Introduction to Sefer Bamidbar

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Parshat Naso contains what appears to be a very strange progression of topics.  After all, what logical connection exists between:

  • The duties of the Leviim in chapter 4
  • Laws concerning "korban asham" in chapter 5
  • The laws concerning a "sotah" in chapter 5
  • The laws of a "nazir" in chapter 6
  • "Birkat Kohanim" in chapter 6
  • The dedication ceremony of the Mishkan in chapter 7

Certainly, if we use our imagination, we could suggest some tangential connections; but the fact remains - at first glance, all of these various 'parshiot' appear to very unrelated.

So why does the Torah record them together?

To your surprise, this week's shiur will NOT explain why they are indeed connected.  Instead, we will do exactly the opposite -we will suggest a reason for why these parshiot do NOT follow in logical progression!

To explain why, we will study the overall structure of Sefer Bamidbar - in search of its unifying theme.  While doing so, we will uncover a rather fascinating pattern - that will explain why it becomes so difficult to find a unifying theme for Sefer Bamidbar.


In our Parsha series thus far, our approach to the study of Chumash has been based on the assumption that each "sefer" carries a unique theme.  To uncover those themes, we have studied the progression of 'parshiot' of each Sefer.

[For a quick review, we could 'oversimplify' and summarize as follows: Breishit focused on BECHIRA, Shmot on GEULAH, and Vayikra on KEDUSHA.] 

Following this methodology, we would expect that a unifying theme for Sefer Bamidbar could be found as well.  However, as we will see, finding such a theme for Sefer Bamidbar will be much more difficult, for the progression of many of its 'parshiot' appears to be rather arbitrary.

To demonstrate this difficulty, we have already cited (in our opening paragraph) an example from Parshat Naso.  Let's take another example from Parshat Shelach, where the story of the 'spies' (see chapters 13-14) is followed by several totally unrelated mitzvot (see chapter 15):

  • The laws of "nesachim" for korbanot
  • The laws of separating "challah" from dough
  • Laws concerning korbanot "chatat" of the nation
  • The story of one who publicly defiled the sabbath
  • The mitzvah of tzitzit

[A similar phenomenon occurs in chapters 28 & 29 in Parshat Pinchas as well re: the laws of the “musafim”.]

To complicate manners, we also find that some of the laws that are recorded in Sefer Bamidbar had already been mentioned in Sefer Vayikra! [e.g. 5:5-7 compare w/Vayikra 5:20-25]

So what's going on in Sefer Bamidbar?

To answer this question, we must undertake a comprehensive analysis of the book.

Divide & Conquer

To begin our analysis, we must differentiate between the two basic types of 'parshiot' that we encounter when we study Chumash in general, and in Sefer Bamidbar in particular:

  1. Narrative - i.e. the ongoing STORY of Chumash
  2. Commandments - i.e. the MITZVOT that God commands Bnei Yisrael to keep for all generations.

In our series thus far, we have shown how each "sefer" of Chumash has been (primarily) either one type, or the other.

For example:

  • Sefer Breishit was primarily NARRATIVE - i.e. the STORY of the Creation and God's covenant with the Avot.
  • Sefer Shmot was also primarily NARRATIVE (the story of the Exodus, etc.), even though it included numerous mitzvot that were presented as an integral part of that narrative.  [For example, the Ten Commandments are recorded as an integral part of the story of Ma'amad Har Sinai.]
  • Sefer Vayikra was primarily MITZVOT - presented in thematic order (even though it did include two very short narratives).

How about Sefer Bamidbar?

As we will see, it definitely contains BOTH narrative and mitzvot.  However, the relationship between its narrative and those mitzvot is rather confusing.

To complicate matters, Sefer Bamidbar also contains two types of mitzvot:

  • Mitzvot LeSha’ah” – commandments that applied only to the generation of the desert (but not to future generations)
  • "Mitzvot LeDorot"  - commandments that apply to future generations as well

To clarify this distinction, here are a few examples:

Mitzvot LeSha’ah:

  • Organizing the camp around the Mishkan (chapters 1->4)
  • Sanctifying the Leviim (chapter 8)
  • Taking the census in chapter in chapter 26.

Mitzvot LeDorot:

  • The laws of "sotah" (chapter 5)
  • The laws of "nazir" (chapter 6)
  • The laws of "korbanot temidim u'musafim" (chaps. 28->29).]

As the "mitzvot l'sha'a" are essentially an integral part of the ongoing narrative, in our analysis we will simply treat them as part of the ongoing narrative of the Sefer.

In contrast, most of the "mitzvot l'dorot" in Sefer Bamidbar don’t appear to have anything to do with the ongoing naarative!  In fact, it seems more like they ‘interfere’.

To explain how, the following outline charts the progression of topics Sefer Bamidbar, highlighting this contrast by recording the MITZVOT L'DOROT in CAPS.

As you study this outline, note the logical flow of topic within its narrative, in contrast to the 'random' progression of its mitzvot. 

1--4 Organizing the camp
7 Dedication of Mishkan
8 The appointment of the Leviim
9 Offering Korban Pesach in the desert / Travelling following the "anan"
10 Gathering camp by trumpet / "chatzotzrot" Leaving Har Sinai (on 20th of Iyar)
11 Complaints during the journey ("mitoninim", "mitavim", etc.)
12 Complaints against Moshe (sin of Miriam)
13 Sin of the 'spies' ("chet ha'meraglim")
14 The punishment: 40 years' wandering
16-17 Korach's rebellion
20-21 Events of the 40th year: Death of Miriam; The "mei meriva" incident; (Moshe's sin) Death of Aharon; Conquest of Transjordan, etc.
21-24 Story of Balaam & Balak
25 Sin of Baal Peor and the act of Pinchas
26 The census for inheriting the Land
27 Transfer of leadership from Moshe->Yehoshua
31 War against Midyan
32 Inheritance of Reuven & Gad, & half of Menashe
33 Summary of the journey through the desert
34 Guidelines for upcoming conquest of the Land
35 Cities of the Levites, and cities of Refuge
36 Inheritance issues re: to daughters of Tzelafchad

Before you continue, review this table once again, but this time ignoring all of the topics in CAPS - while noting how the narratives (that remain) comprise a congruent story; i.e. of Bnei Yisrael's journey from Har Sinai (through the desert) until they reach Arvot Moav (some forty years later).

Hence, if we simply 'filter out' the "mitzvot l'dorot' from Sefer Bamidbar, that story (of what transpired as they traveled for forty years through the desert) emerges as its primary topic.

Almost Like Sefer Shemot

As such, the style of Sefer Bamidbar appears to be most similar to Sefer Shmot.  Just as Sefer Shmot describes Bnei Yisrael's journey from Egypt to Har Sinai - plus various MITZVOT; so too Sefer Bamidbar describes Bnei Yisrael's journey from Har Sinai towards Eretz Canaan - plus various MITZVOT.

However, there still exists a major difference in style between these two books, in regard to the relationship between the MITZVOT and the STORY in each book.  Whereas the "mitzvot l'dorot" in Sefer Shmot form an integral part of its narrative, most of the "mitzvot l'dorot" in Sefer Bamidbar appear to be totally unrelated (or at best tangentially related) to its ongoing narrative.

In other words, the mitzvot in Sefer Shmot 'fit' - while the mitzvot in Sefer Bamidbar don't!

Furthermore, when you take a careful look at the various mitzvot l’dorot in Sefer Bamidbar (see outline above), you’ll notice how most of them would have fit very nicely in Sefer Vayikra!

Intentional 'Interruptions'

To appreciate these observations, review the above outline once again, this time noting how the ongoing story in Sefer Bamidbar is periodically INTERRUPTED by certain MITZVOT, while the topic of those mitzvot is usually totally unrelated to that ongoing narrative.

To illustrate how this style is unique to Sefer Bamidbar, let's compare it to the respective structures of Sefer Shmot and Sefer Vayikra.

Sefer Shmot records the story of Bnei Yisrael's redemption from Egypt (chapters 1->13), their subsequent journey to Har Sinai (chapters 14->17), and the events that took place at Har Sinai (chapters 18->40 / Matan Torah, chet ha'egel, and building the Mishkan).  As an integral part of that story, Sefer Shmot also records certain mitzvot that were given at that time.  For example, as Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt, they are commanded to keep the mitzvot of Pesach and Chag Ha'matzot (that commemorate that event).  At Ma'amad Har Sinai, the Torah records the Ten Commandments and the laws of Parshat Mishpatim, for they are part of that covenant (see 24:3-7).  In reaction to "chet ha'egel" (or to perpetuate Ma'amad Har Sinai), Bnei Yisrael are given the laws of the Mishkan.

Hence we conclude that the MITZVOT in Sefer Shmot form an integral part of its ongoing narrative!

Sefer Vayikra is quite the opposite for it contains primarily "mitzvot l'dorot" organized by topic.  In fact, the lone narrative that we do find in Sefer Vayikra - the dedication of the Mishkan (8:1-10:10) - relates specifically to the topic of the mitzvah under discussion (i.e. the various korbanot).

In contrast to those two books, Sefer Bamidbar contains an ongoing narrative, which is periodically 'interrupted' by "mitzvot l'dorot" that appear to have very little thematic connection.

Ramban's Introduction

This analysis can help us understand the strange statement made by Ramban in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar:

"... and this book deals entirely with "MITZVOT SHA'AH" that applied only during Bnei Yisrael's stay in the desert...";

Then, only three lines later, Ramban makes a very bold, yet puzzling, statement:

"This book does NOT CONTAIN any MITZVOT L'DOROT (commandments for all generations) EXCEPT for a FEW MITZVOT DEALING WITH KORBANOT that the Torah began discussing in SEFER VAYIKRA, but did not finish their explanation there, and they are finished here instead."  [see Ramban 1:1]

Note how Ramban differentiates between two types of mitzvot that are found in Sefer Bamidbar, one type - "mitzvot l'sha'ah" that DO belong in the sefer, while the other type -"mitzvot l'dorot" that DON'T belong!

This distinction between 'parshiot' that DO belong and DON'T belong - implies that Sefer Bamidbar indeed carries one primary theme, i.e. the story of Bnei Yisrael's forty year journey from Har Sinai to Arvot Moav.  The stories and the "mitzvot sha'ah" that relate to that topic - 'belong' in the sefer, while those mitzvot that are unrelated (to that topic) do not!

[Note that even though the Ramban did not preface his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar with 'questions for preparation and self study', he clearly expected that the reader was aware of this overall structure!]

[Note as well that Ramban never explicitly defines the primary topic of Sefer Bamidbar, however he does mention that: This book contains:... the miracles that were performed for Bnei Yisrael and how He began to deliver their enemies before them... and He commanded them how the Land should be divided among the tribes...]

To clarify the thematic connection between the various narratives in Sefer Bamidbar, it is helpful to divide the book into three distinct sections:

Chapters 1-10: How Bnei Yisrael prepare for their journey to Canaan;
Chapters 11-25: Why they don't make it to Canaan (i.e. their sins);  &
Chapters 26-35: How the new generation prepares to enter the Land.

Basically, the book should have been the story of how Bnei Yisrael traveled from Har Sinai to Israel.  Instead, it becomes a book that explains how and why they didn't make it.

How about the MITZVOT L'DOROT of Sefer Bamidbar?

Are they simply random, or do they share a common theme?  At first glance, most of these mitzvot appear to be totally unrelated to Bnei Yisrael's journey through the desert.

Where Do They All Belong?

Before we suggest an answer to this question, let's review this list of mitzvot in Sefer Bamidbar, and attempt to determine where they DO BELONG.

Take for example:

  • Parshat "Sotah" (5:11-31) and Parshat "Nazir" (6:1-21): Both of these 'parshiot' contain a set of laws that Chumash refers to as "torot" (ritual 'procedures' /see 5:29 & 6:21), and focus on what korbanot need to be offered.  Hence, it would seems that these parshiot belong with the other "torot" found in the first half of Sefer Vayikra.
  • Parshat "Parah Adumah" (chapter 19): These laws clearly 'belong' in Parshiyot Tazria/Metzora, together with all of the other laws of how one becomes "tamey" and the necessary procedures to become "tahor".
  • The laws of "korbanot temidim u'musafim" (chap. 28->29): These laws also clearly belong in Sefer Vayikra, together with the laws of the holidays in Parshat Emor (see Vayikra 23 / note that on each holiday mentioned in Emor we must bring an "ishei reiach nichoach l'hashem", while Bamidbar chapters 28 & 29 details the specific "ishe" (korban) which must be brought for each holiday.  (see Vayikra 23:37)

Thus, it appears as though Chumash has deliberately taken numerous parshiot of mitzvot, which could have been recorded in Sefer Vayikra, and randomly 'inserted' them throughout the narrative of Sefer Bamidbar!  But - why would the Torah take a mitzvah which 'belongs' in one sefer and move it to another?

One could maintain that these 'unrelated parshiot' are recorded in Sefer Bamidbar simply for the 'technical' reason that they just happened to have been given to Moshe Rabbeinu at this time (i.e. during this journey from Har Sinai through the desert). For example, the mitzvah of "shiluach temei'im" (5:1-4) - sending unclean persons outside the camp - most likely was commanded only after the camp was organized (see chaps. 1-4).

However, that approach would explain only a few of these parshiot, for most of the "mitzvot l'dorot" that are recorded in Sefer Bamidbar seem to have been given at an earlier time (most likely on Har Sinai or after "hakamat ha'Mishkan"). For example, the laws of "tumat meyt" (in chapter 19) must have been given before the Mishkan was erected, otherwise it would have been impossible for the Kohanim to perform the "avodah".  Furthermore, certain mitzvot recorded in Bamidbar had already been mentioned earlier in Chumash (e.g. see 5:5-8 / compare with Vayikra 5:20-26).

Hence it would seem that this 'commercial break' type pattern in Sefer Bamidbar is deliberate! And thus, our question must be re-worded to: why does the Torah employ this unique structure in Sefer Bamidbar?

The 'Peshat' of 'Drash'!

If this special structure of Bamidbar is deliberate, then the obvious temptation is to find a connection, even if only tangential, between these 'unrelated mitzvot' and the juxtaposed narrative in Sefer Bamidbar.

In other words, it appears that the Torah deliberately juxtaposes certain sets of laws to the ongoing narrative, EVEN THOUGH they are unrelated - in order that we search for a thematic connection between them! Thus, through this special structure the Torah in essence is telling us to make up "drash" to explain the reason for this juxtaposition. [We could refer to this as the "peshat" of "drash".]

In this manner, the unique style of Sefer Bamidbar challenges us to find a THEMATIC connection between these "mitzvot l'dorot" and the ongoing story.  And that is exactly what Chazal do in their various Midrashim.

[This also explains why so often the commentaries ask the famous question: "lama nismecha..." (why are certain parshiot juxtaposed...?)]

Therefore, when we study Sefer Bamidbar, we should not be surprised to find certain parshiot of mitzvot that don't seem to belong. Nonetheless, we are 'obligated' to attempt to uncover a more subtle message that the Torah may be transmitting through the intentional juxtaposition of these mitzvot to its narrative.

With this background, we will now suggest some possible reasons for the inclusion of these specific parshiot of mitzvot in Parshat Naso, even though they could have been recorded in Sefer Vayikra as well.

Shechinah in the Camp

The first topic of Sefer Bamidbar is the organization of the camp ("siddur ha'machanot") surrounding the Mishkan (chapters one thru four).  As we explained last week, this re-organization of the camp stresses the importance of the interdependent relationship between the camp ["machine"] and the Mishkan, i.e. between the nation and the kohanim & leviim.

This may explain the reason why Sefer Bamidbar chose to include the parshiot which follow:

  1. "Shiluach Temeiim" (5:1-4) As the camp was organized with the "shechinah" dwelling at its center, the first mitzvah is to remove anyone who is "tamey" from the camp.
  2. "Gezel HaGer" (5:5-10) Here we find laws that reflect the special relationship between the nation and the kohanim. This mitzvah begins with the standard law of the "korban asham" as explained in Parshat Vayikra (5:20-26). The halacha requires that prior to bringing the Korban, the transgressor must first repay the person ("keren v'chomesh"). This 'parshia' also relates to the case when the payment is given to the kohen, when the person who is owed the money has passed away and left no inheritors (see Rashi 5:8).  The 'parshia' continues with a general statement regarding the legal ownership of tithes which the nation must give to the kohanim (see 5:9-10).
  3. Parshat Sotah (5:11-31) Here again we find a special relationship between the Mishkan and the nation, as the Kohen is instrumental in solving problems in a marital relationship.  Even though this is a "korban mincha", its nature is quite different from those korbanot mentioned in Sefer Vayikra (see Ramban 5:9) - for it is only offered as part of this special circumstance, where the kohen attempts to solve a marital problem within the camp.
  4. Parshat Nazir (6:1-21) Here we find a case where a member of the nation takes upon himself laws similar to those of a Kohen (see 6:6-8), as well as the 'kedusha' of a Kohen.  Note also the similarity between the Korban which the "nazir" must bring (6:13-21) and the special Korbanot brought by the Kohanim during the 7 day "miluim" ceremony (see Vayikra 8:1-30).
  5. Birkat Kohanim (6:22-27) The blessing which the kohanim bestow on the nation is yet another example of the connection between the kohanim and the camp. The kohanim serve as vehicle through which God can bless His people.

Travelling with the "Shechinah"

So why are specifically parshiot from Sefer Vayikra woven into Sefer Bamidbar?  One could suggest an answer that relates to the underlying theme of each book.

Recall our explanation of how the laws of Sefer Vayikra reflect the fact that God's "shechinah" now dwells in the Mishkan.  Hence, we found numerous laws that relate to the special level of kedusha in the Mishkan itself in the first half of Vayikra (e.g. korbanot, tumah & tahara, etc.)  as well as laws that relate to the consequential "kedusha" on the entire camp in the second half of the book (e.g. the laws of "kedoshim tihiyu" [adam], holidays [zman], shemitta [makom], etc.).

Sefer Bamidbar, on the other hand, discusses how Bnei Yisrael travel through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  Considering that Bnei Yisrael will now travel with the Mishkan at the center of their camp (as discussed in the opening four chapters), it becomes thematically significant that the Torah periodically interrupts the details of that journey with mitzvot from Sefer Vayikra, especially those that deal with the special connection between the Kohanim and the nation.

As Bnei Yisrael leave Har Sinai, they must now deal with mundane tasks such as preparation for the conquest and settlement of the Land.  While doing so, they must constantly remind themselves of their spiritual goals, symbolized by the Mishkan at the center of the camp - and applied in the various laws that relate to the "kedusha" of Am Yisrael - because they are God's nation.