Classic Questions

What is the rationale behind the first tribal sequence? (v. 1:5-15)

Ibn Ezra: The children of Leah come first (Re'uvain, Shimon, Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun), followed by Rochel's descendants (Efrayim and MenashehYosef's sons—and Binyamin. Efrayim is mentioned before Menasheh, even though the latter was the firstborn, because Ya'akov blessed Efrayim first1). Dan follows, for he was the firstborn of Rochel's handmaid. Then Asher, because in Dan's "division," Asher was adjacent to Dan.2 Gad follows, since he was the firstborn of Leah's handmaid; and finally, Naftali.

What is the rationale behind the second tribal sequence? (v. 20-43)

Ibn Ezra: Re'uvain comes first, because he is the firstborn, followed by Shimon, who was born straight after him. Then follows Gad, who was the firstborn of Leah's handmaid. These three tribes together constitute an entire "division of regiments," the "Camp of Re'uvain."3 This was then followed by the other "divisions" of Yehudah (Yehudah, Yissachar, Zevulun), Efrayim (Efrayim, Menasheh, Binyamin), and Dan (Dan, Asher, Naftali).

Malbim: Since the tribes are listed here according to the sequence of their respective "divisions," one would have expected Yehudah to come first.4 Therefore, the Torah deemed it necessary to explain why Re'uvain was chosen to be listed first on this occasion, because he was "Yisra'el's firstborn."5

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Sequence of the Tribes (1:5-2:31)

In Parshas Bamidbar, the Torah sets out a detailed list of all twelve tribes on no less than three occasions. At the opening of the parshah, the tribes are mentioned in connection with the leaders of each tribe who were authorized to participate in the census with Moshe and Aharon.6 Then, as the census results are recorded, the tribes are listed again.7 And finally, when the details of the encampment are given, the tribes are listed once more.

On each of these three occasions the tribes are listed in a different sequence (see table on adjacent page), and commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Malbim seek to fathom the Torah's logic in choosing these different sequences.

Rashi, however, does not appear to explain this matter, even though it is problematic at the literal level. Presumably, Rashi felt that the reader would comprehend the matter for himself, with simple logic and a knowledge of Rashi's prior comments. What, then, is the explanation at the literal level?

The First Tribal Sequence

The first sequence, in verses 5-15, is not actually a list of tribes, but rather of tribal leaders. Thus, it cannot be compared to the other two sequences, for the precise order here may reflect qualities of the leaders themselves, rather than the tribes.

The Second Tribal Sequence

The second sequence begins with Re'uvain, since8 he was "Yisra'el's firstborn." The fact that Shimon follows appears to be logical, since Shimon was born directly after Re'uvain. The difficulty concerns the next tribe, Gad,9 which appears to be out of order with the birth of Ya'akov's sons, on which basis Yehudah should follow next.10

However, if we bear in mind that the current census was aimed at counting only "those eligible for the army,"11 then we can appreciate why Gad's name appears so high on the list. For Gad exhibited great military prowess, as Rashi informed the reader in Parshas Vayechi: "All his troops will return in their tracks... and not one man will be missing from them."12

But if military prowess is to be emphasized, why was the tribe of Gad not placed second in the list (immediately after "Yisra'el's firstborn") rather than the tribe of Shimon?

Again, Rashi did not deem this to require further commentary. The reader will already be familiar with the fact that Shimon (and Levi) demonstrated awesome powers in battle when they decimated the entire male population of Shechem.13

Presumably, Shimon's descendants would have inherited some of these qualities and would also be exceptionally strong militarily. Therefore, it was appropriate to list Shimon before Gad, since Shimon had both qualities of exceptional military prowess, and being the second most senior member of Ya'akov's family.

Yehudah then follows since his military power is also stated explicitly in scripture: "Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies."14

Having exhausted the list of those known for their military prowess, the Torah then continues with the remaining children of Leah—Yissachar and Zevulun; then the tribes stemming from Rochel's children: Efrayim, Menasheh,15 and Binyamin; and finally the children of the handmaids: Dan, Asher and Naftali.16

The Third Tribal Sequence

The key difference between the second list of tribes in our parshah and the third list is that the former is a census made in preparation for war, to evaluate the sizes of the respective armies, etc., whereas the latter is the precise formation of armies that the Jewish people adopted when actually going to war, i.e., according to their divisions.

When going to war, a nation is led by its king.18 Thus, in the third tribal sequence, Yehudah is placed first, as the rights of sovereignty were taken from Re'uvain and given to Yehudah.19

The remainder of this sequence does not need to be explained by Rashi, since we are already familiar with it from Ya'akov's communication to his sons concerning the carrying of his coffin: "He designated a position for them: three at the east, and like­wise in all four directions. Their places were fixed here in the same order as their arrangement as the camp of divisions traveled."20

Thus, once again the high level of precision in Rashi's commentary is evident, how Rashi refrains from "spoon-feeding" the reader with any explanation which can be understood with simple logic and a knowledge of Rashi's prior comments.21