing of the command to build the Tabernacle.  In this matter we are faced with a disagreement over a matter of principle.

According to Nahmanides’ interpretation of Exodus 35:1, the command to build the Tabernacle was given from the outset and not as a remedy for the sin of the golden calf.  This was a commandment that would have been given in any event, as a sign of the Lord’s love for His people and His wish that they be close to Him:

Let it be said to all that the matter of the Tabernacle they were commanded to make from the outset, prior to Moses breaking the tablets, since the Holy One, blessed be He, found them pleasing to Him and gave him a second set of tablets, ... so they returned to their former state and the love of their marriage ... therefore Moses commanded them now to do all that had been commanded from the outset.

In contrast, Rashi is of the opinion that the command to build the Tabernacle was given after the fact, only as a response to the pagan inclinations that the Israelites still showed and that needed the remedy of worshipping the Lord by means of the Tabernacle. [12]

The grounds for Rashi’s position can be found in remarks by Sforno (on Ex. 24:18).  He holds that the original commandment to offer sacrifices to the Lord was not restricted to a specific place nor to a specific tribe (Levi) that would minister the sacred service, rather, “in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you” (Ex. 20:21), and that this intention was changed only as a result of the sin of the golden calf. [13]

In conclusion, it should be noted that Nahmanides is consistent in his position that the commandments were given from the outset, independent of any connection with a specific event or a certain social or religious condition.  This can be seen, for example, in his argument against Maimonides’ position on the reason for the sacrifices (Lev. 1:9). [14]

[1] Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, father of the “aspects theory,” holds the exact opposite to be the case.  In his opinion, it is precisely the lack of order that expresses the divine nature of the Torah. Breuer’s ideas in English can be seen in M. Breuer, “The Study of the Bible and the Primacy of the Fear of Heaven,” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, ed. Shalom Carmy, Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1996, 159-180.

[2] Ein muqdam u-meuhar ba-Torah first appears in Rashi in his commentary to Genesis 6:3 and his commentary on Tractate Pesahim 6b.

[3] See Rashi on Numbers 9:1 and Nahmanides, loc. sit.

[4] Another example of this type is the story of the manna in Exodus 16 which descended immediately after the Exodus from Egypt. The account in Exodus includes the remark that it fell for forty years, “until they arrived in a settled land…came to the border of the land of Canaan” (Ex.16:35). This is seemingly anachronistic.

[5] Many examples of this kind can be given.  For example, Noah’s death is mentioned in the middle of Parashat Noah (Gen. 9:29), and the birth of Abraham only at the end of that weekly reading, even though when Noah died Abraham was 58 years old (according to the elegant mnemonic coined by Ibn Ezra:  “Our patriarch Abraham was 58 (nun”het) years old when Noah (nun – het) died” (commentary on Gen. 6:9).  Likewise the death of Terah, Ishmael, Isaac, and others is reported before the Torah commences with the activities of their sons, even though the fathers were still alive while the sons were active.

[6] Gen. 38:1.  On more than one occasion Ibn Ezra changes the order of events from that in which they are narrated when he encounters exegetical difficulties.  In his opinion, Jethro came to meet the Israelites in the wilderness prior to Revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex. 18:1).   Similarly, he is of the opinion that the episode of Korah and his following took place immediately after the sin of the golden calf (Num. 16:1), etc.

[7] In his commentary on chapter 29 (section 16, pp. 183-185 in the Mosad ha-Rav Kook edition).

[8] Regarding Rashi’s position whether Jethro came before or after Revelation at Sinai, see Siftei Hakhamim.

[9] In this matter there seems to be no exegetical difficulty that warrants changing the order of the narrative.

[This Bible commentary is in memory of my mother, Miriam Brachya bat Maimon and Mas’uda.]


[10] Rashi also follows the general rule that the Torah is not necessarily chronological with regard to the book of Leviticus.  So, for example, what is narrated from Lev. 8:1 on, took place on the 23rd of Adar, one week before the erection of the Tabernacle on the first of Nisan, an event which already had been described earlier, in chapter 40 at the end of Exodus.

[11] See his commentary on Exodus 18:1, 24:1, 33:7, 35:1, as well as Leviticus 8:1, regarding the placement of the command to build the Tabernacle before the sin of the golden calf.  Also regarding Lev. 8:1 (see the previous note),  Nahmanides views this as presented in its proper place, contrary to the view given by Rashi.

[12] So too Rabbenu Bahya in Parashat Terumah.

[13] It seems one cannot say that Rashi’s approach ruled out altogether any original intention to establish a center for worshipping the Lord, for the commandment of pilgrimage requires the existence of such a place.   However, Rashi believed that from the outset there was no place for a Tabernacle in the wilderness, but only a permanent Temple in the Chosen Land.

[14] For a summation of the question, were commandments given after the fact, i.e. as a response to some event or situation, as this relates both to the command to build the Sanctuary and the laws of sacrifice, see N. Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, II, Jerusalem 1976, 459-470.