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Bilaam’s Talking Donkey

Parsha Halacha - Parshat Chukat - Balak

Bilaam’s Talking Donkey

Co-sponsored by Elisheva (Soto) Braun in honor of her husband, Yoeli ben Sima. May Hashem bless them with shalom bayit, parnassa, and with good healthy children! And by Yaacov Tzvi and Michal Schvetz in honor of the Yahrtzeit of Michal’s mother, Zlate bas Tzvi Hirsh HaLevi

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.


Click here for a print version of this article


The Torah portion of Balak tells the story of Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people. On his way to the land of Moav, an angel blocked his way, causing his donkey to swerve off the road, then to hug the side of a path, and then to crouch in its place. When Bilaam began to beat it for its behavior, the donkey spoke up and reprimanded Bilaam for this beating. It said,[1] “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” (I.e., there must be a good reason for my behavior, so why are you beating me?) Bilaam acknowledged that the donkey was right, at which point G-d allowed Bilaam to see the angel who warned him to say only the (prophetic) words that G-d would put in his mouth.

Why Didn’t Bilaam See the Angel?

Rashi explains that, G-d usually allows animals to see demons (and the like) as they do not lose their minds from these sights. Human beings, on the other hand have a greater intellectual capacity, and seeing these creatures might cause them to go crazy. Therfore G-d does not allow them to see this kind of thing.

What Did the Donkey See?

The are varying opinions among the commentaries as to what the donkey saw.

  • An Angel in a Human Form

The Abrabanel says that the angel appeared in a human form which allowed the donkey to see it. G-d prevented Bilaam from seeing it until later in the story so that he could learn the lessons from his talking donkey (see below).

  • A Sense of Doom

The Ramban questions this, as the verse doesn’t say that Bilaam was miraculously prevented from seeing the (humanlike) angel. As such, he writes that the angel remained in its usual form.  He points out that angels have no physical form and the prophets who see them can only perceive them in a prophetic manner.[2] As such, an animal cannot perceive an angel. When the verse says the donkey “saw the angel with its sword drawn in its hand,” it means that it had a sense of something awesome and dangerous in that area which it wanted to avoid. This is why, when conversing with Bilaam, the donkey didn’t reprimand Bilaam by saying, “Can’t you see there’s an angel here?” as it too, was not aware as to what, exactly was occurring. 

Some point out that animals can sense natural catastrophes before they occur. This is because they are more in tune with nature as a whole as they are an integral part of it. Human beings on the other hand are a more unique species and are less in tune with nature. As such, the donkey was aware of an awesome presence in the world, though it did not know exactly what it was.

  • A Real Angel

Others suggest[3] that the donkey was able to miraculously see the angel. This miracle was not mentioned explicitly as the focus is on the miracle of the donkey speaking.

The Inner Power of a Donkey

The Ibn Ezra quotes some who say that the donkey did not actually speak but that this story was experienced as a prophetic vision by Bilaam. The Ibn Ezra disagrees with this opinion and says that one who understands the secret of the angels of Avraham and Yitzchak, will understand that this story could have actually occurred in the simple sense. Rabbi Menachem Aryeh Kenigshhafer explains[4] that the angels Yaakov sent to Eisav in Parshat Vayeshev, were actually men who had internal, angelic powers and that every creation has internal powers which are rarely, if ever, revealed. With their angelic powers, these men were able to bring out Eisav’s internal powers which included a love for Yaakov that empowered him to embrace his brother rather than battle him. Similarly, animals have inner powers that are usually not revealed, but G-d can reveal them to accomplish special purposes.

Why Were Bilaam and Balak’s Men Not surprised?

The Chida writes that Bilaam was not surprised by his talking donkey because, as some animals are able to communicate  he considered this to be within the realm of nature. The messengers of Balak did not believe that donkey was actually speaking. They thought that this was a magic trick Bilaam was doing to excuse himself in case he would later not be able to curse the Jews.

Why Did the Donkey Need to Speak?

There are various opinions among the commentaries as to why G-d performed the miracle of enabling the donkey to speak.

  • A Lesson in the Power of Speech

The Tur Ha’Aruch says that G-d enabled the donkey to teach Bilaam a lesson: If G-d could even make a donkey speak, how much more so he can silence a human being from speaking and replace his intended speech with something else. As such, Bilaam should not attempt to curse the Jewish people against G-d’s will. G-d did this to save Bilaam from being destroyed lest he disobey and incur the punishment of death.[5]

  • Bilaam was Like the Donkey

The Kli Yakar says that G-d was hinting to Bilaam that his prophetic powers were given to him temporarily, just as the donkey could only speak temporarily. This was for the sake of the Jews, so that the nations of the world not claim that the Jews received special treatment by having prophets of which they had none. If Bilaam would realize that his prophecy was temporary, he would not think he had any innate powers and would not attempt to curse the Jewish people.

  • Even a Donkey Knows this

Rabeinu Bachaye explains that this miracle was to emphasize that even a donkey knows that cursing the Jews is a bad idea.

  • Six Reasons of the Chida

The Chida lists six reasons as to why God enabled the donkey to speak: 

1.     To denigrate Bilaam in the eyes of the messengers of Balak who saw him lose an argument with his donkey.

2.     Bilaam thought he was worthy of prophecy but now, he was shown to be inferior, even to his own donkey.

3.     This showed G-d’s love for the Jewish people as the three appearances of the angel represented the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  This was a message to Bilaam that the prophetic powers granted to him by G-d should only be used to benefit the Jewish people.

4.     G-d sent the angel to instruct Bilaam to not curse the Jews as G-d knew his plans to do so. This was a lesson to Bilaam that G-d can read his mind and that he should therefore not try to go against the wishes of the Almighty.

5.     When the Jews would hear (and read) Moshe recounting this story (as recorded in the Chumash) they would realize how precious they are in the eyes of the Almighty that He performed this miracle for their sake. 

6.     This is testimony from our adversary (Bilaam) about the eternal reward that is in store for Jewish people. (When the donkey reprimanded Bilaam it used the words “Shalosh Regalim” alluding to the fact that he dare not curse the Jewish people who would, later, celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals.[6])

Age of the Donkey

The Mishnah says[7] that one of the 10 things created on the twilight of Erev Shabbat on the 6th day of Creation, was the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey. Some say[8] that this means that G-d created the future ability for this donkey to speak. There is a Midrash,[9] however, that says that the donkey used by Avraham (and later, by Moshe Rabeinu) was a son of the donkey created in the six days of creation. Accordingly, Bilaam’s donkey was nearly two thousand years old at the time that it spoke. 


May we soon greet Moshiach who will ride on the donkey that is the son of Bilaam’s donkey!


[1] Numbers 22:33

[2]  See Tur Ha’Aruch.

[3] Ibid

[4] In BaShamayim Mima’al, Benei Berak 1978, page 192. See also Avi Ezri

[5] Seforno

[6] See Rashi on verse 28

[7] Pirkei Avot, 5:6

[8] See Bartenura and Yachin

[9] Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer, 31


Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784