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Torah Sparks

May 26, 2007 – 9 Sivan 5767

Annual: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 791; Hertz p. 586)
Triennial: Numbers 7:1 – 7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 805; Hertz p. 596)
Haftarah: Judges 13:2 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p. 813; Hertz p. 602)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

This week’s Torah-portion begins with a census of the Levites; it is a logical continuation of the census recounted in last week’s parashah. Next we encounter a short list of ritually impure people who must take up residence outside the Israelites’ encampment. This list is followed by the laws of theft and restitution.

In a passage particularly foreign to 21st- century readers, we encounter a series of rules delineating a procedure for dealing with suspected marital infidelity.

Chapter 6 outlines laws pertaining to a nazir, a person who has taken a vow to accept extra restrictions upon himself, including abstinence from alcoholic beverages, refraining from shaving or cutting his hair, and other extra restrictions in the area of ritual purity. Although the Torah, despite its general aversion to asceticism, accepts such a framework, it requires the nazir to bring a sin-offering at the conclusion of the term of his vow. This concludes with the ancient and meticulously-formulated Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, which was to be recited by the Kohanim as conveyors of God’s blessings to the Jewish people.

Chapter 7 describes the offerings that were brought by the n’si’im (chieftains) of the 12 tribes in conjunction with the dedication of the Mishkan (wilderness tabernacle).

Topic #1: The Framework of the Chieftains' Offerings

Each of the n’si’im (chieftains) of the 12 tribes brought an identical offering as the Mishkan was initiated. The offering brought by each tribal leader was:

one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs.

Note that the shekel originally was a measure of weight. Eventually, when the minting of coins became routine, the word “shekel” came to refer to a particular value of coin, corresponding to a value of precious metal that formerly would have been weighed.

Each tribal leader had his own day, designated in sequence, for bringing his offering. It is not entirely clear whether the primary function of these offerings was to give each tribe the opportunity to endorse the centralized national sanctuary, or whether this simply was an administrative procedure for sharing the responsibility to stock the Mishkan with material to sacrifice and with appropriate utensils. Based on your reading of Chapter 7, which function do you think was the primary motivation for these offerings?

Each tribe brought exactly the same items for the ceremony. One of the challenges we confront today is adding a personal face on what is, so often, just another identical item. Is there a lesson we can learn from the way the ceremony of inauguration was established?

Topic #2: The Chronology of the Chieftains' Offerings

A second topic that is treated in the text of Chapter 7 as if it were self-evident is the timing of these offerings on the calendar. Were the offerings brought on 12 consecutive days, or were there breaks within the pattern (e.g. for Shabbat)? We know that there was a seven-day initiation ritual for the Kohanim and for the new sanctuary. The date of the completion of the Mishkan is specifically listed as the first of Nisan (see Exodus 40:17). Are we to believe that the chieftains of the tribes brought their offerings on 12 consecutive days, beginning on the eighth of Nisan and concluding on the nineteenth (which we know as the fifth day of Passover)?

Professor Jacob Milgrom deals with these questions in meticulous detail. After sharing Talmudic sources that suggest that the initiation may have started a week earlier than we might have supposed, Milgrom makes the case for a different, less literal, understanding of the calendar dates mentioned. He further suggests that the offerings of the n’si’im were not used on the very day they were brought. Referring to Numbers 7:87-88, he notes:

In fact, that the animals are summed up at the end of this Tabernacle document can only mean that they were not sacrificed the very day they were contributed but were transferred (like the silver and gold vessels) to the charge of the sanctuary priests to be offered up … whenever needed. (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Excursus 14))

Milgrom also addresses another problem: that of potential spoilage:

However, the theory that the chieftains’ sacrificial donations were not offered up on the day of their contribution runs into the difficulty that the choice flour they brought was mixed with oil; since, ostensibly, it would quickly spoil, this sacrifice could not have been delayed. This objection was tested. Since the relative proportions of oil to flour are given (Num. 15:1-10), it became possible for my doctoral student, Susan Rattray, to make up a batch and test its durability. Her sample was made on April 13, 1982. It was sealed in an ordinary plastic container, placed in a cupboard, and never refrigerated. As of the date of this writing, October 15, 1985 – three and a half years later – it is perfectly edible, with no trace of spoilage.

Let us assume that the sacrifices were not offered immediately, but were queued up for later use. Is there a lesson for us in how we budget in our congregations? Should this be a mandate towards establishing funds to maintain the congregation through savings and endowments?

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