Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

The Torah reveals very little about the physical appearance of those who feature in it, with a few exceptions – Rivka and Rachel are said to be very pretty. If so, a question may seem strange: “Was Moshe obese?”

No, this is not an excerpt from a diet program; it is a reference to a Midrash (Rabba, Pekudei 51:6; Tanchuma, Pekudei).


The Midrash says there was a group of people termed leitzanei Yisrael, clowns of Israel, who mocked Moshe Rabbeinu. There are two different opinions on what they said. According to R’ Yochanan, they said “Ashrei yoladeto – Blessed is his birth,” and according to R’ Chama, they would look at Moshe’s neck and thighs from behind and comment that they were fat.

The first opinion, that of R’ Yochanan, does not seem like mocking but like praise. In truth, what they were saying was “Happy is the mother who gave birth to Ben Amram,” (and whenever there is a reference to Moshe as Ben Amram, it is in a derogatory context).

“Look how he has given jobs to all of his family – he made his brother the Kohen Gadol, he made Betzalel, the grandson (great-grandson?) of Miriam, chief builder of the Mishkan, he made Itamar, son of Aharon, chief accountant – his mother can be proud of him – he abused his power of office to dish out jobs to all his family.”

According to R’ Chama, they said how “fat” Moshe was getting. “Moshe is in charge of such a vast fortune – all the gold, silver, precious gems, etc., from the Mishkan. It is not possible that some of that is not finding its way to his pocket!”

When Moshe heard these mocking comments behind his back, he responded “Just wait, after the completion of the Mishkan I will give a full accounting.” Hashem did not tell Moshe to make an accounting, but when Moshe resolved to do so, Hashem did not object, and we have this entire Torah portion dedicated to this – simply due to the mocking comments of these “clowns”!

Who were these “clowns of Israel?” What was their reason to mock Moshe? What exactly is it about this mocking that makes it unacceptable?

To understand this, we need to skip forward to parshat Korach. Both the Midrash (Rabba Korach 4; Tanchuma Korach 3) and the Gemara (Sanhedrin 109b) say that Korach was typical of this kind of “clown.”

Korach gathered his followers and put on a “stand-up comedy” show for them.

Korach told the story of a poor widow who had two orphan daughters and a solitary field. When she wanted to plow the field, Moshe said to her, “You cannot plow with an ox and a donkey together.”

She tried to sow and Moshe said, “You cannot sow different species in the field.” When the harvest arrived, Moshe told her, “You have to give tithes and leave gifts for the poor.” The desolate widow could not take it any longer, so she sold the field and bought two sheep to enjoy the wool and the offspring. When the first lambs were born, Aharon said to her, “The firstborn belong to me.”

When shearing time arrived, Aharon again said, “The first wool of the shearing belongs to me.” The poor widow said, “I cannot stand up to these two,” so she slaughtered the sheep, hoping to at least enjoy the meat, but up pops Aharon again and says, “Give me the pulke, the cheekbone and the kishke.”

“Even after I slaughter the sheep, I cannot get away from them,” cried the poor, defeated widow, who was left penniless!

On the surface, it seems that all the facts are true. Everything that Moshe and Aharon supposedly said, according to Korach, is true – they are all mitzvot in the Torah! So, what is the problem?

The problem is that this story never took place, it was a total fabrication. In the midbar there were no fields. All the mitzvot mentioned in the story only applied after Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael. Korach took truths from the Torah and fabricated this make believe story in such a way that it twisted the true purpose of these mitzvot. Korach engineered the story, applying dramatic effect in exactly the right places to get the required response from the audience and thus made a mockery of Moshe and Aharon.

Our Midrash in Pekudei is the same: “Moshe is skimming the gold and the silver we donated for the Mishkan! Moshe is getting fat!” It was all lies. Even if Moshe was theoretically embezzling, which he wasn’t, what could he possibly do with it in the midbar? What could a billionaire with tons of gold and precious stones do with them in the middle of a desert? If you say that he was keeping it for when they enter Eretz Yisrael, our Sages tell us that when Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael, they came to a fully built and equipped land. The homes, buildings, bridges, roads, parks, etc., were all there for them. When they went into the already-built homes, Hashem revealed all the riches hidden under the floorboards and in the walls. The riches they took out of Egypt and added to at the Red Sea were nothing in comparison to these new riches. Hashem intended that the riches from Egypt would be used to build the Mishkan, not to be taken into Eretz Yisrael.

It was all lies, taking truths, using them out of context, twisting them and, by their very presence, camouflaging them and making them believable.

Those who heard Korach’s performance could not help but be drawn in and believe it to be true, and even if upon closer inspection it was obvious that it could not be true, it cast into doubt the sincerity and authority of Moshe and Aharon.

“OK, perhaps they didn’t steal the field (there was no field), but do they have the right to ‘steal’ all a poor widow’s possessions in theory? Do Moshe and Aharon have the right to such monopolization?”

This is the destructive power of mockery; like lashon hara, it plants a seed and casts aspersion on even the greatest, most impeccable of people.

The response to such destructive innuendo is that it must be silenced decisively – which Moshe did by giving a full accounting in Pekudei. Hashem regarded this mockery as so destructive that He completely altered the structure of the Torah, to include this extra parsha about the accounting, just to silence the mockers.


Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: The verse (Shemot 40:2) says that the Mishkan should be erected on the first of Nisan. When was the actual work completed?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: When asking for donations for the Mishkan in parshat Trumah, the verse addresses “Bnei Yisrael.” However, here in Vayakhel, the verse addresses “Adat Bnei Yisrael.” Why the difference? The Sages say that “Bnei Yisrael” includes the erev rav, but “Adat Bnei Yisrael” does not. Vayakhel informs us that all the donations used for the Mishkan came from the pure Am Yisrael, not the erev rav.

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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.