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Shabbat Parashat Beha'alotcha 5777

Ein Ayah: Numbers That Count

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 5:11)

Gemara: [In the previous story, involving R. Elazar ben Azarya’s cow, the implication is that he owned only one cow.] Didn’t Rav say that R. Elazar ben Azarya’s tithed from his flocks 12,000 calves every year?


Ein Ayah: The benefit of historical accounts in Chazal, especially those that depict the life of a great person, needs to always fit with the divine intention regarding the depicted event. Therefore, the words chosen must create a picture that will provide generations of readers of the stories the same impression that the event had on those who saw the events.

“The crown of the wise is their wealth” (Mishlei 14:24). R. Elazar ben Azarya’s wealth increased the honor of Torah, which had a positive impact for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Therefore, any numbers used in a story that involves him have to preserve the impression left by the account and its intended lesson even after many generations have passed.

One can make the way of expressing numbers correspond to elements of life in the following way. There are four levels of success in accumulating resources in a person’s life: lacking, sufficiency, comfortableness, and riches that are sufficient to impact others around him. The digits of numbers can correspond to these levels. The singles’ digit represents lacking. The tens’ represents sufficiency. The hundreds’ correspond to comfortableness, and the thousands’ to riches that extend to others.

It is the fourth digit, of thousands, that is related to the concept of spreading out to the four directions, which is the full implication of extension. It also takes into account the three sections of a linear distance, the beginning, the middle, and the end. When one needs to represent a strong measure of large quantity, which is what riches are about, this situation is well captured by the number 12,000 [ed. note – perhaps the intention is that in addition to having thousands, it also has a 0,1, and 2.]

We must realize that R. Elazar ben Azarya’s riches were all connected to sanctity. The fact that he saw the fruit of his financial efforts on a regular basis helped raise the mantle of the Torah of truth. This caused the very status of being rich to be sanctified for the service of Hashem. This concept is related to that of ma’aser beheima (the tithe of the animals born during the year, which were brought to Yerushalayim to have part offered on the altar and part eaten there in sanctity). In ma’aser beheima, the owner of the animals acts like a kohen [in that he eats from the meat of the korban, and it is unlike tithes on produce, which primarily go to kohanim and levi’im]. The logic is that in terms of livestock, there is not such a need to have a separate group within the nation that needs to insure the spirituality. The separate group of kohanim is crucial for the one who works the land.

Thus, mentioning how many animals R. Elazar ben Azarya had on an ongoing yearly basis, representing his consistent riches, should be expressed for generations in a manner from which all can be impressed. The story should not be told in a way that minimizes this fact unless there is a special lesson to be learned from the depiction of R. Elazar ben Azarya as having only one cow.

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