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The Stick-Gatherer

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon

Parashat Shelach deals mostly with the episode of the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14).  Chapter 15 presents a group of laws, and the commentators propose various explanations as to the significance of their location and context.  Amidst this group of laws there is another brief narrative, concerning the stick-gatherer:


(32) And it was, while the Israelites were in the wilderness, that they found a man gathering sticks (mekoshesh etzim) on the Shabbat day.

(33) And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moshe and to Aharon and to all of the congregation.

(34) And they placed him in detention, for it had not been explained what should be done with him.

(35) And God said to Moshe: "The man shall surely be put to death; all of the congregation shall stone him with rocks outside of the camp."

(36) So all of the congregation took him outside of the camp, and they stoned him with rocks, and he died, as God had commanded Moshe.


On the face of it, the story is simple: somebody desecrates Shabbat, the Jews inquire as to the appropriate sentence, and they carry out the verdict that God decrees.


However, further reflection gives rise to several questions:

·        Why does the Torah recount this episode, describing an individual's sin?  Over the course of all the years of wandering in the wilderness, there must surely be many instances of personal transgressions.  What is so special about this particular instance, justifying its inclusion in the Torah?

·        What is the man's sin (in other words, what is the meaning of the term "mekoshesh"), and why is it not clear what his sentence should be?

·        Where does this story belong?  Why does it appear here, in the midst of a group of mitzvot?


This shiur will attempt to answer these questions, along with some others that arise from the story.


Let us begin with the introduction to the story: "And it was, while the Israelites were in the wilderness" (v. 32).  This is an unusual opening.  Usually, the Torah notes the location when the Jewish people move from one station to another.[1]  Here, there is no indication that they journey from Kadesh; rather, the Torah notes that they are "in the wilderness" – a static state[2] — and the location is described in very general terms.  If the Torah is trying to tell us where they are, why does it not name the place? 


Perhaps the special introduction to this story is not meant to indicate the Israelites' geographical location, but rather to bring home and reinforce their new situation in the wake of the sin of the Spies.  We recall that the nation is punished with the decree of wandering in the wilderness (ibid., Chapter 14):


(25) Turn and journey to the wilderness by way of the Reed Sea…

(32) But as for you, your carcasses will fall in this wilderness.

(33) And your children will wander in the wilderness for forty years, and they shall bear your harlotry, until the end of your carcasses in the wilderness

(35) …in this wilderness they shall come to their end, and there they shall die.


Thus, "the Israelites were in the wilderness" – a static state.  Even if they travel from one station to another, the Torah makes no mention of it, since such journeys are devoid of any significance.  The main idea is that they remain in the wilderness for a long time.  Hence, since the story of the gatherer is the first narrative that follows the sin of the Spies, its introduction emphasizes the Israelites' new situation. 


However, it may be that the Torah also chooses to introduce the story in this way because there is a connection between their new situation and the stick-gatherer's sin. 


Let us proceed: "They found a man gathering sticks on the Shabbat day."  This is a very brief, condensed description, and it is not clear exactly what the sin is.  The commentators offer four different interpretations of the word "mekoshesh"[3]:


a.         Gathering sticks

b.         Cutting down branches

c.         Cutting large sticks into small chips of wood

d.         Carrying from one domain into another


Seemingly, the story fails to convey the most important piece of information!  Why does the Torah not use clearer language to describe the man's actions?  What is it that the verse is telling us?  What we do understand clearly is that the Israelites find this man.  The text actually focuses less on the man's actions (as it could have said: a man went out and gathered/ chopped/ carried sticks on Shabbat) than on the initial fact that the Israelites discover him! 


In the next verse, the same point is emphasized again:


(33) "And those who found him gathering (chopping, carrying) sticks brought him to Moshe and to Aharon and to all of the congregation."


Instead of focusing on the man by saying: they brought him to Moshe, the verse repeats "those who found him… brought him."  Why is this so?


Another interesting aspect of the story is that the Israelites are unsure of what should be done with the man:


(34) They placed him in detention, for it had not been explained what should be done with him.[4]


Why are they uncertain?  The laws of Shabbat are conveyed at Sinai, and the death sentence for one who desecrates Shabbat is quite explicit (Shemot 31):


(14) And you shall observe the Shabbat, for it is holy to you; anyone who desecrates it shall surely be put to death, for whoever performs any labor on it – that soul shall be cut off from its people.

(15) For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day is a sabbath of sabbaths, holy to God; anyone who performs labor on the Shabbat day shall surely be put to death.


Most of the commentators[5] concur, on the basis of the Gemara in Sanhedrin 78b, that it is indeed clear to the Jews that the man deserves the death penalty, but they do not know what form of execution should be applied.


Abravanel adds that it is not clear whether the death sentence is to be carried out by human executioners or by God.


Either way, we must ask: what is the Torah's purpose in recounting this particular incident?  Why does the Torah take the trouble to describe the whole process of bringing the man to justice, the uncertainty as to his sentence, placing him in detention, and God's answer?


To shed further light on our narrative, let us consider a different incident, the story of the blasphemer (Vayikra 24):


(10) The son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the Israelites; and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man fought in the camp.

(11) And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name of God, and he cursed, and they brought him to Moshe; and his mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.

(12) And they placed him in detention, that it be explained to them by God's word.

(13) And God spoke to Moshe, saying:

(14) "Take the blasphemer outside of the camp, and let all who heard him place their hands upon his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.

(15) "And you shall speak to the Israelites, saying: 'Anyone who curses his God shall bear his sin.

(16) "'And one who blasphemes the Name of God shall surely be put to death; all of the congregation shall surely stone him; the stranger and the home-born alike - when he blasphemes the Name, he shall be put to death…'"

(23) And Moshe spoke to the Israelites, and they brought the blasphemer outside of the camp, and they stoned him with rocks; and the Israelites did as God had commanded Moshe.


The story of the blasphemer is reminiscent of our story of the gatherer, in many respects:


a.            The text describes the sin of an individual.

b.           The name of the perpetrator is not mentioned.

c.            The sinner is placed in detention because it is not clear what should be done with him; the law requires clarification.

d.           The punishment is the same: stoning by the entire congregation, outside of the camp.

e.            The text describes the execution of the sentence.

f.            Both narratives are located in the midst of a group of mitzvot.


The similarities between the narratives are extensive and worthy of discussion; nevertheless, we note some differences which highlight the unique aspects of each of them:


a.            While neither perpetrator is mentioned by name, the blasphemer is identified as "the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man… and his mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri."  The stick-gatherer remains completely anonymous.[6]

b.           The sin of the blasphemer is presented clearly, while the sin of the stick-gatherer is not.

c.            The story of the blasphemer focuses on the man himself: He "went out," "they fought," "he blasphemed," "he cursed."  In the case of the gatherer, the text focuses on "those who found him".

d.           The blasphemer is brought before Moshe alone, while the gatherer is brought before Aharon and the entire congregation, too.

e.            The language used to describe the clarification of the law is different: the blasphemer is placed in detention "that it be explained to them by God's word," while the gatherer is detained "for it had not been explained what should be done with him."

f.            The episode of the blasphemer contains some laws that relate to the story, while after the story of the stick-gatherer there are no related laws.


The differences between these two similar stories help us to define the unique aspects of the story of the gatherer.  In the instance of the blasphemer, there is indeed a need to clarify the law; therefore, the story includes a collection of laws relating to the event.  In the case of the gatherer, the verdict is known – at least in the general sense.  It is clear that the man is going to be sentenced to death; the question is what type of death sentence.  Therefore, God's response in this case is brief and to the point.  The point of the story is not the clarification of the verdict.


No details as to the gatherer's identity are mentioned (in contrast to the blasphemer, whose family background and mother's name are included).  Likewise, the sin of the gatherer is not clear (as opposed to the blasphemer, whose sin is described at length and quite clearly), because that is not the crux of the story.  In contrast to the narrow focus on the blasphemer himself, the story of the gatherer mentions twice "those who found him" (at first, it seems that it is all of "the Israelites" who find him), and three times "all of the congregation" is mentioned:


(33) And those who found him… brought him to Moshe and to Aharon, and to all of the congregation.

(35) …all of the congregation shall stone him with stones outside of the camp.

(36) So all of the congregation took him outside…


It seems that the story of the gatherer is not really about the sin of an individual.  Rather, it is a story about the Israelites: it is they who are in the wilderness, it is they who find a man transgressing Shabbat, it is they who bring him before the entire congregation (not just before Moshe), waiting to clarify what sort of death sentence applies, and it is they who carry out the sentence. 


Rav Shimshon Refa'el Hirsch explains:


The opening words, "when the Israelites were in the wilderness," as well as the entire formulation of this story, in comparison with the story of the blasphemer – all this shows that the text is placing a strong emphasis here on the initiative of the people… the actions of the Israelites and their involvement, for the sake of the Torah.


What do we learn about the Israelite congregation from this story?  The Midrash (Sifrei, Bamidbar 113) offers the following insight:


"They found a man gathering sticks" – this tells us that Moshe had appointed watchmen, and they found him gathering.

"And those who found him gathering sticks brought him" – why is this repeated?  Is it not already written that "they found a man"?  What new information is added by the words, "those who found him brought him"?  This tells us that they had warned him to desist from his forbidden labor.[7]


From the verses describing the discovery of this man, the Sages deduce that it is not by chance that they find him: there are watchmen, and these watchmen not only "catch" the transgressor, but also try to prevent him from sinning and warn him.  The message, in short, is that there is an attempt on the part of Moshe (and the nation) to prevent sin.


Thus, Parashat Shelach describes spiritual progress.  The Jewish nation, described in the story of the Spies as a congregation of sinners and violators of God's word, is revealed in the narrative of the stick-gatherer as a community seeking to observe and fulfill God's word.  For this congregation, it is important that every individual behaves in accordance with God's commandments.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  For example, Shemot 15:27 – "They came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees;" ibid. 16:1 – "And they journeyed from Elim, and all of the congregation… came to the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai… (2) And all of the congregation of the Israelites complained against Moshe and Aharon in the wilderness;" 17:1 – "And all of the congregation of the Israelites traveled from the Wilderness of Sin, in their journeys by God's word, and they encamped at Refidim, and there was no water;" Bamidbar 10:12 – "And the Israelites traveled in their journeys from the Wilderness of Sinai…"; ibid. 13:2 – "Send for yourself men… and Moshe sent them from the Wilderness of Paran."

[2] Admittedly, following the sin of the Spies, God tells them, "Turn and journey to the wilderness…" (14:25), but we are not told that the Israelites actually do so.

[3]  The Chizkuni summarizes these opinions in his commentary on verse 32: "'Mekoshesh etzim' – one [opinion] says that he carried [the sticks] for a distance of four cubits within the public domain; another says that he broke off [the sticks]; another says that he made them into bundles."  Abravanel adds a further opinion: "He cut large branches into smaller ones."

[4]  It should also be noted that after this verse there is a paragraph break in the Torah text, representing a pause; God's answer does not come immediately.

[5] See, for example, Rashi, the Rashbam, Ibn Ezra.

[6]  Rabbi Akiva identifies the gatherer as Tzelofchad, but Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira finds no adequate support for this in the text (Shabbat 96b): "Our Rabbis taught: 'The stick-gatherer – this was Tzelofchad, for the text says, "And it was, while the Israelites were in the wilderness, that they found a man," and later on it says (27:3), "Our father died in the wilderness."  Since the latter instance is talking about Tzelofchad, we may assume that the former instance is also talking about Tzelofchad' – so says Rabbi Akiva.  Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira counters: 'Akiva, either way, in the future you will have to give an accounting.  If it is as you say, then the Torah [deliberately] conceals his identity, while you are revealing it; if it is not as you say, then you are slandering that righteous man.'"  For an extensive discussion of the issue, see the article by Eliyahu Shai, "Was Tzelofchad the Gatherer?" in Daf Kesher 817, and in Ezra Kahalani's article on the VBM. 

[7] Likewise in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 41a): "Rabbi Yishma'el taught: 'Those who had found him gathering sticks' – [this tells us] that they warned him, but still he continued gathering."