In describing the layout of B'nei Yisra'el's camp in the wilderness, the Torah records four groups (called d'galim) comprising 3 tribes each, and lists them in order, dictating a diagram of how they traveled. After finishing with the lead tribe in each group the Torah introduces the next tribe using the formula

‫וְהַחוֹנִם עָלָיו מַטֵּה X‬

And camping adjacent to [tribe Y] was tribe X

The preposition that the Torah uses for "adjacent" is "עָלָיו", which could be misinterpreted as its more standard meaning, "upon". Thus, Unkelus translates the phrase unambiguously as

‫ודי שרן סמיכין עלוהי שבטא דX‬

And those who camped adjacent to it were tribe X

This is the translation three out of four times this formula appears (in Num. 2:5,12, and 27). The fourth time, when a slightly different phrasing is used (in 2:20), leaving out the verb, Unkelus follows suit, literally translating

‫ודסמיכין עלוהי שבטא דX‬

And those adjacent to it were tribe X

Only this time does Rash"i comment, seemingly to explain the meaning of "עליו", by quoting Unkelus. His comment reads in full:

ועליו - כתרגומו ודסמיכין עלוהי‏

"And upon it" - Like its translation [by Unkelus]: "and those adjacent to it"

Rash"i is assuming we were able to figure out the meaning of this word the other three times either on our own or with the help of Unkelus, but this time not. Why is this? What is he uniquely adding to our understanding of this pasuk?

  • 1
    If I ran across a situation like this, I would look towards the midrashim and see if there is a greater lesson being hinted at here.
    – avi
    Aug 28, 2011 at 21:14

1 Answer 1


Sifsei Chachamim (Bamidbar 2:20):

לעיל לא צריך רש"י לפרש מידי, שהרי גבי "ועליו" כתיב "והחונים" אם כן ודאי פירושו כתרגומו, אבל כאן אין כתיב כלום רק ועליו מטה מנשה אם כן אין אני יודע פירושו, לכן פירש רש"י כתרגומו

Apparently, Rashi felt that the wording "והחונים עליו" is clear enough as meaning "adjacent to", but just "עליו" is ambiguous and therefore refers to the Targum for clarification.

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    What is so ambiguous? There are many places in the Torah where the word means "next to" based on the context, yet Rashi is quiet. It seems that there might be an alternate meaning here (certainly not "upon") that Rashi is addressing.
    – YDK
    Aug 28, 2011 at 21:31
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    Grammatically, the use of "עליו" here in favor of another preposition is dealt with by Ibn Ezra. I can see Rashi's problem, though. It is not so ambiguous when the verb is used with it as in the previous three times, but to say just "ועליו" without the verb is a bit confusing. Maybe there is a reason the Torah omitted the verb in this pasuk, but Rashi is only interested in the p'shat in this case.
    – jake
    Aug 28, 2011 at 21:40
  • I'm betting 100 reputation points that a midrash exists which this Rashi is addressing.
    – avi
    Aug 30, 2011 at 8:38

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