Shaya Cohen -


Is the Number Five Arbitrary? Why is it Joseph’s Lucky Number?

In the Torah there is a repeated theme for whenever property changes hands from its rightful owner: the number “five.” Here are the verses:

… that person shall make restitution for the remission regarding the sacred things, adding a fifth part to it and giving it to the priest. (Lev. 5:16)

… that person shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. (Lev. 5:24)

… if any such party eats of a sacred donation unwittingly, the priest shall be paid for the sacred donation, adding one-fifth of its value. (Lev. 22:14)

… if one wishes to redeem [an animal], one-fifth must be added to its assessment. (Lev. 27:13)

… if the one who has consecrated the house wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and then it shall be returned. (Lev. 27:15)

… if the one who consecrated the land wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and it shall be passed back. (Lev. 27:19

… if [a firstling] is of impure animals, it may be ransomed at its assessment, with one-fifth added; (Lev. 27:27

… If any party wishes to redeem any tithes, one-fifth must be added to them. (Lev. 27:31)… When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with G-d, and they realize their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged. (Num. 5:6)

Why this number?

I can offer a partial answer: the person in the Torah who uses the number “five” as a verb is also responsible for the biggest single transfer of property in the ancient world: Joseph. Joseph acquires grain from the Egyptian people, and then sells it back to them in exchange for all their worldly possessions and even themselves. And all along the way, he uses the number “five.” “Five” appears to be the number for transference of ownership. But more than that: it is also, apparently, Joseph’s “lucky” number. Look at how often he uses it!

When Joseph first advises Pharaoh, he says:

And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and five the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. (Gen. 41:34)

The text does not tell us how Joseph obtained the grain during the rich years – it may have been purchased, taxed, or merely obtained for free because it was so plentiful that it had no value. Nevertheless, the word used for stockpiling the grain is “five” – as a verb.

But Joseph goes much further than this. When his brothers join him for a meal:

Portions were served them from his table; but Benjamin’s portion was five times that of anyone else. And they drank their fill with him. (Gen. 43:34)

After Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them back to get Jacob their father:

Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey. To each of them, moreover, he gave a change of clothing; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing. (Gen. 45:21)

When the brothers return, Joseph continues!

Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” And carefully selecting five of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:1)

Then, after the people come begging for a harvest, Joseph first acquires all they own, acquires the people themselves, and then he institutionalizes a permanent tax on the Egyptian people:

Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.” (Gen. 47: 23-24)

… And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s. (Gen. 47:26)

This is all really quite odd. What relationship does Joseph have with this number? And why does he only use it when he is taken out of prison and given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams?

The text gives us some clues, and perhaps we can argue they add up to an explanation.

1: We know that Joseph’s mother Rachel was in a rivalry with her sister Leah, and Joseph sided with the other brothers who were from mothers other than Leah. Joseph was fifth in that birth order, the fifth non-Leah son of Jacob.

2: Jacob’s fifth son is named by Rachel, Joseph’s mother. She names him Dan “because G-d has judged me and heard my voice.”  Perhaps this is precisely how Joseph felt when he was drawn from prison, given fresh clothes, and put in front of Pharoah!

3: Leah’s fifth son is named Issachar: “G-d has given me my reward.” (Gen. 30:18). Joseph’s promotion may well have been seen by him as a divine reward.

4: Joseph only lived in five fixed locations: Laban’s house, Shechem, Potiphar’s House, Prison, and finally – the fifth place – the house of Pharaoh. It seems that the fifth place Joseph lived was his arrival, his reward or clearest signs of success. This dovetails nicely with the other clues, as above.

Perhaps this helps explain Joseph’s connection of the number five to good things. He essentially seems to have chosen the number as his own, and he uses it as his default whenever some percentage is required, whether in taxation, in favoring (or trying to acquire?) his brother Benjamin, in trying to garner Pharaoh with bringing a subset of his brothers.

One might also suggest that the number five is associated with the lack of long-term planning. Redeeming a promised offering means one has changed one’s mind – and you have to pay a penalty. The Egyptian people did not plan ahead, which is how Joseph used a feast-famine cycle to nationalize the entire country and institute permanent taxation. The number even applies to a fruit tree: if you plan ahead, then you can eat the fruit in the fifth year.

So if we go back to those first examples, we see that “five” is used whenever a person changes their mind and wishes to change ownership of property. So perhaps the number “five” is a penalty in the Torah for a lack of accurate planning, for choosing to “live in the moment” instead of thinking about the long term.

Consider, for example, the typical Egyptian farmer. He watches over 7 years as Pharaoh’s Emissary, Joseph, builds a storage facility in the middle of each town and fills it with excess grain. Does he not even wonder why it is all being stored? Does he even think to perhaps stockpile some grain himself “just in case”? Apparently he does not. And as a consequence, he loses everything and is subjected to a 20% tax forever more. The person who lives in the moment, will pay for it.

The lesson seems to be that if we plan properly, we are exempt from this tax. Those who do not plan properly, whether Egyptians or Jews, are sure to pay the fifth tax.

There is another connection: Levites serve from the age of twenty-five until the age of fifty (the Hebrew for “five” is in both verses):

This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more.

I think there is a common connection here as well. Levites help people bring sacrifices (change ownership), which means their tasks are connected to that number. Probably even more relevantly, the entire purpose of the tabernacle is to help people see the long view, to plan ahead, to think of themselves and the meanings of their lives write large. In other words, the connection with G-d is the connection with the timeless. The number “five” is used for the serving ages of the Levites for this purpose: a reminder at all times of the importance of trying to live our lives within a larger historical purpose, of seeing ourselves as relevant to the progression of history.

[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @blessedblacksmith work, with an added clue from Mr. Jessum]

Comments are welcome!

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