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Hirsch At Your Table

The Spoils of War

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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ויביאו אל משה ואל אלעזר הכהן ואל עדת בני ישראל את השבי ואת המלקוח ואת השלל אל המחנה אל ערבות מואב אשר על ירדן ירחו. (Nm 31:12)
Moshe sends an army of 12,000 soldiers under the command of Pinchas, to destroy the Midianites. The Jews defeat the Midianistes and bring the spoils of war to Moshe and to the Jewish leadership who were camped in the plains near the Jordan River opposite Jericho.

One of R. Hirsch's basic theses is that there are no real synonyms in the Hebrew language. Each word belongs to a family of words that have a common meaning. Therefore if a Torah verse describing the booty taken from the Midianites, lists three different words, each word must connote s different type of booty. Hirsch analyzes the three words used to describe the booty that was brought back to the Israelite camp: שבי, מלקוח, שלל.

The word שבי is from the root ש-ב-ה which means "to increase by absorbing captives". Cognates of this root include ס-פ-ח /attach, ש-פ-ע/abound, צ-ב-ה/swell, all of which connote "increasing". The word מלקוח is from the root ל-ק-ח which means "to take" and to hold. The word שלל is from the root ש-ל-ל "to seize and take something away".


Each of these words refers to a different category of material captured from the Midianites. The word שלל is the most general concept in that it can refer to all kinds of booty, animate and inanimate. Its basic meaning is "to take something away from somewhere". It does not necessarily include forcefully taking, but only the removal of an object from the possession of one person to that of another.

The מלקוח refers to that part of the booty that is mobile or animate and that requires "gripping" in order to hold on to it. This would refer to animals (and humans). The שבי specifically refers to the human beings who were taken captive. People taken captive enable the society to expand its power by virtue of the added talents and potential which are absorbed into the society.

The Torah text goes on to tell us that Moshe reacted negatively to this entire matter. He vented his anger on the commanders of the army who ignored his command. He tells them that the purpose of the war exercise was to eliminate that population that constantly attacked Israel and that sought to subvert its relationship with God. There was no intention to benefit materially from the war. He then instructs the commanders to execute those captives who could have participated in any of these anti Israelite activities.

The text then moves to the question of טומאה for those who had engaged in fighting and killing.

The word טומאה is from the root ט-מ-א which means "to contaminate". In our verse is refers to the condition of the lack of cleanliness.


This טומאה issue relates not only to the soldiers but also to those captives not executed. However, there is no question of טומאה for a non Jew. It just doesn’t apply. Therefore those שבוים had to be converted in order for טומאה to apply.

This reinforces R. Hirsch’s explanation of the root of שבי as being of the family of roots that connote "to increase". These captives were indeed absorbed into the Israel society adding their talents and powers to the new nation.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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