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Home > Secteur-English > General > Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43)

Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43)


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Lists of Animals and Property and the Plain Sense of Scripture
By Yosef Klein*


The Bible contains dozens of lists of animals and property,[1] and these lists display a marked lack of consistency in the order the list items are presented. For example, consider the lists describing Abraham’s possessions : Genesis 12:16 And because of her, it went well with Abraham ;he acquired(va-yehi lo)sheep, cattle asses,male and female slaves she-asses, and camels.Genesis 24:35. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become rich : He has given him sheep and cattle,silver and gold, male and female slaves,camels and asses.Genesis 30:43 So the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own (va-yehi lo)large flocks female and male slaves,camels, and asses.-asses are mentioned only in the first of these three verses but, surprisingly, they do not appear together with asses. In this verse, asses are mentioned in a different place from the other two verses. Only in the second verse is there any mention of silver and gold ; in the third verse female slaves are mentioned before male, whereas in the preceding two verses male slaves come before female slaves.[2] Moreover, in the first and third verses, the word for female slaves appears in the plene spelling, but not so in the middle verse. Such a lack of consistency is not unique to these verses, but is evident in other lists in the Bible as well. Examining the Bible’s lists as a whole raises a number of questions : 1. Why the noticeable lack of consistency in listing various animals, putting them in a different order in verses that deal with similar themes ? 2. Why do certain items appear in one list and not in others ? For example, Pharaoh’s presents to Abraham (Gen. 12:16) include a wide variety of animals, whereas Abimelech is mentioned as only giving him sheep and cattle and slaves (Gen. 20:14). Underlying these questions is another question : what explanation is there for the order of the items in any given verse, taken on its own ? For example, why do sheep and cattle precede she-asses and camels ? One wonders about the same questions also when it comes to the description of the offering Jacob prepared for Esau : “He selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau : 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats ; 200 ewes and 20 rams ; 30 milch camels with their colts ; 40 cows and 10 bulls ; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses” (Gen. 32:14-16), and “I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves” (Gen. 32:6). Perhaps some of the differences can be attributed to habits of language, which does not demand absolute consistency. Such an idea appears in the Sages’ discussion of (seemingly) superfluous words in the Bible, of linguistic inconsistencies in the narration of biblical events, and of inconsistency in plene and defective spelling. In the Talmudic discussion of the significance of the doubling of words, hikaret tikaret (Num. 15:31), Rabbi Ishmael said : “But the verse has previously stated ‘that soul shall be cut off [ve-nikhreta]’ : are there then three worlds ? But [interpret this :] ‘and [that soul] shall be cut off [ve-nikhreta]’—in this world ; ‘he is to be cut off’—[of the following verse, and denoted by the infinitive, hikaret] in the next ; whilst as for the repetition [tikaret, the finite form of the verb], that is because the Torah employs human phraseology” (Sanhedrin 64b). Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, ascribed individual significance to each word and held that one should understand the text as follows : “That soul shall surely be cut off from among his people [ve-nikhreta] ; he shall be cut off [hikaret] in this world, and shall be cut off [tikaret] in the next.” Radak commented on the differences of phraseology in the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s steward, in a similar vein to Rabbi Ishmael : He arranged everything in order, as it had happened ; and we cannot ascribe a reason for all the deficient and plene spelling, for there are so many differences…In the recapitulation of these events there are changes of words, but the basic story is one, for thus is the way of Scripture, that when something is retold the basic sense remains but the words may be changed. (Commentary on Gen. 24:39). In the above remarks, Radak followed Ibn Ezra, who wrote as follows : The way of people with the Holy Tongue is that sometimes they spell things out thoroughly, and sometimes they convey what is necessary more concisely, so that the listener understands the gist…Such is the way of all learned people, in any language, that they maintain the sense but have no qualms about changing individual words, since they are equivalent in meaning. Let me give you some illustrations…Eliezer says, “Please, let me sip” (hagmi’ini na), and later says, “And I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink’” (hashkini na). (Commentary on Ex. 20:1). Although these commentaries do not deal with linguistic differences in lists of animals, perhaps some of the ideas here can be applied to the questions at hand. Some people hold that the lists of animals are arranged in a deliberate order, based on several considerations : 1) Reflecting the benefit of the animals to their owners ; 2) Reflecting certain ideological messages associated with the animals. This provides a partial answer to the questions above, but must be complemented by another explanation. 1) Practical considerations. Putting sheep at the top of the list is explained by Nahmanides[3] in that “Sheep are of great weight, for they enrich their owners, namely, with wool, milk, and young. Hence, our patriarchs were especially fond of flocks, and always put them before other animals.” Those who owned flocks waxed rich from them also due to their short gestation period, enabling rapid multiplication of their numbers. In the opinion of Samson Raphael Hirsch,[4] the above three lists are arranged in practical order : Sheep and cattle are productive real property…This property requires care and attention so there is necessity for servants. Camels and asses are not productive property but have to be had as beasts of burden, etc., bearers of the riches, and so come last. Thus for an ordered household. Maimonides explains the inclusion of some of the animals that serve man and the exclusion of others, such as horses, as follows :[5] These [cattle, sheep, and asses] are kept as domestic animals, and are found in most places, especially in Palestine, where the Israelites were shepherds, they, their fathers, and forefathers…Horses and camels, however, are not wanted by shepherds, and are not found in all places ; thus in the booty of Midian (Num. 31) no other animals are mentioned but oxen, sheep, and asses. But asses alone are indispensable to all people, especially to those who are engaged in the field or in the forest. Thus Jacob says, “I have oxen and asses” (Gen. 32:5). Camels and horses are not possessed by many people, but only by a few, and are only found in a few places. 2. Editorial considerations, aimed at conveying certain messages : Jacob describes to Esau what he owns, saying, “I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves.” Cattle and asses are mentioned before sheep, an item that usually heads lists of animals. Nahmanides ascribes ideological significance to this : When Jacob instructed the messengers he sent to Esau, telling them to say, “I have acquired cattle, asses,” and only later mentioning sheep, he did so deliberately, to serve two ends : 1) to hint to him that Joseph, who is the opponent of Esau, had already been born…since Joseph is called a bull, as it is written, “Like a firstling bull in his majesty,” and 2) because he did not want to begin with sheep, since it was through sheep that he had acquired the blessings…and therefore he did not want to begin with sheep.[6] To sum up, the order of the items in Jacob’s offering to Esau is explained by the length of gestation of the animals. “He selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau : 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats ; 200 ewes and 20 rams ; 30 milch camels with their colts ; 40 cows and 10 bulls ; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses” (Gen. 32:14-16). Those whose gestational period was short appear in the first part of the list, and those whose gestational period is long, in the second part. Sheep and goats have a gestation of 5 months ; cows, 9 months ; and asses, 12 months.[7] The exception in this list is the camel, appearing before the cows and bulls, although it has a gestation of one year. Its placement in the list calls for further investigation. We call the reader’s attention to an exceptional formulation in the list : “30 milch camels with their colts.” For purposes of comparison, note that in describing the cows it does not say they were feeding their young and that their calves were with them. I investigated the matter with a Bedouin who raised camels and found that the she-camel has the unique characteristic that she can be milked specifically when her young offspring are at her side. Therefore, when one wants to milk a camel for any purpose, her colt is placed near her. If the colt dies, the owners are likely to lose out on her milk. Therefore, some Bedouins stuff and mount the skin of a colt that died and place it next to the camel, and then the camel will give milk again.[8] When it came to my attention that a ranch for commercial production of camel milk was being established in Dubai, I turned to the entrepreneur to find out whether they had to keep the she-camel’s young next to their mothers. He answered that they play a recording of the sounds made by the young, and that suffices to cause the mother camels to give milk. We surmise that the formulation “milch camels with their colts” is to be read in the most straightforward way ; Jacob apparently wished to give Esau camels that were producing milk, to be used for various needs. It would take too long to present all the things which we can learn from the order items are mentioned in the dozens of lists of animals and property that appear in the Bible. We have provided the reader a way of approaching these texts, hopefully countering the tendency to skip lightly over words and letters. Rather, “turn it over and over again, for everything is contained in it” (Avot 5.22).


Translated by Rachel Rowen


* Dr. Yosef Klein, School of Education, Bar Ilan University. Originally published in 2016. This translation has not been reviewed by the author.
[1] Our discussion focuses on land animals and not on birds, which deserve a separate discussion.
[2] The Babylonian Masorah provides mnemonic signs for various lists, with the aim of preserving the text against corruption. It compares the three verses we mentioned at the beginning of this article, and says, “Abraham…with Abraham tz-k-m-`a-f-t-g ; the Lord blessed (Gen. 24:35) tz-k-s-z-`a-f-g-m ; and grew prosperous (Gen. 30:43) tz-r-f-`a-g-s.” Each letter stands for a word : tzon (rabot) [(many) sheep], bakar [cattle], hamorim [asses], `avadim [male slaves], shefahot [female slaves], atonot [she-asses], gemalim [camels], kesef [silver], zahav [gold]. See : Yosef Ofer, Ha-Masorah ha-Bavlit la-Torah : `Ekronoteiha ve-Drakheiha, Jerusalem 2001, p. 391. Also cf. Mordecai Brauer, Ha-Masorah ha-Gedolah la-Torah mi-Yedei Shmuel ben Ya`akov, manuscript למ , New York 1992, pp. 97-98, and the more extensive note there.
[3] Ha-Emunah ve-he-Bitahon, attributed to Nahmanides, in C. B. Chavel, Kitvei Rabbenu Moshe ben Nahman, Vol. 2, Jerusalem 1964, ch. 18, p. 404.
[4] Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary on Genesis 12:16, trans. Isaac Levy, pp. 239-240.
[5] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 39.
[6] Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Bitahon (see note 3, above), p. 405.


[7] Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov, Sefer ha-Parashot.


 


[8] Teva Gemalim zeh Osher, by Mr. Ariel Ullman, Chairman of the Israel Camel Breeders Association.

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