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Parashat Shelach: The Mysterious Case of the Shabbat Wood-Gatherer by Yaakov Bieler

June 12, 2012 by  
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A sinful act in the Parasha that is generally overshadowed.

Aside from the long series of events associated with the sin of the Meraglim (spies) recorded in Parashat Shelach,[1] a transgression dealt with in a far more curt and ambiguous fashion is the incident of the Mekoshesh Eitzim (the stick gatherer [on Shabbat])

BaMidbar 15:32-36

And the Children of Israel were in the desert, and they found a man gathering sticks on the day of Shabbat. And they who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moshe, Aharon and the entire congregation. And they placed him into a guarded place because it was unclear what to do to him. And HaShem Said to Moshe: The man will surely die; the entire congregation is to stone him with stones outside of the encampment. And the entire congregation took him outside the encampment and they stoned him with stones and he died, as HaShem had Commanded Moshe.

Why does this story appear in the Bible where it does?

The story of the “wood gatherer” does not seem to be intrinsically related to what  comes before—the laws concerning sin offerings[2]—or what follows—the Mitzva of Tzitzit (ritual fringes [needed for four-cornered garments])[3]—in the biblical text. Although the principle of Ein Mukdam U’Meuchar BaTora (there is no chronological order regarding the manner in which the Parashiot of the Tora are presented) could be invoked, leading to the conclusion that this event did not occur at the moment that the other stories and Commandments that surround it either took place or were first revealed,[4] nevertheless it is still necessary to account for why the story is written at this point in BaMidbar, even if it actually already took place at some earlier period.

One commentator’s hypothesis to explain why the story in question appears next to the Parasha of Tzitzit.

Several commentators try their respective hands at offering hypotheses explaining the positioning of the Mekoshesh Eitzim in the Tora, among them Rabbeinu Bachaya. One of the reasons he offers for the placement of this story in Parashat Shelach is that while the ostensible single reason for HaShem’s Decree that the Jews wander in the desert until the members of the generation of the Exodus have died, appears to be their lack of belief that they were capable of conquering Canaan even with Divine Assistance (15:34), in fact, other transgressions were also being committed, such as the violation of Shabbat, represented by the instance of the Mekoshesh Eitzim, and the failure to conform with the requirement of Tzitzit, implied by the inclusion of both this Mitzva as well as the story of Shabbat transgression at the conclusion of Parashat Shelach.[5]

While a violation of Shabbat laws reflects a failure to accept God’s Mitzvot, can the same be said regarding the Mitzva of Tzitzit?

There are at least two ways by which the violation of the Mitzva of Tzitzit, a positive Commandment that at first glance does not seem to be of such extreme importance,[6] could be considered particularly incriminating to the point where strong action on the part of HaShem, particularly during the period immediately following the receiving of the Tora, could be justified.

On the one hand, Tzitzit, by virtue of the numerical value of its letters, knots and strands,[7] symbolize the entire corpus of Jewish law.  The Tora unambiguously states that the wearing and seeing of these ritual fringes are intended to induce a state of continuous cognitive awareness of one’s positive and negative religious responsibilities:

BaMidbar 15:39

And the Tzitzit will be yours, and you will see them and you will remember all of the Commandments of HaShem and you will carry them out, and you will not turn away following the vagaries of your heart and your eyes that you are susceptible to stray after them.

If we accept Rabbeinu Bechaya’s premise that people were ignoring the requirement to place Tzitziot on the corners of their four-cornered garments at the time of the sin of the Meraglim, was such non-compliance due to mere laziness or negligence, or did this omission constitute a premeditated protest against the sort of Tora lifestyle that all Jews were now expected to follow? Did people not wish to be reminded of their obligations, relatively soon after having collectively pronounced (Shemot 24:7) “We will do and we will hear” at Sinai? Could not wearing Tzitzit constitute a subtle manifestation of the same attitude that leads the people to doubt that HaShem will successfully Bring them into the land of Canaan? Apparently, certain actions may have more or less significance attributed to them depending upon the context and circumstance during which these actions enfold. While the action itself might not be of great significance, it nevertheless could symbolize a much greater issue and therefore failure to comply with it might elicit a strong rebuke.

A second possibility regarding the importance of the Mitzva of Tzitzit.

A second approach to reflecting upon the significance of Tzitzit from a cultural rather than purely religious perspective, particularly when the Jews have relatively recently been redeemed from their Egyptian bondage, is to place this Mitzva within the context of a well-known Midrashic assumption.

VaYikra Rabba 32:5

R. Huna said in the name of R. Kafra: Due to four things were the Jews redeemed from Egypt:

a)  They did not change their names,

b)  their language,[8]

c)  they did not report upon one another,[9]

d)  and no one was found among them who engaged in sexual promiscuity.[10]

Midrash Leket Tov

(Devarim 26:5) “…And they became there (in Egypt) a nation…”[11]

This teaches that Israel stood out distinctively there, that their dress, their food and their language was different from that of the Egyptians.

RITV”A in his commentary to the Haggada:[12]

And there are certain versions of this tradition that they (the Jews in Egypt) were recognizable by means of their dress in accordance with their particular practices, for instance Tzitzit on their clothing and the like, and this inference is drawn because of the phrase, “…And they became there a nation…” for behold since they had to endure so many generations during which they were enslaved to them (the Egyptians), how could they have remained a nation distinct unto themselves? It is only possible if they remained visibly different and outstanding by their cultural accoutrements, and all who would see them would recognize them as being the descendants of Avraham, God’s holy one.[13]

This Midrashic approach contains the possibility that Tzitzit was not an innovation that dated from Sinai, but had been a distinctive Jewish form of clothing that demarcated Jews from other national and ethnic groups from time immemorial. While the distinct manner by which to tie the Tzitzit and incorporate in them a thread dyed with Techeilet (a blue indelible dye derived from the murex truculous sea snail) may have been later developments, the concept of Tzitzit could have originated in the time of Avraham.[14] Consequently, a Jew opting not to wear Tzitzit is not so much resisting a symbolic commitment to a life of Mitzvot, but rather refusing to visibly identify with the Jewish people.

Tying together what follows the story of the Mekosheish Eitzim with the story itself.

While the above is a consideration of why the failure to wear Tzitzit could have contributed to HaShem’s Decision to basically eliminate the generation that left Egypt before the Jewish people enters Israel, Rabbeinu Bachaya also contends that the lack of proper Shmirat Shabbat (Shabbat observance), represented by the Mekoshesh Eitzim was another issue that worked against the Jews who were not to die in the desert.

When was the Mitzva of Shabbat observance first introduced to the Jewish people?

Although a simple reading of the biblical text suggests that Shabbat had been presented to the Jewish people  prior to the incident of the Mekoshesh Eitzim when the Manna began to serve as food for the Jewish people in the desert ,[15] leading one to wonder—perhaps this was the very question that the people and Moshe were wondering about—whether  not enough had been disclosed about this Commandment to qualify a transgressor to receive the death penalty,[16] the Oral Tradition asserts that there had been additional prior occasions when the people had been previously  exposed to Shabbat. According to the Midrash, the Jews were first introduced to Shabbat while still slaves in Egypt.[17]

Shemot Rabba 1:28

(Shemot 2:11 “And he [Moshe] saw their [the Jewish people’s] burdens”

He saw that they did not have rest.

He went and said to Pharoah: Someone who owns a slave, if he does not allow him to rest at least one day per week, he will die. These are your slaves. If you do not give them one day off each week they will die.

He said to him: Go and arrange for them as you have said.

Moshe went and arranged for them the day of Shabbat to rest.

But it could be countered that at that point, the people did not necessarily view Shabbat as a particularly spiritual occasion, featuring rules, regulations and opportunities for inspiration that are comparable to the manner in which Shabbat is eventually presented at Sinai. Might it not have been a day off, pure and simple? It is reasonable to imagine that after six days of (Shemot 1:13) Avoda BeFarech (breaking work), the slaves would sleep as much as possible, as opposed to spending time reflecting upon their relationship with HaShem.

Another allusion, as opposed to a clear-cut reference, to Mitzvot supposedly including Shabbat, is understood by Sanhedrin 56b to be found in Shemot 15:25, describing the events that took place at Mara.[18] Assuming that before being able to commit to accepting and fulfilling the totality of HaShem’s Mitzvot at Sinai, the Jewish people had to be exposed to a representative sample of Commandments, the Talmud posits that along with Para Aduma (the Red Heifer) (BaMidbar 19:1-22), Dinim  (a system of civil laws and the means by which to adjudicate and enforce them) and Kibud Av VaEim (respecting one’s father and mother) (Shemot 20:12; Devarim 5:16), Shabbat was included. However, the extent to which the punishments that were associated with Shabbat violations were discussed, if at all, is impossible to determine.[19]

The first overt reference to Shabbat as a religious event once the people left Egypt is in association with the Manna, the food that would rain down virtually daily from the sky. While the Manna appears to primarily have been a response to the people’s plaint regarding their going hungry in the desert (Shemot 16:2), an introduction to aspects of Shabbat observance was  folded into the practices that would be associated with the gathering and preparation of this Heavenly sustenance.

a)  (Shemot 16:22) A double portion would be available on Fridays.

b)  (Ibid. 23) All food preparations for Shabbat involving Melacha (creative physical activity, represented here by baking and cooking) were to be completed prior to the advent of the day.

c)   (Ibid. 29) The intention of giving the people a double portion on Friday is so that they will remain “at home” on Shabbat.

d)   (Ibid. 30) Shabbat was a day of rest for the Jewish people (it is assumed that if they were to be able to stay “at home” then no journeying through the desert would ever take place on Shabbat.

While the above Shabbat principles do contribute to creating a restful atmosphere, nowhere in Shemot 16 is there any indication that serious consequences would be in store for a Shabbat violator. HaShem Expresses anger when some Jews, either out of curiosity or greed, or both, go out into the fields on Shabbat even after being informed that they will find nothing   there (Ibid. 27-29). Aside from HaShem berating Moshe (Ibid. 28), it does not appear that anything ever happens to those who inappropriately searched for the Manna on Shabbat. A careful reading of the verses describing the interchanges between Moshe and the princes of the tribes (Ibid. 22-27) reveals that while Moshe stated that Manna would not be found in the fields, he never explicitly says that one should not go out in search of it. Perhaps this accounts for why HaShem Appears to be more Dismayed with Moshe than with those who ignored his directives—Moshe had not made clear to the people what was required of them.[20]

Shabbat is presented in much more legalistic and clear-cut terms at Sinai, as part of   the Ten Commandments.

Shemot 20:8-11

Remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it. Six days you will work and accomplish all of your Melacha. And the seventh day is a Shabbat for the Lord your God, you shall not perform any Melacha, neither you, nor your sons, daughters, male and female servants, animals and the sojourner who lives in your gates. Because for six days HaShem Made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He Rested on the seventh day. Therefore HaShem Blessed the day of Shabbat and He Sanctified it.

But here too, no consequences for the Shabbat violator are delineated. It is only later in Shemot, first in Parashat Ki Tisa (31:14-15)

“…S/he who violates it will surely die, for whomever does Melacha on it, and that soul will be cut off from the midst of its people…Whomever does Melacha on it will surely die,”

and then in Parashat VaYakhel (35:2)

“…Whomever does Melacha on it will surely die,”

where it is made completely clear that Shabbat transgressions are capital offenses, and it is possible that these presentations, associated with the construction of the Mishkan, occurred after the incident of the Mekoshesh Eitzim, and to some extent as a direct consequence of what had happened.[21]


Whether or not in the end we accept Rabbeinu Bechaya’s hypothesis regarding the possible role played by the lack of Shmirat Shabbat and the wearing of Tzitzit in the ultimate determination whether the generation of the Exodus had the potential to transcend their slave mentality and become true manifestations of God’s Chosen People, it should not be lost upon us how complying with the entire gamut of Mitzvot, from what appears to be relatively insignificant to a Commandment that is recognized as being quite central, constitute the means by which we fulfill HaShem’s Will. While there is no one who will perfectly fulfill every last aspect of the myriad number of obligation and responsibilities that leading a traditional Jewish life requires (Kohelet 7:20), each of us should strive to do as much as we can, as well as we can, so that we continually approach ever higher levels of Kedusha (holiness) and Tahara (purity).

[1] Components of the sin of the spies include:

a) the report of the spies regarding the capabilities of the Jewish people to conquer Canaan (BaMidbar 13:26-33),

b) the people’s hysterical reaction to the spies’ account (14:1-4, 10),

c) Moshe’s successful argument against destroying the entire people (14:13-19),

and    d) HaShem’s Decree that the overwhelming majority of those who left Egypt would die during forty years of wanderings in the desert (14:21-23, 26-35).

[2] Sin offerings are already discussed in VaYikra 4. However, commentators on BaMidbar 15:17-31, noting a difference in the types of animals being called for when the entire community makes an error—in VaYikra 4:14 a cow is needed for atonement, while in BaMidbar 15:24 a goat and a cow are required—conclude that this latter source, by virtue of its necessitating an additional sacrifice indicating its greater severity, is specifically dealing with the sin of idolatry.

[3] BaMidbar 15:37-41.

[4] Sifre on 15:32 posits that the incident of the Mekoshesh Eitzim took place on the second Shabbat after their being introduced to the Mitzva of Shabbat. MaLBI”M, at least according to one view, explains that since at Mara the Jews were first commanded regarding Shabbat (see Sanhedrin 56b re Shemot 15:25, and fn. 18  below), the Shabbat that followed their experience at Mara was the first Shabbat that they observed. The Tora then describes how Manna came to fall on the encampment (Shemot 16:2 ff.) and that people violated the very next Shabbat by going out to search for additional Manna on Shabbat itself (Ibid. 27). It is on this Shabbat that the case of the Mekoshesh Eitzim is also alleged to have happened, demonstrating a lack of respect for Shabbat not only with regard to those who went out to search for Manna, but also connected to a specific Melacha on Shabbat. Which Melacha was actually violated, however, is a dispute recorded on Shabbat 74b, with harvesting, carrying four Amot in a public domain, and making sheaves offered as likely possibilities.

[5] Although Tzitzit are first mentioned after (BaMidbar 15:37 ff) the Decree calling for the deaths of the Jews above twenty at the time of the redemption from Egypt (14:22 ff.), it does not necessarily mean that the Commandment was first revealed at this point. All Mitzvot could have been revealed to Moshe during his forty days on Sinai (Shemot 24:18), and he therefore has already discussed all Mitzvot with the Jewish people prior to their officially being recorded in the Tora. However, just as in the case of the Mekoshesh Eitzim, it is legitimate to ponder why this incident is written where it is if it actually took place much earlier, the same can be said for all Mitzvot that first appear in the later books of the Tora once the Jews have actually left Sinai, following BaMidbar 10:12.

[6] The Commandment to place Tzitzit on the corners of a four-cornered garment presumes that one is in possession of such a garment, just as the Commandment to affix Mezuzot to the doorposts of one’s home (Devarim 6:9; 11:20) assumes that one owns or rents such a home. However, if a person does not find himself in such a situation in terms of his possessions, he would be exempt from these Commandments. When comparing Mitzvot that are obligatory in all circumstances with those that are conditionally dependent upon a person’s being in a certain situation or owning a unique type of possession, the former are thought of as more religiously significant than the latter. Otherwise, if the optional Commandments were also of great significance, why are they not obligatory in order to guarantee that everyone is able to derive maximum benefit from them? A second indicator that Tzitzit in contrast to Shabbat is a relatively less important commandment is because it entails a positive action of doing something, as opposed to the directive to passively take no action. From a Halachic perspective, it is considered a more reprehensible sin to actively violate a negative prohibition, than to passively fail to fulfill a positive Commandment. Consequently it is at first glance difficult to account for why ignoring the type of Mitzva that Tzitzit represents, should influence HaShem to Decide that these transgressors must die in the desert. (Of course it is also possible that while Tzitzit and/or the Mekoshesh taken individually would not be sufficient to precipitate such a severe punishment, the combination of these two transgressions along with the sin of the Meraglim, were ultimately decisive in causing HaShem to “Make up His Mind”.

[7] According to RaShI on BaMidbar 15:39, the numerical value of Tzitzit is 600 (“Tzadi” = 90; “Yud” = 10; “Tzadi” = 90; “Yud” = 10; “Tuf” = 400); there are 8 strands (on any one corner there are 4 strands that are doubled over, resulting in 8 ends); and there are 5 knots (on any one corner, connecting the 8 ends), adding up to 613, the total number of positive and negative Commandments according to Makkot 23b.

[8] Although this source does not mention clothing explicitly is one of the means by which Jewish cultural identity was preserved in Egypt, it is possible that such an assumption is subsumed under the category of “language”. Then each of the four divisions contained in the Midrashic passage can be understood to represent a different general category, rather than a practice limited to itself.

a)   Preserving names reflects a sensitivity to genealogy and particular family history.

b)   Preserving language suggests the maintenance of the gamut of cultural practices indigenous to a particular people, including distinctive traditional dress.

c)   Not acting as informants for the majority society reflects loyalty to one’s own people,

and d)   Observing sexual mores indicates a resistance to the moral corruption inherent within the Egyptian society, as implied by VaYikra 18:3.

[9] See RaShI on Shemot 2:14.

[10] See RaShI on VaYikra 24:11.

[11] This verse is part of the declaration of one who brings first fruits to the Temple, and is the section of the Tora that is interpreted in the Haggada of Pesach through the lense of the Midrash.

[12] See the comment in fn. 10.

[13] This type of approach would clearly suggest that Tzitzit are meant to be worn in such a manner that everyone can see them, and therefore recognize with whom the wearer is identifying. The case could be made equally with regard to the first approach, i.e., that the Tzitzit are designed to remind one of his Mitzva obligations—if one wears them completely under his clothing, when will they remind him that he ought to be fulfilling Mitzvot more diligently and comprehensively?

[14] Meshech Chachma on VaYikra 26:44 attributes to Yaakov imposing edicts upon his family prior to their descent to Egypt regarding their language and dress in order that they not assimilate into the greater Egyptian society. Whether that meant the innovation of Tzitziyot or simply the insistence that Jewish men wear four cornered garments that had Tzitziyot attached to them, before becoming an official Mitzva the practice might have been reflective of Jewish identity and peoplehood.

[15] See fn. 4 above.

[16] Just as Moshe is seen as not having fully disclosed the rules regarding a double portion of Manna falling on Friday thereby precluding the need to go  out on Shabbat to seek Manna—RaShI on Shemot 16:22—what other aspects of Shabbat may Moshe not have been explicit? When he has to inquire of God as to what to do with the wood gatherer, is this a result of his forgetting what he had been told on Sinai, as part of his comeuppance for having said in Devarim 1:17 that anything too difficult for the common judges should be brought to him for adjudication (while RaShI on this verse specifically attributes Moshe’s not knowing what to do in the case of the daughters of Tzlophchad [BaMidbar 27:5] to his apparent arrogance with respect to rendering judgment (this would seem to fly in the face of the Divine Assessment in BaMidbar 12:3 !), it is possible that in other cases of Moshe’s not knowing what to do and having to inquire of God, that a similar cause-and-effect relationship could be established.

[17] With respect to the Tora, the concept of Shabbat and its holiness are discussed for the very first time when the universe is completed in Beraishit 2:1-3. The extent to which Jews were familiar with these verses prior to when the Tora is first written down is unclear. Rabbinic Traditions, e.g., Kiddushin 4:14, Sota 13b, that suggest that the Forefathers and Foremothers observed all of the Tora Commandments are obviously implying that Shabbat was among the Mitzvot observed. Yet to what extent were these practices viewed as optional customs as opposed to means by which Jews must maintain their spiritual and cultural identity is impossible to determine.

[18] Although the words in the text Chok U’Mishpat (statute and law) appear to be more closely connected to the Commandment of the Red Heifer, known as “the Statute of Statutes” (BaMidbar 19:2) and Dinim (civil law system), the Talmud in Sanhedrin infers from the phrase in the second iteration of the Ten Commandments in Devarim 5:12, 16 “as the Lord your God has Commanded you” that is part of the Mitzvot of Shabbat and honoring one’s parents,  that these also were presented to the Jewish people before Sinai, at Mara in Shemot 15.

[19] If we were to assume that the presentation of some of the Commandments prior to Sinai was intended to accomplish the same purpose as the process involved in introducing a potential convert to Judaism, it is notable that Yevamot 47a-b includes in its description of what one says to such an individual:

…And one makes known to him/her the punishment of Commandments. One says to him/her: “You should know that as long as you do not become Jewish, if you eat Cheilev (prohibited animal fat, in contrast to Shuman which is permitted), you wouldn’t be subject to Karet (ritual excision), if you would violate Shabbat, you would not be subject to stoning, and now (should you officially become Jewish) if you would eat Cheilev, you would be subject to Karet , if you violate Shabbat, you would be subject to stoning.” And just as one makes known to him/her the punishment for Commandments, so too one makes known their reward…

[20] An alternate explanation for why Moshe in particular is blamed by HaShem is based upon Sanhedrin 10b-11a. A series of anecdotes are cited, including the particular instance of the Manna, where when “followers” transgress, the blame is placed upon the shoulders of the leadership. Leaders are expected to be vigilant and concerned with the behavior of those who look to them for direction, with the understanding that responsibility for the shortcomings on the part of others will have to be borne by those in leadership positions.

[21] While some commentators state that what was not known regarding the punishment to be meted out to the Mekosheish Eitzim was which form of the death penalty he was to receive (this assumes that the incident took place subsequent to the references in Shemot 31 and 35, an equally cogent case could be made with respect to whether he was to receive the death penalty at all since such a consequence had never been explicitly stated. Only after the Mishkan is commanded, and as a result, Melacha is defined—the 39 major categories of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat are derived from the actions needed to construct the Tabernacle—can the prohibition of Shabbat and its consequences be given clear definition.

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