Massei: Round and Round it Goes ~ The Wonders of the Holy Tongue



This shall be for you the northern border: from the Great Sea תְּתָאוּ to Mount Hor. From Mount Hor תְּתָאוּ to the approach to Hamath … וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם  for you as the eastern border (Num.34: 7-10)

Most of the Scriptural commentators (e.g., Rashbam) interpret the words וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם and תְּתָאוּ as expressions of a border/boundary, with Rashbam defining תְּתָאוּ as תַּתְּחִימוּ, you shall make a boundary. The verse would then read as follows: from the Great Sea draw a border to Mount Hor. From Mount Hor draw a border to the approach to Hamath … You shall make a boundary for yourselves as the eastern border from Hazar-enan to Shefam. Others (e.g., Ibn Ezra), however, see its root as תו, with the letter א’ superfluous — in the sense of, וְהִתְוִיתָ תָּיו,  and mark a sign (Ezek. 9:4). That is, it refers to the drawing of the line that marks the border, rather than the defining of the border itself.  While Radak, in his comments to Psalms 78:41, also references the Ezekiel verse, in his Book of Roots he offers three different possibilities for the root — אוה, תאה, or תאה — without making a definitive choice.

Similarly, in the verse, The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents to the תַּאֲוַת of the world’s hills (Gen. 49:26), Rashi (citing Menachem ben Saruk) defines the term תַּאֲוַת as end/boundary, and links it to the two words in this portion, וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם and תְּתָאוּ (Rashbam and Radak define it similarly). That is, the blessings will be so great that they will reach until the end boundaries of the world.

Yet despite the fact that Rashi there links וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם and תְּתָאוּ to the term boundary, in his commentary to verse 7 here, he interprets  תְּתָאוּ לָכֶם הֹר הָהָרּ as, “you shall incline, veering from west to north in the direction of Mount Hor.” Likewise, in verse 10, he defines וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם as “an expression of turning and veering.” The question beckons: why was Rashi  not satisfied  with the plain interpretation of a boundary or border  cited by all the aforementioned commentators, and seems to link it to inclining/turning/veering?

However, we find support for Rashi’s interpretation in Onkelos, who translates both תְּתָאוּ and וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם as תְּכַוְנוּן, which means turn/change direction towards. Perhaps Onkelos  felt that the unique terms תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם are intended to connote the distinct twists and turns that highlight the design of Israel’s borders, as necessitated by the local topography. It is for this reason that Rashi specifies the precise characteristics of the northern boundary, which necessitates a bending border that twists and inclines as it follows the nature of the terrain, noting that Mount Hor, in the northwestern corner of the land, extends outwards into the sea, so that the sea runs on both sides of the mountain. In this manner, Onkelos and Rashi teach us about the distinctiveness of these boundaries, in contrast to the straight-line border that would have been implied had Scripture stated here וְהִתְוִיתָ תָּיו, and mark a sign (as it does in Ezekiel 9:4), or similar expressions that denote a plain, straight boundary.

However, Rashi also offers additional support for his proposed interpretation by suggesting that the verbs תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶםare derived from the noun תָּא. Defined variably as a  cabin, chamber, or cellRashi argues that its meaning in the verse, and then return them to the  תָּא of the runners (II Chron. 12:11), and in the verse, the  תָאֵי of the eastern gate (Ezek 40:10), is a lean-to (appendiz  in Old French), “which is a circular  and slanty” attachment to a building. This, he explains, is why the verb תְּתָאוּ means turn.

In his commentary to Ezekiel, Rabbeinu Chananel (who preceded Rashi  by approximately 50 years) preceded him in linking bothוְתָאֵי  andתָּא  to the verb תתאו )more recently, Metz. Tzion  ]to the Ezek. Verse[ also links these verbs to the noun תָּא, but based on its being located on the outside boundary of the building(. However, it is only Rashi who specifies the slanty/circular  nature of the lean-to as the basis of the respective verbs’ meanings. We must therefore understand: How is this small cabin related to the borders of Israel, and what does Rashi seek to teach us by his effort to link these two concepts?

The Sanctuary (הֵיכָל) and Inner Sanctum (דְּבִיר) of the Temple were lined with rooms/compartments  that served various different purposes (these תָּאִים are also referred to variously in Scripture and the Talmud by the synonyms ‘צלע’ and ‘יציע’ [see B.B. 61a]). The nature of their configuration is described in I Kings (6:5-6):Against the wall of the Temple he built an annex  (יָצִיעַ) all around, [built into] the walls of the Temple all around the Sanctuary and the Inner Sanctum. The lowest [story] of the annex, its width [was] five cubits; the middle [story], six cubits its width, and the third [story], seven cubits its width; for he had provided recesses around the outside of the wall of the Temple, in order not to penetrate the walls of the Temple.

Thus, the compartments  surrounded the Sanctuary walls on three sides, and were built on top of each other in three stories. However, rather than anchoring the beams of the annex’s upper stories to the walls by attaching pegs through holes in the walls (which would be deemed an inappropriate and non-esthetic damaging of the walls – Rashi), the wall was indented by one cubit at different levels, so as to form ledges upon which the beams could be placed – with the top story inserted two cubits into the wall, and the middle story inserted one cubit. Furthermore, as stated in Ezekiel (41:6-7), one ascended from the ground level compartments to the second and third level compartments above them via spiral staircases, in which one ascended the steps while circling a central post, as Rashi explains there.

Thus, since the highest level only extended outwards four cubits from the outer Sanctuary wall, the second level extended outwards five cubits, and the bottom level extended outwards six cubits, the three-level design of the compartments was at an incline as one descended from above. Hence, the compartment design contained both this incline, as well as the need to turn and encircle as one ascended the staircase. Thus did these compartments parallel the design of the borders of Israel, with sharp turns at several locations, and with the indent at Mount Hor that made the sea surround like a peninsula, as described in the aforementioned Rashi.

Let us now return to our earlier discussion of the unique terms Scripture uses to describe the borders of Israel. However, we have yet to mention an important introductory remark by Rashi  in verse 2 above regarding the significance of these borders. Rashi  notes: “Since there are many commandments that only apply within the Land [of Israel], but do not apply outside the Land, it is necessary to write the precise design of its outer boundaries, so as to tell us that [it is only] from these borders inward that these commandments apply.”

Now, this seems perplexing. Is it then necessary to provide a nation with a specific reason as to why it needs to define its national borders? Are the usual reasons that apply to every nation’s borders not sufficient reason to define such borders?

However, the answer is that Israel is indeed very different from all other lands, and the design of its borders cannot be compared to the standard border designations of all other lands. For every speck of sand that is contained within these borders is suffused with importance and holiness, as well as Halachic consequences. Scripture could have theoretically depicted a simple map that encompasses the entire land, and the picture might even have been clearer and more easily understood from certain perspectives. However, by repeating the phrase וְנָסַב הַגְבוּל, and the border shall go around, several times, as well as adding the unique verbsתְּתָאוּ  and וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם, the Torah wishes to impart to us that every minor turn of the boundary, every peninsula , every inlet, and every crack of this desirable land – is of inestimable significance.


Until this point, we have only mentioned the  commentaries which interpreted תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם as relating purely to borders. However, it is impossible to avoid comment on the “elephant in the room,” i.e., the seeming phonetic and contextual connection between the verbs תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶםand the word תַּאֲוָה, desire/want. Many have commented on the links between border  design and desire  that are alluded to by this similarity [see, for example, Midrash Zuta (Gen.  49:26); Midrash HaChafetz (Num. 34:10); Eleph HaMagen (ibid.); Tal Oros/Migdal David (Ps. 21:3); Tosaf. HaShalem (Gen. 3:6)]. Indeed, according to Radak (Sharashim, root ‘אוה’), both of these concepts are derived from the root ‘אוה’ (although he fails to explain the nature of their connection, and also proposes alternative roots, as above).

However, R’ Samson Rafael Hirsch (Num.  34:10) does offer an explanation as to how these terms are connected. He notes that in the verse, and you shall not desire (תִתְאַוֶּה)  your fellow’s house (Deut. 5:18), the word תִתְאַוֶּה denotes one’s aspiration to broaden the boundaries of his possessions, by adding a newly desired item to the framework of his wealth.  Similarly, in our verses, תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶםmeans to stretch and expand the marker that is used to designate precisely how far out the boundaries of our property – i.e., the borders of our land – extend, and what is contained within their framework. By contrast, for Rashi, the aim is always to establish first and foremost the plain meaning of the verse. Given therefore that this portion describes the national borders, the primary import of these verbs must be in the context of border designation, with any other potential meanings constituting homiletic understandings alone.


We noted earlier that Rashi  quotes Machberet Menachem  as a source for the link between the words תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶםin our verses, and the noun תַּאֲוַת in the verse, The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents to the תַּאֲוַת of the world’s hills (Gen. 49:26), with its meaning there being end/boundary. However, upon inspection of the source, while we indeed find this linkage under the root ‘תא’, he also provides a second subcategory in which he lists the word describing the compartments: תָאֵי, תָּאִים, and תָּאָיו in Ezek (40:10, 16, 36). This would appear to be Rashi’s  source for linking the two concepts of תְּתָאוּ/ וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶםand the noun תָּא (compartment/lean-to), since both these verbs and the noun תָּא are derived from the same root ‘תא’.

We also noted that Rashi  links the verbs in this portion with the noun תָּא based on two directional and design similarities between them, namely, incline and turning/circling. In the case of the borders, the edge of Mount Hor extends into the sea, so that it is partially surrounded by water, and the mountain also inclines into the water on its outer edge. Likewise, parts of the Sanctuary’s compartments extended into the Sanctuary walls, and there was an incline in their contours due to the lower levels extending further outward than those above them.  Additionally, the expanse of the Sanctuary and Inner Sanctum were surrounded on three sides by the system of compartments, just as Mount Hor was surrounded by seawater on a section of its boundaries. Finally, the inner design of the compartments was circular and inclined, on account of the spiral staircases. Rashi seemingly alluded to this aspect by defining the word תְּתָאוּ as an expression of circling/turning, and linking it to the lean-tos  mentioned in the verses in Ezekiel and II Chronicles, which he notes are circular  and inclined.

However, there appears to be an even deeper stratum to the comparison between the borders of Israel and the compartments. For we mentioned earlier Rashi’s  introductory note to the portion on boundaries, in which he emphasizes that the primary need for clearly defined borders in Israel was to delineate precisely where the commandments that are linked to the land apply, for each twist, turn and incline has actual Halachic consequences. Precisely the same holds true for the compartments of the Sanctuary. For we find in the Talmud that many laws regarding ritual contamination and the eating of sacrifices, tithes, and other sacred foods are delineated by certain boundaries. The outer walls of Jerusalem were themselves included in the boundaries of Jerusalem with respect to the eating of the Pesach offering , so that if one sat on the wall itself, it was deemed as if he was in Jerusalem proper (see Pesachim 7:1). Likewise, with respect to the prohibition banning a contaminated person from entering the sacred grounds of the Temple Courtyard, the depth of its outer walls are also considered part of the Courtyard under certain circumstances, and one is deemed to have violated this ban if he climbs onto the wall itself (see Maaser Sheni 3:8, and Rambam’s Commentary ad loc.). The same is true with respect to the Sanctuary compartments, since the Sanctuary wall is the marker that separates between the elevated sanctity of the Sanctuary itself, and the lesser sanctity in the Courtyard area outside its walls. A Kohen who enters the Sanctuary without having washed his hands and feet is liable to death, but that is not the case outside of the Sanctuary (see Keilim 1:8-9). Thus, if the walls of the Sanctuary are also deemed equivalent to the Sanctuary itself, there may be life or death consequences depending on where the wall begins and ends. Thus, the compartments, which are built over the thickness of the walls, are part and parcel of this delineation. So too if the Kohen ascends from a lower level compartment to one of the upper level compartments through the spiral staircases, it may be necessary for him to wash his hands and feet, since the upper chamber is built over the wall, whereas the lower one is not.

To summarize, the comparison between the descriptions of the national boundaries alluded to in the words תְּתָאוּ/וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶם, and the design details of the Temple compartments that are called תָּאִים, is an extraordinarily precise comparison, since each one has very serious Halachic consequences that are determined by its precise details.

Closing Prayer: May it be the will of the Holy One, blessed is He, that He convert our desire (תַּאֲוָה) to witness the Temple Service and the Levite Song on His holy Mount into a reality, and in so doing, He shall turn (יִסוֹב) our mourning into joy and celebration (מְסִיבָּה) speedily in our times, Amen.





Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg