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Hungering for Meat

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha, we find one of the most perplexing passages in the Torah. The Jewish people in the desert are suddenly overwhelmed by a craving for meat (Numbers 11:4). God is "angered" by the people's desire, but nevertheless promises to provide an abundance of meat for them - an entire month's worth, "until it comes out of your noses" (Numbers 11:20).

At this point, Moses asks God a series of seemingly outrageous questions: "I am living amidst 600,000 people who are traveling by foot, and You say You will supply a month's worth of meat for them? Can enough sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them? Would all the fish of the sea be enough for them?" God responds to Moses's questions, "Is My Hand short? Now you will see whether I am good for My word or not" (Numbers 11:21-23).

It is difficult to understand how Moses, who had the closest possible relationship with the Divine, could have explicitly doubted God's ability to provide. If God created the entire world ex nihilo, why should it be difficult for Him to provide sufficient meat for the Jewish people? Although many commentators grapple with this issue, we will present the opinion of the Da'at Zekainim (Numbers 11:23).

The generation of the desert had a unique law that prohibited the slaughter of meat solely for personal consumption. Therefore, a person who wanted to eat meat was obligated to bring an offering to the Tabernacle. He would slaughter an animal, place a portion of the meat on the altar, and give a portion to the Kohanim. Only the remaining third of the meat belonged to the owner who had brought the offering.

The Priests were required to finish their portion of meat before dawn of the following day. Any meat that was leftover at daybreak became invalid and had to be burned - an act that ideally was to be avoided. Therefore, the Priests made every effort to consume the meat within the appointed time.

Based on these laws, the Da'at Zekeinim explain Moses’s words in the following way. God said that He would provide the people with a month's worth of meat in one day. Moses is certain that God can fulfill His word - but imagine hundreds and thousands of people suddenly converging at once on the Tabernacle with their animals! There were only three Kohanim (Aaron and his two sons) to serve the entire Jewish people. How would it be possible for them to eat such a vast quantity of sacrificial meat before dawn?

Further, according to the Da'at Zekeinim, Moses’s question, "Can You provide enough fish for them?" (Numbers 11:22) is to be read as a statement. Moses was implying, "If You had promised to provide fish for them, they would be able to eat whatever they wanted, since we don't bring offerings from fish. But because You said, 'I will provide meat for them,' they will need to bring a sacrifice! How can You expect Aaron and his sons to eat so much meat within the allotted time?"

God responds, "Is My Hand short?" When God said He would provide meat, He meant quail: a type of bird from which no offering is brought! Therefore, this would circumvent any possibility of leftover meat.

Fowl is considered to have the halachic status of meat, but the origins of this categorization are debatable. Was this law derived directly from the Torah, or did it result from a later decision of the Sages? From this passage we see that when God said "meat," He was referring to quail. According to the opinion of the Da'at Zekeinim, we could therefore suggest that fowl's status as meat is given directly by the Torah.

[This is the view held by Tosefot (Chullin 104b). For further analysis, see Maimonides (Mamrim 2:9), Yorah Deah 87:3 and Shach 4.]

The Da'at Zekeinim, by understanding the dialogue this way, justify Moses's surprising words. Moses never doubted God's ability to provide. If anything, the limitation was with the people.

As we sit down at our dinner table, may we enjoy some delicious meat and some meaty words of Torah, and in this way have a full and complete experience.

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