Michael Carasik

Mattot-Mas’ei: ‘Tribes, Travels, Taking an Oath’

We’ll finish the book of Numbers this week, and once again the traditional Jewish division of the Torah disagrees, by one verse, with the Christian chapter divisions. I’ll let you decide for yourself which of those divisions works better; in the column this week, I intend to pose another Torah puzzler. Spoiler: I will not be giving the answer at the end of the column!

The puzzle is in the very first verse of this week’s reading, Num 30:2. In Leviticus and Numbers, there’s an extremely good chance you can predict what the first word of the reading will be. That’s because often that first word is וידבר  va-y’dabber ‘and he spoke’.

This time it is not (as usual) YHWH who speaks, but it is Moses, definitely a good second guess. However, he does not speak to the Israelites, or to his brother Aaron, but to a quite unusual addressee:

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes.

The Hebrew phrase is רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל  rashei ha-mattot livnei yisrael. That is the mattot that gives the parashah its name. If you wanted to give this week’s reading an English name, you might call it “Tribes and Travels.” What we’re about to read, though, is not about either of those subjects.

In fact, it’s extremely unusual for Moses to speak to the heads of the Israelite tribes on any subject (and certainly not using this precise language). Where else do we find tribal leaders addressed by Moses? Here are some plausible occasions for him to do that:

  • Numbers 1, when the heads of the ancestral houses must assist with the census.
  • Numbers 2, when the arrangements for camping by tribe are proclaimed.
  • Numbers 7, when the tribal leaders each are given a dedicated day to bring individual offerings for the Tabernacle.
  • Numbers 10, when the tribes actually set out to Canaan.

But Moses never speaks to the leaders about any of these things, nor does he “command” them to do them. Even in Numbers 17, where each of the tribal chiefs hands over his staff of office so that Aaron’s can be seen to sprout, Moses issues the command to the Israelites, not to the leaders themselves.

Only in Numbers 32, later in this week’s reading, when special instructions must be given to arrange for the Gadites and the Reubenites (and half the tribe of Manasseh) to help the Israelites conquer Canaan before returning to claim their own land on the East Bank of the Jordan, does Moses issue the necessary commands (ויצו, not וידבר) to Eleazar, the chief priest; his second-in-command, Joshua son of Nun; and to רָאשֵׁ֛י אֲב֥וֹת הַמַּטּ֖וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל  rashei avot ha-mattot livnei yisrael ‘the ancestral heads of the Israelite tribes’. That quite obviously is a matter that concerns all the tribes, yet even here Moses includes Eleazar and Joshua in the instructions.

We will meet a couple of these “ancestral heads” again in conversation with Moses in Numbers 36 on a tribal matter concerning the Gileadites of the tribe of Manasseh, but we do not see all of them together again until the book of Joshua (14:1, 19:51, and 21:1). What’s being discussed there is the apportionment of the conquered land. Curiously, both Eleazar and Joshua are named in each case along with the ancestral leaders.

The one other occasion where we find similar phrasing is in 1 Kgs 8:1 (repeated in 2 Chr 5:20), when Solomon convokes ‏כָּל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּוֹת֩ נְשִׂיאֵ֨י הָאָב֜וֹת לִבְנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל  kol-rashei ha-mattot n’si’ei ha-avot livnei yisrael ‘all the Israelite ancestral, tribal heads’. They are being assembled to bring the Ark of the Covenant up from the City of David to Solomon’s newly built Temple. This is most certainly a national matter that should involve the official representatives of all the tribes.

But what explains the direct address to the rashei ha-mattot in our verse? What Moses actually tells them is the rules about what to do when a woman takes an oath. In the case of a girl young enough to still be living in her father’s house, or a woman with a husband, the man has 24 hours after hearing about the woman’s oath during which he has the full right to annul it.

She will still be violating an oath, but she is off the hook because her father or husband has put his foot down. If he waits more than 24 hours to officially annul it, he may prevent her from fulfilling it but in that case the sin is committed by the man, not by the woman he compelled. (A widow or a divorced woman who takes an oath is of course responsible to fulfill it and there is no man who is permitted to intervene.)

You may have your opinions about these rules, but what do they have to do with the tribes? See the Numbers volume of the Commentators’ Bible for some valiant attempts by the traditional commentators to explain, none of which I find particularly convincing. The one possible, albeit lame, explanation I can think of would be that the “ancestral” heads are literally avot ‘fathers’, one of the categories involved in Numbers 30. But this is the place where that particular expression does not occur. They are just “the heads of the tribes,” not “the heads of the avot of the tribes.” So I’m at a loss.

I once met a rabbi who had thought of becoming a Bible scholar but was discouraged by one of the professors, who explained that we already know everything we will ever know about the Bible. I, for one, don’t believe that. We’ll solve this one too, perhaps by the time Mattot rolls around again. Next week, Deuteronomy awaits.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at
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