In the verse (Parshas Pinchas, Bamidbar 26:3) it says vayedabeir moshe ve-elazar hakohein osam be-arvos mo-av al yardein yereicho leimor. In the text we learn that G-d commanded Moshe and Elazar to count the Jewish people (from age twenty and up) in the aftermath of the plague that had consumed a large number of Jewish souls. In this verse we find Moshe and Elazar conveying this imperative to the children of Israel. But the verse employs the word osam. And it is unclear how this word is being used and, therefore, how exactly the verse is to be read.
It would be nice if we could translate the word as meaning with them and, therefore, the verse as saying that Moshe and Elazar spoke with them, meaning the with the Jewish people,...concerning the matter of the count. This is a very straightforward way of reading it – and, in fact, the way that the Seforno and the Even Ezra adopt. They have no compunctions about the verse’s use of osam.
However, others are not as sanguine. These latter are impelled by the fact that, taken straightforwardly, osam does not translate into with them. To say that osam meant with them would be to say that that it functioned as a prepositional phrase, combining the preposition with and the pronoun them. And this would make it suitable as an occupant of the position following this verse’s intransitive verb vayedabeir. It would make it possible to read the verse as saying that Moshe and Elazar spoke with the Jewish people.
However, in point of fact, osam does not standardly mean with them. Taking the meaning with them is rather reserved for the word itam (or imam). Osam, rather, means them. It is a simple pronoun, with no preposition attached. Consequently it is not suited for occupying the position of a prepositional phrase in a sentential clause governed by an intransitive verb. If it is to appear in a predicate at all, it would have to occur in a predicate in which a transitive verb governed; and it would serve as the direct object of this transitive verb.
This is why the Targum Onkelos is not content to read the verse after the fashion of the Seforno and Even Ezra. In fact, it is not only Onkelos who objects to this seemingly straightforward reading. There is also Rashi to consider. Here is Rashi’s gloss: diberu imam al zos shetziva hamakom limnosam. (Speak with them about this, that G-d has commanded for them to be counted.) The reader of this Rashi might be tempted to correlate Rashi’s invocation of the word imam with the verse’s use of osam. In that case, Rashi would come out siding with the reading of the Seforno and the Even Ezra, after all. He would be interpreting osam as imam, or with them; and he would be reading the verse as saying that Moshe and Elazar spoke with them, that is, with the Jews. However, a glance at the Sifsei Chachamim quickly disabuses us of such a naïve reading of Rashi.
Here is the understanding of the verse that the Sifsei Chachamim attributes to Rashi: Moshe and Elazar spoke (with them) regarding this thing, that is, the counting of the Jewish people. In other words, osam does not correlate with imam. It correlates, rather, with this thing – which is to say, the commanded counting of the people. The motive for this departure is, evidently, a dissatisfaction with translating osam as having the meaning with them (imam). Treating osam as meaning with them is objectionable on the grounds that one looks in vain for the presence of a preposition, such as with, in the osam construction. There is none to be discerned. It is a pronoun, meaning them, plain and simple.
Now, admittedly, it is not entirely clear what the nature of the alternative that Rashi, according to the Sifsei Chachamim, offers is. There seem to be two ways of parsing it. One is to say that, like the Seforno and Even Ezra, Rashi understands the verb of the clause, which he naturally understands to be vayedabeir (speaking), to be intransitive. Consequently, it cannot be complemented by a direct object but only, if at all, by a prepositional phrase. Rashi, furthermore, identifies the prepositional phrase as being: al zos, meaning about this (thing) – this (thing) being a reference to the counting of the Jews. Al is a preposition, meaning about; and zos is a pronoun, meaning this, which Rashi understands to be referring to the commanded act of counting. Importantly, it is this last that correlates with the verse’s use of osam.
The interesting, and important, thing about this is that, although Rashi’s reading invokes the preposition al (about), it stops short of imputing this preposition to word osam itself. To do that would be to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise. Instead, it posits al, or about, as an understood preposition, one that is merely implicit. Its object is the word osam, which provides the pronoun needed to make reference to the specifics of the counting act. Consequently, although there is a preposition operating here, osam is relieved of the burden of carrying it – rightly so.
In sum, therefore, though, on this reading of Rashi, Rashi dispenses with the view that osam incorporates the preposition with, it does not, nevertheless, dispense with the view that osam incorporates the object of a preposition – them. It does, however, reorient the reference of the pronoun them, fixing it on the command to count. This, then, is one way to read the Sifsei Chachamim.
However, there is, I believe, also another. On this latter, the departure from the approach of the Seforno and Even Ezra is cleaner, i.e., more radically complete. On this reading, the verse is made out to say: Moshe and Elazar spoke osam – the command to count in its myriad details. That is, vayedabeir is used transitively; and there is no intervening preposition bridging the verb and the subsequent pronoun serving as object. There is no place for such a preposition, given that the verse is following a transitive verb-direct object structure.
Here it bears mentioning, parenthetically, that some verbs are capable of doubling up as both intransitive and transitive verbs, dibur, speaking, being a case in point. You can use it transitively and say something like: Speak your mind; Speak your words; or Speak divrei torah. And at Bereishis 24:33 we find ad im dibarti devarai. However, you can also use it intransitively, as when you say: I will speak; or I will speak to him. According to the just proposed understanding of the interpretation that the Sifsei Chachamim imputes to Rashi, vayedabeir is here used transitively. And osam, serving as its direct object, makes reference to the commanded counting of the Jewish people.
So, in sum, we have so far identified three approaches to the interpretation of the verse. On one, the verse features an intransitive verb, vayedabeir, which is complemented by osam, taken as a prepositional phrase, comprising words for with and for them (they being the children of Israel, who are spoken to) (Seforno, Even Ezra, and possibly Rashi). On another, vayedabeir, taken still as an intransitive verb, is complemented by a prepositional phrase, part of it understood and part of it made explicit. The prepositional phrase is about them. The understood part is the preposition about. And the explicitly rendered part of it is the prepositional object osam, taken as meaning them (plain and simple). Them, in turn, is interpreted as a reference to the details surrounding the commanded counting of the Jews (Rashi/Sifsei Chachamim, on the tame understanding). Finally, on yet another approach, vayedabeir is, again, understood as serving as the main verb. It is, however, used transitively; and it takes osam, understood as referring to the command to count and the surrounding details, as a direct object. At this point, we want to complete our thought and go back and look at the Onkelos’ way of reading the verse. We will find that, structurally, it has something in common with the third view just summarized (as a possible reading of the Sifsei Chachamim), although, semantically, it shares something in common with the first view (that of the Seforno and Even Ezra).
The Onkelos glosses our verse as follows: And Moshe and Elazar the kohein spoke, and they instructed to count them... In other words, the verse says nothing about to whom they spoke. It addresses, rather, the matter of what they said. And what they said was that the people were to be counted. When the verse expresses itself using the word osam, it is indeed a pronominal reference to the Jewish people; and it does indeed serve as the direct object of a transitive verb. The verb, however, is not to speak – vayedabeir – but rather to count. This, moreover, is an understood verb, gathered from the context and not expressly indicated in the text itself. This is Onkelos’ interpretation.
Now, as said, structurally, the pattern followed is that of the Sifsei Chachamim on the more radical reading. For the structure of the relevant clause is: subject, transitive verb, direct object. At the same time though, the idea that osam refers to the Jewish people is preserved. And in this there is symmetry to the understanding of the Seforno and the Even Ezra (and, also, possibly Rashi). Furthermore – as is the case with the Sifsei Chachamim’s approach – the idea of counting enters into the composition of this clause. Only, it does not occupy the position of object (as it does for the Sifsei Chachamim), but rather that of the verb. At the cost of having to yank in a governing verb – to count – from the outside (as it were), the Onkelos is enabled to interpret osam in what seems is the textually natural way, as a reference to the Jewish people who were being addressed, and at the same time to execute the interpretation in a way that is faithful to the standard grammatical use of the word osam – as a simple object.
The upshot is that we are confronted with two views as to whether osam can be used to mean what itam is typically used to mean – that is, with them. Rashi (unless understood in the Sifsei Chachamim’s way), the Seforno, and the Even Ezra hold that it can; whereas Onkelos (and Rashi as understood by the Sifsei Chachamim) holds it cannot. On what, then, does this disagreement turn?
Can osam be used for itam? To answer this, we need to consider the question: Do osam and itam come from the same root? To get a purchase on this, we need, first, to consider that the root-source of both osam and itam is the word es. In either case, es is inflected so as to incorporate a pronoun meaning them. We need, next, to consider whether the two words osam and itam come from the same es or from disparate eses. Are there, then, two eses or only one?
This much we can acknowledge axiomatically: osam comes from the es of es and itam comes from the es of im. Here I need to digress for a moment and explain what I mean by the es of es and the es of im. For the most part, in the Torah, we find the word es used in two (seemingly different) ways. In its most ubiquitous use, it prefaces an object – as for example in es ha-or. I call this the es of es. At other times though, es is used as a synonym for im. Thus, es ha-elokim hishalech no-ach. This, then, would be the es of im. In a straightforward sense, the word osam derives from the es of es, and the word itam derives from the es of im. This concludes my digression. The question before us, therefore, resolves itself into the question of whether these two eses are actually disparate roots or one and the same.
On the assumption that they are disparate, and that osam comes from the one (the es of es) and itam from the other (the es of im), it is understandable that inflecting the word es so that it incorporates a pronoun for them should yield divergent outcomes - osam and itam, respectively - depending on the es-word being so inflected. Different roots have different (phonetic) instantiations when operated on inflectionally. On the other hand, assuming that the two eses are at bottom the same, and that therefore both outer forms (osam and itam) come from – and are underpinned by – this one root, logic would suggest that the construction obtained by appending a pronoun for them to this root should have the same outer form in either case.
Yet osam and itam obviously do not share the same outer form. This (prima facie) tells in favor of viewing the two es words (es of es and es of im) as differing in root. Still, it does not deal the opposing view a devastating blow from which it cannot recover. The difficulty posed for the opposing view may be mitigated by the consideration that, after all is said and done, the word itam serves a linguistic purpose that could not be served without it (by the presence of osam alone). It affords us a word that builds exclusively on the im sense of es and carries the meaning with them univocally. (The itam formulation means nothing but imam.) Granted that the route followed in leading from the root es to the outer manifestation of itam appears obscure to us. The fact, nevertheless, remains that a new word form (itam) had perforce to be introduced. Inevitably, its construction was not going to follow normal procedures. If it did, they would have resulted (presumably) in osam, which would have left the new word without any distinguishing marks by which to tell it apart from the naturally generated osam. Itam had of necessity to take its own form; and that makes its seemingly devious appearance acceptable. (But, as we shall want to say, introducing it does not have the effect of debarring the inflection got by incorporating the pronoun into the original es, straightforwardly, from serving in the capacity for which the special inflection, itam, is especially introduced.) The supposition that the es of es and the es of im are at root one therefore retains its viability.
On this, I want to say, does the issue of whether osam can be used for itam depend. If there is but one es, such that both itam and osam derive from it, then even after/with the introduction (as it were) of itam, it remains possible for osam to be used as itam. For in principle, there is no reason why the forms should vary. Although itam has been introduced to provide an unambiguous way of expressing the sense of with them, this is not meant to debar osam from working alongside it and, occasionally, taking the same meaning. Sharing the same root, it has every right to do so. If, on the other hand, osam and itam come from different/desperate es-words, such that the es of im needs to take the form itam when inflected to incorporate a pronoun for them, then osam is incapable of doing duty for itam.
The Seforno and Even Ezra take the former view; Rashi and Onkelos take the latter.