The above statement is from Balaam’s blessing at Numbers 23:9. We know the meaning of the first three words, but what about that second phrase?
Regarding that second phrase, there is an important initial issue. יתחשב has the form of a “hitpael.” There are around 1000 words in hitpael form in the Tanach. A large percentage of the time, perhaps even a majority, the hitpael in Tanach is “reflexive,” i.e., one is doing something to oneself: e.g., “hitchazek” means to strengthen oneself, and “hitkadesh” means to sanctify oneself. (It must be noted that the hitpael has other functions as well.)
But, sometimes, there are words that have the form of a hitpael, but the meaning is really the passive (as if the words were written in the niphal). Some examples of this are:
° Psalm 92:10: “Yitpardu kol poalei aven — The evildoers will not be scattering themselves; they will be scattered by others.”
° Proverbs 31:30: “Ishah yirat Hashem hi tithalal —She will not be praising herself; she will be praised by others.”
° Jonah 3:8: “Ve’yitkasu sakim haadam ve’ha-behemah … —Animals cannot dress themselves!”
This passive meaning is a later development in the hitpael. (Hitpaels with passive meanings are found even more frequently in rabbinic Hebrew.)
So we have a fundamental issue in our “יתחשב” word? Is it the standard reflexive hitpael: “we are not counting ourselves among the nations?” Or, is it the passive: “we are not being counted by others among the nations?”
The King James Bible (1617) took the passive approach: as in “not be reckoned among the nations.” This was followed by the 1917 Jewish Publication Society of America translation (at the top in the Hertz Chumash), and the Koren Tanach and the ArtScroll Stone Chumash.
In contrast, The Living Torah chose: “... not counting itself,” but did not offer any commentary.
Now, let us look at Rashi... He gives us two interpretations: The second is more of a homiletical one, and I will not discuss it. In his first approach, he adopts the passive approach. He bases himself on Targum Onkelos and explains that it means that we will not be annihilated like the other nations when the eventual judgment day arrives. He cites a verse in Jeremiah 30:11: “For I will make an end of all the nations among which I have dispersed you; but I will not make an end of you.”
Rashbam does not see anything profound in the verse and understands it in light of the next verse, where Balaam is amazed at our large population. He explains that Balaam is looking at the number of Israelites, and sees that they are many, even though other nations are not mixed with them. Because of their large number, the Israelites do not warrant being cursed. He cites Jonah 4:11:“Should not I care about Nineveh — that great city — in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons …?”
Ralbag comments that Balaam sees us as a separate and holy nation —different from the nations in general. We cannot be counted with them, as one does not count a horse and a donkey as the same animal.
Nachmanides offers that since the other nations did not come live among them, in order that they would be counted with them and all be considered as one machaneh (camp).
The Bechor Shor says that they (Bnei Yisrael) are not considered like the other nations, in that other nations are allowed to be cursed.
The Malbim interprets this as they are separate from the nations in all ways and were not counted when the ancient nations were counted.
The Netziv says that when they live among the nations, if they mix with them, they will no longer be considered in the eyes of the nations as proper individuals (as it says:“eino nechshav beeinam lehitchashev kelal leadam”). He cites Exodus Rabbah 1:8 where we are told that after Joseph died, the Israelites decided to be like Egyptians and stop practicing circumcision. What happened? God turned the Egyptians’ love for them into hate.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is one who cites this Netziv: “The sentence,” says the Netziv, “should therefore be read…‘If it is a people content to be alone, faithful to its distinctive identity, then it will be able to dwell in peace. But if Jews seek to be like the nations, the nations will not consider them worthy of respect.’”
Now let us look at some commentaries that view“יתחשב,” as a true hitpael (“count itself”):
-Rav Shimshon Refael. Hirsch says that, “It will live in an insulated land … and will not seek its greatness as ‘גוי’ among ‘גוים,’ not as a powerful imposing national body among the other individual nations.”
-The Daat Mikra says that: “This nation will not count itself among the other nations.” They do not learn from the deeds and “middot” of these other nations. They aspire to be on a higher ethical level.
-Samuel David Luzzatto interprets this as: “They do not place themselves among the nations. They separate themselves from the nations and, in this way, do not let themselves stray from the derech hatov ve’hayashar …”
-Rabbi Dr. Hertz notes that this is the only time that this root appears in the hitpael in Tanach, and notices that Jastrow gives “to conspire” as one of the meanings of this root in the hitpael in rabbinic Hebrew. (See, e.g., Avodah Zarah 18b.) He suggests the meaning here is: “It does not conspire against the nations.”
In my view, most of the interpretations above are not ones that make plain sense. Either they do not fit the words, or they do not fit into the context and its parallel in the first part of the verse. On the simplest level, the idea may be that Bnei Yisrael has a special relationship with God and/or special laws and that makes them different from the other nations. Thus, the interpretations that are closest to the plain sense (in my view) are: Ralbag, Malbim, Samuel David Luzzatto and Daat Mikra. (I am allowing for both of the possible understandings of the hitpael.)
For additional grammatical discussion, see the Anchor Bible. Our phrase is also interpreted briefly in Sanhedrin 39a-39b.——
Above, I mentioned a midrash that assumed that the Egyptians did not practice circumcision. But Herodotus (5th century BCE) writes that they did. In fact, archaeology has revealed that some form of this rite was practiced by various ancient Near Eastern cultures, including the Egyptians and many tribes in Africa. In the case of the Egyptians, we even have illustrations at two different sites:
For example, in Ankhmahor’s tomb (circa 2300 BCE), there is a relief with a representation of a circumcision taking place. It even has a dialogue, as there is even an adult being circumcised! Apparently, circumcision in ancient Egypt did not involve infants, but marked an initiation rite between boyhood and manhood. (Perhaps, it also was necessary for participation in priestly or royal activities.)
Admittedly, there is no extant evidence that circumcision was required for all Egyptian males, and not even all of the Egyptian kings were circumcised. (The other illustration of a circumcision is at the temple of Mut at Karnak. Other inscriptions mention circumcision, but do not depict it.)
Mitchell First can be reached at: [email protected] He has written an important article on the function of the hitpael in the word“ התפלל.” See his Roots and Rituals, pages 240-47. (Earlier, it appeared on seforimblog.com and is still available there.) That is how he got interested in this binyan.