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Parashat Beha’alotcha – A Prophetic Postscript

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

A Prophetic Postscript

As Moshe’s prophetic spirit is shared with the elders selected to the first Sanhedrin, the Torah states: “Va’yitnabu [they prophesied], v’lo yasafu.”

A fascinating debate emerges among the early biblical commentaries regarding the biblical disclaimer v’lo yasafu. Reflected in this dispute are two diametrically opposed positions concerning the prophetic vision evidenced by the elders at this critical historical moment.

The Sifrei maintains that the term yasafu derives from the term l’hosif, to add or continue. The phrase v’lo yasafu, therefore, means “and did not continue.” The gift of prophecy experienced by the elders was a transient phenomenon, specific to the moment.

Targum Onkelos disagrees. Apparently maintaining that the term yasafu derives from the root sof (end), Onkelos interprets the phrase v’lo yasafu to mean “and did not end.” The prophetic vision granted to the elders, Onkelos argues, was permanent and did not cease with their ascension to leadership.

Why do these scholars stake out such widely varying positions concerning the nature of the elders’ prophetic vision? Is this dispute simply a linguistic argument, or does it mirror a deeper philosophical divide?


A case can perhaps be made that the debate between the Sifrei and the Targum reflects a fundamental tension in our approach to the very process of halacha, a tension mirrored at the pivotal moment of the Sanhedrin’s creation.

Reflecting the normative approach to halachic jurisprudence, the Sifrei maintains: Lo ba’shamayim hi, the law is not in the heavens. Once transmitted to the Jewish nation at Sinai, Jewish law is to be decided by sages, not by prophets. The tools of the posek (halachic decisor) are the posek’s own scholarship, his intellectual acumen, his loyalty to the halachic process, his familiarity with the vast repository of earlier halachic discussions, and his understanding of his people and his times. Prophecy has no continuing place in this process, for at Sinai God hands the law over to man.

The Sifrei is therefore adamant. A transient prophetic event launches the inauguration of the Sanhedrin, granting that central legal body its divine approbation. After that moment, however, prophetic vision is no longer a component in the Sanhedrin’s continued functioning.

There is, however, another, spiritual dimension to the unfolding of Jewish law. For all its intellectual character, the law remains our most direct mode of communion with the mystery of God’s will. Sparks of ruach hakodesh, holy or divine spirit, are therefore seen by many as guiding the decisions of the rabbis across the ages.

How strongly one perceives the presence of this sanctified spirit in the workings of halacha depends on one’s background and philosophical outlook.

Those with an intellectual bent will, of course, minimize any sense of mystery in the halachic process. To their view, as indicated above, the beauty of the law is specifically reflected in its human character, in its definition as a divine law given to the hands of man. Others, however, approaching Jewish tradition from a more mystical perspective, will see the guiding hand of God clearly in the halacha’s unfolding. True, they maintain, the track of the law is determined by the sages; but the decisions of those sages mirror the will of God. Perhaps Onkelos roots his understanding of the events surrounding the birth of the Sanhedrin upon this latter approach to Jewish law. The gift of prophecy, he insists, remains with the elders throughout their lives, a precursor of the ruach hakodesh that will shape the decisions of their spiritual heirs in every generation.

A linguistic debate emerging from the moment of the Sanhedrin’s birth may be just that: a simple dispute over the translation of a biblical term. Or this debate may be much more: a foreshadowing of the tension that will characterize our approach to Jewish law across the ages.