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Aspaqlaria: Bamidbar

By Their Father's Household

In this week's parshah Moshe and Aharon are asked to count the Jewish people. They are told to organize the count "by their families, by their fathers' households." (Num 1:2) They are told only to count males (ibid) "20 years old and above, every one that goes into public service in Israel." (ibid 3)

From this pasuk the Gemara learns that the Shevet (tribe) is determined by patrilineal descent. Membership in the Jewish people, however, is decided by the Jewishness of the mother. Why are these things judged by different criteria?

Even more fundamentally - does this distinction somehow reflect the difference in intellectual legacy? Do we learn something more shevet-specific from our fathers but learn something fundamental about being a Jew by being raised by a Jewish mother?

There are two laws that apply to first born sons. The first is called Bichor Likehunah, the Eldest for Priesthood. Originally the first-born of each family were to serve as kohen. After the story of the Golden Calf this honor was transferred to the Tribe of Levi, and to Aharon's children in particular. Because the firstborn son still has the vestiges of holiness, one must redeem him from a Kohen (Pidyon HaBen), normally done when the child is thirty days old.

The other law is called Bichor LiNachalah, the Eldest for Inheritance. The first-born son receives a double portion of the inheritance. So that three brothers would divide up the inheritance four ways, the bichor receives two portions, or one half of the inheritance, and his brothers each receive only one quarter.

We find an interesting parallel between the laws of bichorah and our original problem. The Bichor LiKehunah is the mother's first born (Bichoros 46a). The Torah (Exod 34:19) tells us that "the one who opens the womb is Mine." However the Bichor LiNachalah is the father's first-born (Bichoros ibid.) This is based on the pasuk (Deut 21:16) which tells us that when a man has two wives and prefers one of them, "when it comes time for him to bequeath all he has to his sons, he can not choose the son of the beloved wife over the son of a hated wife who is the first-born."

We see here a pattern. The mother, who traditionally bore most of the responsibility of child rearing, determines who is the spiritual leader among the sons. The father's first son follows in his footsteps taking over the financial obligations of the estate.

At the end of the journeys in the desert (Num 26:2), Hashem asks Moshe and Elazar to recount the Jewish people. Again he is told to perform this count "from 20 years old and upward according to the house of their fathers." Immediately after the count of all of the tribes but Levi (Ibid. 55), Hashem commands that when it comes time to divide the Land of Israel, "only by lottery shall the inheritance [land] be distributed, according to the names of the tribes of their fathers."

The land of Israel is called an inheritance. Thus, as all inheritances, it would be passed from father to son.

The division of land is by shevet. In fact it is impossible to sell any piece of the land of Israel, outside of Yerushalayim or the Arei Miklat (cities of refuge, where those who murder by accident would be exiled). Every 50 years, at Yovel (Jubilee), the land returns to the original owners, and therefor to the family to which it was allotted. Land can be leased, but not sold. Every tribe holds onto their own portion of land.

We have to picture the effects of this. Each family of Yehoshua's generation received a portion of land. This land stayed within the family until the end of Bayis Rishon, divided and redivided as the family grew. This would mean that no only do you live within your shevet, but your immediate neighbors are your extended family.

Since the concepts of shevet and family are rooted in an inheritance, the tribe of the child is that of the father.

One thing particular to inheritence is that it only comes automatically. You can not choose to be someone's child, and therefor get an inheritence.

Being part of the Jewish people, however, is more along the lines of the Bichor LiKihunah. It follows matrilineal descent. We know it can not be an inheritence, because it can be accepted volunatrily - a non-Jew can decide to be a ger.

The exception is the tribe of Levi, for whom we are told (Deut 18:2) "but inheritance among its brothers it shall not have; Hashem is its inheritance, as He has spoken for it." The father has no financial obligations to an estate. Since his sustenance is his role as Kohen or Levi, these are his legacy and inheritance. Like all the laws of inheritance, they are passed from father to son.

This result is somewhat hard to understand: the original kohanim, the mothers' eldest, was replace by B'nei Aharon, children patrilineally descended from Aharon. However, it too is an inheritence - one can not choose to be a kohen.

In Mishlei 1:8, Shlomo writes, "sh'ma b'ni musar avichah, vi'al titosh Toras imechah" - "Listen, my son, to the legacy of your father, and do not abandon your mother's Torah."

The first interesting thing to note is the use of the word "musar", legacy, a term which is related to inheritence. The father's teachings are called the child's legacy.

Rashi does not take father and mother literally in this pasuk. Father, he says, is your Father in heaven. Mother, is your nation - replacing "imechah" with "umaschah". This is also interesting, as it implies that the Torah of the mother is the Torah of the nation. What defines Judaism is Toras Imechah, the Torah we do not even think about, the subconscious value-system we absorb as children at our mother's knee.

© 1995 The AishDas Society