Sotah, Chapter Five, Mishnah Three
Numbers 35:1-10 discuss the apportioning of cities to the Levites, who did not inherit large sections of the land as did the other tribes. Besides the cities themselves, the verses mandate a section outside the walls of the city which also shall belong to the Levites. Seemingly, verses 4 and 5 contain a blatant discrepancy, for verse 4 states 1000 cubits and verse 5 states 2000 cubits. Our mishnah contains several solutions for these problematic verses.
In my commentary on this mishnah I shall not delve into other non-rabbinic or modern critical ways of reading these verses. There is a fair amount of literature on the subject, literature which is summarized well in Jacob Milgroms commentary on Numbers, published by JPS.
1) On that day Rabbi Akiva expounded, You shall measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side (Numbers 35:5). But another verse states, from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around (vs. 4)
a) It is impossible to say that it was a thousand cubits since it has been already stated two thousand cubits; and it is impossible to say that it was two thousand cubits since it has been already stated a thousand cubits!
b) How then is this so?
c) A thousand cubits for the field [surrounding the city] and two thousand cubits for the Sabbath-limits.
2) Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: a thousand cubits for the field [surrounding the city] and two thousand cubits for fields and vineyards.
Section one: Rabbi Akiva points out that the two verses seem to contradict each other. To solve the problem he says that verse 41000 cubitsrefers to the size of the field which is to be left for the Levites. The second verse does not refer to the Levitical cities but rather to the Sabbath limits. This refers to the limits one is allowed to travel outside of the city on the Sabbath. We shall discuss this issue in greater depth when we learn Mishnah Shabbat.
We should note that Rabbi Akivas midrash has a goal similar to his midrash found yesterdays mishnah. Rabbi Akiva takes a halakhah which others thought could not be derived from the Torah and creatively derives it from the Torah. Indeed, this is one aspect of Rabbi Akivas achievements that contributed to his fame; his ability to creatively tie the oral tradition into the written Torah.
Section two: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean rejects Rabbi Akivas deriving the Sabbath limits from this verse. Rather he wishes to retain the context of the verse as much as possible. Therefore he says that the two thousand cubits also refers to the Levites land. One thousand cubits surrounding the city is to be kept as an empty field, and two thousand cubits (i.e. the next 1000 cubits) can be used for planting.