Parashat Pinchas / When the Dead Inherit From the Living

The Promised Land was divided up according to two principles. The first was based on the number of Israelites who left Egypt in the Exodus. The second is based on the number of Israelites about to enter the land.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), Moses and Aaron conduct a census of the Children of Israel: “[Take the sum of the people,] from twenty years old and upward, as the Lord commanded Moses and the Children of Israel, that came forth out of the land of Egypt” (Numbers 26:4).

After the results are obtained – “These are they that were numbered of the children of Israel, six hundred thousand and a thousand and seven hundred and thirty” (Num. 26:51) – God commands Moses: “Unto these the land shall be divided ... To the more thou shalt give the more inheritance, and to the fewer thou shalt give the less inheritance; to each one according to those that were numbered of it shall its inheritance be given. Notwithstanding the land shall be divided by lot; according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. According to the lot shall their inheritance be divided between the more and the fewer” (Num. 26:53-54).

The sages disagreed among themselves over the principle used in dividing the land among the 12 Tribes: “Rabbi Josiah says: The Promised Land was divided according to the number of Israelites who left Egypt in the Exodus, as it is written, ‘according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit.’ Then why does the Torah state: ‘Unto these the land shall be divided’? To exclude women and children.

“Rabbi Yonatan says: The Promised Land was divided according to the number of Israelites about to enter it, as it is written, ‘they that were numbered of the children of Israel, six hundred thousand …’ And ‘Unto these the land shall be divided.’ Why does the Torah state: ‘according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit’? Because the text changes the procedure: Unlike other instances of inheritance in the Torah, where the living inherit from the dead, here the dead inherit from the living” (Sifre, Numbers, Section 132).

The Promised Land was divided up according to one of two principles. The first was based on the number of Israelites who left Egypt in the Exodus: The male head of each household that left was entitled to the portion of land his son would receive on entering Canaan. The second principle was based on the number of Israelites about to enter the Promised Land – that is, on the number counted in the census in this week’s reading, as it is written: “Unto these the land shall be divided.”

This dispute over interpretation has practical ramifications. Take, for example, two families that left Egypt in the Exodus. In one there are nine Israelite descendants about to enter Canaan, while in the other, there is only one. According to the first method of distribution, the nine descendants must share a single inherited plot of land, while the single one in the other family receives an entire plot to himself. According to the second method, however, each descendant receives an entire plot of inherited land (see Tosefta, Tractate Bava Batra, 7:9).

Rabbi Josiah argues that Canaan was divided among the 12 Tribes according to the number of Israelites in the Exodus, as it is written, “according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit.” So how does he explain, “Unto these the land shall be divided” – which relates to the number of Israelites in the census? According to Rabbi Josiah, that verse is meant to exclude women and children. Thus, he argues, the Promised Land was divided only among Israelite males aged 20 and over, as per the above-mentioned census.

For his part, Rabbi Yonatan interprets “Unto these the land shall be divided” in a specific context: this week’s reading. He concludes that the land was to be divided in accordance with the number of Israelites about to enter Canaan.

But what about the verse “according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit,” indicating that the Promised Land was to be divided in accordance with the number of ancestors participating in the Exodus? Rabbi Yonatan resolves this question very elegantly.

It is customary, he argues, that when a father dies, his property is divided among his living descendants. This principle ensures that property remains in the hands of the family, but it does not relate to the question of how it is divided up equally among the members of the general population. On the other hand, dividing property among the general population would lead to more egalitarian results but would raise a question as to whether any particular individual is truly eligible to be an heir.

To solve the dilemma, Rabbi Yonatan proposes turning the laws of inheritance inside out. He explains that, in this week’s Torah portion, the dead inherit from the living: that is, the land was to be divided in accordance with the number of Israelites alive and about to enter Canaan. These Israelites were to “bequeath” their land to their dead ancestors and then “inherit” the plots from the dead in line with the principle of egalitarian distribution, based on the number of descendants.

On the one hand, this loop enables “inheritance” in the traditional sense; on the other, it enables a just division of the land in accordance with the number of persons about to enter it.

The question of how the Promised Land was divided obviously was not a question of topical religious law in the sages’ era; even the legal trick Rabbi Yonatan use was not a guiding principle behind division of the land among those about to enter it. And yet, the logical interpretive effort invested in coming up with the solutions offered by Rabbi Josiah and Rabbi Yonatan is not simply an intellectual exercise.

The issue of which interpretation is preferable vis-a-vis two conflicting verses contains a much broader question: The generation of the children born in the desert distances itself from the generation of founding fathers and needs new, practical solutions that will enable it to live in the Promised Land. Nevertheless, the generation of the children relies on the inheritance of its ancestors, who constitute the only generation that can in essence justify the existence of the descendants. Although the relationship between the dead fathers and the living sons does not enable adjustment of their ethical inheritance to a constantly changing reality, it is impossible to forgo this inheritance.

The dispute between Rabbi Josiah and Rabbi Yonatan presents in a nutshell both sides of the sages’ mode of thinking. Rabbi Josiah favors a conservative approach, arguing that Jewish law takes precedence over everything and that the land was to be divided in accordance with the number of Israelites in the Exodus, irrespective of the present situation. The price of cutting themselves off from the generation of the ancestors is too high because, without that connection, the Jewish people are not eligible to inherit Canaan altogether.

In contrast, Rabbi Yonatan argues that it is possible to create a mechanism that will not cut off our actions from the words of our ancestors, but will instead reshape their words to suit our principles. We, the living, create the criteria for our lives, which we will “pass on” to our dead fathers; then we, in turn, will inherit them from our dead fathers.

This option recurs elsewhere in the sages’ interpretive approach. For example, it is written in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Brachot, page 26b): “Our ancestors established the prayer services.” Although the sages claim this, it is clear to both them and us that they themselves were the ones who established the services. Nonetheless, the sages returned to the stories in Genesis, reinterpreting them as if the three patriarchs were the ones who developed the format of the three weekly prayer services. In this manner, the living bequeathed the plots of land in Canaan to the dead, and then inherited the land from the dead.