Round and Square Numbers In the Bible

My weekly halachah column for parashas Bemidbar:

In the censuses of parashas Bemidbar and parashas Pinchas, the population totals for almost all the tribes are multiples of one hundred, except for those of the tribe of Gad in the former census and the tribe of Reuvein in the latter. Several commentators assume that these figures are not exact, and that the Torah is rounding (Meshech Chochmah 3:16, Tosefes Brachah to Bemidbar). The earliest known proponent of this view, R. Yeshayah of Trani (cited in Penei David), provides two other Biblical examples of rounding: the Torah (Devarim 25:3) prescribes the punishment of a sinner to be forty stripes, but the Oral Tradition explains that only thirty-nine are actually administered, and the Torah (Vayikra 23:16) commands us to count fifty days between Pesach and Shavuos, but of course, we only count forty-nine.

The Rosh (at the end of Pesachim) asserts one other example of this latter sort of rounding, where a number one less than a multiple of ten is rounded up by one to the multiple of ten: the Torah (Bereishis 46:27) relates that “all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten” (but only sixty-nine are enumerated). This claim that the discrepancy can be understood as the product of rounding is problematic, however, as the same discrepancy is manifest with regard to the subtotal of thirty-three that the Torah gives for the descendants of Leah, while only thirty-two are enumerated. Here the idea of rounding is inapplicable, and we must seemingly resort to one of the other suggestions offered by the Talmud and the various commentators: the totals include Yocheved, who was born just they entered Egypt (but not earlier, and so is not mentioned in the earlier enumeration – Bava Basre 123a-b), or Yaakov himself (Ibn Ezra, as well as many of the Tosafists), or even Hashem Himself (Da’as Zekeinim Mi’Ba’alei Ha’Tosafos).

In a classic example of the aharonim being “frummer” than the rishonim, despite the fact that the one rishon known to have discussed the point, Rav Yeshayah di Trani the Elder (the Rid), takes for granted that the Biblical figures are rounded, Rav Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler) is reported by R. Ozer Alpert to have rejected this notion out of hand:

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky relates that he initially assumed that the census numbers were rounded, but when he mentioned this to his father, the Steipler responded that a number written in the Torah must be exact, and God must have had a reason why He miraculously caused each tribe to have such even numbers of people.

My weekly lectures for Bemidbar on this topic, along with their handouts, are available at the Internet Archive.

He Prayeth Best, Who Loveth Best All Things Both Great and Small

In the course of a lengthy and intricate analysis of the prohibition of צער בעלי חיים, R. Yaakov Ze’ev Kahana prohibits dog baiting, even by non-Jews:

לכן אותן האנשים המבלים זמנן בשחוק שמשסין כלבים על חזירים או על שאר ב”ח בוודאי עתידין לתן את הדין ואפילו העושים שחוק על ידי נכרי גם כן אינו נכון כי ספק הוא אם הנכרי מצווה על צער בעלי חיים וספיקא לחומרא …1

He then goes even further, and declares it a mizvah upon those who observe animals fighting to intervene to break up the fight:

לכן נראה לי דמצוה על הרואים שורים מנגחין זה את זה או תרנגולים המכים זה את זה להפרידן זה מזה באופן שלא יבואו עוד לנגח זה את זה או להכות זה את זה כי זה כלול במצות פריקה …

The rationales behind these two rulings seem inconsistent, however. In the former case, R. Kahana seems to be merely concerned with the violation of the prohibition of צער בעלי חיים by some responsible human being, while in the latter he seems to be making the much more powerful assertion of a duty to rescue toward animals, independent of the occurrence of any violation of the law of צער בעלי חיים.

R. Kahana proceeds to reprehend the childish practice of the capture and torture of small creatures, and declares that it is obligatory upon everyone to protest against and object to children “capturing flies and gnats and inserting straws and needles into their abdomens”. He candidly and charmingly confesses that when he was young, he once caught some creature to play with, “as is the way of children, and my father yelled at me”. He also relates that his father would not allow the use of insecticide, since before the vermin die, they suffer great pain. Instead, he would simply expel them from the house:

ואפילו הקטנים אשר דרכם לתפוס ולצוד בעלי חיים קטנים כמו זבובים ויתושים ומצערים אותם מאד בודאי מחויבים הגדולים להפרישן מאיסור זה לבל יעשו עוד דברים כאלה [ומה גם אשר בזה נשרש מדת האכזריות שלא לרחם על זולתו] ואף דביבמות קיד. משמע דאין בית דין מצווין להפריש קטן מלאכול נבלות. גם משמע שם דהאב מחויב להפריש לבן ועיין באו”ח סימן שמ”ג סעיף א’ דאף באיסור דרבנן מחויב האב להפריש הקטן שהגיע לחינוך. וכל שכן לצערם בכדי שלא לצורך האדם שזה איסור דאורייתא בודאי מוטל על כל אחד ואחד להפרישם ולמחות בהקטנים התופסים זבובים ויתושים ותוחבים בתוך מעיהם קשים ומחטים. ודכירנא כד הוינא טליא תפסתי איזה מוק לצחוק כדרך הילדים וגער בי אבי. וגם דכירנא אשר א”א הרב לא הניח להעמיד לפני הזבובים המים הארסיים עבור שקודם בואם למיתה סובלים צער עד מאד לכן גרש יגרשון מעל פני הבית חוצה כי קלה גרושין לפניהם מלהשקות להם כוס המי מרים האלה …

R. Kahana then makes the remarkable suggestion that the Talmudic principle that there is no obligation to intervene to prevent a minor from transgressing halachah is limited to victimless sins, but where there is “any pain or degradation to any creature”, there is indeed an obligation to intervene:

ונראה לי לאמר דהא דאמרינן ביבמות שם דקטן אוכל נבילות אין בית דין מצווין להפרישו דוקא בדברים שאינם שייכים לזולתו לשום בעל חי אבל היכא דשייך שום צער ובזיון לשום בעל חי אז מחויבים בית דין להפריש גם לקטנים.

I encountered this fascinating responsum while preparing for a lecture that I recently delivered on the topic of צער בעלי חיים. My colleagues and I had debated whether to title it “Animal Rights in Halachah” – does the mizvah of צער בעלי חיים really imply that animals have rights? While this is a murky and subtle question, I think that R. Kahana’s declaration that צער בעלי חיים is included in an especially stringent category of mizvos due to the existence of a victim suggests that the sin does indeed involve the infringement of another’s rights. In other words, he seems to be suggesting that it is not strictly בין אדם למקום, but at least somewhat בין אדם לאחרים. [Once again, however, we can ask why we do not require intervention simply out of a duty to rescue the animal, independent of any violation of the prohibition of צער בעלי חיים.]

The lecture is available at the Internet Archive. [We have previously discussed some of the material covered in the lecture here, here, and here.]

  1. שו”ת תולדות יעקב יו”ד סימן ל”ג עמוד עד. סוף דיבור ראשון, ועיין עוד שו”ת יחוה דעת חלק ג’ סימן ס”ו []

Of מקרה and Medicine

My weekly halachah column for this past parashas Behukosai:

Parashas Bechukosai begins with Hashem’s promises that if we obey His statutes and commandments, He will bestow upon us all manner of worldly good fortune. The Ramban (26:11) explains that when the Jewish people conduct themselves worthily, “their affairs will not be arranged by nature at all … and He will remove all disease from their midst, to the extent that they will not need a physician”. He goes so far as to declare that “one who seeks Hashem via a prophet will not seek physicians”, and that the practice of the righteous in the era of prophecy was to consult solely prophets, and not physicians, when they fell ill.

The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishnah, Pesachim 56a) seems to vehemently reject this perspective. He argues that one who consumes bread as a remedy for his hunger is surely not guilty of any lack of reliance upon Hashem! Just as we acknowledge and thank Him when we eat for providing us with our sustenance, so, too, do we do so when utilizing medical remedies. [In a similar vein, the Akeidas Yitzchak (#26) sharply critiques the view of the Ramban as theologically unsound, but see Michtav Me’Eliyahu (Part 3 pp. 170-73) who argues that the Rambam and the Ramban do not actually disagree, but are referring to people on different spiritual levels.]

Furthermore, the Ramban himself elsewhere (Toras Ha’Adam, Sha’ar Ha’Sakanah) expresses a much more positive view toward the practice of medicine, declaring that anyone knowledgeable in this field is obligated to practice, “and if he refrains, he is a murderer”.

The consensus of later authorities is that the Ramban’s comments to our parashah notwithstanding, in our generation “it is virtually a strong obligation upon the ill individual and his relatives” to seek medical treatment, and those who decline to do so but simply rely upon Hashem to deliver a miracle are misguided and sinful (Shevet Yehudah (Ayash) Yoreh De’ah beginning of #336). Of course, the medical treatment should be accompanied by fervent prayer (Birkei Yosef ibid. #2, and cf. Shut. Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 5 Ramas Rachel 20-2).

[We have previously discussed this topic here.]

My weekly lecture for Behukosai discussed the general question of the scope of individual Divine Providence and the possibility of the existence of מקרה – random, meaningless occurrences. [We have previously discussed this topic here, and see also here.]