script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Jonathan Jacobs





The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor’s Innovative Reading



APA e-journal

Jonathan Jacobs





The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor’s Innovative Reading






Edit article


The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor’s Innovative Reading

Exodus 16 and Numbers 11 each describe God miraculously bringing quail to the hungry Israelites in the wilderness. What is the relationship between these two accounts?


The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor’s Innovative Reading

Quail in the wilderness, Caspar Luyken, 1698 (Colorized).

Rabbi Joseph of Orleans (northern France) lived from approximately 1130 to 1200.  He is best known as Bekhor Shor, a nickname he took from Moses’ blessing of Joseph in Deut 33:17, “like a firstling bull in his majesty” [1](בְּכוֹר שׁוֹרוֹ הָדָר לוֹ).

Taking a nickname based on a biblical verse tied to one’s biblical namesake was common in this period among the French rabbis. The most famous example is Bekhor Shor’s teacher for Talmud, R. Jacob ben Meir (ca. 1100–1171), who was known as R. Tam (“simple”), from the verse about Jacob being “a simple man who dwelled in tents” (וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים; Gen 25:27).

Bekhor Shor was a member of the northern French school of peshat, along with commentators such as R. Joseph Kara (ca. 1050–ca. 1130), his teacher Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1080–1160), and his fellow student R. Eleazer of Beaugency.[2]

His commentary to the Torah did not earn the popularity enjoyed by that of Rashi. It survived in only one manuscript and was first printed, volume by volume, beginning in the late 19thcentury through the early 20th century. Nevertheless, his glosses reveal an exegete who was original, innovative, and sometimes even audacious.

Perhaps the Bekhor Shor’s greatest innovation was to read two stories with similar content as actually referring to a single event, something no commentator preceding him did. One example of this approach is Bekhor Shor’s interpretation of the quail stories narrated in Exodus and Numbers.[3]

The Stories of the Quail:  Exodus 16 and Numbers 11

The Torah tells on two occasions of the wondrous provision of quail to satisfy the hunger of the Israelites in the wilderness.


In the book of Exodus, soon after leaving Egypt, the Israelites complain that they have nothing to eat.[4] God responds to this complaint by sending them both manna and quail:

שמות טז:יב שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת תְּלוּנֹּת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דַּבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם לֵאמֹר בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם תֹּאכְלוּ בָשָׂר וּבַבֹּקֶר תִּשְׂבְּעוּ לָחֶם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Exod 16:12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I YHWH am your God.
טז:יג וַיְהִי בָעֶרֶב וַתַּעַל הַשְּׂלָו וַתְּכַס אֶת הַמַּחֲנֶה וּבַבֹּקֶר הָיְתָה שִׁכְבַת הַטַּל סָבִיב לַמַּחֲנֶה. טז:יד וַתַּעַל שִׁכְבַת הַטָּל וְהִנֵּה עַל פְּנֵי הַמִּדְבָּר דַּק מְחֻסְפָּס דַּק כַּכְּפֹר עַל הָאָרֶץ.
16:13 In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. 16:14When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

According to these verses, God relieved the Israelite hunger in the forty years of wandering in the wilderness by providing manna and quail every day.


In Numbers 14, however, we read:

במדבר יא:ד וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. יא:ווְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה אֵין כֹּל בִּלְתִּי אֶל הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.
Num 11:4 The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!… 11:6 Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”

Here we are told the Israelites have only manna and hunger for meat. God then sends them quail:

במדבר יא:לא וְרוּחַ נָסַע מֵאֵת יְ־הֹוָה וַיָּגָז שַׂלְוִים מִן הַיָּם וַיִּטֹּשׁ עַל הַמַּחֲנֶה כְּדֶרֶךְ יוֹם כֹּה וּכְדֶרֶךְ יוֹם כֹּה סְבִיבוֹת הַמַּחֲנֶה וּכְאַמָּתַיִם עַל פְּנֵי הָאָרֶץ. יא:לב וַיָּקָם הָעָם כָּל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל הַלַּיְלָה וְכֹל יוֹם הַמָּחֳרָת וַיַּאַסְפוּ אֶת הַשְּׂלָו….
Num 11:31 A wind from YHWH started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day‘s journey on this side and about a day‘s journey on that side, all around the camp, and some two cubits deep on the ground. 11:32 The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day….

Why does Numbers present the Israelites as asking for meat if, according to Exodus, they have been receiving quail each day?

Medieval Commentators

Traditional commentators were long aware of this problem and offered a number of solutions.

They Want Extra Quail (Rashi)

Surprisingly, Rashi (1040–1105) does not address this problem in his commentary on the Torah, although he does in his commentary on the Talmud (b. Arachin 15b, s.v. בשליו ראשון):

בשליו ראשון—כשהתחיל המן לירד היה שליו יורד עמו כדכתיב ויהי בערב ותעל השליו וגו‘ ובבקר היתה שכבת הטל וגו‘ ולאחר זמן מרובה התאוו יותר.
“With the first quail”[5]—when the manna first came down, the quail came down with it, as it is written: “In the evening quail appeared, etc., in the morning there was a fall of dew, etc.,” and after an extended period, they hungered more. [6]

Rashi seems to assume that the quail, like the manna, continued every day, but after a while, the Israelites wanted more meat.[7] This would also explain the punishment, since it is one thing to ask for meat and quite another to ask for an all-you-can-eat extravaganza.

But this interpretation is difficult to accept in light of the unequivocal demand in Numbers “If only we had meat to eat! […] [We have] nothing but this manna to look to!” This implies that the complainers in Numbers 11 had only manna and no meat at all.

Quail Again (R. Joseph Kara)

Rabbi Joseph Kara, a junior colleague of Rashi and one of the earliest peshat commentators, proposed a different solution. In his opinion, the quail—unlike the manna—came down only for a limited period, ceasing during the first year of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. We lack Kara’s complete commentary to the Torah, but at least four traditions speak to his view of the matter, including the following remark found in MS Adler (a collection of commentaries on the Torah published by Poznanski):

ותעל השלו—יש מקשים, כיון שהיה להם שלו האיך התאוו ואמרו ’מי יאכילנו בשר‘? […] וה”ר יוסף קרא פירש שהשליו פסק להם שנה ראשונה.
“Quail appeared”—Some ask: given that they had quail, how did they feel a craving and say “If only we had meat to eat?” […] Our teacher Rabbi Joseph Kara explained that they stopped having quail during the first year.
ותדע, דכתיב ’ובני ישראל אכלו את המן ארבעים שנה‘ (שמ‘ טז, לה), ולמה לא הזכיר שליו כמו כן? אלא שמע מינה פסק. וכן ביהושע כתיב ’וישבות המן‘ (יהו‘ ה, יב) וגו‘, לא הזכיר שליו וכו‘“
Know that this is correct, for it is written: “the Israelites ate manna forty years” (Exod 16:35). Why did it not mention the quail as well? Rather, you can deduce from this that it ceased. Similarly, it is written in Joshua: “the manna ceased,” etc. (Josh. 5:12). It made no mention of the quail, etc.[8]

Kara’s position is buttressed with evidence from Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua, showing that only the manna continued throughout the wilderness period. Nevertheless, this explanation leaves the larger issue unresolved. The passage in Exodus contains no hint that the quail, unlike the manna, came down only temporarily, nor does the passage in Numbers imply that the people had once had meat in the wilderness and were asking for it again.

Occasional Quail (Ramban)

Ramban (Moses Nahmanides, 1194–1270), a commentator who lived after Bekhor Shor, and was influenced by his commentary (though apparently not in this case),[9] offered a different answer. In his gloss on Exodus 16:12, after offering a reading of the verse in line with Rashi, he that the quail came down only on occasion:

ועל דרך הפשט היו כל מעשה השלו לעתים, והמן, שהיה חיותם, היה להם תמיד, כי עיקר תלונתם עליו, כדכתיב ”כי הוצאתם אותנו אל המדבר הזה להמית את כל הקהל ברעב.“
According to the simple (peshat) sense, the entire matter of the quail was periodic, whereas they always had the manna, which was the source of their subsistence—for this was the crux of their protest, as it is written: “for you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (16:3).

Ramban thus suggests that the quail was provided all forty years, following Exodus, but was inconsistent, explaining how the people in Numbers could have an unfulfilled craving for meat. This explanation goes beyond what appears in either text: Exodus never indicates a difference between how frequently the manna and the quail came, and Numbers never indicates that the Israelites were accustomed to having meat even on occasion.

No Quail in Exodus (Bekhor Shor)

Ramban thus suggests that the quail was provided all forty years, following Exodus, but was inconsistent, explaining how the people in Numbers could have an unfulfilled craving for meat. This explanation goes beyond what appears in either text: Exodus never indicates a difference between how frequently the manna and the quail came, and Numbers never indicates that the Israelites were accustomed to having meat even on occasion.

Bekhor Shor offers an original and surprising answer: In Exodus, God gave the Israelites only manna, and not quail:

ויהי בערב ותעל השליו – כמדומה אני שזה שליו של בהעלותך (במדבר י”א:ל”א-ל”ב), אלא שאגב שדיבר במן, דיבר בשליו.
“In the evening quail appeared”—It would seem to me that this is the quail of Beha’alotecha (Num. 11:31–32), but as long as it was discussing the manna, it discussed the quail.

 According to Bekhor Shor,[10] the mention of quail in this passage is incidental: “as long as it was discussing the manna, it discussed the quail.” Since this section of the Torah is the first to describe the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, it gives an anticipatory description of how God provided solutions to the scarcity of food and drink in the wilderness by providing bread, meat, and water, and later describes each of these events in more detail in its proper chronological place.

Explaining Moses’ Bewilderment

To prove his point, Bekhor Shor touches on another problem, raised for the first time in his commentary:

תדע דאי ראה משה שבא להם שליו פעם אחת והספיקם, היאך יאמר הצאן ובקר ישחט להם ומצא להם (במדבר י“א:כ“ב).
Know [that this is correct], for if Moses had seen quail come to them once and suffice them, how could he have said ‘Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?’ (Num. 11:22)?”

Bekhor Shor’s point is as follows: In Numbers, after God says to Moses that the Israelites will get their meat (11:18), Moses responds:

במדבר יא:כא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ בָּשָׂר אֶתֵּן לָהֶם וְאָכְלוּ חֹדֶשׁ יָמִים.יא:כב הֲצֹאן וּבָקָר יִשָּׁחֵט לָהֶם וּמָצָא לָהֶם אִם אֶת כָּל דְּגֵי הַיָּם יֵאָסֵף לָהֶם וּמָצָא לָהֶם.
Num 11:21 “The people who are with me number six hundred thousand men; yet You say, ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’ 11:22 Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?”

But if Moses had already has seen with his own eyes, following the first hunger protest in Exodus, that God can provide meat to the entire people, what is the reason for his surprising lack of faith? Thus, Bekhor Shor argues, Numbers must be recording the first time God ever suggested he can bring quail.

Bekhor Shor Anticipates Contemporary Scholarship

Although the basic interpretive assumptions of academic biblical scholarship differ markedly from that of traditional exegetes such as Bekhor Shor, his comments here anticipate similar approaches among contemporary scholars. For example, Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) suggests that two separate traditions were combined into one story in Exodus for thematic reasons:

Both episodes—that of the manna and that of the quails—are closely linked from the commencement of the narrative, and cannot be separated; and apparently they were already interconnected in the ancient tradition: just as the quails are mentioned here apropos of the manna, so in Num. xi the manna is mentioned apropos of the quails.[11]

Despite their close connection in the Torah’s composition, like Bekhor Shor, Cassuto notes that the core story in Numbers 11 makes it clear that the manna and quail stories should not be understood as having occurred at the same time.[12]

A similar approach is taken by John Durham, in his Word Bible Commentary on Exodus,[13]though neither he nor Cassuto make reference to Bekhor Shor as precedent. Even so, not only is this approach anticipated by Bekhor Shor’s suggestion, but so is the more radical approach of some contemporary redaction-critics, who suggest that the quail verses in Exodus are secondary.[14]

Bekhor Shor’s reading also helps to explain why from v. 14 to the end of the passage (v. 36), the quail are not mentioned at all, and their place in the passage is marginal: their mention in Exodus 16 is intentionally brief because it is anticipatory.

Implications for Composition of the Torah

Bekhor Shor’s interpretation is revolutionary, but its implications for how he understood the composition of the Torah has not received sufficient attention.[15]

In this case, Bekhor Shor suggests that any mention in Exodus 16 (vv. 8, 12-13) of meat that came down in the evening is an editorial insertion. This connects to other statements scattered throughout his commentary, that mention the “writer” (כותב) of the Torah (Gen 1:32), or its author (בעל הספר; Gen 1:26, 32:20, 35:20).

Bekhor Shor clarifies what he means by this in two glosses on Deuteronomy (1:1, 4:41), where he describes how Moses arranged (סידר) the Torah at the end of his life.[16]

From these comments, it would appear that Bekhor Shor believed Moses to have had some room for creative input in how to arrange the various revelations he received from God, a belief shared with some other Northern French peshat exegetes who followed Rashi.[17] But Bekhor Shor’s application of this idea to explain anticipatory glosses in the Torah is, as far as we know, unique.


January 15, 2019


Last Updated

April 14, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Jonathan Jacobs is a Professor in Bar Ilan University’s Bible Department. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from this same department, and rabbinic ordination from Israel’s chief rabbinate. In addition to his many articles, Jacobs is the author of Measure for Measure in the Biblical Storytelling,  Nahmanides’ Torah Commentary Addenda Written in the Land of Israel [with Prof. Yosef Ofer], and Bekhor Shoro Hadar Lo – R. Joseph Bekhor Shor between Continuity and Innovation (all in Hebrew).