Year and Date of Aaron’s Death

In what year did Aaron die? Numbers 33:38 writes explicitly that Aaron died in the 40th year in the desert, at the age of 123. But Deuteronomy 10:6 seems to say Aaron died in the second year in the desert, right after Moses brought the Tablets down from Mount Sinai!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It was very alert for you to have noticed this. You are right that the verses appear contradictory. The Sages explain that Numbers is accurate and Aaron died at the end of their sojourn in the desert, only a few months before the entry into the Land of Israel. (See in fact Numbers 20:12 that he and Moses would have lived to enter the Land had they not sinned at the Waters of Meribah.) The verse in Deuteronomy is written more for poetic effect than literal meaning, as will be explained below. In fact, not only does it not state the year accurately, but it names the location of Aaron’s death as Moseirah, whereas both Numbers 20:22-29 and 33:38 are quite explicit that he died on Mount Hor!

What then is the meaning of Deut. 10? The Sages explain that – in the spirit of the Book of Deuteronomy – it was part of Moses’s rebuke of the Children of Israel at the end of his life. It also alludes to a tragic episode in the story of the desert which we might not otherwise know about.

After Aaron died, the Clouds of Glory, which shielded the nation from the desert sun and had descended in Aaron’s merit, temporarily departed. The nearby nation of Arad saw Israel’s vulnerability and came to attack (Numbers 21:1; the Sages say it was actually Israel’s arch-nemesis Amalek). Many of the nation panicked and began fleeing to Egypt. They went all the way back from Mount Hor, the place of Aaron’s death, to Moseirah – which, if you look at the list of Israel’s encampments, was seven camps before it (Numbers 33:31-37). In fact, Deut. 10:6 states that Israel went from Benei Ya’akan to Moseirah right before Aaron’s death, although in Numbers 33:31 Moseirah was the camp before Benei Ya’akan. So clearly the nation had been retreating.

The Tribe of Levi was sent to bring back the ones who had fled. This resulted in a civil war, in which both parts of Levi and various families in Israel were wiped out – until they were finally led back to the camp. The Sages point out that this is why several families of Israel were absent from the second census of Numbers 26, especially from the Tribe of Benjamin (compare Numbers 26:38-41 to the children of Benjamin listed in Genesis 46:21), and there were gaps in the Tribe of Levi as well (compare the number of families listed in Numbers 26:38 to those in Numbers 3:14-39).

Thus, Aaron’s death is mentioned in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’s rebuke of the nation – chastising them for how much damaged they caused themselves when they lost faith in God and attempted to flee back to Egypt. Why is Moseirah named as the place of Aaron’s death? Because that was where the nation was found in the aftermath of Aaron’s passing, after the war had finally been concluded. As the Sages put it, the people felt as if Aaron died right then and there because it was there that they fully felt the terrible effects of what had happened to them. It was therefore there they mourned his death.

Why does Deuteronomy appear to date Aaron’s passing right after Moses’s descent from Mt. Sinai with the second Tablets? Explain the Sages that it was to teach us that the death of the righteous is as difficult to God as the breaking of the Tablets (which occurred just before Moses received the second Tablets – when he came down with the first ones and saw Israel worshiping the Golden Calf). It also teaches us that Israel’s plan to return to Egypt was as difficult to God as when they fashioned the Golden Calf.

As is clear from the many elucidations of the Sages above, this is thus yet another example of a Scriptural passage which would be completely incomprehensible to us if not for the traditions passed to us by our Sages.

(The above is cited by Rashi to Numbers 26:13 and Deuteronomy 10:6, and more briefly in Numbers 21:4. It is based on a collection of Midrashim, primarily Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 1:10 and Yoma 1:1. See also Rashi to Numbers 33:40.)

As an interesting aside, the Torah (Numbers 33:38) records explicitly the date of Aaron’s passing – the first day of the fifth month (Av). To my knowledge, he is virtually the only major Biblical figure for whom the Torah provides this information. (Several others are known from rabbinical traditions – and they are often debated.) Why was Aaron so special to have his “yahrtzeit” date recorded?

I looked in very many commentators and didn’t find a single one raise the issue. Perhaps, however, since Aaron was the lover of peace and pursuer of peace, who helped bring harmony between husband and wife and man and his fellow (See Pirkei Avos 1:12), the Torah recorded the date of his death so it could always be commemorated by the many who benefitted from him.

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