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Torah Sparks

July 12, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Num. 19:1 - 25:9 (Hertz, p. 652; Etz Hayim, p. 880)
Triennial Cycle II: Num. 21:21 - 22:38 (Hertz, p. 662; Etz Hayim, p. 891)
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 - 6:8 (Hertz, p. 682; Etz Hayim, p. 914)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Donkeys Talking?

Then the Lord opened the donkey's mouth, and she said to Bilam, 'What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?' Bilam said to the donkey, 'You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you.' The donkey said to Bilam, 'Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?' And he answered, 'No.'" (Numbers 22:28-30)


  1. Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" (Genesis 3:1) The serpent is the evil prompter. (Bava Batra 16a)
  2. Although he is small in appearance, he does much damage. The Torah describes things figuratively by various names which are similar to them, just as a king is called 'lion' as it says 'A lion is gone up from his thicket' (Jeremiah 4:7), or enemies who do harm, 'serpents, adders,' as it says, 'For behold I will send serpents, adders, among you which will not be charmed' (Jeremiah 8:17). (Just as a lion is used by the prophet to represent Nebuchadnezzar and adders to represent the enemies of Israel, so the serpent represents Satan and the evil inclination which is within the human being leading him astray.) In this manner the evil inclination which tempts man is called 'serpent,' for he is similar to a serpent, which is an animal with limited utility but great potential to do harm though small in appearance. Our Sages have told us that Samael (the accuser; Angel of Death) rode on the serpent meaning that the power of lust, bringing to sin, accomplishes its end through the medium of the power of imagination which brings to man visions of physical, material pleasures, which lead him astray from the way of perfection intended by God. (Sforno on Genesis 3:1)
  3. Rav Saadia Gaon stated, now that it has become clear to us, that the ability to speak and think was given over only to human beings. Thus, we must say that the serpent and the donkey did not, in fact, speak. Rather, an angel spoke for them. But it seems to me that we should take the words of the Torah literally. Namely, the serpent did speak, and it walked upright. And the One that gave human beings the ability to think, gave the serpent and donkey that power too. And the verse (3:1) attests to this in that it states that the serpent was "arum" (shrewdest) of all the wild beasts, a comparison made relative to the animals not the humans. And the word "arum" means wise. (Ibn Ezra on Genesis 3:1)
  4. The truth is that the donkey did speak. And if you understand the mystery of the angels that appeared to Abraham as people and the mystery of the angels who appeared to Jacob as people, then you will understand the miracle of the donkey, namely, that God can cause a human being to see angels as people and can cause other supernatural phenomena such as a talking donkey. (Ibn Ezra on Numbers 22:28)
  5. God gave the donkey the power to speak just as we pray, "May the Lord open my lips and mouth to utter praises" (Psalms 51:17). All of this was meant to arouse Bilam to do teshuva, to repent, and be reminded that "from the Lord comes the utterances of the tongue" (Proverbs 16:1), even to one who is unprepared. How much more so that God can remove this power according to His will from one who is prepared. Now all this happened so that a man such as he not be destroyed (i.e. God was concerned for Bilam's welfare and did not want him to bring calamity on himself; apparently, Bilam was a man of great spiritual powers which were sadly channeled improperly, but nonetheless, it would have been tragic for such a person to be destroyed despite the fact that such potential was squandered). (Sforno on Numbers 22:28)
  6. Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the mouth of the donkey. (Avot 5:6)
  7. Since the law of nature was established by God, it was God's wish that it not be interfered with under any circumstance. But since God foresaw certain emergencies in the history of His people that would require special intervention in the normal operation of nature, God made provisions for them at the final completion of creation before the nightfall, which ushered in the first Sabbath. (Maimonides on Avot 5:6)
  8. It is, however, possible that God who gave the donkey the power of speech, also bestowed upon her an additional power of vision, so that she saw the likeness of a human being, although Scripture does not mention it. Thus God opened the eyes of the donkey and she indeed saw the angel, just as Scripture mentions later in regard to her master, "And the Eternal opened the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the angel of the Eternal" (28:31). For the whole matter of the donkey was a great miracle, being a new creation like those that were created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath, and it is not merely called "an opening of eyes." However, our Rabbis have only mentioned among the miracles the opening of the mouth of the donkey although the whole matter-and especially her seeing the angel-was miraculous in nature. The reason for this miracle was to show Bilam "Who has made man's mouth or who makes a man mute" (Exodus 4:11), and since God can make the mute speak, how much more so can God can make the mute speak, how much more so can God make mute at His will the mouth of tho se who can speak, and can also put words into their mouths, so that they speak in accordance with His will, for everything is in His power. It was thus a warning to Bilam not to follow enchantments and soothsaying, and not to curse Israel thereby, because he was primarily an enchanter and soothsayer.(Nachmanides on Numbers 22:28)
  9. The donkey talking was an event that he saw in a dream as if God had opened the mouth of the donkey to cause it to speak. (Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) on Numbers 22:28)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

How do we deal with talking donkeys and serpents in the Bible? Assuming the constancy of nature that the flowers bloom today as they bloomed thousands of years ago, and that animals today walk and communicate the way they did thousands of years ago, why do we not have talking snakes and donkeys today? Which of the above explanations sits best with you? Did all of this happen in a dream? Was there a Divine ventriloquist at work? Are these stories allegories?

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