Following the description of the sanctuary itself in the
preceding parashiot as the place of holiness and of meeting
between the Creator and man, this parasha describes the
duties linked to the sanctuary and the episode of the
In the background is the ideal prototype of man, as represented
by Aharon, the Cohen Gadol (the high priest), whose purity
of nature is reflected in his radiant garments, as described
in the preceding parasha.
The parasha describes nine mitzvot (nos. 106 to 114),
of which the main ones are:
the donation of a half-shekel to the sanctuary by every
man aged 20 and over. This is the passage which we shall
study in this commentary.
the commandment to High Pries to wash his hands and feet
before entering the sanctuary in order to be holy.
the anointing of Aharon with an oil made up of the purest
the prohibition against compounding the holy oil for any
other purpose or making use of it for any other purpose,
except this holy one.
the prohibition against eating or drinking holy products
made for the sanctuary: from this, one deduces that it
was prohibited to make alliances with the people of Canaan
who kept such practices.
the prohibition against ploughing the fields during the
shemita year (year of rest).
the prohibition against cooking a lamb in its mother's
milk; hence the prohibition against mixing meat and milk
of a verse with Rashi
This commentary follows the traditional method of learning
which consists in focusing on the meaning of a verse or
a few words instead of on general themes.
In this case I am basing myself on Rashi's commentary
and the sources he refers to.
(Refer to chapter 21 of Lev Gompers which describes at
length Rashi's method of interpretation.)
The first mitzva in this parasha
is that of the half-shekel. The phrase ki thissa is usually
translated as "when thou takest the sum. Rashi, for
his part, states: "here the verb means to receive
as in Onkelos's translation (leshon kabala ketargumo).
This means: when you assess the number of the children
of Israel, do not count them by the head but receive from
each man a half-shekel and when you have counted these
shekalim, you will know the number of the people."
Method of studying Rashi
When we study a commentary by Rashi, we must ask 5 questions:
1. Which is the problem Rashi is trying to resolve in
his commentary? (This is not always evident in one's first
reading of Rashi). This is the temia rule (astonishment),
when one says "tamua!"
2. Which means does Rashi use to resolve the problem?
(Is it through reasoning, through reference to another
verse or another commentary, or to Onkelos's translation
3. Which are the sources he bases himself on and does
4. What is the specific teaching Rashi is making here?
5. Which error, or opposite interpretation, would we have
made had were it not for Rashi?
Let's apply this method to
the first verse of the parasha
Question 1: What is Rashi's temia? (What is his astonishment?)
It is the use of the verb "thissa" which he
finds unusual in the context of making a census for it
would have been simpler to use the verb "count."
Readers should know that astonishment is the traditional
method of Jewish commentators and, following their example,
of every Jew who thinks. It is important to be astonished
and to say "tamua," which means "surprising,
bizarre, astonishing." (See Rashi on Bereshit 18,
25; 41, 38; Bemidbar 32, 6; Isaiah 45, 11 and 53, 2; Job
Question 5: Which error,
or opposite interpretation, would we have made without
In this case, it would have been to interpret ki thissa
simply as taking a census instead of "receiving."
Rashi states: leshon kabala ketargumo (thissa indicates
receiving as in Onkelos's translation which says are tekabel!).
Rashi is indicating here the source he has used to come
to his conclusion question 2): it is Onkelos. But this
is insufficient, for the reference to Onkelos does not
tell us on which source Onkelos bases himself.
This is a typical example
of Rashi's method: he points to a problem without elaborating
further on it, and only if we are well acquainted with
his method can we understand what he is saying. This refers
to question 5.
So if we ask ourselves the questions listed above and
delve into them, then we shall see that Rashi has opened
up for us the gates to discovering the true meaning of
This is, of course, on condition that we do not assume
that our first interpretation is the correct one or that
Rashi has given us the final answer.
Rashi does not disclose his
source because he possesses all the Torah in his head
and assumes that we do too (!). He also uses this technique
in order to encourage us to delve further and study the
masters who received the Torah through the chain of transmission
since the time of Moshe Rabbenu. We must therefore seek
to identify the source used by Rashi and Onkelos. We find
it in Bemidbar 16, 15, when Moshe defends himself, saying:
"..even one ass, from them I have not received"
(using the word nassati, which is the same verb as thissa).
This is how the Torah is structured: the meaning is discovered
through key words which connect different contexts.
So when Rashi writes leshon kabala ketargumo, this means
that there is another place we should refer to and if
we do our research we shall see that it is in this other
place (commentary) that Rashi gives an explicit answer
to the problem. A Jewish Sage does not disclose all his
knowledge in one go: he will only do so if a student deserves
it, if he student questions and perseveres in his studies.
We have now found the source
in Rashi's commentary on Bemidbar 16, 15 (Numbers), which
describes Korah's revolt: here it is not only Hakadosh
Baruch Hu who is angry at the people, as in Ki Thissa
which recounts the episode of the golden calf, but Moshe
himself, as he anticipates God's wrath. The text says:
"Moshe was very wrath and said unto Hashem: respect
not thou their offering; I have not taken one ass from
Onkelos translates this verse as: la hamara dehad minehon
and Rashi comments: shahret leshon arami kakh nikrat anegaria
shel melekh she hozeret.
Onkelos translates the verb lo nassati (I did not take)
into the Arameic shahret, which like anegaria shel melekh,
means "royal requisition" or miluim, community
service, as in Baba Metzia 78.
Here Rashi is telling us something very important: "it
is a royal requisition."
This is the kind of in-depth research needed in order
to understand the Torah.
What does this teach us?
This tells us that the aim of the census and the imposition
of the half-shekel tax on all men, rich or poor, is to
make us aware that we exist only through the will of the
King of Kings and his guardianship, ashgaha.
Bemidbar 16 recounts an episode of mutiny among the children
of Israel, who doubt the protection of Hashem ; these
feelings of doubt put them into a dangerous situation
in relation to their enemies, just as in the case of a
child who pushes away the protective hand of his parent,
rebels and rushes across a street full of cars. The frustrated
parent, tired of constantly pulling the child back, ends
up by telling him: "OK, I don't care, if that's what
you want, do it, get run over." Of course this not
what the parent really feels, and this is how Moshe interprets
God's wrath. He believes that God has asked his help in
dealing with the children of Israel. This is how the episode
is explained in the Talmud and the middrash.
We have now found the context indicated by Rashi but how
does a "census" relate to this context and why
is the census described by the unusual verb thissa, while
many other verbs would have been appropriate for "to
number the people."
1. The main meaning which
the text teaches us with this census is not to consider
men as "numbers" who are to be counted, which
entails terrible degradations, as described in II Samuel
24, 10-15. To consider someone as a number is like the
destructive "evil eye." This is how Rashi interprets
verse 30, 12: the evil eye has a hold on numbers, shehaminiansholet
bo ayin ha ra.
The Nazis knew all about numbers. As one of their leaders
declared: "killing one man is grave, but killing
thousands is just a statistic." Another stated at
his trial: "killing one man was upsetting but massacring
1700 was easy."
Thus, even when the Jewish people behave badly, we must
remember that they are helek Hashem, a part of Hashem
(Devarim 32, 9). They have a role to be a light unto nations
and to disseminate the teachings of the Torah and God's
benevolence. They were given this role for the good of
the whole world, just as the Cohanim received God's blessing
and transmit it among the people. It is for this reason
that Israel is called a holy people.
2. Men must therefore not go before the censor like a
flock of sheep, or as soldiers who have lost their individuality
because they have donned their miluim (reservist) uniforms,
but as men who are giving a gift, for nediv lev (in their
generosity), they are contributing to a necessary cause.
But then, their presence must be valued and respected,
because they are giving a gift and contributing to the
common good, and in doing so they are demonstrating their
noblest quality, that of "accepting" kabala
others. This is how people in Israel view their young
The verb nassa entails elevation, and in this sense it
is found in many expressions:
essa einai, I shall lift up my eyes,
nasso panim, to treat kindly,
nassa isha, to marry a woman; nissea le ish, to marry
a man: he who marries rises towards his or her spouse,
to marry a son, issi isha livno, to elevate him to a wife,
nassa, to give advice, issi etza,
nassa peri, to bear fruit; nassa revahim, to make a profit,
even the expression massa u matan, to negotiate, entails
a meaning of elevation towards the ideas of the other
massea, desire; masseat nefesh, a longing; masseat lev,
It is essential to study Hebrew
in order to understand the Torah
Only by knowing the Hebrew language is it possible to
understand the reasons why particular words appear in
the Torah and in particular contexts. Even in the best
translation, the original meaning is lost and replaced
by ideas that are completely foreign to the Torah. The
Hebrew language is a source of great enrichment, both
for the knowledge of the Torah and for one's personal
It is essential to learn the
traditional Jewish method of Torah study
Rashi is indispensable to the study of the Torah, on condition
that one studies him and the rich sources he uses together
with a Torah master. Students should not fear that this
means being limited to a technical form of study: on the
contrary, technique, as in music, allows a musician to
express his deepest feelings. So, even if we are not able
to grasp the deepest levels of meaning, we can imagine
how far we can reach when we study a text in detail. In
Megid Mesharim, his personal diary, and in his reflections
on the census in this parasha, Rabbi Yosef Caro writes:
"when the ruah of the spirit unites with the nefesh
of one's identity, then a shekel shalem, complete unity,
is achieved. This is why the expression ki thissa is used
when one wants to elevate the nefesh towards the ruah."
3. We can now see that the
mitzva of the half-shekel links man, through this action,
to the divine order of things and to the sanctuary, for
the weight of the shekel is that of the skekel of the
sanctuary, the shekel kodesh (30, 13). Thus, the re-creation
of the world will not only take place through the Cohen
Gadol,as described in the preceding parashiot, but also
through every individual man in Israel who has reached
the age of 20. And the shekel consists of 20 parts.
We have discovered, through this commentary, the Jewish
concept of the world, or rather the Jewish mode of existence:
what could have been a banal, administrative act, such
as the statistical counting of the people, becomes an
opportunity to do something totally different;
on condition that one asks questions: Judaism ruptures
monotony and the systematic way of doing things, which
tends to characterize the way most people live their lives.
we are asked to go in another direction; to discover in
every act a way of elevating ourselves.
we were told how to do this but we didn't listen. We become
aware that we have been deaf and we understand why we
are commanded: hear O Israel, Shema Yisrael.
our blindness and our deafness to what we were given and
told are in fact a blessing for they incite us to be constantly
vigilant, to listen and to reflect. It is said that the
Sage is a man who sees the nolad, that which is being
born, as noted in parasha Shemot, in the case of Moshe.
This should also make us aware of the need to learn from
and to listen to the Sages, to their knowledge and wisdom.
wisdom is like the dew: it accumulates very slowly.
1. Read this commentary again.
2. Look up the references cited above.
3. Re-read the commentary until you know the plan and
the main themes by heart.
4. Identify the main questions developed in this commentary
and try to answer them.
5. Revise this commentary periodically.
6. Read Psalm 121, in particular the first verse where
the verb nassa has many resonances (ki thissa, essa) ;
"count and count on."
Codes used by Rashi
This section is addressed
to advanced students and aims to impart a deeper level
A commentary which includes this level is indicated with
"THE" Jewish method
of Torah study
Rashi's commentary needs to be understood within the context
of the traditional method of Jewish learning, which consists
1. read each verse twice in Hebrew, in order to master
2. then read it once in Arameic, in Onkelos's translation,
shtayim mikra ve ehad targum.
3. finally read Rashi's commentary.
- There are very complex reasons
why this method alternates reading s in Hebrew and Arameic,
which I will not elaborate on here.
- Reading the Torah every day according to this method
is the simplest way of learning Arameic, just as children
learn a language easily because they use it every day.
- Finally, studying the Torah according to this method
ensures that one learns an accepted interpretation and
not an individual view.
Examples of codes: Rashi
Let's return to parasha Ki Thissa: the first mitzva concerns
the donation of half a shekel. Ki thissa is usually translated
as follows: "When thou takest the sum of the children
of Israel" (i.e. when you take a census). But Rashi
tells us that "the verb means to receive as in Onkelos'translation (leshon kabala ketargumo). This means: when
you evaluate the number of the children of Israel, do
not count them by the head but receive from each of them
half a shekel and when you have counted these shekalim
you will know the number of the people."
Rashi's commentary often focuses on the differences between
the text of the Torah and Onkelos'translation.
I have listed below some of the codes used by Rashi in
his commentaries on the Torah (the subject of Rashi's
codes is described at length in my book Lev Gompers).
Refer to the examples which I cite below. It is important
to know these codes in order to understand Rashi correctly,
and in order to fully grasp the meaning of the Torah.
1. Confirmation through Onkelos'translation
Making frequent use of the expression, ketargumo, Rashi
indicates that the literal meaning (the peshat) of a text
does not stem from its apparent Hebrew meaning, but from
the meaning attributed in Onkelos'translation (Bereshit
4, 7; 11, 6; 12, 17; 12, 20; 13, 11, etc.).
Rashi uses many other expressions to reinforce the interpretation
chosen by Onkelos in his translation:
vezehu leshon onkelos (Bereshit 6, 17, etc.)
vezehu targum shel onkelos (Bereshit 49, 5, etc.)
vezehu she tirgem onkelos (Bereshit 49, 9, etc.).
2. Rejection of Onkelos'translation
With the phrase, hametargem, Rashi indicates firmly that
Onkelos'translation is erroneous (Bereshit 15, 11; Bemidbar
20, 29; Devarim 17, 5, etc.);
with onkelos tirgem, Rashi indicates that he takes an
opposing view to Onkelos (Bereshit 20, 13; Shemot 15,
2; Bemidbar 24, 8; Devarim 12, 30, etc.).
3. Elaboration of Onkelos'translation
with vetargumo, Rashi indicates that he will elaborate
on Onkelos'translation, which he believes is correct
(Bereshit 3, 15; 15, 11; 19, 18; 25, 16, etc.);
with hatargum, Rashi indicates that he does not contest
Onkelos'translation but is elaborating on it (Bereshit
15, 2; 49, 24, etc.);
with nofel al hatargum, Rashi explains what appears to
be a contradiction between Onkelos and the Torah (Bereshit
20, 16, etc.);
with nofel al (hal)lashon, Rashi explains the meaning
of linguistic similarities between various words and thus
elucidates a verse and its translation by Onkelos (Bereshit
2, 23; 3, 15; 3, 20; 5, 29, etc.).
4. Additional commentary on
with veonkelos tirgem, Rashi indicates that he does not
oppose Onkelos'translation but is making a commentary
on it (Bereshit 20, 16; 24, 21; 30, 8, etc.).
5. Onkelos'translation used
as confirmation of Rashi's thesis
with vekhen tirgem onkelos, Rashi presents his thesis
and uses Onkelos'translation to support his thesis (Bereshit
38, 24; 49, 10; 49, 23, etc.).