In this week’s double parasha, there are two instances of gathering all the people together, first in the narrative:
And then as a mitzvah:
I specifically want to look at the merism of האנשים והנשים והטף.
“Men, women and טף”. What are טף? From the context elsewhere (and as we know from the late lamented Ringling Brothers circus, “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages!”) it means “children”, as a collective noun:
But there are many places where טף and בנים are both used:
So Ibn Ezra explains that טף are minor children:
But that’s a little odd in the request of בני גד וראובן for the land east of the Jordan:
Are they leaving their little children to fend for themselves while the adults go to fight?
There’s only one other use of the root טף in תנ״ך (the word טיפה, ”drop“ is Mishnaic Hebrew, from the Biblical נטף, and is unrelated. Probably).
So טָפֹף describes a way of walking. It is usually translated here as “with mincing steps”, which would connect to the “children” meaning as a sense of “toddle”, walk unsteadily. The Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, based on Hirsch’s Torah commentary, connects it to טטפות:
טטפות means to “mentally toddle”, to look at both sides, consider deeply. טף means toddlers. But that doesn’t help our question of בני גד וראובן, and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky notes something about our parasha. In the two sources above, the order is changed: first, טפכם נשיכם and then הנשים והטף.
Rashi addresses the order at the beginning of the parasha:
But then the order of the text is כל איש ישראל טפכם נשיכם. Allowing the androcentrism of the Torah that puts איש ישראל before נשיכם, Rav Kaminetsky asks, why put טפכם before נשיכם? Maybe we are misinterpreting טף.
This implies that טף are those under twenty, not just toddlers.
And this matters for halacha (and is relevant to today) in defining an “epidemic”. The Rambam says a disease with a death rate of 0.2% per day is a דֶּבֶר, but that is only out of the population of adult men (women, children and the elderly naturally have much higher death rates).
The Rambam, based on the mishna, uses the term רַגְלִי for men, like the pasuk in שמות above: כשש מאות אלף רגלי. So the halacha is that under 20 is counted as “קְטַנִּים”:
Teenagers, 13 to 19, are still in some ways קְטַנִּים. The halacha recognizes the concept of adolescence:
And this idea comes from חטא המרגלים:
And the emphasis is on כל פקדיכם לכל מספרכם:
Only those over 20 were counted in the census:
There is this middle period, a transition from childhood to full adulthood. A person becomes מחויב במצוות at puberty (estimated at 12 or 13, ואכמ״ל) but isn’t really held responsible for them until they become an adult:
The two concepts are linked: לחזור ולבקש אחר מזונות, earning a living, and ב״ד של מעלה מענישין, suffering the consequences of one’s decisions. Until then, the adolescent is still part of their family, and is judged as a subject of the family, not a full-fledged member of the community.
So when the Torah says
הגברים לבד מטף, טף means adolescents, not toddlers. Rav Kaminetsky proposes that both are true, depending on context:
And, on the other hand, if טף comes before נשים, then it means adolescents.
And we see this distinction in חטא המרגלים: those who are teenagers now, will lead the entrance into the land in 40 years, and the little children (אשר לא ידעו היום טוב ורע) will also enter:
(Note that this is the opposite of Ibn Ezra’s comment on במדבר טז:כז, mentioned above).
And this is not a contradiction. Both 2-year-olds and teenagers are “toddlers” in this sense, taking their first steps toward independence. I tell parents that all the skills they are learning in dealing with the “terrible twos” will be needed again when their children turn 11. They feel the need to be independent but can’t be. And so the Torah calls both טף, those who walk unsteadily trying to find their own balance.
There’s a message here for ראש השנה. This is how we look at our relationship with הקב״ה. We feel the need for independence, and ה׳ wants us to be independent, but we remain totally dependent. We are all טף in the eyes of הקב״ה.