The Meaning of the Book of Numbers: Is “Bamidbar” A Good Translation? | Aleph Beta

Is the “Book of Numbers” A Good Translation for “Bamidbar”?

Is the “Book of Numbers” A Good Translation for “Bamidbar”?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Alright math enthusiasts, get your pencils sharpened! We’ve finally reached the Book of Numbers! Oh… wait… you mean Bamidbar isn’t actually a math book? It’s not all about numbers? Well what is it about then, and why is the Book of Numbers called by this misleading name?

Ok, to be fair, the Hebrew word “bamidbar” doesn’t translate as “Numbers.” It literally means, “in the desert.” But the name “Numbers” is actually a pretty accurate translation of the name the Rabbis gave to this book – they called it Chumash Ha-Pekudim, which basically means “The Book of Counting.” 

But isn’t that a pretty lame name for a book? Sure, there are a few censuses that we hear about in this book, but there’s a whole lot more drama and excitement than that! Why not call it “The Epic Adventures of the Israelites in the Desert”? Isn’t that what this book is really about?

In this podcast, Rabbi Fohrman is in conversation with a special one-time guest (it’s a surprise!) and he explores the dynamic of counting and being counted that pervades the book of Bamidbar. The idea that he develops here identifies Bamidbar – and the Book of Numbers – as a critical point in the evolution of the Torah’s overall narrative, starting from Bereshit and the beginnings of the mission of the nation of Israel. It seems that counting really may lie at the heart of what this book is about after all.


Rabbi Fohrman: Hey, everybody, welcome back to Parsha Lab. It is Parashat Bamidbar. This is Rabbi David Fohrman. I'm here with a very special guest who'll you'll never even guess. It is my daughter, Ariella, who's in eighth grade. She's off from school this week on an internship in Aleph Beta. Ariella, it's good to have you. Say hi to everybody.

Ariella: Hi.

Rabbi Fohrman: All right, Ariella, we're going to be taking a look at Parashat Bamidbar today. I have a question for you, for starters. Are you ready for my question?

Ariella: I hope so.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Great. How would you translate Sefer Bamidbar? If you had to put that in English, what would you call it?

What Does the Book of Numbers Mean?

Ariella: In the Desert.

Rabbi Fohrman: In the Desert. In Latin, something appropriate like In Desertum, but that's not actually how we name it. At least, that's not what it's named in English. What it's called in English, actually, is Numbers or in Latin, Numeri. The reason why it gets that is actually from the Hebrew, which our Sages call it as actually Chumash HaPikudim, which sort of loosely translates into the Book of Numbers. And so the Latin and the English pick up on that much as Leviticus gets its name.

Leviticus is not from Vayikra, the first word in the book, which just means to call. Leviticus really means the laws for the Levites or particularly the laws for the kohanim, the priests who come from the Levites which, again, is a translation of what the Sages call this, which is Torat Kohanim, the laws of the Levite class.

Here's the question I want to ask you, on a scale from 1 to 10, I'd like you to rate and explain why you think or how you think the name of the book matches with the main ideas of the book and whether you think it's a good name for the book. You got to approve them. You're on the approval table for names of the Bible.

So on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being really bad and 10 being wonderful, I'd like you to rate these names. Are you ready? Sefer Bereishit, we're going to call it Bereishit not just because of the word Bereishit but because we think Bereishit actually works to capture the idea of the book. Bereishit means in the beginning or in Latin, Genesis. How good of a name do you think this is?

Ariella: I think that for the portion, it's a 10. For the book, it's like a two.

Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, my gosh. That's not very good. We have a critical Ariella.

Ariella: It's just talking about one chapter out of 50.

Rabbi Fohrman: I hear you. All right. So if you would have to name the book, give me an alternative name that you think is better if you had to sum it up.

Ariella: Well, I guess you could do – obviously, it wouldn't be called exactly this – but, like, Abraham and His Descendants.

Rabbi Fohrman: Abraham and His Descendants. Now, let's get back to the word Genesis, in the beginning. If you took a more expansive view of the words in the beginning, could you see how this might actually be a good title for the book? In other words, if you take in the beginning as narrowly speaking about the creation of the universe itself, then yes, you only got one chapter covered. But if you take a more expansive view of in the beginning, what else could in the beginning mean?

It could mean in the beginning of a universe and in the beginning of a people, a nation, the beginning of our people, in which case it's a great name for the book. It probably gets a 10 because it's laying the groundwork where the family gets started that is ultimately going to become Israel. It's the beginning of a world and it's the beginning of a nation, all wrapped into one, so let's keep that.

Okay, Ariella, let's go to our next book, the Book of Shemos in Hebrew or Exodus in English. Do you think it's a good name? Here, you have to break up the difference between the Hebrew name and the English name. They seem to have little to do with each other. If you had to translate the name Shemos into English, what would you have called the book?

Ariella: Names.

Rabbi Fohrman: Names, but notice how that's not how the English authors have called it. They called it Exodus, probably because Exodus sounds like a much better name for the book. Ariella, if you had to think about Exodus on a scale from 1 to 10, how good of a name would that be, Exit, for the book?

Ariella: Nine.

Rabbi Fohrman: Nine because that's, like, a major idea about the book, right? The people of Israel are all going through and all the movies made of them, The Prince of Egypt, the Ten Commandments, it's like a stunning theatrical event, the exodus from Egypt, a really good name for the main event of the book. How would you have thought about names? If we called the book, Names, do you think that would've been a really good name for the book, Ariella? On a scale from 1 to 10, what would you rate it?

Ariella: 0.5.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's, like, really bad, right? I mean, it's, like, the first verse and then we're off to the races with an entirely different idea. There's a new king, everyone becomes slaves, they get out of Egypt, what does names have to do with anything? Let's move on. Let's go to Leviticus, Hebrew name Vayikra. Notice how the English people do not stick with that name.

Ariella: For good reason.

Rabbi Fohrman: For good reason. So, Ariella, how good of a name do you think Vayikra is for the book?

Ariella: One.

Rabbi Fohrman: One. Why is it so bad, Ariella?

Ariella: The only reason why it's good is because it's used so much in Vayikra, but it has nothing to do with anything.

Rabbi Fohrman: Nothing to do with the meaning of the book. What does the word Vayikra mean?

Ariella: And He called.

Rabbi Fohrman: And He called. So Moses got called; that's the first thing that happened. Pretty bad name, right?

Ariella: Mm-hm.

Rabbi Fohrman: Leviticus is a much better name which is probably why the English folks dropped the Hebrew and they didn't just translate the Hebrew like they did with Bereishit translated to Genesis. They didn't just call it callum like Latini is called. Instead, they just changed it entirely to Leviticus which just means the laws of the Levite class or the laws of the Levi'im or the laws of the priests, which actually picks up on what our Sages say the name of the book is. It's another name that Chazal, our Sages give to the book. They call it Torat Kohanim, the Laws of the Priests.

Basically, the English folks just took a pass on what traditionally in Hebrew it's called, Vayikra, and they just called it by something the rabbis called it, Torat Kohanim. Basically, we've got two books now that the English names seem to have nothing to do with anything. The direct English translation based off the Hebrew or the Hebrew names seem to be weird.

The Hebrew name for Genesis, I get why it might be a good name for the book. It's the beginning of everything. When it comes to Shemot and Vayikra, Ariella has given us an official 0.5 and 1 for these names, very bad because a book that is called Names and a book that's called Callings doesn't really have to do with much, seemingly.

That brings us to Numeri or the Book of Numbers, which is another time where the Hebrew name for the book and the English name kind of diverge. What do you have in Hebrew for Numbers? If you were translating it, Ariella, what name would you give Bamidbar?

Translating the Meaning of Bamidbar into English

Ariella: In the Desert.

Rabbi Fohrman: In the Desert. Okay. How good of a name for the whole book would you say In the Desert is?

Ariella: Seven.

Rabbi Fohrman: Pretty good because they were at least in the desert. Strangely, though, the English folks thought they could do even better. They called it Numeri, Numbers, based off of, seemingly, one of the first things that happen in this book. Take a look at the first couple of verses here, Ariella. See if you can read them and tell me why the book is called Numbers. Go ahead.

Ariella: "Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe b'midbar Sinai b'ohel mo'ed b'echad la'chodesh ha'sheini ba'shanah ha'sheinit l'tzeitom mei'eretz Mitzrayim leimor."

Rabbi Fohrman: So God telling Moses to do something over here in the second year of the desert. What's He telling him to do?

Ariella: "Se'u et rosh kol adat Bnei Yisrael l'mishpechotam l'veit avotam b'mispar sheimot kol zachar l'gegulotam."

Rabbi Fohrman: What should he do?

Ariella: He should count the Children of Israel.

Rabbi Fohrman: He should count the Children of Israel. Ah, so now you see why it's called Numbers?

Ariella: Yeah.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, because it has to do with counting, right? Okay. Now, rate it. How good of a name is the Book of Numbers because we've got some counting over here?

Ariella: Three.

Rabbi Fohrman: Three. It's pretty good for Parashat Bamidbar. It doesn't do much for the rest of the book. The rest of the book has to do with the travails of the people during this time in the desert, very little to do with numbers.

So, Ariella, we have got quite a task of us. In looking at the names of all these books, few of them make sense to us. Genesis we can get by with. Shemot, well, the English sounds a lot better than the Hebrew. What does Shemot have to do with anything? And Vayikra, that sounds like a really poor name, much better in English, Leviticus.

Over here, the Book of Numbers, you know, it's sort of okay in Hebrew, In the Desert. The English name Numbers is really kind of weird. The English name, by the way, comes off as something else that our Sages say, Chumash HaPikudim, the Law of Numbers, the Laws of Pikudim. The word for numbering over here is actually pakad.

If you take a look, if you read one more verse, Verse 3, over here in the beginning of Numbers, we hear, "mi'ben esrim shanah va'malah," from 20 years old, "kol yotzei tzava," anybody that goes out to the army, "tifkedu otam," there's that word pikudim, you shall count and, therefore, hence the word numbers in the book, pikudim.

So, Ariella, what I'd like to do with you is try to come up with a theory that would make at least these four first books of the Bible actually make sense. Genesis, Exodus or Shemot, really, the Book of Names, the Book of Leviticus, the book of not just the laws of the Levites but the book of calling and finally, the Book of Bamidbar or otherwise known as Chumash HaPikudim, the Book of Counting. How would these all stitch together?

To do that with you, Ariella, I want to engage in a little Venn diagram analysis of this central word that Chazal, that our Sages used for the Book of Numbers. They call it Chumash HaPikudim. We're going to be looking at the word pakad and its various different meanings and almost kind of assembling a Venn diagram and trying to see that this word is almost like a chameleon. It has a lot of different shades of meaning. How exactly do they overlap?

So, Ariella, we've seen the word pakad over here, right at the beginning of Numbers, to be a word that means to count. From your vast knowledge of the rest of the Bible, can you give me any other instance where pakad you think might be a candidate to mean something else?

Bible Connections to "Counting" in the Book of Numbers

Ariella: "V'Hashem pakad et Sarah."

Rabbi Fohrman: Sarah is about to have a child, she gets pregnant. The word for that, "Hashem pakad et Sarah." There's that verb. Give me some sort of translation of that verb. God what Sarah?

Ariella: Remembered.

Rabbi Fohrman: God remembered Sarah maybe. That, in fact, is how many translations will translate it, God remembered Sarah. Remember, it doesn't seem to have a lot to do with the idea of counting. Let's take another shot at pakad. Does pakad mean anything else from your knowledge of Torah? Where else would the word pakad ever appear?

Ariella: "Pakod yifkod et'chem."

Rabbi Fohrman: Good, "pakod yifkod et'chem." Where does that phrase appear?

Ariella: At the end of Genesis, with Joseph telling his brothers to not bury him in Egypt.

Rabbi Fohrman: What he telling the brothers when he says, "pakod yifkod Elokim et'chem mi'zeh"?

Ariella: Hashem is going to remember you.

Rabbi Fohrman: Not just that He'll remember you. We're on the cusp of a terrible, dark moment in Jewish history, slavery which lasts for 400 years. The Jews don't want to just be remembered. What else do they want?

Ariella: Redemption.

Rabbi Fohrman: They want redemption. You're going to be redeemed. You're going to be taken out of this terrible place. Interestingly, by the way, in a way, that's what Joseph wants from his brothers because, as you put it, what's Joseph's request of his brothers at that moment, when he says that God will ultimately remember you in Egypt? What does Joseph want from his brothers at that point?

Ariella: When Hashem takes them out that they should remember to bring his bones.

Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, there's that word again. They should remember me. In other words, don't forget me. Redeem me as well. In a way, you're beginning to see a connection between the words redeem and remember. How would see the words redeem and remember as connected? Why should those two English words have one Hebrew word that they come from? What does that Hebrew word mean? How does the idea of remember connect with the idea of redeem? How does that feel to be remembered? How does it feel to be redeemed? Imagine you're a slave, what bothers you about being a slave?

Ariella: No one notices you.

Rabbi Fohrman: And what's the only reason why you matter?

Ariella: If you're doing something in the world.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I'm doing something in the world for Pharaoh and not for myself. I'm making bricks. If I die and if I drop, there's always somebody to take my place. I feel forgotten. But when someone redeems me, I feel like I matter again. I feel like I count. Someone remembers me, I feel like I count. That which is forgotten doesn't count. It just blends in with everything else, almost like a whole bunch of grains of sand and nobody remembers them, nobody counts them.

So there's this Venn diagram here of meaning where three words that seem to mean different things to count. Count in English has two meanings. It can mean to number something, but it can also mean to matter, to count. The idea of being remembered is when you feel like you matter. To be redeemed is actually when, oh, my gosh, somebody actually cares about me and takes me out.

That, in fact, is what Joseph is asking from his brothers. Could you remember me? Could I count when I'm just bones? Could you take my bones out from here? That would be a great show of brotherhood that I count, that I'm part of your family and that I matter to you.

In fact, there's one other meaning of the word pakad which is going to appear in Numbers. If you read a little bit more here in this portion, if I can direct you now, Chapter 1, Verse 48 and 49. Take a look in those three verses to Verse 50, hafkeid is this word that has sort of another chameleon example of it. "Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor."

Ariella: "Ach et mateih Levi lo tifkod v'et rosham lo tisa betoch Bnei Yisrael," but Levi, you shouldn't count and you shouldn't make them be a part of the Children of Israel.

Rabbi Fohrman: And you shouldn't count. It's just another word for count, tifkod and tisa. Now, look at that verb, how pakad is now going to take on a different shade of meaning in the very next verse. Read the first half of the next verse.

Ariella: "V'atah hafkeid et ha'Levi'im al ha'mishkan ha'eidut."

Rabbi Fohrman: And what does that mean? What does hafkeid mean now?

Ariella: Appoint.

Rabbi Fohrman: You should appoint the Levites to a special job that they have. So if, Ariella, you got appointed to a special job, how would you feel?

Ariella: Happy.

Rabbi Fohrman: And you would feel like you...

Ariella: Are remembered.

Rabbi Fohrman: were remembered, you counted. Here, you know, we can use your little internship here with Aleph Beta as an example. You come to Aleph Beta and imagine that you're here for two days and you say, "Hi, I'm here for my internship," and no one blinks. You sit around for 15 minutes, you sit around for a half an hour, you sit around for two days and no one even acknowledges your presence; how do you feel?

Ariella: Unnoticed.

Rabbi Fohrman: Unnoticed, keep on going.

Ariella: Forgotten.

Rabbi Fohrman: Forgotten. Even more, how would you feel?

Ariella: Like I don't make a difference.

Rabbi Fohrman: Like I don't make a difference, like I don't count. So you see how those words come together. But then someone comes and says, "Oh, my gosh, Ariella, I can't even believe it. We have this incredibly important job that only you can do. We're going to appoint you over this job." All of a sudden, you're going to make this difference. So now you do count, now you've been remembered.

In a way, you almost feel like you've been redeemed. To be unredeemed is to feel lowest of the low, but to be redeemed is someone has taken my soul and I feel renewed, which is what it feels like when you actually matter in the world. So it's this idea of mattering as an individual, as a nation, which really is perhaps the essence of the idea of pakad.

Pakad means more than just count, more than just numbers. The English word numbers is just one shade of pakad. Pakad means more than that. It means to appoint. It means to count. It means to be redeemed. It means to be remembered. It means to not be forgotten. It means to actually gain significance.

What the Torah Books Mean

Now, here's my challenge for you. Let's go back and read the names of these books and see if we can find a line that we can draw through all four of them, almost a story that's being told through Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar/Chumash HaPikudim. Let's start from the very beginning, as Julie Andrews would once say a very good place to start, in Genesis. Here we have this very first book and we say it's not just like a 3, it's a 10. It's a really good name. Why is it a good name? Because in Bereishit, it's the beginning of what?

Ariella: It's the beginning of everything.

Rabbi Fohrman: Of everything, which is to say not just a universe but the beginning of a nation, a family that starts with Abraham, then it devolves to Isaac and then to Jacob and then his children and they're on the cusp of becoming more. They're on the cusp of becoming a nation.

Now, when something goes from just a person, you would say in the larger scope of the universe, which is what creation is all about, how much does any one person count or matter? Look at the universe; big place, 100 billion galaxies. In every galaxy, 100 billion stars. Out of one of those lonely stars, there are nine planets. On the third rock from the sun, there are 7 billion people. One of them, in the scope of the universe, doesn't seem like it counts that much, right?

Ariella: Well, there are some people that count a lot in the whole world.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Good. There are some people that count a lot, some people that can make their mark. What do you do to make your mark? What makes you count?

Ariella: If you change the world.

Rabbi Fohrman: If you change the world. These people that came along that began to change the world began to count because Abraham was important not just because of what Abraham did but because of the family and the legacy that he left behind.

Now, in Hebrew, there's a legacy that you leave behind, as a person grows into a family that grows into a nation. When a person dies, they want something to be carried on. What do they want to be carried on? Think about yibum here or this notion that a person dies and they don't have kids and they don't have legacy.

So the brother of the deceased is supposed to marry the widow and then they're supposed to have this child and they have the child. In the words of the Torah, what do they carry on from that dead brother if they will only have that child to continue his legacy? What's the Hebrew term for that?

Ariella: The name.

Rabbi Fohrman: "V'lo yimacheh shemo mi'Yisrael," his name shouldn't be blotted out. Isn't it interesting, Ariella? What's the next book in the Torah after Bereishit?

Ariella: Shemot.

Rabbi Fohrman: The Book of...

Ariella: Names.

Rabbi Fohrman: ...Names, the moment when we really start to count because there's a legacy. The person has not just become a person but a family. The family is on the cusp of becoming a nation. The nation is going to make a name for itself, a name for God. There are all these people and the people who started the nation, they all count. We're counting their names.

They all matter and you know they matter because they all have names. The difference between a whole bunch of people and people who matter is if those people I'm looking at are not just dots on the screen, but they all have names. So naming someone is a way of describing that they count, they matter.

Now, the problem with mattering is that there are a couple of things that can get in the way of mattering. Dying can get in the way of mattering. If you die, you no longer matter. But if you're name is continued, if someone continues your legacy, then they keep your name alive and you still continue to matter.

So when that one person, Abraham, dies and his name is continued and he has a family and everyone in that family matters and they all have names and there's a nation that's there and is going to make a name for themselves. Maybe that's what Shemot is about, but there's only one problem. What happens the minute after you learn the names of this incipient nation?

Look at the very first paragraph in Exodus. It's devoted to the names of this nation and the nation should just come into fruition. It should become this wonderfully named nation that actually matters in the world and is making a difference in this world of creation. "V'eileh shemot Bnei Yisrael haba'im Mitzraymah –

Ariella: But they do make a difference, Abba.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yes, go ahead.

Ariella: That's what our whole religion is about.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right, but you're reading from the end. In the end, we make a difference. Let's say you didn't know the end and just read Verse 8 and 9.

Ariella: "Vayakam melech chadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef," there was a new king in Egypt that didn't know Joseph.

Rabbi Fohrman: Ah, didn't know Joseph. Joseph was the intern now and there's this new king that's ignoring Joseph. Someone stops counting the most of important of the Israelites and Joseph doesn't count. What did he tell his people? "Vayomer el amo," keep on reading.

Ariella: "Hineh am Bnei Yisrael rav v'atzum mimenu."

Rabbi Fohrman: What's he concerned about?

Ariella: That the Children of Israel is bigger and better than Egypt.

Rabbi Fohrman: They count too much. They're making too much of an impression. They matter too much. We're worried about them. We're worried that they can do us harm. So what does he do? He enslaves them. And as he enslaves them, what is he seeking to do? He's seeking to make sure... keep on reading.

Ariella: "Havah nitchakemah lo pen yirbeh v'hayah ki tikrenah milchamah v'nosaf gam hu al soneinu v'nilcham banu v'alah min ha'aretz."

Rabbi Fohrman: So let's deal wisely with them. He tries to keep their numbers down as he tries to keep the population smaller and to the end, he throws baby boys into the Nile. When you throw baby boys in the Nile, what are you really saying about the human life that you're destroying?

Ariella: That they don't count.

Rabbi Fohrman: That they don't count, they don't matter and every one of them is expendable. So this really is the Book of Names. It's the book in which everything turns on names. Do you matter or don't you matter? It's a devastating book of slavery. Then these slaves are redeemed and they come out of slavery.

Listen to that word, they are redeemed. As they come out of slavery, the great question for them is what's going to be? So God says, "I want to tell you guys something. You count. You matter to me." Then there's one person and that person is called. When someone is called by God, that person matters.

Ariella: Vayikra.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right, Vayikra. So you have not just a nation of names and maybe they count, maybe they don't count, maybe they're slaves, maybe they're nothing, but now there's one person and that person is called and goes into this Tabernacle and God says, "Here's my place among you."

You begin to count and Moses begins to count. Maybe it's just Moses. What about the people? The question for the people is, are they just a bunch of former slaves? Are they a people who don't have confidence in themselves? Are they a people who don't have enough in themselves to establish relationships with each other, to establish a nation, to matter in the world, to fulfill their destiny? Will they matter or won't they matter? What is Bamidbar all about?

What Is the Book of Numbers Really About?

Bamidbar is about the struggle. If you think about Bamidbar, the story of Korach, think about the story of the spies, think about all the backsliding that happens in Bamidbar, the struggle for the nation is, will they go backwards and say let's go back to Egypt? Let's make a new person and go back to Egypt, the world in which we did not count, the world in which we had no names, the world in which we didn't matter. Will we go that way or will we go forward into the land?

Therefore, it is Bamidbar. It is no man's land. It's the place between the world in which we did not count, the world of slavery and the world of Egypt and the world in which we do count, where we're a nation in our new land. Therefore, it is the Book of Pikudim. It is the Book of Counting. It is the Book of Mattering. It is the book of a nation struggling with whether they matter. The question for them will be, will they matter? Will they reclaim their names or will they go back into nameless slavery? That is the challenge, I think, of the Book of Numbers.

Okay, Ariella, thank you so much. It's been fun learning this through with you. I think what we have really is a way of thinking about the first four books of the Torah, culminating in Chumash HaPikudim, in Sefer Bamidbar, which I think is a really exciting thing.

Folks, thanks a lot. We will see you again next week in Parsha Lab. Don't forget to subscribe to this podcast. You can actually go to your favorite podcast provider on Apple iTunes or on SoundCloud or any way you get your podcast and click the subscribe button and something just magical will happen folks. You will find this podcast just waiting for you every week and you just play and listen. Rate us on iTunes so that other people will find us. See you next week. Have a very happy week. Shabbat Shalom, bye-bye.

Subscribe today to join the conversation.
Already a subscriber? Log in here!


A Nonprofit Media Company helping people closely read the Torah to discover its beauty, meaning and relevance

facebook logo
twitter logo
instagram logo
YouTube logo
Apple App Store
Google Play
Apple Podcast
Want to share Aleph Beta with friends? Use the short! It will take you right here.


© 2021 Aleph Beta | Hoffberger Institute for Text Study, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization recognized by the IRS. Tax ID Number: 27-3846145

Powered By