2003This week we see why the Book of Numbers is so named; census figures are collected for the men of military service age of the tribes of Israel. A word appears in verse 18 that is found nowhere else in the Bible-"vayityaldu", meaning literally something like "they birthed themselves." Different readings of this word may provide a deeper understanding.
Counting and Birthing
1 God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month in the second year of the Exodus, saying:
2 Take a census of the entire Israelite community. Do it by families following the paternal line, according to the names of each male, taken individually.
3 You and Aaron shall take a tally of them by their divisions, counting every male over 20 years old who is fit for military service....
18 They assembled the entire community on the first day of the second month, and all the people vayityaldu (brought records of their lineage)(gave proof of age) (shared their family stories) according to their paternal families. All those over twenty years old were counted individually by name.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why have a census?
2. When is it necessary to know how many people are involved?
3. Can counting people be inadvisable?
Three Classical Commentators:
Rashi (11th Century France)
Vayityaldu-They brought documents attesting to their tribal lineage.
Ibn Ezra (12th Century Spain)
Vayityaldu-They inquired about their ages, attesting that they were over twenty years old.
Ramban (13th Century Spain)
Vayityaldu-They recounted their family histories.
Your Commentators Navigator
1. What contextual clues do our commentators use to understand "vayityaldu"?
2. How does each commentator's reading of our mystery word shape our understanding?
3. "Vayityaldu" is the reflexive form of the word "birth", meaning something like "giving birth to themselves." How do Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban's readings reflect this?
Rashi and Ibn Ezra, each differently, are concerned with legal validation. Rashi sees the Israelites bringing their pedigree certificates ("according to their paternal families"). Ibn Ezra prefers their proof of age ("All those over twenty years old"). Ramban envisions each Israelite "male over 20 years old' coming forward to Moses at the Tent of Meeting to tell the story of who his father was, what was his tribe, and how he came to be there. Since the form of the word they are explaining, vayityaldu is unique, each commentator must seek an explanation from context.
The Israelites "gave birth to themselves." An attentive reader can seek to understand how one does that, whether by knowing one's ancestral line, by recognizing how long each had lived, or by standing in a holy place and telling our deepest story.
Prepared by Rabbi Allan Lehmann, director of Hillel at Brandeis University.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Bamidbar at MyJewishLearning.com.