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Questions on Parashat Mattot

As in my previous post asking questions about Balak and Pinchas, I’m curious as to various textual difficulties in Mattot for which Rashi provides no explanation.

1) The first of these is the phrasing, “A thousand to a tribe, a thousand to a tribe, ” אלף למטה אלף למטה. (31:4
Why the repetition?

The best I can think of is to imply in “A thousand to a small tribe and A thousand to a large tribe,” e.g. regardless of the tribe’s actual numbers. But then, why not just say so explicitly?

A related idea is perhaps that instead of reading in “small” and “large,” it’s a question of emphasis. Each tribe must put forth 1000, as opposed to just having more numerous tribes contribute more and less numerous tribes contribute less, such that in total there’d be 12,000 regardless of their tribal provenance. Hence the first “A thousand to a tribe” emphasizes the number sought, and the second “A thousand to a tribe” emphasizes that each tribe must put forth 1000 soldiers.

We see also that every tribe – including Levi – contributed soldiers to this recruitment drive… perhaps there’s a connection?

2) In 31:27, we have a very specific reference to those same soldiers who went to do battle with the Midianites. The verse reads:
תופשוי המלחמה היוצאים לצבא
Literally: “The seizers of the war who go out to the army,” which Artscroll translates as “those who undertook the battle, who go out to the army.”
Why not just say “those who undertook the battle,” or just “those who go out to the army?”

The best I can think of, but am not fully convinced with is that:
– We know that the all Children of Israel participated in battles, be it with arms or be it remaining behind and praying. This goes back even to the time of Jacob, if I’m not misstaken, where he went to meet his brother Esau and left back in the encampment his family who were praying. So just saying those who undertook the battle would not be sufficiently clear – it could be read to include everyone.

– From previous parashiot, we know that there were censuses taken of the Children of Israel and specifically of those who went out to the army. So just saying those who went to the army might be taken to include every male of age who would normally be drafted, as opposed to the specific 12,000 righteous people selected to fight this particular war.

My difficulty with this explanation is that the first part doesn’t quite hold up in light of the fact that the full verse reads: “Divide the plunder in half, between those who undertook the battle, who go out to the army, and the entire assembly [i.e. all the rest of the Children of Israel]. There’s obviously a distinction then between those who fought [with arms] and the rest of the nation, which defeats the first half of my explanation.

A related question I have is: why use the word “the seizers” of the war? תופשוי המלחמה

3) The next verse describes the levy from the warriors and that from the rest of the nation, and changes the phrasing to “the men of war who go out to the army” – what is this contrast meant to teach us?

The best I could think of was that either:

– Again this is to specify those who participated in the physical combat as opposed to all those of army age, which might be understood from just using ‘those who go out to the army.’

Or if the text had just said ‘the men of war’ (אנשי המלחמה) we might have understood it to mean the important people amongst the warriors, i.e. the officers. This is since Rashi has a rule that where the text of the Torah uses the word ‘men’ in a seemingly superfluous way, it implies that the people designated by the term were important.

This is in contrast to use of the word men in a way where it can’t be removed from the text without losing some meaning. That said, this might arguably be one of those cases where ‘men’ is not superfluous – Rashi’s rule may only apply to cases where the word can be outright removed, as opposed to replaced with more concise phrasing. That’s if you consider removing ‘men’ and then you’re just left with ‘of war’ which obviously can’t stand on its own grammatically. But if you consider removing ‘men of war’ then it can be seen a superfluous to ‘those who go out to the army.

– The focus should be on the word ‘men’ in men of war. We’re specifying that they were men of distinction; indeed, Rashi explains earlier (31:3 above) that the 12,000 men conscripted to fight Midian were righteous (צדיקים). This distinguishes them from ‘those who go out to the army’ in general, since those people may have been good, but weren’t necessarily at the level of being called Tzadikkim.

Another reason for the specification? Perhaps to provide an explanation as to why they would only be paying a levy of 1/500 on their booty from the war, as opposed to the rest of the nation which paid a levy of 1/50 on the spoils.

4) The levy is to go to “the Levites, the guardians of the charge of the Tabernacle of H’ .” ” ‘ללוים שמרי משמרת משכן ה”
We already are familiar with their role as guardians… why specify it here (31:30)?

Perhaps to create a rule that the Levites were also entitled to a share of the spoils, albeit not 1/12th, despite not normally participating in the physical combat (this war with Midian being an exception). They’re busy taking care of the Tabernacle, so are dispensed with army duty, but still deserve a share in the booty because their work as guardians is of course important. A variant but related explanation: perhaps because they wouldn’t be around to collect loot in the heat of the battle, being charged with guardianship duties, so this would be to compensate.

5) Why does the singular form of the verb ‘to do’ appear in 30:31 to say, “Moses and Elazar did as G’ had commanded Moses…” ? If it’s 2 people, shouldn’t it be in the plural? ויעש is written instead of the grammatically correct ויעשו

In other places where similar difficulties appear, Rashi gives comments like ‘they did it with one mind, with the same desire/purpose’ . If that’s the explanation appropriate to this verse, why wouldn’t they have carried out the commandment with the same drive/purpose? They were both great Tzadikkim…

6) In commanding the people to kill the Midianite women (for having caused Israel to sin and thus leading to the deaths of 24,000 Israelites), Moses uses the phrasing “every woman who knows a man by lying with a male.” (31:17)

Rashi explains the present tense “knows” [as opposed to saying has known] as meaning a woman with ability for sexual relations, based on the Sifrei and Talmud. His comment continues, now citing just the Talmud, that girls three years of age and up were able to have relations, and that therefore Moses’ order to kill the Midianite women is directed at all those age 3+.

First, this is surprising in light of the extremely young age purportedly capable of sexual relations. More importantly, the comment presents the difficulty that in describing the levy later on, different phrasing is used in regards to these women. “women who had not known lying with a male” (31:35)- it’s in the past tense! The levy was taken of living captives, so it’s plausible that the two make sense together, insofar as those able to have sex were killed, and those who were unable [and thus obviously didn’t] were left alive and were part of the levy.

But why use the past tense in the second phrasing? It can be read to suggest the opposite of what Rashi said – namely that only women who had had sexual relations were killed. Presumably then this would make the cutoff age for which Midianite women were killed significantly higher. And to explain the present tense used earlier, one might argue that the Midianite female captives were still trying [at that present moment] to seduce the Israelite men and lead them to idol worship, despite their captivity.

A related thought I had was that in Pirkei Avot, it says a child of age 5 is old enough to learn the text of the Tanach. If so, then it’s plausible that Midianite girls around that age were beginning to learn from their parents’ behaviour and loathing for the Israelites, and would thus pose a threat to the nation in the future. Girls less than three years of age would presumably not remember enough to be influenced in any permanent way by their parents.

7) The maphtir of Mattot describes various Israelites conquering places on the east bank of the Jordan river. I suppose there’s some historical interest, but generally speaking it doesn’t seem to serve much instructive purpose. The borders of the state of Israel are described in Parashat Massei, but perhaps this is related to a war of choice, מלחמת רשות

Any explanations on why these seemingly miscellaneous details were deemed worthy of mention? And why the specific places and names of the families/people that conquered them? Some place names may have been stated to indicate that upon conquering them, the Israelites changed the names to remove any associations with idolatry, but not all the names mentioned had such associations …

Posted in Judaism.


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