Parashat Bamidbar-- Numbers 1:1-4:20
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Questions for Young Children
• What is a census and why would the Israelites need to take a census?  Do your teachers ever count you?  Why?
• What is the job of Aharon and his sons when the Israelites move from one camp to the other? Why?
• You can think about Aharon’s family as having a job wheel that never changes. How would you feel if you always had the same chore in your house? How do you feel when you help out in your house?

Questions for Older Children
• What are some of the jobs of the Levites? Is it an honor or a burden?
• What tribe would you choose to belong to if you had a choice?
• Why are only Aharon and his sons allowed to dismantle the sanctuary? What will happen if anyone else sees this process or performs it? Why?

Questions for Teens and Adults 

• There is an aversion to counting people in Judaism. If you’ve been to a minyan, you’ll notice that the people are not counted 1,2,3… to see if ten are present. How do you account (pun alert) for this feeling? (see II Samuel 24 for an example of the consequences of counting without God’s approval).
• Why do you think there is such detail about where each tribe camps, who marches first, and the names of the various chieftains (nasi)?
• What’s different about the Levites’ campsite position and why do you think it varies from the other tribes?
• Why do you think the jobs of the Levite families are specified? Do you think the division of labor would cause dissension or enable them to better perform their duties? Why?
• What transition is occurring for B’nei Yisrael in this parasha set in the wilderness?

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Welcome to a new book of the Torah—with a very different name in English (Numbers) than in Hebrew. Bamidbar means in the desert or wilderness. The English name refers to God’s command to Moshe to take a census of the people. There are two separate censuses—one for the Levites and the other for the rest of the people. Kohanim are descended from the Levites, so they are included in the Levite census. The camp arrangement for the twelve tribes is spelled out in this parasha as well as the specific duties of the Levite families. While Numbers may denote the content of the parasha and the book, the Hebrew title, Bamidbar, provides the underlying importance.  The midbar, the wilderness, is a place of transition between Egypt and Eretz Yisrael not just geographically, but spirtually as well. It's a theme worth pursuing throughout the book--how do B'nei Yisrael have to be different to move from slavery to freedom?

Find the food connection…

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד: בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness (desert) of Sinai…
--Numbers 1:1

Dessert! A poor speller may think you’re seeing desert. This moist cake resembles the desert/wilderness of Sinai in its color.

The Side Dish

When I taught, I remember the horror students felt when someone switched seats in the classroom—“he took my seat!” Did he? Is it your special chair or position or are you just used to sitting in the same spot? In synagogue are you used to seeing congregants in the same seats Shabbat after Shabbat? What about around your table? Each of my children had his or her special location at the table and even when sitting alone, it was always at their spot.

The Israelites are assigned positions whenever they set up camp. Was this just an efficiency measure? How do you suppose they felt about "their spot"?  Was one spot better than another?

And now to the Shabbat table. I have given a lot of thought about where to seat people. The grandchildren are seated near a parent who can weigh in on their food choices and cut the food. Great-grandparents always sit facing great-grandchildren—the best view. Then, there is the decision about who should sit with good access to the kitchen and be the designated assistant. Conversation, too, flows differently with different seating. As an experiment, try shaking up the Shabbat seating this week and see what happens.

I hope you can avoid a rebellion.




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Two Dashes of Calendar Trivia
This parasha is always read before Shavu’ot. Can your Shabbat dinner guests create a midrash to answer “why”?

Hint: The parasha begins on the 1st day of the 2nd month. In ancient times, the first day of each month was a holiday and an announcement time for B’nei Yisrael. The first month was Aviv, now called Nisan.

A Dash of Math
Since we’re beginning the book of Numbers, this is a good Shabbat to talk about Gematria. For an article on the topic, see a Masorti rabbi’s essay:

In Gematria each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is accorded an assigned number depending on its placement in the alef-bet. For example het=8 and yud=10 so Hai (spelled het-yud), the Hebrew word for “life,” is connected to the numeral 18.
At your table, you can try adding up the numerals of each person’s Hebrew name and see if you find any meaning in the numbers. If you have very ambitious young mathematicians at the table, there is a host of names in the parasha to compute.  It should keep guests very busy between courses. 
Here’s a table of equivalents to help you out:
Alef=1 Bet=2 Gimel=3 Dalet=4
Hey=5 Vav=6 Zayin=7 Het=8
Tet=9 Yud=10 Kaf=20 Lamed=30
Mem=40 Nun=50 Samekh=60 Ayin=70
Pei=80 Tzadi=90 Kuf-100 Reysh=200
Shin=300 Tav=400

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The 12 Ingredient Desert-Dessert Applesauce Cake
Pareve and Vegan--Makes 1 loaf but easy to double

Ingredientsrsz 01 bamidbar cake copy

  • 1 cup natural applesauce (no added sugar)
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp. hot water
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 2 Tbsp. sherry or rum
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped coarsely
  • 1 cup raisins


  1. Soak raisins in the sherry or rum and set aside.
  2. Combine: applesauce, sugar, salt, and oil in a mixer.
  3. Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water and add to the applesauce mixture with the spices.
  4. Continue mixing and add the flour reserving 2 Tbsp.
  5. Coat the raisins with the reserved flour and stir in the batter together with the walnuts.
  6. Bake @350º 45 min.-1 hour in a standard loaf pan.

The cake freezes well. Lining the loaf pan with foil allows you to lift the cake out of the pan easily once it has cooled.

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