A Surprising Request
Bemidbar 9 opens with the command to sacrifice the Pesach in the second year in the Sinai Wilderness, and it then recounts the request of a group of ritually impure people to be allowed to participate in the Paschal offering:
(ו) וַיְהִי אֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לַעֲשֹׂת הַפֶּסַח בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיִּקְרְבוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וְלִפְנֵי אַהֲרֹן בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא. (ז) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵמָּה אֵלָיו אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶת קׇרְבַּן י"י בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
(6) But there were certain men, who were unclean by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day. (7) And those men said unto him: 'We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed season among the children of Israel?'
Their petition is somewhat surprising. Given the general prohibition to eat from sacrifices while impure,1 what were the people expecting of Moshe? Were they asking him for a special dispensation and that he override a Torah ruling? If so, why did they think they deserved one, or that Moshe would be able to acquiesce? Alternatively, were they arguing on legal grounds that the prohibition did or should not apply to them? Why might they have felt that either their particular impurity, or the case of the Paschal sacrifice, was exceptional? Were there any legal precedents that were comparable to their situation?
- "אֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם" – Who were these ritually impure people who approached Moshe? Were the circumstances by which they became impure unusual that they might have thought that, despite their status, they should nonetheless not miss out on the offering?
- "בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא" – Why did the people wait until the fourteenth of Nisan to ask Moshe about their impure status? Does this imply that they realized that they would not be included only on that very day, or, had they simply first become impure right then? When were the laws of ritual impurity taught to the nation?
- "לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶת קׇרְבַּן י"י" – The people speak specifically about sacrificing. Does that suggest that they were requesting only to join in the sacrificial aspect of the rite (its slaughtering and blood rites) rather than the eating of the offering, or are they really referring to the whole ritual? Which aspect was the main focus of the Pesach?2
- "בְּמֹעֲדוֹ" – The petitioners ask that they be able to bring the offering "in its time". What do they mean by this? Did they have any reason to think that they would be allowed to bring it on a different day, that they specifically request to bring it in its proper time?
- Moshe's lack of knowledge – Why were the laws of Pesach Sheni taught to Moshe only in the aftermath of the people's request?
- Hashem's response – Does Hashem reply in the affirmative to the people, or is His offer of a make-up date essentially a rejection of their arguments?
A Parallel Petition
Our story has several points of contact with the request of the daughters of Zelophchad in Bemidbar 27. In both cases, a group of people approach Moshe ("וַתִּקְרַבְנָה/ וַיִּקְרְבוּ... לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה") asking for a modification of a legal ruling, lest they "miss out" (לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם אָבִינוּ/ לָמָּה נִגָּרַע). Additionally, on both occasions, Moshe is unsure of how to rule and presents the case before Hashem. Finally, in both, Hashem appears to acquiesce to the appealing parties, and a law ("חֻקָּה") is then enacted for the future as well. How do the petitions of these two groups compare to each other? Can the plea of the daughters of Zelophchad shed any light on the nature of the request of the impure men of our chapter?