Sefer Bamidbar | ספר במדבר

Sefer Bamidbar begins on the first day of the second month (i.e., Iyar) of the second year from the exodus from Egypt (בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם). Bnei Yisrael are still encamped at Sinai, where the entire book of Vayikra takes place (and which, with a few exceptions, does not deal with narrative events or proceed chronologically). Sefer Bemidbar is bookended with censes of the people, giving it its rabbinic name, Pekudei. (The second census, towards the end of the book, takes place in Parashat Pinchas.) Bamidbar tells the narrative story of the journey of the wilderness generation (Dor ha-Midbar, also called Dor Yotzei Mitzrayim, the generation of the wilderness or of the exodus) wandering the deserts south of Eretz Yisrael. It ends 38 years later, or 40 years from the exodus, on the plains (arvot) of Moav, where the next generation of Bnei Yisrael (Dor Ba’ei ha-Aretz) prepares to cross into Eretz Yisrael.

Bamidbar or Bemidbar? The incipit (opening word) of the book is vocalized בְּמִדְבַּר (i.e., Bemidbar), in semichut (the Hebrew construct state), the first half of the phrase בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, “in the Sinai desert (or wilderness).” However, the book is commonly pronounced Bamidbar, “in the desert,” which I personally like for its thematic ring. As was pointed out to me, because bemidbar is in a construct state, it is definite (the desert, not a desert, referring specifically to the Sinai desert), making bamidbar grammatically accurate, as well.

Table of Contents

Structure of Sefer Bamidbar

The structure of Sefer Bamidbar is generally analyzed into three parts:

Part 1 – At Sinai: Preparations for the Journey, Bamidbar 1-10

  • The census: Bamidbar 1:1-54
  • The arrangement of the camp: Bamidbar 2:1-34
  • The Levites families: Bamidbar 3:1-51
  • A separate census of the Levites: Bamidbar 4:1-49
  • Review of various laws mentioned in Vayikra: Bamidbar 5:1-10
  • The sotah ordeal for a married woman accused by her husband of infidelity: Bamidbar 5:11-31
  • Vows and practices of the nazir, including ending the nazirite period: Bamidbar 6:1-21
  • Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing): Bamidbar 6:22-27
  • Nesiim: The final days Mishkan’s consecration: Bamidbar 7:1-89
  • The mounting of the lamps on the Menorah: Bamidbar 8:1-5
  • Purification of the Levites: Bamidbar 8:6-26
  • Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) and Pesach Sheni (second-chance Passover): Bamidbar 9:1-14
  • The Anan (Cloud) descends on the Mishkan: Bamidbar 9:15-23
  • The silver trumpets: Bamidbar 10:1-10

Part 2 – In the Desert: The (38 Remaining) Years of Wandering, Bamidbar 11-21

  • The desert wanderings begin: Bamidbar 10:11-36
  • Complaints, cravings for meat, and the falling of the man (manna): Bamidbar 11:1-23
  • Eldad and Medad’s attempt to prophesy: Bamidbar 11:24-29
  • Quail: Bamidbar 11:30-34
  • Miriam and Aharon speak against Moshe, and Miriam’s tzaraat: Bamidbar 12:1-16
  • Chet ha-Meraglim (the Sin of the Spies) and the consequent change of plans: Bamidbar 13:1-14:39
  • The Maapilim (defiant party): Bamidbar 14:40-45
  • More on korbanot: Bamidbar 15:1-16
  • Challah: Bamidbar 15:17-21
  • Inadvertent transgressions and intentional transgressions: Bamidbar 15:22-31
  • The Mekoshesh (wood-gatherer on Shabbat): Bamidbar 15:32-36
  • Tzitzit (fringes on rectangular garments): Bamidbar 15:37-41
  • Korach’s rebellion: Bamidbar 16:1-17:5
  • Plague: Bamidbar 17:6-15
  • The staves of the Twelve Tribes and Aharon’s blossoming staff: Bamidbar 17:16-26
  • More on the Levites: Bamidbar 17:27-18:24
  • Tithes: Bamidbar 18:25-32
  • Parah Adumah (the red heifer) as a means of purifying tumat met (corpse impurity, the highest degree of impurity): Bamidbar 19:1-22
  • Interlude: 38 years pass (it is now the 40th year since the exodus from Egypt)
  • Death of Miriam: Bamidbar 20:1
  • Mei Meriva (Water from the Rock, Part 2): Bamidbar 20:2-13
  • Edom refuses passage to Bnei Yisrael: Bamidbar 20:14-21
  • Death of Aharon on Hor ha-Har: Bamidbar 20:22-29
  • War with Arad: Bamidbar 21:1-3
  • More complaints, then snakes: Bamidbar 21:4-9
  • Journey to Arvot Moav: Bamidbar 21:10-15
  • The Song of the Well: Bamidbar 21:16-20
  • The wars against Sichon and Og: Bamidbar 21:21-22:1

Part 3 – In Arvot Moav: Preparing to Cross into Eretz Yisrael, Bamidbar 22-36

  • Balak and Bilaam: Bamidbar 22:2-24:25
  • The Sin of Baal Peor: Bamidbar 25:1-18
  • The second census: Bamidbar 26:1-65
  • The daughters of Tzelofechad and laws of inheritance: Bamidbar 27:1-11
  • Moshe prepares for death and transfer of power to Yehoshua bin Nun: Bamidbar 27:12-23
  • Again on korbanot: Bamidbar 28:1-31
  • Review of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot: Bamidbar 29:1-30:1
  • More on vows, specifically with regards to fathers and daughters and husbands and wives: Bamidbar 30:2-17
  • War with Midian: Bamidbar 31:1-20
  • More on purification, especially of objects: Bamidbar 31:21-24
  • Regarding spoils of war: Bamidbar 31:25-44
  • The request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad (and half of the tribe of Menashe) for land allotments in the Transjordan (east of the Yarden river): Bamidbar 32:1-42
  • Review of the journey of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness: Bamidbar 33:1-56
  • Boundaries of Eretz Yisrael: Bamidbar 34:1-12
  • Nachalot (territorial allotments in Eretz Yisrael): Bamidbar 34:13-35:8
  • Cities of Refuge (Arei Miklat) for cases of manslaughter: Bamidbar 35:9-29
  • More on cases of murder: Bamidbar 35:29-34
  • The case of the Daughters of Tzelofechad is actualized: Bamidbar 36:1-13

Major Midrashim on Sefer Bamidbar

Although there is a Bamidbar Rabba included in the set of Midrash Rabba (an invention of printers in early modernity), the most significant midrashim on Sefer Bamidbar are Sifrei, a halachic midrash collection, and Midrash Tanchuma, an aggadic midrash collection often cited by Rashi in his comments on this sefer.

Major Mefarshim of Sefer Bamidbar

The major Rishonim, Rashi (along with the supercommentary Mizrachi), the standard (“short”) Ibn Ezra, and Ramban, all comment on Sefer Bamidbar, as well as Rashbam, Bechor Shor (a peshat commentator from the school of Rashi’s sons), Chizkuni, Ralbag, and more. Modern commentaries include, among others, the Gur Aryeh, Emek Davar, Or ha-Chaim, Shadal, and Malbim.

Parsha Guides for Sefer Bamidbar

Image: Sinai sunrise by Vlad Kiselov on Unsplash.