Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ksav v'haKabbalah on mispar vs. pekod

As is the case so often, the Ksav v’haKabbalah has an original insight into the meaning of a word in our parsha that will cause you to see other pesukim in a completely new light. 

וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי-רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל תּוֹלְדֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם כָּל-זָכָר מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה כֹּל יֹצֵא צָבָא:
פְּקֻדֵיהֶם לְמַטֵּה רְאוּבֵן שִׁשָּׁה וְאַרְבָּעִים אֶלֶף וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת:

What’s the difference between the count of “kol sheimos l’gulgelosam” (1:20) and “pekudeihem” (1:21) of the same sheivet being counted?  If “kol sheimos l’gulgelosam” means a count of individuals, then why repeat the word “pekudeihem…,” which is also a tally of individuals?  And why switch roots from “mispar” to “pekod?” 

The GR”A explains that there were two elements to the count of Bnei Yisrael: 1) an accounting of yichus: what family you were from, what beis av, what sheivet (see also Rashi 1:18); 2) a simple numerical tally.  The pasuk that refers to counting “l’mishpichosam l’beis avosam b’mispar sheimos” is referring to the accounting of yichus; the pasuk that refers to “pekudeihem..” is talking about the simple numerical tally.  The word “mispar” in “b’mispar sheimos,” explains the Ksav v’haKabbalah, does not mean number!  It’s like the word “sipur” – to tell a story, a narrative.  Each person would come before Moshe and tell his story: I’m Ploni the son of Ploni from family Ploni from sheiveit Ploni.  When you look at another Jew, it’s not just Mr. 453,662, a number, but rather it’s an individual, someone with his/her own story to tell.

Now that you know this, you are not going to read them these pesukim in Tehillim (147:4-5) that we say every morning the same away again:
מוֹנֶה מִסְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִים לְכֻלָּם שֵׁמוֹת יִקְרָא:
 גָּדוֹל אֲדוֹנֵינוּ וְרַב-כֹּחַ לִתְבוּנָתוֹ אֵין מִסְפָּר

What does it mean “l’tevunaso ain mispar?”  Does it mean that G-d’s IQ is so big that there is no number for it?  That pshat would never occur to anyone before the 20th century invention of the concept of IQ.  Anyone living earlier in history would tell you that intelligence is not a number or something that can be quantified.  The Metzudos draw the parallel to “moneh mispar lakochavim” and explain that “tevunaso” is not referring to G-d’s intelligence, but rather to the intelligent celestial beings that surround him, which are innumerable.  We’ve salvaged “mispar” as a number, but at the cost of stretching the meaning of “tevunah.”  The Ksav v’haKabbalah, however, gets out of the difficulty by explaining based on the yesod above that “mispar” here has nothing to do with number – it has to do with “sipur,” being able to tell a story or relate an idea.  What the pasuk is telling us is that G-d’s intelligence is so great that it defies “sipur,” i.e. we cannot describe it, we do not have words with which to talk about it. 

Let me end off with a question: if "mispar" connotes not just tallying, but relating something, telling a story, what is sefiras ha'omer all about?



  1. /SPR/, which sefer haYetzirah (as recounted in haKuzari 5) gives three meanings: to tell (sefer), to cut (sapar, misparayim), and to count (mispar). Lesapeir sipur isn't to give a one sentence summary: "There was a car accident." It's to divide that one thesis into its parts, telling detail. "So and so got a call on his cell phone. He ...." Thus the connection to cutting. Lispor is to count out the components of a whole.

    /PQD/ also has three meanings: to remember ("veH' paqad Sarah, ka'asher amar", "paqod paqadti"), to appoint ("veyafqeid peqidim"), and to count ("ve'eileh pequdei"). When doing a peqidah of people, though, the verb used is "nasa es rosh". "Ki sisa es rosh BY lifqudeihem". "Nasa es rosh kol adas..." This is not counting as parts, but counting individuals and giving each importance.

    I think that the counting in the beginning of seifer Bamidbar is both because we are both individuals with our own particular contributions, and also parts of the Jewish People as a corporate entity.

    (I developed this idea for an audience of parents of special needs children, and also spoke of /qra/, to call in the sense of "Vayiqra H' el Mosheh", to call as in to give a more meaningful name -- "viqra E-lokim la'or yom", and to read. Even Shoshan's concordance gives 888 occurrences of /qra/ but only two are used for "reading", and in both cases the reading ended up being a calling. Nechemiah reads from a sefer, and the audience is moved to abandon their non-Jewish wives. Achashveirosh has the sefer read to him and he immediately has to make sure the party is thanked.)

    See also the Kuzari 4:25, where he discusses the three uses of /spr/ as mentioned in Seifer haYetzirah. I'm sure other peirushim of ShY would be worth perusal, but I never looked at them.

    1. Agree totally with your message, and sorry if this is nit-picky, but: how strong is the identification of "cutting" as related to counting and recounting? I hear you that Kuzari and sefer hayetzira apparently say this, and who am I to disagree -- but still I wonder if it is linguistically credible or just a drush. It seems to me like a real stretch. Of course I could be wrong.

      I can't think offhand of any use in Tanach of /SPR/ to mean cutting. Cutting one's hair is consistently referred to as giluach, e.g. Shmuel II 14:26 (Avshalom), Shoftim 16:19 (shimshon), which would have been perfect places to use /SPR/ if it really meant cutting hair. I would guess that /SPR/ in the sense of cutting hair (and scissors) entered rabbinic/mishnaic Hebrew later on from another language, with no etymological connection to hebrew's use of /SPR/ in sipur/mispar/sefer. E.g., in Talmudic aramaic, sapar (or s'far) means border and also barber, which do seem related to each other and to cutting, but don't seem very connected to relating or counting.