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"Thinking Torah"

Alex Israel –


The National  Lottery




The Parshiot that conclude Sefer Bamidbar are energised by the impending conquest and settlement of Eretz Canaan.


In Parshat Pinchas, we read of a national census. The objective was a comprehensive survey of the national populace. What was the purpose of that data? The Torah specifies:


"To THESE shall the land be apportioned by allotment, according to the listed names." (26:52)


In other words, the census of Parshat Pinchas is focussed upon arriving at a precise number of the people in order to divide the land. The census is immediately followed by the appeal of the daughters of Zelofchad who demand their father's share in the land. We then read of Moses' imminent death, and hence the need for a new leader. As Moses is to be denied entry to Canaan, the announcement of his death indicates that entry of Canaan is on the immediate agenda. In conclusion, Parshat Pinchas is animated by an intense anticipation of the national entry to Canaan[1].


Likewise with our Parshiot – Matot and Massei - we sense that entry to Canaan is on the horizon; the Wilderness years will soon be history. Let us review the relevant episodes:



Tribes of Gad and Reuven express their desire to settle in TransJordan.


* Summary of the Wjilderness sojourn.

* The Command to conquer the Land of Canaan;

* The mode of land allotment.


* Borders of the Land

* The leaders who will administrate the settlement in the land.


Levite Cities, and Refuge Cities.


The appeal of the Tribe of Menashe regarding the case of the Tzelofchad daughters


It is not difficult to discern that these chapters{C}[2] all revolve around the imminent move to Eretz Yisrael. And that shall be the starting point for our shiur this week. We shall focus upon the lottery, the method utilised in order to apportion the land of Israel into tribal districts.




"You shall divide up the land by a lottery (goral) according to family; to a larger group, you shall give a larger portion, to the smaller in number, grant a smaller portion; wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his." (34:54)


This passuk is rather confusing. After all, whichever way you look at it, we have two contradictory systems of land allotment here. Let us explain:

a. The Lottery:  The lottery chooses and Bnei Yisrael will have to accept the outcome of the lottery! If the portions of land are determined by lottery, then why is the size of the tribe relevant?

b. Tribal Size: "To a larger group, you shall give a larger portion, to the smaller in number, grant a smaller portion" - If we are assigning lands dependent upon an assessment of suitable land size and matching tribal size - then to what degree is a lottery required?


A second question relates to the multiple clauses in the passuk. Why is the passuk so verbose, or maybe, we should suggest that each clause indicates a new point.


Let us sit down with a chumash and investigate these problems "inside."






1. Look again at the verse here in Parshat Massei


2. This topic has already been touched upon in last week's parsha. See:

{C}·         The pesukim - 26:53-57

{C}·         Rashi, Sephorno and Hizkuni there.

{C}·         The very lengthy Ramban tries to establish what is the determining factor for dividing the land, but he spends most of his energy interpreting the verses in Yehoshu ch.17 (see #4)


3. Are the Nachalot pre-determined?

Look at Yaakov's last words / the berachot / to his sons, in Bereshit ch.49. Look in particular at 49:13, and 48:22 with Rashi, `and Rashi to verses 11 and 20. Are there clues given here as to the geographical settlement of particular tribes?

See in particular Devarim 34:1-3 where the particular geographical areas of Eretz Yisrael are already designated by tribal names. Has the Goral (lottery) already been cast?  We haven't heard of it!


4. Sefer Yehoshua.

How do we see the apportioning of land in Sefer Yehoshua, and how does the goral (lottery) function. Here is a list of relevant mekorot, all from Sefer Yeshoshua:

14:1-3, 15:1, 16:1, 17:1, 17:14-18, 18:1-10, but note also the opening words of each parshia (paragraph) in ch.18








We opened our questions by raising the tension between the goral, the lottery indicating a random allotment, and the statement "to a larger group, you shall give a larger portion, to the smaller in number, grant a smaller portion," denoting a proportionate, precisely calculated apportioning of territory.


The mepharshim grapple with the tension. The Ramban suggests that the former statement assigns the tribe to a particular REGION of the country. That is the lottery. The latter statement granting proportional division, refers to the INTERNAL division of land within the tribe. Here, the Ramban says, each family will receive a portion according to their number of households. There is some obscurity as to whether this is determined on the basis of a count of households in the Exodus generation, or the generation of conquest of the land[3], however, this phrase relates to the internal division of territory.


R' Ovadia Sephorno offers a different interpretation:


"To the larger tribe, a larger portion: regarding the size of the territory. Certainly the land was split into twelve equal portions as regards their (real-estate) value. However they were not equal as regards the size of each portion. A Kor (large area) of poor quality land was matched by a Beit Seah (smaller area) of high quality land. The tribe who was numerically larger took the district that was larger in area, the smaller tribe, the proportion with a smaller land size, all being equal as related to the real-estate value."


But how does the lottery function if everything is deliberately calculated? The Sephorno explains:


"Despite the fact that land was allotted matching the larger and smaller areas according to the needs and population of the tribes, each tribe was awarded their particular district "according to the lottery."  In this way every tribe received their portion from God."


For the Sephorno, in contrast to the Ramban, the lottery does not serve a functional role. The tribes already know their allotted lands, the result of the pedantic calculations that are designed to guarantee maximum equality and sufficient land to each tribe. Why purpose then for a lottery? Why did God need to lend His voice to the allotment of the land? One might suggest that this was simply a method to circumvent arguments. The tribes, knowing that the Almighty Himself had approved the deal, would refrain from contesting the division. In this way the Goral would obviate accusations of favouritism and foul play. With God's stamp of approval, each of the tribes would accept their land in a spirit of harmony.


But another theory would seem more true to the language of the Sephorno. I think that there was a religious motive here. The Goral, the lottery is not simply God's seal of approval. God wanted the tribes to feel that – over and above the technical assessments – they have received God's land. That beyond the more prosaic tribal needs, this was a historic moment, a fulfilment of 400 years of covenantal promise. God had promised to give the land to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now that promise is being fulfilled. It was not enough for a governmental committee to survey the land and divide it without prejudice. No! It was vital that God bestow the land to His people, that God actively hand over the promised land to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thus fulfilling that promise. The lottery provided that role!


This notion of God granting the land to the nation as an inheritance is reinforced in the account brought by Rashi, quoting the Gemara in Bava Batra 122a. This passage gives us a window into the ceremony and the tangible presence of the Divine in the casting of the lottery:


"The lottery worked by divine inspiration (Ruach Hakodesh) … Elazar the Kohen was enrobed with the Urim Vetumim and would announce, in a spirit of Divine inspiration: 'If tribe X is picked, then lot Y will be drawn accordingly.' The names of the Tribes were written on twelve shards; the lots were written on twelve shards and they were jumbled in a box. The Head of the Tribe inserted his hand and drew two shards: one with the name of his tribe, and the other, the lot that had been (already) announced for that Tribe." (Rashi 26:54)


So, in summary, the Sephorno presents us with an interesting division. On the one hand, there is the assessment, based on pragmatic criteria. Drawn up by a professional committee, the fairest possible division of Eretz Yisrael into tribal districts would be formulated by an intricate technical evaluation, taking into account tribal population and the quality of the terrain. This the practical-technical division of the land.


 But on the other hand, there is the lottery, the covenantal-religious apportioning of the land. This represented God's ceremonial transfer of His land to His people. Two very different objectives; two contrasting methods.




Up to this point we have assumed that the twinning of tribe and nachala (geographical allotment) took place during the transition period, when the Midbar era was coming to a close, and before Am Yisrael settled permanently in the land. But is this really so?


Might it be that the nachalot were determined many years earlier? In the Torah, there are certain clues that give us a feeling that the tribes knew of their designated territories even before Israel became a nation!


What I am referring to is the blessings of Yaakov in Bereshit ch.49 where Yaakov instructs his twelve sons as to future events. Much of his final will and testament to each of his sons can be seen as indicative of their future settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Let us see (If you have a chumash, take a look at Bereshit ch.49):


{C}·         Yaakov snubs Reuven and indeed Reuven settles outside the prescribed borders in TransJordan.

{C}·         Yaakov tells Shimon and Levi that they shall be "scattered" and "dispersed" amongst Israel. Indeed they were! The Leviim  were spread amongst forty-eight cities throughout the realm, and Shimon absorbed within Yehuda.

{C}·         Yehuda is given the promise of the vine and wine – typifying the agricultural strengths of the Judean Hills - whereas Asher is blessed with olive oil – reflecting the flora of the Galillee, the nachala of Asher. 

{C}·         Zevulun is placed by the sea and the sea trade, and

{C}·         Yissachar ("bein Hamishpatayim") the area of the valley (Emek Yizrael.)

{C}·         Yosef is given Sh'chem.



Now admittedly Bereshit 49 is poetic in style and therefore, these directives are more in the nature of allusions than clear statements, but the correlation between blessing and eventual tribal lands is striking.


Is it all predicted? Pre-ordained?




This is not the only place in Torah that geographical regions of Eretz Yisrael have tribal associations. In the closing chapter of the Torah – Devarim 34 – Moses surveys the Land of Israel, being allowed to view the land before his death. The regions of Israel are all identified by tribe! Gilad (a Mennassite family), Dan, Naftali, Efrayim, Menashe, Yehuda, are all geographic locales and not tribal names. The nachalot have already been allotted! Or so it would appear! One could claim that the actual Goral had already been cast in Moses' lifetime, and the tribal calculations evaluated. However the casting of the lottery is never mentioned in the Torah, and our impression from Sefer Yehoshua is that it took place many years hence, after the battles and during the period of settlement.


So let us restate our observation. There are many verses in the Torah that would seem to indicate that the tribal division of the land is known well in advance. If this is true, then how does that fit with everything that we have seen until now?


So at this point. Let us raise a question for all of you. Does this information fit with the Ramban, or with the Sephorno? (or both, or neither?)




Thus far we have discussed the evidence as it appears in the Torah.  Now we shall turn our attention to the way it all turned out in Sefer Yehoshua.


From the start, one aspect of the account in Sefer Yehoshua is strikingly different. Sefer Bamidbar presents us with an impression of order, of a formal procedure whereby the tribes would receive their nachalot. Our impression from that which we have learned is that there would be an investigative committee, and then a formal Goral ceremony, and that the tribes would then joyously migrate to their nachalot, happy to gain control of their section of the Promised Land.


The view from Sefer Yehoshua is very different. The reality was far more complex and less idealised.  In Sefer Yehoshua, there is little reflection of an image in which God hands the tribes their allotment on a silver platter. Human disillusionment and lack of enthusiasm, difficult political conditions; all these act to temper and complicate the pristine vision of the apportioning of Eretz Yisrael.


Let us begin with the Goral itself. In the Book of Yeshoshua Chapter 18 we read about the seven tribes who were the last to settle. It will provide us with a good proof text to understand how the Lottery might have worked.


"The whole community of Bnei Yisrael gathered at Shiloh and established the Tent of Meeting there. The Land was now under their control; but there remained seven tribes of Israel which had not yet been allotted their portions. Joshua said to Bnei Yisrael, 'How long will you be slack about going and taking possession of the land which the Lord, God of your fathers has assigned to you? Appoint three men of each tribe; I will send them throughout the country and write down a description of it for purposes of apportionment, and then come back to me. They shall divide it into seven portions … Then I will cast a lottery here before the Lord our God." (Joshua 18:1-7)


Let us give some background here. All the battles of conquest had been waged. Israel was already in military control of the entire region of Canaan. Moreover, certain tribes had already settled in their nachalot. Yehuda, Efrayim and Menashe were living in their tribal portions. On the East bank of the Jordan, Reuven, Gad and the tribe of Menashe had settled into their villages and farms. And yet, many years after their entry into Canaan, seven tribes still remained homeless. They preferred to dwell in the temporary housing that was originally the transit camp during the war years. They are being "slack," apparently slow to muster the energy needed to conquer and administrate their own tribal regions.


And so Joshua instructs them to survey their territories and to return to perform the lottery. Very interesting! They are to discern their nachala first. Only afterwards comes the lottery. Moreover, note that the lottery has already been cast for Yehuda, Efrayim and Menashe (see  14:1-2, 15:1, 16:1 and 17:1)


What does this tell us about our topic? Well, regarding the Goral,  there was no single ceremonial moment when the lots were cast for ALL the tribes. It seems that the initiative had to be taken by the tribe in question, and only then, only once the particular tribe expressed the need, the enthusiasm to settle and build their region of Eretz Yisrael, was the Goral engaged.


In this story, the tribes send messengers to chart out their territory. On what basis do they find their Nachalot? How do they know where to settle? One of two options seem sensible. Either the people know their basic destination, the basic region. I have already suggested that there might have been a tradition stretching back to Yaakov Avinu, as to the settlement domain of each tribe. In that case, the tribe know where they are going but they send delegates in order to detail the borders and establish a settlement plan. Alternatively, we might suggest that the tribes themselves have a certain degree of freedom to choose their own lands[4] and they settle accordingly, as long as Joshua, the central coordinator approves. Whichever way, the lottery would appear – a la Sephorno – to come as the final act before the people set out for their tribal portion, after the allotment of land has been decided.




Another way in which the reality was more complex than the theory related to the settlement of the tribe once they already had reached and entered their designated nachala. It is clear from Sefer Yehoshua that even though a tribe received a particular allotment, they had to fight for it and actively settle it. It was not easy going[5]. Another episode in Sefer Yehoshua reinforces this theory:


"The Joseph tribes complained to Joshua:

'Why have you assigned as our portion a single allotment and a single district seeing that we are a numerous people, whom the Lord has blessed so greatly?'

'If you are so numerous a people,' Joshua answered them, 'go up to the forest country and clear an area for yourselves there, in the territory of the Perizzites and the Refaim, seeing that you are cramped in the hill country of Efrayim.'

'The hill country is not enough for us,' the tribes of Joseph replied, ' and all the Canaanites who live in the valley area have iron chariots …'

But Joshua declared …'You are indeed a numerous people … you shall have only one allotment. The hill country shall be yours; true it is forest land, but you will clear it and possess it to its farthest limits. And you shall dispossess the Canaanites, even though they have iron chariots and even though they are strong.'" Yehoshua 17:14-18.


Here, Bnei Yosef complain that they have insufficient land because they were faced with thick forest on one side, and the Canaanites on the other. On the one hand, natural resources restrict their toens and farms, on the other side is the enemy. The land that they received is expansive, but the area for settlement and farming is too small. It is insufficient.


Joshua tells them that they have their nachala. And they shall be granted only one nachala. They will have to solve their problems by themselves. And it is not a choice that is easy. Both options demand a formidable task. Either they can engage the Canaanites in battle to win the valley lands (Jordan valley), or they should can engage in forest clearing to create land for living and agriculture in the hills. But they must do the work. God does not hand over the land in a user friendly form!


Many tribes failed at this task, they never succeeded in settling and governing their lands effectively. Shoftim ch.18 tells the story of the Tribe of Dan who never managed to settle their portion. The military opposition was so intense (and their resolve so weak) that instead of governing the region, they found themselves oppressed by the local Philistine population. Shoftim chapter 1 contains an exhaustive list of the failures of the tribes to fully control their tribal boundaries:


"The Mennassites could not dispossess the inhabitants of these towns, and the Canaanites stubbornly remained in this region. When the Israelites became stronger, they imposed taxes upon the Canaanites; but they did not dispossess them." (Yehoshua 17:12-13)


The tribes of Yoseph had the persistence to follow Joshua's advice. We never find out whether they fought those iron chariots, or whether they cleared the forests, but the fact that they eventually dominated their region proves that against the odds, it was possible to prevail, if the resolve was there.




We have offered a number of perspectives from the Torah, and a more complex, human angle in Sefer Yehoshua.  In Sefer Yehoshua it would appear that both before, and after the Divine lottery, the motivation is left in the hands of the people. The tribe must take the initiative to move to their given territory. After they have received the land and have moved there en masse, they have the responsibility to farm and protect it, to build and to develop the area. In the Torah however, the perspective is that God is allotting the lands of Israel. The dissonance is striking!


We return to our starting point, we have here two angles here. As the Sephorno put it, we have a coalescence of the pragmatic and the Divine. In the final analysis, we do understand that it is God who bestows the land to us. And yet, that doesn't absolve us of our duty to conquer and settle it. That is why the notion of the Goral in Bamidbar 33:54 is juxtaposed to the verse:


"You shall take possession of the land and settle in it for I have assigned the land to you to possess." (33:53){C}[6]


The land is designated by God, but each tribe has to make it their own.



Shabbat Shalom



[1] According to the Ramban (28:2) The parsha of the  Musafim (ch.28-9) is also a direct result of the immediate entry to Canaan. This is because these sacrifices were not brought during the years of the Midbar. On the verge of entry, the laws of these sacrifices need to be introduced to the nation.


[2] We have accounted for Chapters 26-29 and 32-36 as directly concerned with the settlement of Bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. As for ch.30-31, their interruption of this focused "Eretz Yisrael" unit is certainly mysterious. Rav Menachem Leibtag has an attempt at an answer. See his website:


[3] Some of the discussion revolves around a contradiction between the verse in perek 26. In v.53 it says that the land be divided to "these" i.e. the people who have just been counted i.e. the generation of year 40. In verse 55 it says: "according to the names of their fathers (the Exodus generation) shall they inherit." This opens a Pandora's box of resolutions, the discussion already starting in the Tannaitic Midrash Halakha, and following through to the Rishonim. See the solutions of Rashi and Ramban on 26:54.


[4]{C} In Joshua ch.14 Calev claims the land of Hebron seemingly before he has been assigned it by Yehoshua. Again it is highly probable that each tribe knew their basic region from the start.


{C}[5]{C} Shoftim ch.1 describes the failures of non-settlement in graphic detail.


[6] According to the Ramban, this verse is the source for the Mitzva of settling and living in the Land of Israel.




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