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Balak (parsha)

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Balak (בלק — Hebrew for “Balak,” a name, the second word, and the first distinctive word, in the parshah) is the 40th weekly Torah portion (parshah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the seventh in the book of Numbers. It constitutes Numbers 22:2–25:9. Jews in the Diaspora generally read it in late June or July.

The lunisolar Hebrew calendar contains up to 55 weeks, the exact number varying among years. In most years (for example, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 ), parshah Balak is read separately. In some years (for example, 2009), parshah Balak is combined with the previous parshah, Chukat, to help achieve the appropriate number of weekly readings.

Breenbergh Costal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass

Coastal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass (painting by Bartholomeus Breenbergh)


Holman Balaam Receiving Balaks Messengers

Balaam Receiving Balak’s Messengers (illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible)

Balak’s invitation to Balaam

Holman Balaam and the Angel

Balaam and the Angel (illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible)

Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, grew alarmed at the Israelites’ military victories among the Amorites. (Numbers 22:2–4.) He consulted with the elders of Midian and sent elders of Moab and Midian to the land by the Euphrates to invite the prophet Balaam to come and curse the Israelites for him. (Numbers 22:4–7.) Balaam told them: “Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the Lord may instruct me.” (Numbers 22:8.) God came to Balaam and said: “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:9–12.) In the morning, Balaam asked Balak’s dignitaries to leave, as God would not let him go with them, and they left and reported Balaam’s answer to Balak. (Numbers 22:13–14.) Then Balak sent more numerous and distinguished dignitaries, who offered Balaam rich rewards in return for damning the Israelites. (Numbers 22:15–17.) But Balaam replied: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.” (Numbers 22:18.) But Balaam invited the dignitaries to stay overnight to let Balaam find out what else God might say to him, and that night God told Balaam: “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.” (Numbers 22:19–20.)

Gustav Jaeger Bileam Engel

Balaam and the Angel (painting by Gustav Jaeger)

Tissot Balaam and the Ass

Balaam and the Ass (painting by James Tissot)

Balaam and the donkey

In the morning, Balaam saddled his donkey and departed with the dignitaries, but God was incensed at his going and placed an angel in Balaam’s way. (Numbers 22:21–22.) When the donkey saw the angel standing in the way holding his drawn sword, the donkey swerved from the road into the fields, and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. (Numbers 22:23.) The angel then stationed himself in a lane with a fence on either side. (Numbers 22:24.) Seeing the angel, the donkey pressed herself and Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he beat her again. (Numbers 22:25.) The angel then stationed himself on a narrow spot that allowed no room to swerve right or left, and the donkey lay down under Balaam, and Balaam became furious and beat the ass with his stick. (Numbers 22:26–27.) Then God allowed the donkey to speak, and she complained to Balaam. (Numbers 22:28–30.) And then God allowed Balaam to see the angel, and Balaam bowed down to the ground. (Numbers 22:31.) The angel questioned Balaam for beating his donkey, noting that she had saved Balaam’s life. (Numbers 22:32–33.) Balaam admitted his error and offered to turn back if the angel still disapproved. (Numbers 22:34.) But the angel told Balaam: “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.” So Balaam went on. (Numbers 22:35.)

Balaam’s blessing

Figures Balaam blessing the Israelites

Balaam Blessing the Israelites (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)

Balak went out to meet Balaam on the Arnon border, and asked him why he didn’t come earlier. (Numbers 22:36–37.) But Balaam told Balak that he could utter only the words that God put into his mouth. (Numbers 22:38.) They went together to Kiriath-huzoth, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and they ate. (Numbers 22:39–40.) In the morning, Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth-Baal, overlooking the Israelites. (Numbers 22:41.) Balaam had Balak build seven altars, and they offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. (Numbers 23:1–2.) Then Balaam asked Balak to wait while Balaam went off alone to see if God would grant him a manifestation. (Numbers 23:3.) God appeared to Balaam and told him what to say. (Numbers 23:4–5.)

Balaam returned and said: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Lord has not doomed? . . . Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, may my fate be like theirs!” (Numbers 23:6–10.) Balak complained that he had brought Balaam to damn the Israelites, but instead Balaam blessed them. (Numbers 23:11.) Balaam replied that he could only repeat what God put in his mouth. (Numbers 23:12.)

Baal Ugarit Louvre AO17330

Baal (14th-12th century B.C.E. bronze figurine from Ugarit)

Then Balak took Balaam to the summit of Pisgah, once offered a bull and a ram on each of seven altars, and once again Balaam asked Balak to wait while Balaam went off alone to seek a manifestation, and once again God told him what to say. (Numbers 23:13–16.) Balaam returned and told Balak: “My message was to bless: When He blesses, I cannot reverse it. No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel. The Lord their God is with them.” (Numbers 23:17–21.) Then Balak told Balaam at least not to bless them, but Balaam replied that he had to do whatever God directed. (Numbers 23:25–26.)

Then Balak took Balaam to the peak of Peor, and once offered a bull and a ram on each of seven altars. (Numbers 23:27–30.) Balaam, seeing that it pleased God to bless Israel, immediately turned to the Israelites and blessed them: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! . . . They shall devour enemy nations, crush their bones, and smash their arrows. . . . Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” (Numbers 24:1–9.) Enraged, Balak complained and dismissed Balaam. (Numbers 24:10–11.) Balaam replied once again that he could not do contrary to God’s command, and blessed Israelites once again, saying: “A scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab.” (Numbers 24:11–24.) Then Balaam set out back home, and Balak went his way. (Numbers 24:25.)

The sin of Baal-peor

While the Israelites stayed at Shittim, the people went whoring with the Moabite women and worshiped their god Baal-peor, enraging God. (Numbers 25:1–3.) God told Moses to impale the ringleaders, and Moses directed Israel’s officials to slay those who had attached themselves to Baal-peor. (Numbers 25:4–5.) When one of the Israelites publicly brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, Phinehas son of Eleazar took a spear, followed the Israelite into the chamber, and stabbed the Israelite and the woman through the belly. (Numbers 25:6–8.) Then the plague against the Israelites was checked, having killed 24,000. (Numbers 25:8–9.)

In classical rabbinic interpretation

Numbers chapter 22

Nuremberg chronicles f 30r 2

Balaam and the Angel (illustration from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)

Classical Rabbinic interpretation viewed Balaam unfavorably. The Mishnah taught that Balaam was one of four commoners who have no portion in the world to come, along with Doeg, Ahitophel, and Gehazi. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:2; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 90a.) Following the teaching of Rabbi Joshua, the Gemara deduced from the Mishnah’s statement that the gentile Balaam would not enter the world to come that other gentiles would do so. The Gemara read Balaam’s name to demonstrate that he was “without a people” (belo am). Alternatively, the Gemara read Balaam’s name to demonstrate that he “confused a people” (bilah am), namely the Israelites. Noting the similarity of Balaam’s father name Beor to the Aramaic word for “beast” (be’ir), the Gemara read the allusion to Balaam’s father in Numbers 22:5 to demonstrate that Balaam committed bestiality. A Tanna taught that Beor was the same person as Cushan-rishathaim and Laban. As rishathaim means “two evils,” the Tanna deduced from the name Cushan-rishathaim that Beor perpetrated two evils on Israel — one in pursuing Jacob in Genesis 31:23-29 and the other by oppressing the Jews in Judges 3:8. Noting that Numbers 22:5 calls Balaam “the son of Beor” while Numbers 24:3 says of Balaam “his son [was] Beor,” Rabbi Johanan deduced that Balaam’s father Beor was like his son (less able) in matters of prophecy. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Meister des Ludwig-Psalters 001

Balaam and the Angel (illustration from the 13th Century Psalter of Louis IX of France)

Interpreting the words, “And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed,” in Numbers 22:7 a Tanna taught that there never was peace between Midian and Moab, comparing them to two dogs in a kernel that always fought each other. Then a wolf attacked one, and the other concluded that if he did not help the first, then the wolf would attack the second tomorrow. So they joined to fight the wolf. And Rav Papa likened the cooperation of Moab and Midian to the saying: “The weasel and cat had a feast on the fat of the luckless.” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Noting that Numbers 22:8 makes no mention of the princes of Midian, the Gemara deduced that they despaired as soon as Balaam told them (in Numbers 22:8) that he would listen to God’s instructions, for they reasoned that God would not curse Israel any more than a father would hate his son. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Noting that in Numbers 22:12 God told Balaam, “You shall not go with them,” yet in Numbers 22:20, after Balaam impudently asked God a second time, God told Balaam, “Rise up and go with them,” Rav Nachman concluded that impudence, even in the face of Heaven, sometimes brings results. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 122

Balaam and the Ass (painting by Rembrandt)

A Tanna taught in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar that intense love and hate can cause one to disregard the perquisites of one’s social position. The Tanna deduced that love may do so from Abraham, for Genesis 22:3 reports that “Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey,” rather than allow his servant to do so. Similarly, the Tanna deduced that hate may do so from Balaam, for Numbers 22:21 reports that “Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey,” rather than allow his servant to do so. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105b.)

Expanding on Numbers 22:30, the Gemara reported a conversation among Balak’s emissaries, Balaam, and Balaam’s donkey. Balak’s emissaries asked Balaam, “Why didn’t you ride your horse?”

Balaam replied, “I have put it out to pasture.”

But Balaam’s donkey asked Balaam (in the words of Numbers 22:30), “Am I not your donkey?”

Balaam replied, “Merely for carrying loads.”

Balaam’s donkey said (in the words of Numbers 22:30), “Upon which you have ridden.”

Balaam replied, “That was only by chance.”

Balaam’s donkey insisted (in the words of Numbers 22:30), “Ever since I was yours until this day.” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105b.)

Biblia escurialense ms. I-j-3

Balaam and the Angel (illustration from a Medieval Spanish Bible (Biblia romanceada escurialense))

Numbers chapter 23

Rabbi Johanan deduced from the words “and he walked haltingly” in Numbers 23:3 that Balaam was disabled in one leg. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Rabbi Johanan interpreted the words "And the Lord put a word (or 'a thing') in Balaam's mouth" in Numbers 23:5 to indicate that God put a hook in Balaam's mouth, playing Balaam like a fish. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105b.) Similarly, a midrash taught that God controlled Balaam's mouth as a person who puts a bit into the mouth of a beast and makes it go in the direction the person pleases. (Numbers Rabbah 20:20.)

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani interpreted the words “that the Lord your God shall keep for you” in Deuteronomy 7:12, teaching that all the good that Israel enjoys in this world results from the blessings with which Balaam blessed Israel, but the blessings with which the Patriarchs blessed Israel are reserved for the time to come, as signified by the words, “that the Lord your God shall keep for you.” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:4.)

The Gemara interpreted the words “knowing the mind of the most High” in Numbers 24:16 to mean that Balaam knew how to tell the exact moment when God was angry. The Gemara taught that this was related to what Micah meant (in Micah 6:5, in the haftarah for the parshah) when he told the Israelites (quoting God): “O My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him; . . . that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” The Gemara taught that by the words “that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord,” God meant to say to the Israelites, “You should know how many acts of charity I performed for you, in that I did not become angry all that time, in the days of wicked Balaam; for had I become angry at that time, no Israelite would have remained alive or been spared.” And the Gemara indicated that this is why Balaam told Balak in Numbers 23:8, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? or how shall I become angry, when the Lord has not become angry?” For Balaam knew that God was not angry at the Israelites. The Gemara thus concluded that for all of the time of the Balaam story, God had not been angry. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105b.)

Figures Moab Leads Israel into Sin

Moab Leads Israel into Sin (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)

The Gemara interpreted Balaam’s words, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” in Numbers 23:10 to foretell that he would not enter the world to come. The Gemara interpreted those words to mean that if Balaam died a natural death like the righteous, then his end would be like that of the Jewish people, but if he died a violent death, then he would go to the same fate as the wicked. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Numbers chapter 24

The Gemara deduced from the words “the man whose eye is open” in Numbers 24:3, which refer to only one open eye, that Balaam was blind in one eye. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a.)

Numbers chapter 25

Rabbi Johanan taught that wherever Scripture uses the term “And he abode” (vayeshev), as it does in Numbers 25:1, it presages trouble. Thus in Numbers 25:1, “And Israel abode in Shittim” is followed by “and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.” In Genesis 37:1, “And Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan,” is followed by Genesis 37:3, “and Joseph brought to his father their evil report.” In Genesis 47:27, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen,” is followed by Genesis 47:29, “And the time drew near that Israel must die.” In 1 Kings 5:5, “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree,” is followed by 1 Kings 11:14, “And the Lord stirred up an adversary unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was the king’s seed in Edom.” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106a.)

Rabbi Johanan taught that Phinehas was able to accomplish his act of zealotry only because God performed six miracles: First, upon hearing Phinehas’s warning, Zimri should have withdrawn from Cozbi and ended his transgression, but he did not. Second, Zimri should have cried out for help from his fellow Simeonites, but he did not. Third, Phinheas was able to drive his spear exactly through the sexual organs of Zimri and Cozbi as they were engaged in the act. Fourth, Zimri and Cozbi did not slip off the spear, but remained fixed so that others could witness their transgression. Fifth, an angel came and lifted up the lintel so that Phinheas could exit holding the spear. And sixth, an angel came and sowed destruction among the people, distracting the Simeonites from killing Phinheas. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)


Micah prophet

Micah (18th century Russian Orthodox icon in the Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia)

According to Maimonides and Sefer ha-Chinuch, there are no commandments in the parshah. (Maimonides. Mishneh Torah. Cairo, Egypt, 1170–1180. Reprinted in Maimonides. The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides. Translated by Charles B. Chavel, 2 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1967. ISBN 0-900689-71-4. Sefer HaHinnuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education. Translated by Charles Wengrov, 4:171. Jerusalem: Feldheim Pub., 1988. ISBN 0-87306-457-7.)


The haftarah for the parshah is Micah 5:6–6:8. When parshah Balak is combined with parshah Chukat, the haftarah remains the haftarah for Balak.

In the haftarah in Micah 6:5, Micah quotes God’s admonition to the Israelites to recall the events of the parshah, to “remember now what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.” The verb that the haftarah uses for “answer” (‘anah) in Micah 6:5 is a variation of the same verb that the parshah uses to describe Balaam’s “answer” (vaya‘an) to Balaak in the parshah in Numbers 22:18 and 23:12. And the first words of Balaam’s blessing of Israel in Numbers 24:5, “how goodly” (ma tovu), are echoed in the haftarah’s admonition in Micah 6:8 of “what is good” (ma tov) in God’s sight, namely “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

In the liturgy

Haggadah 14th cent

A page from a 14th century German Haggadah

The Passover Haggadah, in the concluding nirtzah section of the Seder, quotes the words “who can count them” from Numbers 23:10 to invoke blessing on the Jewish people. (Menachem Davis. The Interlinear Haggadah: The Passover Haggadah, with an Interlinear Translation, Instructions and Comments, 107. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2005. ISBN 1-57819-064-9.)

Balaam’s blessing of Israel in Numbers 24:5 constitutes the first line of the Ma Tovu prayer often said upon entering a synagogue or at the beginning of morning services. These words are the only prayer in the siddur attributed to a non-Jew. (Reuven Hammer. Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, 61. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2003. ISBN 0-916219-20-8. See also Menachem Davis. The Schottenstein Edition Siddur for Weekdays with an Interlinear Translation, 14. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2002. ISBN 1-57819-686-8.)

The Weekly Maqam

In the Weekly Maqam, Sephardi Jews each week base the songs of the services on the content of that week's parshah. For parshah Balak, Sephardi Jews apply Maqam Mahour, the maqam that portrays emotional instability and anger. This maqam is similar to Maqam Rast in tune, except that it is higher in key. It is appropriate, because in this parshah, Balak became angered as the curses of Balaam were turning into blessings.

Further reading

The parshah has parallels or is discussed in these sources:


  • Gildas Hamel, The Deir 'Alla Inscription. See also Jo Ann Hackett, Balaam Text from Deir 'Alla. Chico, Cal.: Scholars Press, 1984. And see also J. Hoftijzer & G. van der Kooij, The Balaam Text from Deir `Alla Re-evaluated: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held at Leiden, 21-24 August 1989. New York: E.J. Brill, 1991.


  • Genesis 3:1–14 (talking animal); 22:3 (rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him).
  • Exodus 32:1–35 (sacrifices to another god; zealots kill apostates; zealots rewarded with priestly standing; plague as punishment; leader makes atonement); 34:15–16 (foreign women and apostasy).
  • Numbers 31:6–18 (Balaam; Phinehas, war with Midian).
Jeremiah lamenting


Early nonrabbinic



Classical rabbinic

  • Mishnah: Sanhedrin 9:6; 10:2; Avot 5:6, 19. Land of Israel, circa 200 C.E. Reprinted in, e.g., The Mishnah: A New Translation. Translated by Jacob Neusner, 604, 686, 689. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-300-05022-4.
First page of the first tractate of the Talmud (Daf Beis of Maseches Brachos)



Rashi woodcut


  • Solomon ibn Gabirol. A Crown for the King, 36:493. Spain, 11th Century. Translated by David R. Slavitt, 66–67. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-511962-2.
  • Rashi. Commentary. Numbers 22–25. Troyes, France, late 11th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Rashi. The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated. Translated and annotated by Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg, 4:269–317. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1997. ISBN 0-89906-029-3.
  • Judah Halevi. Kuzari. 1:115. Toledo, Spain, 1130–1140. Reprinted in, e.g., Jehuda Halevi. Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel. Intro. by Henry Slonimsky, 80. New York: Schocken, 1964. ISBN 0-8052-0075-4.
  • Numbers Rabbah 20:1–25. 12th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., Midrash Rabbah: Numbers. Translated by Judah J. Slotki. London: Soncino Press, 1939. ISBN 0-900689-38-2.
  • Zohar 3:184b–212b. Spain, late 13th Century. Reprinted in, e.g., The Zohar. Translated by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon. 5 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1934.
Thomas Hobbes (portrait)



  • Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan, Review & Conclusion. England, 1651. Reprint edited by C. B. Macpherson, 723–24. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Classics, 1982. ISBN 0140431950.
  • Abraham Isaac Kook. The Lights of Penitence, 15:11. 1925. Reprinted in Abraham Isaac Kook: the Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems. Translated by Ben Zion Bokser, 118. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press 1978. ISBN 0-8091-2159-X.
  • Adin Steinsaltz. The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence And Belief. Translated by Yehuda Hanegbi, 12–13. New York: Basic Books, 1980. ISBN 0-465-08560-1.
  • Ira Clark. “Balaam’s Ass: Suture or Structure.” In Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives: Volume II. Edited by Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis, with James S. Ackerman, 137–44. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982. ISBN 0-687-22132-3.
  • André Lemaire. “Fragments from the Book of Balaam Found at Deir Alla: Text foretells cosmic disaster.” Biblical Archaeology Review, 11:05. Sept./Oct. 1985.
  • Jacob Milgrom. The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, 185–215, 467–80. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990. ISBN 0-8276-0329-0.
  • Mary Douglas. In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers, xix, 86–87, 100, 121, 123, 136, 188, 191, 200–01, 211, 214, 216–18, 220–24. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Reprinted 2004. ISBN 0-19-924541-X.
  • Aaron Wildavsky. Assimilation versus Separation: Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel, 31. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1993. ISBN 1-56000-081-3.
  • Baruch A. Levine. Numbers 21–36, 4A:135–303. New York: Anchor Bible, 2000. ISBN 0-385-41256-8.

See also

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