The Kosher Bookworm: From the fourth book of the Torah to the Fourth of July


Sefer Bamidbar to the Founding Fathers

By Alan Jay Gerber

Issue of July 3, 2009 / 11 Tammuz 5769

In Hebrew it is called Bamidbar. Translated, that would mean desert, but we know this fourth book of the Torah in English as the Book of Numbers. As “desert” we would think that this was a geography book. As “Numbers” we would assume it is a math text. But, alas, it deals with neither.

This fourth book of the Torah deals with the Jewish people’s ordeals, conflicts and mishaps on their journey in the Sinai desert on their way to Israel. So was their goal, a goal that even conspired to deny the very nation who served in servitude in Egypt. This is the saga of the Book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, that is read in synagogues, worldwide, at  this time of year.

Recently, two new translations of Sefer Bamidbar have been published, each a part of an ongoing series that, when taken together and completed, will represent some of the finest in Torah scholarship in the English language.

The first is “Onkelos on the Torah: Bemidbar” (Gefen, 2009) with translation, commentary and appendix by Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin and Rabbi Stanley M. Wagner.

The second book is the second, revised edition of “Torah: Chumash Bemidbar” (Kehot Publishing Society, 2009) by editor in chief Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky.

This coming week we will read the double parshiot of Chukat, dealing with the Parah Adumah (red heifer), and Balak, dealing with the episode of the pagan prophet Bil’am and the talking donkey. Each of these volumes treat every episode of this sefer in mutually exclusive methodologies. I will briefly cite several examples to help whet your appetite.

The Onkelos volume is more than just a dry translation of an obscure ancient tongue. The authors have also sought to bring together in their commentary the referencing of other classical commentators and contrast their takes on the basic texts with that of Onkelos, and to thereby arrive at a clearer understanding of that text. Also, after each section, the authors include a “Beyond the Text” section detailing a series of challenges in the form of questions for the reader to ponder as he/she studies, in depth, the texts and commentaries.

These questions are not the type you would hear in your regular beis medresh. They go laser sharp into the  deeper meaning of the events being learned and attempt to quantify the text’s content with that of other texts in terms of the verbiage and lingo used, as well as trying to ascertain any parallelisms between what is found here to other texts in the Tanach.

The extensive appendix found at the end of the book includes a further detailed extension of the commentary wherein we are allowed to delve even further into the many incidents, trials and tribulations found in the text.

One example is the opinion of the Rambam in his “Guide to the Perplexed” wherein he teaches that the entire episode in the Garden of Eden should be understood as a parable.

Likewise, the Rambam explains the incident of the donkey speaking to Bil’am as a prophetic vision. Other sources are brought in to give further contrasting takes on this whole episode. Among them are Saadia  Gaon, and the ibn Ezra, who view such incidences as parables or figures of speech.

By contrast, the chumash from Kehot seeks to blend together Rashi’s commentaries with the interpolations as expounded upon by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. These commentaries are written in exquisite English translations whose clarity is deeply appreciated. Even the most complex concepts in mystical teachings are treated with great linguistic care. Also designed to help the learner are numerous charts, new to this edition, that help explain the chronology of events, together with  maps and diagrams as well as charts that further enhance the understanding of this sacred writ.

As noted in my previous reviews of this particular Chabad-sponsored chumash series, the overviews of each parsha are among the best that I have ever learned in the English language. They are not just summaries of the basic texts. They are substantive learning experiences that, if published alone, would be immediately heralded as classics in their field. Just for this alone, I urge you to check out this whole series. To date, the books of Bereishis, Shemos and Bamidbar are in print.

Bamidbar is the summer Biblical classic of our faith and thus sometimes finds itself  orphaned and wanting in terms of subject matter for some vacationing rabbis and yeshiva rebbes here at home. For those of us staying put for most of this summer, the chumashim reviewed should be considered for your learning pleasure.

These two volumes should  help, in no small measure, to make up for this sermonic deficit. Buy ‘em, read ‘em and learn from some exceptionally talented rabbis and scholars.


Inasmuch as this weekend is centered  around our nation’s birthday and that my personal passion is the teaching of American history, it will now be my pleasure to suggest to you my picks for this year’s Fourth of July readings.

The first is titled, “We Hold These Truths...” by Paul Aron. This book of 242 pages deals in 24 short chapters with brief bios and examples of historical experiences with the wit and wisdom of our nation’s founding fathers. The author deserves to be commended for his choice of historical events of a group of people whose lives were filled with events and achievements in leadership that we rarely witness from our leaders today. The book, it should be noted, is published in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in Virginia.

The next book is titled “Signing Their Lives Away: the Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The Declaration of Independence” by Denise Kierman and Joseph D’Agnese. This is a lighthearted work about serious history, that of the signers, detailing their bios but also some rather obscure and at times bizarre and humorous facets of their life’s experiences.

One can only appreciate this group of founders in terms of the fact that each and every one of them, in signing the declaration, earned for himself a death sentence from the British Crown. Thankfully, none was ever to face such a fate, but most did lose their property and many suffered for that for the rest of their lives.

Of one thing I am certain: when taken together you will learn more from these two books  than you ever learned in school about those who made possible the lives we all live on these blessed shores.

Have a good Shabbos and a safe and joyous holiday weekend from The Kosher Bookworm.