> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Half of Menashe

Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As the Book of Bamidbar comes to an end, preparations for the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel come to the fore. The Land must be divided among the tribes; how will the lines be drawn? Although questions of this nature have already been broached, the issue looms ever-larger at this particular juncture.(1) In this context, a request is put forward by two tribes who prefer to remain east of the Jordan, in the territories that at that point were already occupied by the Israelite army and people.

The children of Reuven and the children of Gad had abundant livestock - very great. They saw the land of Yazer and the land of Gil'ad, and behold! - it was a place for livestock: The children of Gad and the children of Reuven came and said to Moshe, to Elazar the Kohen, and to the leaders of the assembly, saying: "Atarot, and Divon, and Yazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Sevam, and Nevo, and Be'on: The land that God smote before the Assembly of Israel - it is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock". They said, "If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan." (Bamidbar 32:1-5)

Moshe responds to their request with incredulity:

Moshe said to the children of Gad and the children of Reuven, "Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? Why do you dissuade the heart of the Children of Israel from crossing to the Land that God has given them? This is what your fathers did, when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to see the Land: They went up to the valley of Eshkol and saw the Land and they dissuaded the heart of the Children of Israel, not to come to the Land that God has given them." (Bamidbar 32:6-9)

Moshe has two objections, one factual, the other psychological. He objects to the idea of separation from the main larger community, and he objects to the ramifications of such a separation. The very thought that part of the nation will remain behind is outrageous to him. Furthermore, Moshe recognizes that such a separation would ultimately run counter to their collective dream of returning to the land promised to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. Moshe's comparison of their request to the behavior of the spies is a stinging rebuke: the dissident spies of the previous generation rejected the Land of Israel, and preferred to remain outside her boundaries. That episode was disastrous for the Israelites, bringing upon them 39 years of wandering in the desert. In this light, the first statement of Moshe's response to their request is not merely a factual rejoinder; it belies Moshe's moral outrage. "How can you remain behind in comfort while you brothers battle?" Moshe accuses. Such a position is in dissonance with Jewish ideals and law.(2)

Separating oneself from the Jewish community is spiritually devastating; the punishment is a Divine quid pro quo - with the result - is to be separated from the community. The first and perhaps prototype for such a separation returns us to the days of Avraham, when his nephew whom he treated as a son also has "flock" problems:

And Avram went up from Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the Negev. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journeys from the Negev to Bet-El, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bet-El and Ha'Ai; To the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first; and there Avram called on the name of the Lord. And Lot also, who went with Avram, had flocks, and herds, and tents. And the land was not able to bear them, that they might live together; for their possessions were great, so that they could not live together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Avram's cattle and the herdsmen of Lot's cattle; and the Canaanite and the Perizzite lived then in the land. And Avram said to Lot, Let there be no strife, I beg you, between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself, I beg you, from me; if you will take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left. And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sdom and Amora, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt,(3) as you come to Zo'ar. Then Lot chose for himself the valley of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east, and they separated themselves, one from the other. (Bereishit 13:1-11)

Our Parsha has echoes of that episode: an abundance of flock leads to a search for grazing land and a separation eastward, away from the spiritual hub.(4) More importantly, that separation thrust Lot out of the spiritual community, and he never succeeded in reentering. Could these tribes be requesting the same? After some explanations are offered, a deal is brokered whereby these tribes will aid in the conquest of the Land of Israel, and only then return to their inheritance east of the Jordan. When Moshe eventually agrees, a third tribe becomes involved:

So Moses gave to them - to the children of Gad, and the children of Reuven, and half the tribe of Menashe son of Yosef - the kingdom of Sihon, King of the Amorite, and the kingdom of Og, King of the Bashan; the land with its cities in the boundaries, and the cities of the surrounding land. (Bamidbar 32:33)

The first two tribes, Reuven and Gad, were involved in the negotiations with Moshe from the outset. How did the tribe or part of the tribe of Menashe get themselves involved in this? The text itself is silent; therefore the commentaries feel free to offer different interpretations.

The Ibn Ezra(5) provides a quantitative explanation, theorizing that they did not merit mention until this point because they were so few- even though they were involved in this request from the outset. When one looks at the numbers involved, it becomes clear that the term "half the tribe of Menashe" is imprecise: Of eight families of Menashe, two joined Reuven and Gad in Transjordan while the other six entered the Land of Israel.(6)

Similarly, the Ramban suggests that these two families of Menashe became involved only at this point: When they saw the deal that had been negotiated by the other tribes they jumped on the proverbial bandwagon, hoping to negotiate similar terms.(7) The Ramban explains that numerically they were the smallest group in the tribe of Menashe, and thought that on the other side of the Jordan they would get larger tracts of land.(8)

Despite the practical temptation of remaining on the captured side of the Jordan, we cannot help but be surprised when the tribe of Menashe joins the ranks of the "expatriates". After all, they are the children of Yosef, the one leader of a tribe who asked that his remains be returned for burial in the Land of Israel.(9) Furthermore, in last week's parsha, we saw how the women of Menashe, the daughters of Zelaphchad, fought for their right to inherit the Land. It seems strange that the tribe with such a strong bond with the Land of Israel would prefer to remain in trans-Jordan.

Perhaps they never did ask to remain. The Torah does not record such a request; only Moshe's directive is recorded. One could postulate that it was for this precise reason that Moshe requested that they stay behind with the two "secessionist" tribes: Because of their particularly strong love for the Land, perhaps they could serve as a role model for the tribes of Reuven and Gad.

The Netziv(10)suggested that the tribe of Menashe was not interested in staying outside Israel. Rather, Moshe asked them to do so because he knew that the other tribes would need Torah leadership. Menashe's inheritance east of the Jordan was not allotted to them in response to their own request. Moshe initiated the move in an attempt to insure the integrity and continuity of the other two tribes.

This opinion is supported by a halachic opinion found in the Jerusalem Talmud(11) regarding the question whether the mitzvah of First Fruits applies on the other side of the Jordan - or if this land is considered Diaspora. A distinction is made between the area allotted to the tribes of Reuven and Gad in response to their request, and the land assigned to Menashe by Moshe, without a request. The Talmud explains that in the case of Menashe, the recitation at the First Fruits Offering ceremony was only true in the case of Menashe. Only in their case was the phrase "the land which you have given me" (Devarim 26:10) accurate, while the members of Reuven and Gad would have to say "the land we took," and would therefore be exempt from the mitzvah of first fruits.

The Midrash(12) has a completely different approach to Menashe's remaining in the land east of Israel. According to this approach, they were punished for something which had taken place long ago:

And Ya'akov rent his garments (Bereishit 37:34). R. Pinhas said in R. Hoshaya's name: The tribal ancestors caused their father to rend his garments; and where were they requited? In Egypt: Then they rent their clothes (Bereishit 44:13). Yosef caused the tribal ancestors to rend their clothes, and his grandson was requited therefore: "And Yehoshua rent his clothes (Yehoshua 7:6). Binyamin caused the tribal ancestors to rend their garments, and where was he requited? In Shushan the capital: Mordechai rent has clothes (Esther 4:1). Menashe caused the tribal ancestors to rend their garments, therefore his heritage was rent [divided], and he received half in Transjordan and half in Eretz Israel. (Bereishit Rabbah - 84:20)

According to this approach, remaining in the east bank - or more precisely, the division of the tribe between the two banks of the Jordan-was a punishment for an action of their tribal ancestor years before.(13) This punishment is one more reverberation of the tragic sale of Yosef, a ripple of the dynamic unleashed by the enmity between the brothers.

When the brothers stand before him in Egypt, at the mercy of this Prince of Egypt, Yosef may have had the right to test his brothers to see if they were repentant, or if they would abandon their brother Binyamin when it became expedient to do so.(14) The brothers passed the test, paving the way for a reunification. According to the Midrash, Yosef uses his most trusted confidant, his eldest son Menashe, to set the plot in action, to create the situation, relay messages and serve as his aide.(15)

"And Yosef was the governor over the land" (Bereishit 42:6). He promulgated three decrees: (i) That no slave should enter it; (ii) That a man should not enter with two donkeys; and (iii) That no man should enter without furnishing the names of his father and grandfather. Menashe was stationed there to receive each man's form. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit Rabbah - 91:4)

There were times that Menashe became actively involved in the abuse of his uncles:

When he sent them, Yosef's brethren looked to see what he would do. 'Throw this man into prison,' Yosef ordered them. But as they approached him, he [Shimon] cried out aloud at them; on hearing his voice they fell on their faces and their teeth were broken, as it says, 'When the lion roars and the fierce lion howls, the teeth of the young lions are broken' (Iyov 4:10). Now Menashe was sitting before his father, and his father said to him, 'Rise thou.' Immediately Menashe arose, gave him [i.e., Shimon] one blow, threw him into prison, and put him in fetters. He [Yosef] then said to them: 'He will remain imprisoned until ye bring your brother and your statement is verified.' (Bereishit Rabbah 91:6)

The punishment meted out is the division that would endure in the tribe of Yosef. There is a certain degree of irony involved in this punishment: Ephraim and Menashe may have been the only two siblings to "get along"(16) in the entire book of Bereishit. Presumably Yosef, having suffered as he did at the hands of his brothers, must have gone to great lengths to impress upon them the value of fraternal devotion.

The Midrash is teaching that perhaps Yosef had the right to act as he did, but using his son in this position was uncalled for. Even when one's grievance may be justified, he must be careful about the educational message his children will receive if they are drawn into the conflict. The message Menashe received was one of lack of unity with his extended family and perhaps an exaggerated sense of dedication to immediate family. Clearly this was not Yosef's intention, but the abuse perpetrated by Menashe was paid back in the future.

We can now appreciate Moshe's response to these tribes:

Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? (Bamidbar 32:6)

In Moshe's mind, all of Israel are, indeed, brothers. Every tribe should feel brotherhood with every other tribe. There is an episode taught at the end of the Parsha which strengthens this principle:

And Moses gave to them, to the sons of Gad, and to the sons of Reuben, and to half the tribe of Menashe the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon, King of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og, King of Bashan, the land, with its cities in the borders, even the cities of the country around. And the sons of Gad built Divon, and Atarot, and Aroer ... And Yair the son of Menasheh went and took its small towns, and called them Havot-Yair. (Bamidbar 32:33,34,41)

Moshe apportions the land; Yair from the family of Menashe built small towns, and then proceeded to name them after himself. The midrash reveals his motivation: he had no children and he was building this for his extended family:

And Yair the son of Menashe went and took the villages thereof, and called them Havvoth-Yair (Num. 32:41). The three kinds of burnt-offerings therefore which the prince sacrificed were in allusion to the sons of Machir the son of Menashe, while the male of the goats for a sin-offering was in allusion to Yair who did not bequeath his portion to his sons since he had no sons. The reason why he called them [the villages] by his own name was because he had no male child and his portion was inherited by his brothers, the sons of Machir. (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:7, cited by Rashi 32:41)

In fact we are told that Yair was not even a member of the tribe of Menashe, he was a distant cousin who felt a sense of brotherhood and built something for his cousins:(17)

And afterwards Hezron went in to the daughter of Machir the father of Gilead, whom he married when he was sixty years old; and she bore him Segub. And Segub fathered Yair, who had twenty three cities in the land of Gilead. And he took Geshur, and Aram, with the towns of Yair, from them, with Kenath, and its towns, sixty cities. All these belonged to the sons of Machir, the father of Gilead. (Divrei Hayamim 1 Chapter 2:21-23)

Yair was a descendant of Hezran who in turn was from the tribe of Yehuda,(18) his grandmother was from Menashe, nonetheless he felt close enough to build these areas up for his cousins. Here we see the complete antithesis to the attitude of these tribes who value possessions more than nationhood, or extended brotherhood.

Lack of brotherhood, otherwise known as sinat chinam - senseless hatred - causes destruction and exile. Those who only cared about their children and not the larger Jewish nation remained outside of the land. Their "exile" was immediate. Ultimately, these were the first tribes carried off into exile. The behavior of the tribe of Menashe was complex: In the past they had conflicting attributes, they were close with family, yet abused strangers who were also family. Which attribute would win out? Those who felt exclusively a connection with their own children and were hyper-focused on the land they would bequeath as an inheritance remained outside the land, those who felt brotherhood and a sense of nationhood entered the land and the shechina dwelled in their midst.

Likewise in the case of the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, you find that they were rich, possessing large numbers of cattle, but they loved their money(19) and settled outside the Land of Israel. Consequently they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile; as is borne out by the text, And he carried them away, even the Reuvenites, and the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Menashe (I Chron. 5:26). What brought it on them? The fact that they separated themselves from their brethren because of their possessions. Whence can we infer this? From what is written in the Torah, viz., NOW THE CHILDREN OF REUBEN... HAD A VERY GREAT ABUNDANCE OF CATTLE. (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 22:7)

One day a cousin of Yair from the tribe of Yehuda (the Davidic line also comes from Hezron) will come and usher in a time of peace. Messiah will be introduced by a prophet whose own tribal affiliation is completely blurred will return to reunite families and recreate the core of the Jewish community:

The Rabbis debated: To which tribe did Eliyahu belong? R. Leazar said: To Binyamin, for it is written, And Jaareshiah, and Elijah, and Zichri, were the sons of Jerobam... All these were the sons of Benjamin (I Chron. 8:27,40). R. Nehorai said: To Gad, for it says, And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead, said (I Kings, 17:1). Said R. Philippi to R. Nehorai: What reason have you for saying so? Because it is written, And their [sc. the Gaddites'] border was Jazer, and all the cities of Gilead (Josh. 13:25), he replied. How does R. Eleazar interpret the verse quoted by R. Nehorai? 'Of the inhabitants of Gilead' means, of those who sat in the Hall of Hewn Stones. And how does R. Nehorai interpret the verse quoted by R. Eleazar, 'And Jaareshiah and Elijah'? These names are meant for allegorical interpretation: when He [God] would shake (mar'ish) the world [in His wrath], Elijah recalls (mazkir) the merit of the ancestors, whereupon, lo, 'The sons of Jerobam,' which means, God is filled with compassion (rahamim) for His world. On one occasion our Rabbis were debating about him [Elijah], some maintaining that he belonged to the tribe of Gad, others, to the tribe of Benjamin. Whereupon he came and stood before them and said, ' Sirs, why do you debate about me? I am a descendant of Rachel. (Bereishit Rabbah - 71:9)

Many tribes took credit for Eliyahu, but his mission clearly transcended tribal affiliations. The prophet says that the day will come and he will return and unite the people ushering the return of the shechina to our land:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers… (Malachi 3:23-24)



1. See Bamidbar 27:15-23.

2. See Rambam Laws of Teshuva 3:11, where he explains that an individual who does not feel the pain of the community forfeits his share in the World to Come, even if he is not a sinner per se.

3. It is interesting to note, that Lot himself had just returned from Egypt, just as these tribes had, and here he is stating that the land reminds him of Egypt, perhaps these tribes as well choose to remain on the east of the Jordan, because this land reminded them of Egypt. Numerous times in the desert we find the Israelites pining for Egypt, full of nostalgic memories, unfortunately memories of the slavery eluded them. Furthermore there would seem to be a moral connection between the behavior of the Sodomites and the Egyptians, both were descendants of Cham, and seem to be hot blooded, as soon as Sarah arrives Pharoh takes her, when Yosef arrives he is accosted by the wife of Potifar, in Sodom as soon as the angels arrive and are greeted by Lot, the welcoming committee consisting of the inhabitants of Sodom soon arrives, wanting to get to "know" the guests in a biblical sense.

4. In fact, a civil war nearly broke out when, upon returning from battle, the dissenting tribes realized that they were so far from the spiritual center of Israel that they built an altar on their territory. In retrospect, they explained that this altar was not intended for offerings, but designed to be a testimony to their adherence to the God of Israel, and a concrete symbol of their devotion, they explained that their concern was that their children living so far from Israel, will be made to feel as if they have no connection with the God of Israel: Book Of Yehoshua chapter 22:9-29: And the sons of Reuven and the sons of Gad and the half tribe of Menashe returned, and departed from the people of Israel from Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the country of Gilead, to the land of their possession, which they possessed, according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses. And when they came to the borders of the Jordan, that are in the land of Canaan, the sons of Reuven and the sons of Gad and the half tribe of Menashe built there an altar by the Jordan, a great and conspicuous altar. And the people of Israel heard say, Behold, the sons of Reuven and the sons of Gad and the half tribe of Menashe have built an altar opposite the land of Canaan, in the borders of the Jordan, on the side of the people of Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the people of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them… Then the sons of Reuven and the sons of Gad and the half tribe of Menashe answered, and said to the chiefs of the thousands of Israel. The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knows, and let Israel know. If it is in rebellion, or if it is in transgression against the Lord, save us not this day, For building an altar to turn away from following the Lord, or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or meal offerings, or peace offerings on it, let the Lord himself take vengeance; And if we did not do it for fear of this thing, saying, In time to come your children might speak to our children, saying, What have you to do with the Lord God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between us and you, you sons of Reuven and sons of Gad; you have no part in the Lord; so your children might make our children cease from fearing the Lord. Therefore we said, Let us now build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice; But that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord before him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, You have no part in the Lord. Therefore said we, that it shall be, when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say again, Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between us and you.

5. Ibn Ezra Bamidbar 32:32.

6. This point is made by Ramban Bamidbar 32:33.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. See Bereishit 50:25.

10. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, whose commentary on Torah is called Ha'amek Davar Comments to Devarim 3:16.

11. Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:12 cited by the Haamek Davar ibid.

12. There is another Midrash which states that the land only had "room" for 10 tribes. Shmot Rabbah 20:14: R. Joshua b. Levi said: It can be compared to a king who had twelve sons and ten estates. The king thought to himself: ' If I give them to my sons, I will create strife between them: I had better wait till I purchase another two estates and then divide them equally between them.' This is what God said: 'If I bring them now into the Land, there will not be enough portions for all the twelve tribes; I had better delay them in the wilderness until they have inherited the other side of the Jordan, and until the sons of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh have taken their portions, and then I will bring them into the Land.'

13. The Arizal states that the tribes of Reuven and Gad suffered from a spiritual blemish and therefore could not enter the land. This blemish only affected 1/4 of the tribe of Yosef - half of Menashe. See Liquety Torah, Shaar Hapsukim, Igra D'kallah 293b. see

14. In my book Explorations this theme is studied in depth, and I have revisited this theme in Echoes of Eden.

15. According to the Rabbis (Tanhuma Buber ed. Gen. 13) it was Menashe who put the cup into Binyamin's sack. Furthermore it was Menashe who served as his father's interpreter. Bereishit Rabba 91:8.

16. See Bereishit Rabbah 97.

17. See comments of Ramban and Chizkuni Bamidbar 32:41.

18. See Divrie Hayamim 1 chapter 2:9-10.

19. When the Tosefta describes the sin of sinat chinam it couples it with "loving money" see Tosefta Menachot 13:22.



Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,912

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram