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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Mattot: Two tribes become two and a half

The last section of the parasha of Mattot describes how the tribes of Reuven and Gad asked Moshe for permission to settle on the newly-conquered east side of the river Jordan, outside of the promised land itself, where there was suitable pasture for their extensive herds of cattle.

Moshe initially saw this request as the two tribes wishing to shirk their responsibility to the rest of the nation by absenting themselves from the battles yet to come, and would only agree to their proposal when he made it conditional on the tribes fighting alongside their brothers during the conquest of Israel.

When the Torah describes how he formalised the agreement with Reuven and Gad, suddenly a new element enters:

וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלַחֲצִי שֵׁבֶט מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת מַמְלֶכֶת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶת מַמְלֶכֶת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן הָאָרֶץ לְעָרֶיהָ בִּגְבֻלֹת עָרֵי הָאָרֶץ סָבִיב.

Moshe gave to them, to the children of Gad, and to the children of Reuven, and to the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Yosef, the kingdom of Sichon king of the Emorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land, according to its cities and borders, and the cities of the surrounding land. (Bemidbar 32:33)

The two tribes have become two and a half! Moshe unilaterally includes half of Menashe amongst those who will settle in Transjordan. Where did this come from?

The Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) says, in typically laconic fashion, that Menashe was not mentioned before “because it was half a tribe”. So half of Menahse was there all along, but was not mentioned because it did not quite meet the “whole-tribe” criteria. This would imply that half of Menashe was there when the request was made, and was also bound by the condition of having to fight alongside the other tribes before it can claim its territory in the east, even though the Torah only records that Moshe made this arrangement with the two full tribes. This would fit well with the words in the book of Yehoshua, 1:12-14, which lists all two and half tribes being included in this conditional contract, with no distinction between the two tribes and their half-companion.

The Meshech Chochma (19th century Lithuania) suggests a contrary view regarding the conditional agreement and the half-tribe of Menashe. His view is that they were not included in the condition because their designated land had not yet been conquered. Indeed Bemidber 32:39-42, after the arrangement with the two tribes was concluded, describes how individual members of the tribe of Menashe captured the region of Gilad and other areas. Therefore, at the time that half of Menashe was appended to Reuven and Gad, there was no actual territory to give to Menashe in a conditional way, and hence no condition was applied.

The Ramban (13th century Israel) suggests a “back story” to explain the sequence of events. When Moshe acceded to the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to be given an inheritance in the eastern lands conquered from Sichon and Og, he realised that the extent of this area made it too large for just two tribes. He therefore asked for volunteers from other tribes to settle in this region and some of the families from Menashe came forward to accept the offer. The Ramban speculates that perhaps these families were major cattle farmers, and hence saw the benefit of the pasture-rich land just as the two original tribes had done.

Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) takes a similar approach, but enhances the Ramban’s view with some statistics. He cites a view that the conquered lands on the east of the Yarden were one fifth of the total area comprising Transjordan and Cana’an. Therefore it was not reasonable to settle just two tribes there, being 17% of the total number of tribes, but the extra half-tribe brings this to 20.8% of the total, which is closer to the proportion of land being settled (i.e. 20%).

(The above calculations do not take into account of the actual populations in each tribe. If we use the numbers of males aged 20 and over provided in the census in Bemidbar 26, and assume that the half tribe of Menashe was exactly half of its population, then the two tribes on their own were 14% of the total, significantly less than the 20% proportion of the land, demonstrating even more starkly the need for Moshe to increase the population of Transjordan. With the addition of half of Menashe, that fraction reaches 18.4%, which is much closer to 20%.)

The Hizkuni (13th century France) gives a more homiletical reason for the inclusion of Menashe, and specifically why it was only half of that tribe. Menashe’s ancestor, Yosef, accused his brothers falsely of stealing his chalice, causing them to tear their clothes in grief. As a punishment, the tribe of Yosef’s descendent was also rent in two (based on Bereishit Raba 84:20)

Rav Soloveitchik (20th century United States) sees a very different reason for the splitting of the tribe.

“By including half the tribe of Menashe, Moshe was personifying his role as a leader whose primary objective is to unify his people and solidify them into a cohesive nation. By dividing the tribe of Menashe, half settling on the east bank of the Jordan together with the two tribes of Reuven and Gad, and the other half on the west bank in Eretz Yisrael proper, he was guaranteeing a link between the two sides of the Jordan. If one brother is on the east and the other is on the west, there would be constant communication between them. If a father is on one side and child on the other, there would be travel between them and concern for each other's welfare. This would enhance the unity between the twelve tribes and ensure the unity of Klal Yisrael”. (Halachic Positions, Vol. 5, pp. 35-36)

The Netziv (19th century, Russia) has a novel interpretation of the inclusion of half of Menashe with the other two tribes. He examines how this episode is re-told in Devarim 3:12-16.

(יב) וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת יָרַשְׁנוּ בָּעֵת הַהִוא מֵעֲרֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל נַחַל אַרְנֹן וַחֲצִי הַר הַגִּלְעָד וְעָרָיו נָתַתִּי לָראוּבֵנִי וְלַגָּדִי.

(יג) וְיֶתֶר הַגִּלְעָד וְכׇל הַבָּשָׁן מַמְלֶכֶת עוֹג נָתַתִּי לַחֲצִי שֵׁבֶט הַמְנַשֶּׁה כֹּל חֶבֶל הָאַרְגֹּב לְכׇל הַבָּשָׁן הַהוּא יִקָּרֵא אֶרֶץ רְפָאִים.

(יד) יָאִיר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה לָקַח אֶת כׇּל חֶבֶל אַרְגֹּב עַד גְּבוּל הַגְּשׁוּרִי וְהַמַּעֲכָתִי וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָם עַל שְׁמוֹ אֶת הַבָּשָׁן חַוֺּת יָאִיר עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.

(טו) וּלְמָכִיר נָתַתִּי אֶת הַגִּלְעָד.

(טז) וְלָראוּבֵנִי וְלַגָּדִי נָתַתִּי מִן הַגִּלְעָד וְעַד נַחַל אַרְנֹן תּוֹךְ הַנַּחַל וּגְבֻל וְעַד יַבֹּק הַנַּחַל גְּבוּל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן.

(12) This land we took in possession at that time: from Aroer, which is by the valley of the Arnon, and half the hill country of Gilad, and its cities, I gave to the tribes of Reuven and Gad:

(13) and the rest of Gilad, and all Bashan, the kingdom of Og, I gave to the half-tribe of Menashe; all the region of Argob, all Bashan. The same is called the land of Rephaim.

(14) Yair the son of Menashe took all the region of Argov, to the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and called them, even Bashan, after his own name, Havvoth Yair, to this day.

(15) I gave Gilad to Machir.

(16) To the tribes of Reuven and Gad I gave from Gilad even to the valley of the Arnon, the middle of the valley, and its border, even to the river Yabbok, which is the border of the children of Ammon;

The structure of these verses is perplexing. Moshe commences with the giving of the land to Reuven and Gad (v. 12), but then talks of giving Gilad to Menashe and prominent members of that tribe (v. 13-15) and only then does he complete the narrative regarding Reuven and Menashe (v. 16).

To add to the mystery; considering the regions listed in v. 13-15 we see that Moshe gave as much land to the half-tribe as he gave to the other two. Furthermore he did not include them in the condition as he did with Reuven and Gad. But this was not because of the members of the tribe of Menashe who conquered these areas (v. 14-15) just as Moshe did not give Yazer to its conquerors (see Bemidbar 21:32).

All these questions are answered with the following idea, consistent with the Netziv’s general approach which puts Torah study at the centre of Jewish life and Jewish continuity. Moshe feared that the intensity of such study would be weaker in Transjordan, cut off from the rest of the nation (an idea found in the Midrash, Avot d’Rabbi Natan chapter 26) and therefore he placed there Torah luminaries and teachers (Machir, from the tribe of Menashe, is listed in Shoftim 5:14 as the ancestor of מְחֹקְקִים - lawgivers). The large tribal inheritance was necessary to entice half of the tribe away from its designated home in Israel (also implied in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Bikurim 1:8, which states that the half-tribe did not take their land, but were given it).

The Torah inserts the story of Menashe’s allocation right inside the description of the assignment of land to Reuven and Gad because the latter could not take place without the former. Reuven and Gad could not settle the land without Menashe by their side. Then, as now, Torah scholarship, schools and places of learning are integral and essential for the sustainability of any Jewish settlement.

This piece was completed on the night of כג תמוז, the 17th Yahrzeit of my father, Alan Kennard, אהרן יעקב בן יהודה ז״ל. Since I was unable to say Kaddish this year during lockdown, may the Torah I learnt composing this essay, and that which may be learnt by its readers, be an elevation for the נשמה.

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