Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana
bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.
parasha series is dedicated
honor of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Rabbi Elchanan
Shelach deals mostly with the episode
of the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14).
Chapter 15 presents a group of laws, and the commentators propose various
explanations as to the significance of their location and context. Amidst this group of laws there is
another brief narrative, concerning the stick-gatherer:
And it was, while the Israelites were in the wilderness, that they found a man
gathering sticks (mekoshesh etzim) on the Shabbat
And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moshe and to Aharon and
to all of the congregation.
And they placed him in detention, for it had not been explained what should be
done with him.
And God said to Moshe: "The man shall surely be put to death; all of the
congregation shall stone him with rocks outside of the
So all of the congregation took him outside of the camp, and they stoned him
with rocks, and he died, as God had commanded Moshe.
the face of it, the story is simple: somebody desecrates Shabbat, the Jews
inquire as to the appropriate sentence, and they carry out the verdict that God
further reflection gives rise to several questions:
does the Torah recount this episode, describing an individual's sin? Over the course of all the years of
wandering in the wilderness, there must surely be many instances of personal
transgressions. What is so special
about this particular instance, justifying its inclusion in the
is the man's sin (in other words, what is the meaning of the term
"mekoshesh"), and why is it not clear what his sentence should
does this story belong? Why does it
appear here, in the midst of a group of mitzvot?
shiur will attempt to answer these questions, along with some others that
arise from the story.
us begin with the introduction to the story: "And it was, while the Israelites
were in the wilderness" (v. 32).
This is an unusual opening.
Usually, the Torah notes the location when the Jewish people move from
one station to another. Here, there is no indication that they
journey from Kadesh; rather, the Torah notes that they are "in the wilderness" –
a static state
— and the location is described in very general terms. If the Torah is trying to tell us where
they are, why does it not name the place?
the special introduction to this story is not meant to indicate the Israelites'
geographical location, but rather to bring home and reinforce their new
situation in the wake of the sin of the Spies. We recall that the nation is punished
with the decree of wandering in the wilderness (ibid., Chapter
Turn and journey to the wilderness by way of the Reed
But as for you, your carcasses will fall in this
And your children will wander in the wilderness for forty years, and they
shall bear your harlotry, until the end of your carcasses in the
…in this wilderness they shall come to their end, and there they shall
"the Israelites were in the wilderness" – a static state. Even if they travel from one station to
another, the Torah makes no mention of it, since such journeys are devoid of any
significance. The main idea is that
they remain in the wilderness for a long time. Hence, since the story of the gatherer
is the first narrative that follows the sin of the Spies, its introduction
emphasizes the Israelites' new situation.
it may be that the Torah also chooses to introduce the story in this way because
there is a connection between their new situation and the stick-gatherer's
us proceed: "They found a man gathering sticks on the Shabbat day." This is a very brief, condensed
description, and it is not clear exactly what the sin is. The commentators offer four different
interpretations of the word "mekoshesh":
Cutting down branches
Cutting large sticks into small chips of wood
Carrying from one domain into another
the story fails to convey the most important piece of information! Why does the Torah not use clearer
language to describe the man's actions?
What is it that the verse is telling us? What we do understand clearly is that
the Israelites find this man. The
text actually focuses less on the man's actions (as it could have said: a man
went out and gathered/ chopped/ carried sticks on Shabbat) than on the initial
fact that the Israelites discover him!
the next verse, the same point is emphasized again:
"And those who found him gathering (chopping, carrying) sticks brought him to
Moshe and to Aharon and to all of the congregation."
of focusing on the man by saying: they brought him to Moshe, the verse repeats
"those who found him… brought him."
Why is this so?
interesting aspect of the story is that the Israelites are unsure of what should
be done with the man:
They placed him in detention, for it had not been explained what should be done
are they uncertain? The laws of
Shabbat are conveyed at Sinai, and the death sentence for one who desecrates
Shabbat is quite explicit (Shemot
And you shall observe the Shabbat, for it is holy to you; anyone who desecrates
it shall surely be put to death, for whoever performs any labor on it –
that soul shall be cut off from its people.
For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day is a sabbath of
sabbaths, holy to God; anyone who performs labor on the Shabbat day shall
surely be put to death.
of the commentators
concur, on the basis of the Gemara in Sanhedrin 78b, that it is indeed clear
to the Jews that the man deserves the death penalty, but they do not know what
form of execution should be applied.
adds that it is not clear whether the death sentence is to be carried out by
human executioners or by God.
way, we must ask: what is the Torah's purpose in recounting this particular
incident? Why does the Torah take
the trouble to describe the whole process of bringing the man to justice, the
uncertainty as to his sentence, placing him in detention, and God's
shed further light on our narrative, let us consider a different incident, the
story of the blasphemer (Vayikra
The son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among
the Israelites; and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man fought
in the camp.
And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name of God, and he cursed,
and they brought him to Moshe; and his mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of
Divri, of the tribe of Dan.
And they placed him in detention, that it be explained to them by God's
And God spoke to Moshe, saying:
"Take the blasphemer outside of the camp, and let all who heard him place their
hands upon his head, and let the whole congregation stone
"And you shall speak to the Israelites, saying: 'Anyone who curses his God shall
bear his sin.
"'And one who blasphemes the Name of God shall surely be put to death; all of
the congregation shall surely stone him; the stranger and the home-born alike -
when he blasphemes the Name, he shall be put to death…'"
And Moshe spoke to the Israelites, and they brought the blasphemer outside of
the camp, and they stoned him with rocks; and the Israelites did as God had
story of the blasphemer is reminiscent of our story of the gatherer, in many
The text describes the sin of an individual.
The name of the perpetrator is not mentioned.
The sinner is placed in detention because it is not clear what should be
done with him; the law requires clarification.
The punishment is the same: stoning by the entire congregation, outside
of the camp.
The text describes the execution of the sentence.
Both narratives are located in the midst of a group of
similarities between the narratives are extensive and worthy of discussion;
nevertheless, we note some differences which highlight the unique aspects of
each of them:
While neither perpetrator is mentioned by name, the blasphemer is
identified as "the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man…
and his mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri." The stick-gatherer remains completely
The sin of the blasphemer is presented clearly, while the sin of the
stick-gatherer is not.
The story of the blasphemer focuses on the man himself: He "went out,"
"they fought," "he blasphemed," "he cursed." In the case of the gatherer, the text
focuses on "those who found him".
The blasphemer is brought before Moshe alone, while the gatherer is
brought before Aharon and the entire congregation, too.
The language used to describe the clarification of the law is different:
the blasphemer is placed in detention "that it be explained to them by God's
word," while the gatherer is detained "for it had not been explained what should
be done with him."
The episode of the blasphemer contains some laws that relate to the
story, while after the story of the stick-gatherer there are no related
differences between these two similar stories help us to define the unique
aspects of the story of the gatherer.
In the instance of the blasphemer, there is indeed a need to clarify the
law; therefore, the story includes a collection of laws relating to the
event. In the case of the gatherer,
the verdict is known – at least in the general sense. It is clear that the man is going to be
sentenced to death; the question is what type of death sentence. Therefore, God's response in this case
is brief and to the point. The
point of the story is not the clarification of the
details as to the gatherer's identity are mentioned (in contrast to the
blasphemer, whose family background and mother's name are included). Likewise, the sin of the gatherer is not
clear (as opposed to the blasphemer, whose sin is described at length and quite
clearly), because that is not the crux of the story. In contrast to the narrow focus on the
blasphemer himself, the story of the gatherer mentions twice "those who found
him" (at first, it seems that it is all of "the Israelites" who find him), and
three times "all of the congregation" is mentioned:
And those who found him… brought him to Moshe and to Aharon, and to all of
…all of the congregation shall stone him with stones outside of the
So all of the congregation took him outside…
seems that the story of the gatherer is not really about the sin of an
individual. Rather, it is a story
about the Israelites: it is they who are in the wilderness, it is they who find
a man transgressing Shabbat, it is they who bring him before the entire
congregation (not just before Moshe), waiting to clarify what sort of death
sentence applies, and it is they who carry out the sentence.
Shimshon Refa'el Hirsch explains:
opening words, "when the Israelites were in the wilderness," as well as the
entire formulation of this story, in comparison with the story of the blasphemer
– all this shows that the text is placing a strong emphasis here on the
initiative of the people… the actions of the Israelites and their involvement,
for the sake of the Torah.
do we learn about the Israelite congregation from this story? The Midrash (Sifrei, Bamidbar 113) offers the following
found a man gathering sticks" – this tells us that Moshe had appointed watchmen,
and they found him gathering.
those who found him gathering sticks brought him" – why is this repeated? Is it not already written that "they
found a man"? What new information
is added by the words, "those who found him brought him"? This tells us that they had warned him
to desist from his forbidden labor.
the verses describing the discovery of this man, the Sages deduce that it is not
by chance that they find him: there are watchmen, and these watchmen not only
"catch" the transgressor, but also try to prevent him from sinning and warn
him. The message, in short, is that
there is an attempt on the part of Moshe (and the nation) to prevent
Parashat Shelach describes spiritual progress. The Jewish nation, described in the
story of the Spies as a congregation of sinners and violators of God's word, is
revealed in the narrative of the stick-gatherer as a community seeking to
observe and fulfill God's word. For
this congregation, it is important that every individual behaves in accordance
with God's commandments.
by Kaeren Fish