Balak 5772 – Gilayon #756

Shabbat Shalom The weekly parsha commentary

(link to original page)

Click here to
receive the weekly parsha by email each week.

Parshat Balak

How goodly are

your tents, o Jacob,

Your dwellings, o Israel!

(Bemidbar 24:4)


How goodly are your tents, O

Jacob – Two tents of Jacob's

multitude. These are tents of men and tents of women.

Your dwelling, O Israel – 'Dwelling' is the gathering of the people's

leadership which exits in two forms; the assembly of those appointed to deal

with public needs in worldly matters, and the gathering of the great scholars

of Israel to deal with matters of [religious] instruction and message, and this

is "your dwellings O Israel". And he said "How goodly", a

term of high praise; God exhibited the highest possible praise for each body as

is further detailed.

(Haamek Davar,

ibid., ibid.)


How goodly are your tents O

Jacob etc. This refers to

the Tents of Appointment in the desert and in Shilo

and in Nov and in Giv'on; your dwellings O Israel –

do not read 'mishknotecha'

– 'your dwellings', but rather – 'mashknotecha',

'your collateral'…

[The author of this midrash notes that, lacking

niqqud – the diacritical marks which indicate vowels –

the Hebrew 'mishknotecha' may also

be read 'mashknotecha'. Thus the

author has God promise (through Balaam) that His dwellings (the Tabernacles and

Temples) will serve as collateral for Israel's sins. Should


sin, God will destroy His dwellings rather than the Jewish people].

(Bemidbar Rabba 12:14)



Two donkeys – one

male and one female

Leah Shakdiel

Said Rav Zeira in the name of Rabba bar Zimona: If the ancients

were angels – we are but human beings, and if the ancients were human beings – we

are like donkeys. And not like the donkey of Rabbi Chanina

ben Dosa or of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair,

but like other donkeys. (Bavli, Shabbat 112b)


above presents the famous paradigm of "weakening of the generations" by

constructing the hierarchy which positions human beings between angels and

asses. The Talmud remarks incidentally that there were once extraordinary donkeys,

but these are not those referred to by R' Zeira. Rashi refers us to the stories of these two donkeys. First

we meet the donkey of R' Chanina, or, as in variant

readings – R' Yossi of Yokerat:


owned a donkey that, when hired for a full day, would be sent home with his

wages on his back. If they would add or detract [from the

wages], she would not appear on the morrow. One day, they forgot a pair

of sandals on her. She refused to leave until they removed them, and then she

departed. (Taanit, 24b)


the beginning of the story, the verb form establishes that the donkey is male [hamor] . Immediately after,

it becomes – grammatically – a female [hamorah].

Is this happenstance? A minor phenomenon of Hebrew and/or

Aramaic of the Talmudic period? Let us examine the sources pertaining to

the second donkey, that of R' Pinchas ben Yair. We know of two such

stories – Rashi refers us to the Bavli

version with which he was acquainted, but the version in the Yerushalmi seems closer to the context of the above-quoted

excerpt from Tractate Shabbat:

R' Abba

bar Zvina said in the name of R' Zeira:

If the ancients were angels, we are but humans, and if they were humans, we are

asses. Said R' Mana: At that time, they said: We are

not even comparable to the donkey of R' Pinchas ben Yair. The donkey of R' Pinchas ben Yair

was stolen by robbers. It was hidden for three days during which she ate

nothing. After three days, they had a change of heart, and returned her to her

owner, saying, Let us send her to her owner, lest she die here and stink up the

cave. They released her, she stood at the entrance to

her owners property and began to bray. He said to them [to his workers]: Open

up for this wretched being [aluvah] who has

not eaten for three days. They opened for her and she entered. He said to them:

Give her something to eat. They gave her barley, but she did not want to eat. They

said to him: Master! She does not want to eat! He said to them: Has the barley

been properly tithed? They replied: Yes! He said to them: Have you also set

aside demaii [produce regarding which there is

doubt as to it having been tithed]? They replied: Did not our master [you] teach

us that "one who takes grain for an animal […] is exempt from tithing demaii"? He said to them: What shall do for

this aluvah, who accepts upon herself many stringencies… They tithed the demaii,

and she ate. (Yerushalmi Demaii 1;3)


the outset it is clear that this exceptional donkey, of a higher spiritual

plane than humans such as ourselves, is female. Now

let us read the story in a different context, as it appears in the Bavli:


if the Holy One, Blessed Be He, would not permit the beast of the righteous to sin in error, how much less the righteous

themselves!… What was the incident       involving the beast of the righteous? Once,

R. Phinehas b. Jair was on

his way to redeem captives, and came to the river Ginnai.

'O Ginnai'

, he said to her, 'divide           thy

waters for me, that I may pass through thee'. It replied. 'Thou

art about to do the will of they Maker; I, too, am doing the will of my Maker.

Thou mayest or mayest not           accomplish thy purpose; I am sure of

accomplishing mine'. He said: 'If thou wilt not divide thyself, I will decree

that no waters ever pass through thee'. It, thereupon,           divided itself for him. There was also present a certain

man who was carrying wheat for the Passover, and so R. Phinehas

once against addressed the river; 'Divide thyself for this man, too, for he is

engaged in a religious duty'. It, thereupon, divided itself for him too. There

was also an Arab who had joined them [on the journey], and so R. Phinehas once again addressed the river, 'Divide thyself

for this one, too, that he may not say, "Is this the treatment of a fellow

traveler?"' It, thereupon, divided itself for him, too.

R. Josef

exclaimed: How great is this man! Greater than Moses and the sixty myriads of Israel! For the

latter [the sea divided itself but once, whilst for the former thrice! May it

not be, however, for the former also only once? – Rather say. As great as Moses

and sixty myriads of Israel

[but not 'greater']!

R. Phinehas happened to come to certain inn. They placed

barley before his ass, but it would not eat. It was sifted, but the ass would

not eat it. It was carefully picked; still the ass would not eat it. 'Perhaps',

suggested R. Phinehas, 'it is not  tithed"? It was at once tithed, and

the ass ate it. He, thereupon, exclaimed, 'This poor creature is about to do

the will of the Creator, and you would feed it with  untithed



this story, the Talmud Balvi tries to prove that this

exceptional beast is not on the level of super-human humans who resemble angels,

but she does belong to a sage of the "righteous and doers of good deeds"

type, one has the ability to perform miracles like the prophets: We must

remember that Chazal identify the Biblical Pinchas – the zealot who repairs that which Balaam did to

Israel – with Elijah, the "disciple" who competes with the "Master"

and takes into his own hands the keys to rain and also the keys to the

resurrection of the dead… but here I wish to focus on the elements common to

all the stories which I have brought: Here too, the wider context is the

discussion of the question of the difference between man and beast (ibid, 5a-b): Who are the humans who resemble beasts? And

is every comparison of man to animal necessarily to our denigration? And I say:

In all these sources, of all animals, focus is particularly upon the donkey, and

the incidental switch, as it were, from the male donkey to the female, is not



all cultured beasts that served man in the ancient east and were an inseparable

part of his household and daily life, the donkey held a special place in the

Bible, and much has been written about it: Its name in Semitic languages, derived

from the word "chomer" [clay,

material] places it in obvious contrast to Man who was created in His image, and

raises the question about the difference between Man who realizes his divine

mission in the world, and Man who remains on the level of "a living being"

alone, like all the beasts.


of our sources reveals, on the one hand, the attribution of this difference as essentially

one between Jews and Canaanite idolaters; on the other hand there is a

willingness to technically condemn Jews who descend not only to the

level of idolaters but also behave bestially, just as the donkey. A different

aspect of the donkey is the place assigned it alongside the ox in the Sabbath-observant

Jewish family, that household which is also careful not to pain living

creatures – but, being an unclean animal, he is both similar to the ox but also

different from it: in contrast to the ox, which is ritually clean, the donkey

may not serve as a sacrifice or as food. In this sense he is similar to Man, whose

firstborn is not sacrificed but is redeemed (Massechet Bechorot, Chap. 1). This synopsis sheds light also on the hierarchy prevalent in our

sources: angel, Man, chamor [donkey]-who-is-but-chomer [material, clay].


angel and Man, however, there exists another category, that of the chamor hamachmir al atzmo [the donkey who accepts upon himself halachic stringencies], who resembles the angel-like tzaddik. In my opinion, it is not

happenstance that particularly in stories of this category the male donkey is 'becomes'

a female, just as the famous comparison of Avraham

and Balaam is based not solely on the gap between Avraham

the Tzaddik and Balaam the Wicked, but also on the

plain meaning of the texts which describe Avraham

together with his male donkey as against Balaam with his female donkey. Chazal are careful to note that the recommended human

position, that of humility before the greatness of the ancients, is also the position

of humility before these unique female donkeys. Balaam's (female) donkey, who sees

the angel and fulfills a divine mission of changing her master's action in the

world, also speaks words of moral reproach to her master. Balaam is forced to

learn his mission though her in particular, and she is female.


would seem to me that that which was created extraordinarily on Sabbath Eve at

twilight (Aboth 5:8) that

is to say, together with Man, is specifically the mouth of the aton [female donkey], not of the male, serves

as an especially emphatic message for the nomadic patriarchal or agricultural

society. T.H. Lawrence, the British leader of the Arab uprising against the

Turks during the First World War, notes in his autobiography "the Seven

Pillars of Wisdom" that the only females to play any role in the Arab

uprising were the female camels upon which the warriors rode. This was because,

in contrast to the male beast, they were easy to train. A man

who lives in such a society, lives in close proximity to many female animals, much

more than to the males of the species. It is upon the female, in particular, that

he realizes his masterhood, his ownership, and thus

the frequency of intimate relations with the household animals of said

societies; the latter is indeed a practice quite foreign to the spirit our

modern society in which agriculture is totally mechanized and is no longer a "household"

function (which included shared living quarters). It is difficult for us to

comprehend the background to the Talmudic midrashim

which explain the Biblical dialogue between Balaam and the aton

as a dialogue between a wife-beating husband and she who satisfies his sexual

needs. It is difficult for us to grasp how the Sages explained the creation of

woman (Bereishit

2) as two stages of an attempt

to free Man of his solitude – in the first stage he assigns names to the

animals through intercourse with them, but success comes only in the second

stage, when he gives woman a name, because only she is bone of his bone and

flesh of his flesh, that is to say, only her does he 'know'. It is difficult

for us to understand a society in which a freeman has mastery over humans who

are subservient to him, differentiating between male servant and female slave, between

Hebrew and Canaanite. The Hebrew slave is Jewish in every respect, the Hebrew

maidservant is intended for marriage into the master's family, the Canaanite male slave is converted to Judaism by his

master, whereas the Canaanite maidservant is like a beast given by the owner to

his servant for propagation of new slaves for himself… It is painful to learn

that in one of the prayer books from the Medieval period, the daily male

blessing "for not having made me a woman" was paralleled by the Jewish

woman reciting – including Name and Kingdom– "for not having made me a beheimaa beast"…


this background of beastly patriarchal hierarchies, the Torah employs the aton, and

subsequently the sages employed the term chamora,

in order to teach us to decry such norms. The chamora

in the story is "aluvah" [wretched],

a realistic reflection of the attitude of the male master towards the female, who

should be protected – in the best case – in a paternalistic manner (a reminder:

this description is commonly applied to unfortunate women such as poor widows).

But this particular "aluvah" is

on a plane higher than we, teaching us Derech

Eretzproper ethical behavior – and also how to

walk humbly with our God.

Leah Shakdiel is an educator and social activist in Yerocham.



And Balaam rose in the morning

and saddled his she-donkey (Bamidbar 22): We learn in the name of R. Shimon ben Elazar: Love revokes the customs of high status. [one

learns this] from Abraham, for it is written And Abraham arose early in the morning [and he saddled his donkey] (Bereishit 22:3). Hate [also] revokes the customs of high status, for it is

said: And Balaam rose in the morning

and saddled his she-donkey.

Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: A person should always

occupy himself with Torah and the commandments, even if not for their own sakes,

since Balaam gained merit and Ruth was his descendent as reward for the forty

two offerings that he sacrificed.

Rabbi Yosi bar Huna said: Ruth was Eglon's daughter, who was the grandson of Balak, king of Moab.

(Sanhedrin 105b)


For there is

no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel

These practices are

all false and deceptive and were means employed by the ancient idolaters to

deceive the peoples of various countries and induce them to become their

followers. It is not proper for Israelites who are highly intelligent to suffer

themselves to be deluded by such inanities or imagine that there is anything in

them, as it is said, For there is no enchantment with

Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel (Bamidbar 23:23).

(Rambam, Hilkhot

Avodat Kokhavim 11: 16, Hyamson translation)


Never again

did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses (Devarim 34:10) 

But one did arise among the nations. Which [prophet] was it? Balaam ben Be'or.

(Sifrei Ve-Zot Ha- Brakha 357)


The bestowal of the

gift of prophecy on all human creatures was designed to impress upon the world

that the choice of Israel was no arbitrary one, but the

reward for Israel's

readiness and willingness to accept the Torah. R. Yohanan's famous words to the effect that

God offered the Torah first to all the nations, one by one, but all refused, only Israel accepting, is explained in the Gemara as the rejoinder to the arguments of the nations: Did

you ever offer us the Torah that we refused it? In this way, later sources

motivate the gift of prophecy to the Gentiles.

(Prof. E. E. Urbach, "Midrashot HaZaL al Nivi'ei Umot ha-Olam ve-al Parashat Bilaam" passage translated by Aryeh




Yoel Yosef

Fine, z"l

On the fourteenth anniversary of Yoel's death

we will meet for an evening of

study in his memory

on Tuesday the 27th of Tammuz 5772 (17.7.12) at 19:45

Mincha service at 19:30.

The lecture in his memory will be


Mrs. Gilla


on the topic:

Repairing a Flawed World –

A Chazal Perspective

Ma'ariv will follow the lecture.


Miriam, Jonathan, Devorah, Naomi, and Ephraim Fine


The evening will take place in the

synagogue of Kehillat Yedidya

12 Rechov

Lipschitz (at the end of Rehov

Gad, in the Baka neighborhood), Jerusalem.


To all our readers and


We need your support in

order that the voice of a religious Zionism committed to peace and justice will

continue to be heard through the uninterrupted distribution of Shabbat

Shalom in hundreds of synagogues, on the Internet and via email in both

Hebrew and English.

Donations in Israel

are tax-deductible. Please send your checks made out to "Oz VeShalom" to Oz VeShalom POB

4433 Jerusalem


For a US tax deductible donation, the New

Israel Fund may be used as the conduit. Contributions should be marked as

donor-advised to Oz ve'Shalom, the Shabbat Shalom

project with mention of the registration number 5708.

If you wish to subscribe

to the email English editions of Shabbat Shalom, to print copies of it for

distribution in your synagogue, to inquire regarding the dedication of an

edition in someone's honor or memory, to find out how to make tax-exempt donations,

or to suggest additional helpful ideas, please call Miriam

Fine at +972-52-3920206 or at

Issues may be dedicated in

honor of an event, person, simcha, etc. Requests must

be made 3-4 weeks in advance to appear in the Hebrew, 10 days in advance to

appear in the English email.


About us

Oz Veshalom-Netivot Shalom is a movement

dedicated to the advancement of a civil society in Israel. It is committed to

promoting the ideals of tolerance, pluralism, and justice, concepts that have

always been central to Jewish tradition and law.

Oz Veshalom-Netivot Shalom shares a deep

attachment to the land

of Israel and it no less

views peace as a central religious value. It believes that Jews have both the

religious and the national obligation to support the pursuit of peace. It

maintains that Jewish law clearly requires us to create a fair and just

society, and that co-existence between Jews and Arabs is not an option but an


4,500 copies of a 4-page peace oriented commentary on the weekly Torah

reading are written and published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot

Shalom and they are distributed to over 350 synagogues in Israel and are

sent overseas via email. Our web site is

Shabbat Shalom is available on our website:

For responses and arranging to write for Shabbat Shalom: