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18.07.2017 10:41    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  matot  maasei  

A Larger Share for a Larger Group – Put to the Test

You shall apportion the land among yourselves by lot, clan by clan:  with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share.  Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his.  You shall have your portions according to your ancestral tribes. (Num. 33:54)

Thus this week’s reading briefly recapitulates what had been said when the census was taken on the plains of Moab, a short while before (Num. 26:52-56):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names:  with larger groups, increase the share, with smaller groups, reduce the share.  Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment.  The land, moreover, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment shall be made according to the listings of their ancestral tribes.  Each portion shall be assigned by lot, whether for larger or smaller groups.

Two principles are at play here:  1) The size of the apportionment is to be proportional to the size of the population.  2) The general area where each tribe will receive its land is to be determined by lot.

The same method was to be applied with regard to Levitical cities, as well:  “Thus the total of the towns that you assign to the Levites shall be forty-eight towns, with their pasture.  In assigning towns from the holdings of the Israelites, take more from the larger groups and less from the smaller, so that each assigns towns to the Levites in proportion to the share it receives” (Num. 35:7-8).

To keep tabs on how this plan was implemented, let us arrange the tribes according to size.  A census was taken of the Israelites twice.  One, detailed at the beginning of the book of Numbers, was taken in the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt.  The other was taken thirty-eight years later, on the plains of Moab.  The second is the relevant census for our discussion.

Below we arrange the tribes by size, according to the census in Parashat Phinehas:


Judah              76,500

Dan                 64,400

Issachar           64,300

Zebulun          60,500

Asher              53,400

Manasseh        52,700

Benjamin        45,600

Naphtali          45,400

Reuben           43,730

Gad                 40,500

Ephraim          32,500

Simeon            22,200


Now let us see what actually happened according to the book of Joshua.

Judah, the largest of the tribes—with a population one and a half times that of the tribal average—indeed received a very large apportionment (although Simeon was included in their land).  Their territory extended from Kadesh Barnea (from the latitude of modern-day Mizpe Ramon) in the south to the latitude of the Dead Sea—Jerusalem—Beth Shemesh—Jabneh in the north (Josh. 15:1-11).  But the second to largest tribe—Dan—received quite a small apportionment along the lowlands and coastal plain (Josh. 19:40-46), as did Issachar and Zebulun, who were next in size of population (Josh. 19:10-23).

The largest apportionment in Israel was the territory of Manasseh.  Manasseh, by the very nature of its emergence, was half a tribe, since the tribal house of Joseph was divided into Manasseh and Ephraim.  Manasseh itself was again divided in two, each of its two halves receiving among the largest apportionments of land.  In terms of population size, it is exactly in the middle of the list (in the first census it was among the smaller tribes, but in the census taken in the fortieth year it became an average sized tribe).

On the eastern side of the Jordan River its territory is truly enormous—half of Gilead, all of Bashan as far as Horan (the Druze Mountain) in the east, and north as far as Mount Hermon and the entire range of Senir, known today as “facing Lebanon” (Josh. 13:29-31; I Chron. 5:23).  West of the Jordan River its territory extended over all of northern Samaria, and most amazingly its territory was extended at the expense of its neighboring tribes on the north to include the fertile vallies of Beth Shean, Jezreel, Taanach, Megiddo and Dor (Josh. 17:7-11).  With all this, the sons of Joseph came and claimed that their apportionment was not sufficient, and Joshua sent them to clear an area in the forest land in the hill country (Josh. 17:14-18).[1]

The smallest territories appear to have been those of Zebulun, the fourth largest tribe, and Benjamin, seventh in size of the twelve tribes.

So what remained of the principle, “with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share”?

Now let us examine the situation with the Levitical towns.  Joshua 21 names the Levitical towns in a very schematic list, detailing all forty-eight towns, and divided according to tribe, as follows:

Judah and Simeon:  Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Holon, Debir, Ain, Juttah, and Beth-shemesh—nine towns.

Benjamin:  Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth, and Almon—four towns.

Ephraim:  Shechem, Gezer, Kibzaim, and Beth-horon—four towns.

Dan:  Elteke, Gibbethon, Aijalon, and Gath-rimmonim—four towns.

Half of Manasseh A:  Taanach and Gath-rimmon—two towns.

Half of Manasseh B:  Golan, Beeshterah—two towns.

Issachar:  Kishion, Dobrath, Jarmuth, and En-gannim—four towns.

Asher:  Mishal, Abdon, Helkath and Rehob—four towns.

Naphtali:  Kedesh, Hammoth-dor, Kartan—three towns.

Zebulun:  Jokneam, Kartah, Dimnah, and Nahalal—four towns.

(Reuben:  Betzer, Jahaz, Kedemoth, and Mephaath—four towns.)

Gad:  Ramoth, Mahanaim, Hesbon and Jazer—four towns.

Again this departs from what the Torah commands.  The distribution is almost completely equal—48 towns from 12 tribes, and each tribe, large of small, gives 4 towns, with two slight deviations:  Judah and Simeon add one town, and Naphtali subtracts one.

Map of Tribal Territories**

How can this problem be resolved?

The answer lies where plans meet implementation.  Every teacher is familiar with the phenomenon, especially characteristic of new teachers but also found quite often among the more experienced:  the teacher sits down and prepares an excellent lesson plan, but when she or he stands before the class suddenly a question is put forward which turns everything on its head; or, it turns out that the students are not familiar with the sources on which the teacher wishes to rely; and so, the teacher has to begin everything from ground zero.  This is all the more the case when it comes to practical areas such as systems management or military operations.  Either supplies do not arrive, or it turns out that the operation which was planned has already been carried out, or that it is not feasible.  Sometimes soldiers who were prepared for a certain operation do not do what they were assigned, and then some other unit volunteers to do it, and so on and so forth, with countless possible scenarios.  As the well-known military saying goes, every plan is a basis for change.

What happened in reality?  The Gadites, Reubenites and half-tribe of Manasseh carried out the terms stipulated when they received their allotment, and crossed the Jordan River as shock-fighters in the forefront of the Israelites.  Joshua praised them for this (Josh. 22:1-8), although the shock-fighters only numbered some forty thousand (Josh. 4:12-13) out of a total of some 110,000 forces—the actual number of fighters in these tribes.

On the other hand, immediately after the great national battles in the north and south, the Judites woke up, with eighty-five-year-old Caleb son of Jephunneh at their head, and approached Joshua in Gilgal.  They requested permission to fight the Anakites, and to conquer and settle the highlands of Hebron (Josh. 14:6-15)—a mission which they performed admirably (Josh. 15:13-19).

Joshua, Chapter 18, gives us an assessment of the situation after the first stage of claiming inheritance in the land:  it turns out that five tribes reached the territory allotted them, fought and conquered it (surely at great cost, including many casualties), cleared forests and revitalized arid and semi-arid areas, cultivating the land and building settlements.  The seven remaining tribes, on the other hand, continued dwelling in the national encampment at Gilgal.  The five tribes that were swift to take their land were Reuben, Gad, Judah, Ephraim, and the two halves of Manasseh.  The other seven, whom Joshua called “slack” about taking possession of the land, were Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali and Dan.

Joshua shut down the long-established encampment at Gilgal and transferred the Tabernacle and the site of national assembly to Shiloh, in the central highlands.  He sent delegations to write down a description of the land to be apportioned in seven parts and handed out territory to the tribes that had been slack.  Before dispatching the delegations to do their work, a fair principle was established:  “Judah shall remain by its territory in the south, and the house of Joseph shall remain by its territory in the north” (Josh. 18:5).

In other words, the entire nation gave thanks to the strong and motivated tribes who performed their missions willingly and devotedly, and acknowledged that what they had settled with sweat and blood was rightfully theirs.  The remaining tribes would receive their apportionment in other regions.  As for the valleys, where the Canaanites had iron chariots, Joshua assessed that the Issacharites and Asherites would not be capable of coping successfully with the mission of conquering those areas, and therefore he placed the task on the Manassites (Josh. 17:11).

When it came to giving towns to the Levites, the least fair thing would have been to ask the Judites and Manassites to give more towns to the Levites from their expansive territories.  Therefore it was determined that the towns be apportioned equally from all the tribes.  However, to fulfill the Torah’s commandment at least minimally, it was decided to add one more town to Judah, the largest of the tribes, and subtract one from Naphtali, which was among the tribes of less than average size.

Ultimately, when the task of apportioning the land had to stand the test of reality, the division turned out to be not one of property but of missions.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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