Tag Archives: Pharaoh

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

This week’s parasha, Beshalach, recounts the Splitting of the Sea. It is common knowledge that this was the Red Sea, called yam suf in Hebrew. Yet, in recent decades scholars have tried to “debunk” that notion, preferring to associate yam suf with a smaller lake of some sort. They often start by pointing out that yam suf literally means “sea of reeds”. It is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea. There are indeed several shallow, marshy lakes with reeds in that vicinity of Egypt, around the modern Suez Canal. The fact that the Torah speaks of the “Reed Sea” being near places like Pi-Hahirot, whose location is believed to be known, is used as further proof of yam suf not being the Red Sea.

Of course, this serves to diminish the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. It almost implies that the Israelites waded through a shallow lake, as opposed to crossing a vast expanse. The reality is that such a hypothesis does not at all fit with the descriptions we receive in the Torah. A careful look reveals what yam suf actually is, and further helps to locate an even bigger prize: Mount Sinai.  

A Sea or a Lake?

From the Torah’s description of the Splitting of the Sea, we learn that the waters stood as large walls to the left and right of the Israelites, and that the Egyptians later drowned in its depths (see, for instance, Exodus 14:28-29, 15:4, 8). This implies a deep sea, not a shallow, marshy lake.

Yam suf is mentioned well over twenty times in the Tanakh. When going through these verses and their context, one will find that it is a major geographical entity, not a small lake. For example, Numbers 14:25 says that the Amalekites and Canaanites live near yam suf, while Numbers 21:4 says the Edomites are near it, too. If it was a small lake somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula, or by the Suez Canal, this wouldn’t make much sense.

The Biblical lands of Edom, stretching down to the Red Sea (Credit: Briangotts)

In fact, the land of Edom is known to be in the area of what is today the Negev desert, roughly southern Israel and Jordan, going down to what is today Eilat. This is confirmed by I Kings 9:26, where we read that “King Solomon made a navy of ships in Etzion-Geber, which is beside Elot, on the shore of yam suf, in the land of Edom.” King Solomon built a navy-yard in a port near Elot (אֵלוֹת), undoubtedly related to today’s Eilat. And, like today’s Eilat, is in on the shore of yam suf, the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. This verse solves the entire puzzle. Scholars wonder why the sea became known as the Red Sea, when the answer might be right there in the Torah: to the Israelites, this was the sea by the land of Edom, which literally means “red”. It was the Edomite Sea, the “Red Sea”. And it is the selfsame body of water as yam suf.  

On that note, some have proposed that is isn’t yam suf, but yam sof, literally the sea “at the end”, since it is at the southernmost tip of Israel. Yet another idea is that it is yam sufa, “Storm Sea”, referring to the great wind storm that God sent to part the waters (Exodus 14:21). Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the Israelites did indeed cross what we know today as the Red Sea.

The bigger question is: where exactly did they cross?

Some believe that the Red Sea got its name from the red blooms of sea sawdust, Trichodesmium erythraeum (a type of cyanobacteria), that occasionally happen there.

Sinai or Saudi Arabia?

NASA Satellite Image of the Sinai Peninsula

It is commonly thought that Mount Sinai is somewhere in what is today called the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, back in the 6th century, Christians built a monastery on a mountain in the Peninsula which they believed to be Sinai. It still operates today as Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and is among the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The only problem is that it isn’t anywhere near the real Mt. Sinai.

First off, the Torah introduces us to Mount Sinai when Moses is living far from Egypt in Midian. Recall that Moses had fled Egypt, and eventually ended up living among the Bedouins of Midian. This already confirms that Mount Sinai was probably not in today’s Sinai Peninsula, which would have still been under Egyptian control in those days. In fact, we know from historical and archaeological evidence that in those days, the Egyptians ruled at least as far as Canaan itself. Moses fled outside of Egypt’s domain, across the Red Sea, to what is today Saudi Arabia. This is the land traditionally associated with the Midianites. And the Torah tells us that Mt. Sinai is there (Exodus 3:1-2):

And Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horev. And the angel of God appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed…

The Torah famously tells us that Moses saw a burning bush during his first encounter on the “mountain of God”. In Hebrew, it is called a s’neh, which gives rise to the name Mount Sinai. This mountain is in the wilderness around Midian, in a land call Horev. Later on, the Israelites cross the Red Sea and journey towards this same mountain, where they receive the Ten Commandments. This implies that the Israelites crossed somewhere in the Gulf of Aqaba, ending up in what is today Saudi Arabia. This makes all the more sense since they can journey from there to the wilderness “on the other side of the Jordan”, where they spent forty years before crossing the Jordan River—from the East—into Israel.

Jebel Musa in Saudi Arabia

Amazingly, there is a mountain in Saudi Arabia which is completely sealed off by the authorities, and off limits to any historians or archaeologists. Nonetheless, some have been able to secretly get through, and report evidence of a large camp that was there millennia ago, with a sacrificial altar, and even engravings of an idolatrous calf! The locals who live near the mountain call it Jebel Musa, “mountain of Moses”. Mysteriously, its peak is entirely blackened, perhaps because the Torah states that God descended upon the mountain with great fire and smoke. (Several documentaries have been made about this mountain, such as this short one.)

The Talmud supports the notion that Sinai is in Arabia. We read how Rabbah bar bar Chanah—famed for his adventurous tales—was “once traveling in the desert and was met by an Arab merchant… he said to me: ‘Come and I will show you Mount Sinai.’” (Bava Batra 73b-74a) Bar bar Chanah goes on to say that he followed the Arab to the mountain, and heard a Bat Kol, a voice emanating from Heaven. Having said that, it must be mentioned that the Sages often rejected bar bar Chanah’s tales because they thought he made them up!

Putting It All Together

This week’s parasha begins by laying out the journey of the Israelites (Exodus 13:17-18):

And it came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near, because God said, “Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by way of the desert, around the Red Sea…

We learn from this that God did not lead the people directly along the coast of the Mediterranean to the Holy Land, which would have been the fastest and straightest route. This would have taken them through the coastal lands of the Philistines, and the Israelites would have feared them. So, God led them roundabout, along the coasts of the Red Sea in what is today the Sinai Peninsula.

We are told that the Israelites “travelled from Succoth, and they encamped in Etham, at the edge of the desert.” (Exodus 13:20) This means they went all the way down to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Fittingly, God then told them “turn around and encamp in front of Pi-Hahirot, between Migdol and the sea; in front of Baal-Tzfon, you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea.” (Exodus 14:2) Having journeyed south all the way to the “edge”, they were now being told to turn around and head back north, along the eastern coast, “by the sea”.

At this point, Pharaoh’s informers told him the Israelites were “confused” and lost in the desert (Exodus 14:3), and he thought he had a chance at revenge. Pharaoh and his chariots pursued the Israelites and trapped them along the Gulf of Aqaba. The Red Sea split, and the Israelites crossed the narrow gulf into Arabia, where they later received the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The narrative of the Ten Commandments is in parashat Yitro, because it begins with Jethro joining up with Moses and the Israelites. This further proves that Sinai is near Midian, in Arabia, and not in what is today called the “Sinai” Peninsula.

To summarize: yam suf is indeed the Red Sea, the Israelites most likely crossed the Gulf of Aqaba, and the best candidate for the location of Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia. It may be Jebel Musa, or perhaps another mountain unknown to anyone. It may not even be there at all, for as we’ve written in the past, one tradition has it that Mount Sinai descended to this world only to be the vessel for delivering the Torah, and has since disappeared.  

How Did Moses Smite the Egyptian?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Torah, Shemot, which begins with the Israelite exodus from Egypt. We read:

Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one: “Why are you going to strike your friend?” And he replied: “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?” Moses became frightened and said, “Indeed, the matter has become known!” Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moses; so Moses fled from before Pharaoh… (Exodus 2:11-15)

There are many questions to be asked here. Why did Moses decide it was time to go “out to his brothers”? Why was the Egyptian man striking the Hebrew? What does it mean that Moses “turned this way and that way”? How did he kill him, and why was Moses so afraid? After all, he was a member of the royal family, and surely had more authority than an Egyptian taskmaster. On that note, why did Pharaoh want to kill Moses? Where was the fair trial? Even if Moses was to be convicted of a crime, to suggest the death penalty for a member of the royal family seems unlikely—why not imprison him instead? A trip through the classic Torah commentators sheds some light.

The first seal of the United States of America, in 1776, depicted Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.

Moses: The Man Who Could Be Pharaoh

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchak, 1040-1105) begins by asking why the Torah repeats that “Moses grew up” (igdal) when it had said the same thing in the previous passage? He answers that the first time refers to the fact that he physically grew up, whereas here it refers to the fact that he became great and was appointed as the Pharaoh’s chief of staff, or his viceroy, much like Joseph decades earlier. This might explain why only now Moses went “out to his brothers”. As prime minister, he probably had to oversee the work that was being done.

Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) comments here that when the Torah says Moses went out to his “brothers”, it doesn’t mean the Hebrews, but the Egyptians! After all, at this point Moses still believed the Egyptians were his brothers, and he went out to see how his fellows were doing. He then saw the Hebrew and suddenly recognized who he really was.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) holds an opposite view, commenting that Moses did go out to see his Hebrew brothers, since he was now all “grown up” and it was revealed to him who he actually was. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) says that Moses knew who he was all along, throughout his life, and despite being a great man in Pharaoh’s palace, nonetheless regularly went out to his brethren to care for them. Perhaps he knew that he must become a powerful man in Egypt so that he could one day use his influence to free his people from bondage.

Whatever the case, everyone agrees that Moses was of the highest rank in Egypt. And this might explain why Pharaoh sought to kill him. If Moses was indeed so great, he would have had many supporters of his own who would have surely come to his defence. We’ve written before how according to some opinions Moses was a top general in the Egyptian military. He undoubtedly had many devoted soldiers who would have been all too happy to see him installed as the new pharaoh. Throughout history, to the present day, it is very common to see powerful generals staging a coup against an unpopular leader. One can sense a power struggle brewing, with a large portion of the army standing behind Moses. Pharaoh probably felt threatened by Moses, and sought a reason to get rid of him. The fact that he killed an Egyptian official may have been exactly what Pharaoh was looking for.

The Power Hidden Within Moses

What exactly had the Egyptian official done to cause Moses to kill him? Rashi cites a Midrash that the Egyptian had forced an Israelite out of his home, then raped his wife (who was Shlomit bat Divri, mentioned in Leviticus 24:10-11). When her husband returned and protested, the Egyptian started beating him senselessly. Moses came at this moment, and looked “this way and that way”— he looked inside the house to see the distraught woman, and outside at her husband being beaten—and there was “no man”, no one doing anything about it. He immediately sprang into action.

‘Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram’ by Gustave Doré

How did he kill him? Rashi extracts the answer from a later verse. When Moses returned the next day, he sees two Israelites bickering. Rashi says they are Datan and Aviram, who in the future would lead a rebellion against Moses, alongside the wicked Korach. Moses reproves them—does Israel not have enough enemies that they must fight with each other, too? Indeed, this has been the number one issue plaguing the Jewish people through the ages, and the real source for all of our problems both internal and external. Datan replies: “Do you plan to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” In Hebrew, the phrasing is hala’argeni ata omer, which literally means “are you speaking to slay me?” From this, Rashi learns that Moses slayed the Egyptian by speaking, having pronounced God’s Ineffable Name.

This, of course, brings up a whole new problem: how did Moses know God’s Ineffable Name, let alone how to use it so kabbalistically? He was raised among Egyptians, and only just came out to meet his brethren for the first time! Besides, we only read later (in Exodus 6:2-3) that God reveals His Great Name to Moses, and tells Moses that He had never revealed the secrets of this Name to anyone before in history. There is no way anyone could have taught it to Moses.

I believe there is one answer, and that it simultaneously answers another question: why does the Torah say Moses was so afraid? Why did he flee? After all, he was the prime minister, and a great general, and could have the Egyptian slain at will. Besides, the Egyptian had committed rape, and even in non-Jewish law this is a capital offence, as Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) comments on Exodus 2:12. Moses had no one to fear, and as we’ve seen, certainly had many supporters. He could have very probably overthrown the Pharaoh, too, if he so wished. Therefore, it is unlikely that Moses feared Pharaoh. Rather, one is led to believe that Moses had frightened himself.

The Torah tells us that Moses was born entirely good (Exodus 2:2). Rashi cites the Talmud in saying that when he emerged, the entire room filled with light. In fact, according to one opinion, Moses’ birth name, as called by his mother, was Tuviah, literally “God’s goodness” (see, for example, Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 166 or Vayikra 428, as well as Sotah 12a). Moses was born with divine power concealed within him. At that moment when he encountered the evil Egyptian, that latent power suddenly came out of him. God’s Ineffable Name shot forth from his mouth—to his own great surprise—and the Egyptian dropped dead. I believe this is why Moses was so afraid. He had no clue where it had come from, and ultimately ran away to discover himself.

Years later, when Moses finally encounters God, and God reveals His Name, everything comes full circle. Moses finally understands where that power had come from, and Who had given it to him. (Fittingly, Moshe’s name [משה] backwards makes Hashem [השם]—the Name was hidden inside him all along!) He understands why all of these events had to happen; all part of God’s plan to prepare him for his final mission. This is very much like Joseph, who experienced tremendous distress before understanding that it was all part of a divine plan. As we read in last week’s parasha, he tells his brothers: “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good…” (Genesis 50:19-20)

Rectifying the Cosmos

The Arizal (Rabbi Itzhak Luria, 1534-1572) revealed a powerful secret about the past lives of Moses and the Egyptian that he killed: Moses was a reincarnation of Abel, while the Egyptian was a reincarnation of Cain. Just as Cain had once killed Abel, and hid him in the earth, so too did Moses (Abel) now kill the Egyptian (Cain) and hid him in the earth, measure for measure (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet, as well as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 32 and 36).

Long before the Arizal, Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340) said something similar: “Moses was destined from the Six Days of Creation to do this thing, to kill the Egyptian, for the power of the Egyptian was the power of Cain, who comes from the side of impurity…” Moses was born with a divine glow, representing all the holiness and purity in Creation, while the Egyptian represented the side of darkness and the impure. Moses’ actions were part of a much larger spiritual rectification for the universe.

All of the above reminds us how there truly is a great cosmic plan in this universe. Everything happens for a reason, and all things are intertwined. Sometimes, the reason is revealed in the future; sometimes, it is because of events from the distant past; sometimes it remains a mystery. Moses begged God to reveal it all to him, but God replied that it was impossible for a man to grasp it all and remain alive (Exodus 33:20). One must patiently await the World of Truth in the afterlife, and in the meantime, make the most of this life.

Secrets of the Pesach Seder Plate

This Friday evening marks the start of Passover. At the Passover seder, it is customary to have a plate upon which all the symbolic Passover foods are placed. According to one arrangement, on the top right we place the zeroa bone; parallel to it on the left is an egg; then the maror (bitter herb) in the centre; the sweet charoset on the bottom right, opposite the karpas vegetable; and in the bottom centre the chazeret, horseradish or another serving of maror (which is used in the korech “sandwich”). In addition, we have three matzahs and the cup of wine, to be filled four times. What is the significance of these Pesach elements?

The zeroa represents the fact that God took us out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (b’zeroa netuya), as the Torah states. It also represents the korban pesach, the Pesach offering that would be brought and consumed in the days of the Temple. For this reason, it is best to have a zeroa from a lamb shank, since the Pesach offering was a lamb. The lamb itself was in commemoration of the fact that the Israelites smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their Exodus, to protect their homes from the tenth and final plague. It was a lamb in particular because the astrological sign for the month of Nisan is Aries, a ram or sheep. This is tied to Egyptian idolatry, where a number of Egyptian gods were depicted as ram-headed, or with the horns of a ram, including Khnum and Osiris. The slaughter of a lamb was thus symbolic of destroying the idols of Egypt, like the Ten Plagues themselves (see ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light).

The egg symbolizes another offering brought on Passover: the chagigah, or holiday offering. This was the standard offering brought on all festivals in the days of the Temple. The reason that it is specifically an egg is because a whole egg is one of the foods traditionally consumed by mourners. (The round egg represents the cycle of life.) In this case, the egg is a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Intriguingly, Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) wrote how it is customary to eat meat, fish, and egg at the Pesach seder to represent the foods that will be eaten in the End of Days at the Feast of Mashiach. According to the Midrash, in that time the righteous will eat the fishy flesh of Leviathan, that great sea-dragon that Mashiach will slay; as well as the meat of the beast called Behemoth; and the egg of the mythical bird Ziz. So, eating an egg at the Pesach meal is symbolic of that future messianic feast.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The maror famously represents the bitter oppression of the Jews, just as the Torah states that the Egyptians “embittered” (v’imareru) the lives of the Jews with mortar and brick, and hard labour (Exodus 1:14). The need to eat maror actually comes explicitly from the Torah, which commands that Jews should eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) lists five possible maror herbs, though their identity is not entirely clear. The only one that appears to be undisputed is lettuce, and hence it is lettuce that is used for maror in Sephardic communities. Another possibility is that maror is horseradish—not the mustard-like sauce but an actual horseradish root (since maror must be a raw vegetable, as the Shulchan Arukh states in Orach Chaim 473:5). There are other traditions for maror’s identity as well.

Interestingly, the Midrash states that the consumption of maror on Pesach is one of the few things King Solomon did not understand! In Proverbs 30:18, Solomon wrote that “Three things are wondrous to me and four I do not know.” Although the passage continues to state what it is that Solomon wondered about, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) has an alternate explanation: The three things wondrous to Solomon were the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries behind the four species of Sukkot!

The Mystery of Karpas and Charoset

The maror is dipped into the sweet charoset. This paste is meant to resemble the clay mortar that the Israelites used, or the mud that was baked into clay bricks. The word charoset comes from cheres, “clay”. There are vastly different traditions as to the ingredients of charoset. One tradition is to use the fruits mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, among them: apples (2:3), figs (2:13), nuts (6:11), dates (7:7), wine (1:2), and cinnamon (4:14). The romantic lyrics of the Song are interpreted as an allegorical “love story” between God and Israel, and the fruits are used throughout the text in metaphorical fashion to describe that passionate love. It is particularly appropriate to use the Song of Songs recipe since it is customary to read the Song of Songs on the holiday of Pesach. (There are five megillot, “scrolls”, in the Tanakh, and each is read on a particular holiday: Shir HaShirim on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Eichah on Tisha b’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.)

Some have pointed out that charoset may have a Greek origin, as it was common to eat fruit and nut mixtures in the Greek symposia, which the Pesach seder might be loosely modelled on. Similarly, karpas has a Greek etymology (as does afikoman) and means “vegetable”. This vegetable can be celery, parsley, water cress, green onion, or even boiled potato. It is commonly said that the karpas symbolizes, once again, the difficult labour of the Jews. In the word karpas (כרפס) appear the letters פ-ר-כ, as in the Torah’s statement that the Egyptians worked the Israelites בפרך, b’farekh (Exodus 1:13), exceedingly hard. It is customary to dip the karpas in salt water, which represents the tears of the Israelites.

Having said that, there may be a better explanation for the karpas, and its secret lies in an alternate custom to dip it not in salt water, but in wine vinegar. The Hebrew word karpas (כרפס) actually appears in one place in the Tanakh. This is in Esther 1:6, amidst a description of the feast of King Ahashverosh, where his palace was draped with chur karpas u’tekhelet (חור כרפס ותכלת), “white linen and blue thread”. So, while the Greek karpos means “vegetable”, the Hebrew karpas means “linen” or “fabric”. Dipping the karpas in wine vinegar is therefore like dipping clothing in blood, symbolizing the tunic of Joseph which his brothers dipped in blood and presented to their father Jacob. It was that act which sparked the sequence of events leading to the Israelites descent to Egypt, and their ultimate enslavement.

The sixth spot on the seder plate is sometimes missing altogether, and other times holds horseradish (sometimes the creamy kind), salt water (for dipping karpas), or another serving of maror which is used in the korech, the “sandwich” made up of matzah, charoset, and maror. As the Haggadah states, this was the custom of the great Hillel, who used to make such a sandwich to literally fulfil the word of the Torah to eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

In addition to the plate, we have three matzahs. These symbolize the three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as the three divisions of the Jewish nation—Kohen, Levi, and Israel. (We have explored in the past why it is the middle matzah, corresponding to Isaac, that is broken in half.) They can also be said to symbolize the three siblings who led the Exodus: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The Four Cups

The four cups of wine symbolize the four expressions of salvation that the Torah uses (Exodus 6:6-8) in describing the Exodus:

I am Hashem, and I will [1] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and [2] I will deliver you from their bondage, and [3] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and [4] I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am Hashem your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am Hashem.

We see a fifth expression here, too—“and I will bring you to the land…” This is why we do pour a fifth cup, but we do not drink it. It is left for the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu. In the Talmud, it is common for the rabbis to leave an unsettled debate “for Eliyahu”, who will come in the Messianic days and finally resolve all the Talmudic disputes. Since there is a debate whether to drink four or five cups of wine on Pesach (based on a variant text in Pesachim 118a), we drink four and leave a fifth “for Eliyahu”. The deeper meaning behind the debate here is whether our salvation is complete or not. Although we were taken out of Egypt, Jews have continued to experience oppression for centuries ever since. We will not be totally redeemed until the coming of Mashiach. Our presence in the Holy Land will not be secured until then either. This is why the fifth cup is for Eliyahu, who is the harbinger of Mashiach.

It has also been pointed out that in Genesis 40:11-13, Pharaoh’s cupbearer mentions a cup four times in his dream. Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in the positive, and prophesied that he shall return to his position, while the Pharaoh’s baker would be put to death. Joseph asked the cupbearer that he remember Joseph and help to get him out of his imprisonment. Although the cupbearer forget all about Joseph, he later remembered the young dream interpreter when the Pharaoh’s own dream was inexplicable. This led to Joseph’s release from prison, his ascent to Egyptian royalty, and the eventual settlement of his family in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. So, the dream of the “four cups” sets in motion the events that lead to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

Likewise, when Joseph tests his siblings and places his special goblet in the bag of Benjamin (Genesis 44), the word “goblet” is mentioned four times. Better yet, the numerical value of “goblet” (גביע) is equal to the value of “cup” (כוס) when including the kollel. And the value of “cup” (כוס) itself is 86, which is the number of years that Israel was enslaved. (Israel was in Egypt a total of 210 years, of which the first 94 were peaceful. Then came 30 years of persecution, followed by 86 years of hard slavery. For a detailed analysis see ‘How Long Were the Israelites Actually in Egypt?’)

Some say the four cups parallel the four types of kelipah, the impure “husks” in Creation. Kabbalistic texts often speak of Pharaoh as the ultimate force of kelipah. It just so happens that the Torah speaks of four pharaohs altogether: the first Pharaoh was the one Abraham encountered upon his descent to Egypt; the second was the one that took Joseph out of prison and appointed him viceroy; the third was the wicked one who enslaved Israel and later decreed the drowning of the Israelite babies; and the fourth is the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.

Yet another explanation is that the four cups correspond to the four exiles of Israel: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt, we were redeemed from the future exiles (awaiting the final redemption). Appropriately, the Arizal taught that Egypt was the root of all future exiles (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash state (based on Exodus 14:13-14) that the Jews split into four groups when trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the approaching Egyptians on the other. There were those that lost all hope and wanted to surrender, and those that wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender; those that wished to arm themselves and fight the Egyptians, and those that simply prayed to God for salvation. Regardless of their faith or faithlessness, God saved all four groups of Jews, and we drink four cups in commemoration.

Lastly, if the three matzahs parallel the three patriarchs of Israel, then the four cups can be said to parallel the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. After all, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) states that “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.”

Sefirot of the Seder Plate

Etz Chaim, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”

The Arizal arranged his seder plate according to the mystical Tree of Life that depicts the Ten Sefirot. The zeroa is in the top right because this is the position of Chessed, kindness, as it represents God’s compassion in taking us out of Egypt. The egg is in the position of Gevurah, or Din, strict judgement and restraint, since it represents mourning the Temple’s destruction. (Another symbolic explanation for the egg is that it represents the Jewish people: just as an egg gets harder the more it is boiled so, too, does the Jewish nation only grow stronger the more we are “boiled” and oppressed.) The all-important maror is in the central sefirah of Tiferet, balance and truth.

The sefirot of Netzach and Hod (paralleling the legs) are charoset and karpas, symbolizing our difficult labour. The salt water, chazeret, or additional maror below is for Yesod. Finally, the plate itself is Malkhut, since Malkhut is the receptacle for all the sefirot above, just as the plate holds all the foods. Alternatively, Malkhut may correspond to the cup of wine.

Finally, at the top are the three matzot, corresponding to the upper three mochin of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (or Keter). This reveals a deeper secret as to why we break the middle matzah into two halves. The middle matzah is the middle sefirah of Binah, which actually has two aspects: Binah and Tevunah. While “Binah” is simply understanding a matter, “Tevunah” is internalizing that information more deeply. Tevunah is engraving that understanding into one’s mind, and it leads to being able to apply that knowledge in real world situations. Thus, we end the seder with the consumption of the afikoman—the Tevunah half—as we wish to not only understand what was discussed at the seder, but to internalize it on the deepest of levels.

Chag Sameach!

Why Did the Levites Become Priests?

This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is more commonly known as Leviticus—after the tribe of Levi—since most of it is concerned with priestly, or Levitical, law. The big question is: at which point did the Levites (including the Kohanim, who are from the same tribe of Levi) become priests, and why?

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. The traditional explanation (see, for example, Rashi on Numbers 3:12) is that the Levites were the only tribe not to participate in the Golden Calf incident, and thus merited to become priests. Before that point, the firstborn son of each family was meant to serve in the priesthood (and presumably anyone else who so wished), as God had originally stated that the entire nation will be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).* After the Golden Calf, everything changed and it was strictly the Levites who became worthy of the priesthood.

Yet, other traditions maintain that the Levites were already priests long before the Golden Calf debacle. It is commonly held that the Levites were not enslaved in Egypt (or, at least, not to the same degree) because they were recognized as priests, and priests were protected under Egyptian law (see Genesis 47:26). This notion is supported by Exodus 5:4 where Pharaoh tells the Levite leaders Moses and Aaron: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? Go to your own burdens.” Pharaoh essentially tells the brothers to mind their own business and let the others do their work.

Rashi cites the Midrash here in explaining that Aaron and Moses were able to freely appear before Pharaoh whenever they wished because Levites like them were not enslaved. In Gur Aryeh, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, d. 1609) goes so far as to suggest that Pharaoh—perhaps the Pharaoh who actually enslaved Israel; not the Pharaoh of the Exodus—knew that Israel were God’s people, so he left the Levites to serve Hashem in an attempt to avert his own doom! This explanation may actually be a pretty good one, since polytheistic religions like that of the ancient Egyptians typically accepted the existence of other gods beyond their own pantheon. The Roman Empire famously absorbed the deities of the various peoples they conquered to the point where they had hundreds of gods in their pantheon. Doing so would appease the gods, and more importantly, help to subdue their conquered believers. For Egypt, allowing a portion of Israel to remain in God’s service would be a valuable political tool, hence the freedom granted to the priestly Levites.

There is a further issue in that the Levites are already commanded in priestly duties in the parasha of Tetzave, which comes before the parasha of Ki Tisa where the Golden Calf incident is recounted. This is generally dealt with through the principle of ain mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”, meaning that many events in the Torah are not presented in their chronological order. Still, there may be a way to solve the conundrum without resorting to this conclusion.

So, when and why did Levites become priests?

Surprising Answers from Jubilees

As discussed in the past, the Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one 49-year yovel, “jubilee”, period. While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty, and clearly influenced a number of midrashic texts, as well as the Zohar.

The Book of Jubilees offers three different reasons for the tribe of Levi’s priesthood. First (explained in 30:18), the Levites merited to become priests because their forefather Levi had defended his sister Dinah’s honour after her rape by Shechem (Genesis 34). Although Shimon was the leader of that mission, he later lost his merit when he suggested killing Joseph. This explanation is problematic because the wording in Genesis suggests Jacob was not at all happy with his sons Shimon and Levi for their impulsive, violent attack. Because of that, Jacob actually did not give these two sons a blessing as he did his other sons (Genesis 49:5-6).

In Chapter 31, Jubilees suggests a better answer. Here, we read how Jacob went to visit his parents after returning from a twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban in Charan. Jacob does not take his entire family, but is accompanied only by Judah and Levi (the reason why is not stated). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing, and in this blessing Judah is conferred royalty and Levi given the priesthood. Thus, Judah’s descendants ultimately became kings while Levi’s became priests. That also explains why these two tribes alone would survive through history (the other ten—“The Lost Tribes of Israel”—having been extinguished over the centuries). Today, we have only Yehudim (ie. Judahites) among whom are Kohanim and Levi’im (ie. Levites).

A Tithed Son

The Book of Jubilees offers one more intriguing explanation for the ascent of the Levites to the priesthood. In Chapter 32, Jacob fulfils his previous oath to God (as in Genesis 28:22) to tithe everything God blesses him with. Since Jacob promised to tithe everything God gives him, that includes his children. So, Jacob lines up his twelve sons according to age and starts counting from the youngest, Benjamin. The tenth son, of course, is Levi, and therefore he is designated for God—to the priesthood. Following this, Levi sees a dream at Beit-El (in the same place his father had the vision of the Heavenly Ladder) in which God confirms Jacob’s deed and officially appoints Levi the family priest.

Finally, Jacob offers a host of sacrifices to God, and it is Levi who facilitates them. Levi accordingly becomes the first official Israelite priest. This may explain why later in history the Levite tribe in Egypt was already considered priestly and spared much of the slavery, and it also explains why the leadership of Israel in Egypt was composed primarily of Levites (Amram, Moses, Aaron). It gives a reason, too, for why it was the tribe of Levi in particular that did not participate in the Golden Calf, for they would have spent their time in Egypt in service of Hashem, making it highly unlikely that they would be drawn to idolatry like the common folk. Perhaps what happened after the Golden Calf is that God officially made the entire tribe priestly, and formally removed the responsibility from the firstborn.

Having said all that, there are those who maintain that having such priests was only necessary because of the Golden Calf, and sacrifices were only instituted to repair that grave sin, or to give the people an outlet to perform sacrificial offerings like they were used to (as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). If not for the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for a sacrificial altar or priestly offerings. The entire nation would have been a mamlekhet kohanim—a kingdom of priests—as God intended; and serving God, like today, would have been through prayer, study, and mitzvot.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*It appears that occasionally non-Levites did become priests. In II Samuel 8:18 we read that some of King David’s sons somehow became kohanim. Rashi dealt with this perplexing statement by saying they were not literal kohanim but simply “chief officers”. Samuel himself is described as being from the tribe of Ephraim, yet is given over to Temple service by his mother Chanah and seemingly becomes a priest. The later Book of Chronicles deals with this by stating that Samuel really was descended from a Levite (see I Chronicles 6).

The Kabbalah of Moses’ Divine Staff

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven plagues to strike Egypt. These were brought about through the Staff of Moses, as were the later Splitting of the Sea, the victory over Amalek (Exodus 17) and the water brought forth from a rock. What was so special about this particular staff, and what was the source of its power?

Pirkei Avot (5:6) famously states that the Staff was one of ten special things to be created in the twilight between the Sixth Day and the first Shabbat. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 40) elaborates:

Rabbi Levi said: That staff which was created in the twilight was delivered to the first man out of the Garden of Eden. Adam delivered it to Enoch, and Enoch delivered it to Noah, and Noah to Shem. Shem passed it on to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob brought it down to Egypt and passed it on to his son Joseph, and when Joseph died and they pillaged his household goods, it was placed in the palace of Pharaoh.

And Jethro was one of the magicians of Egypt, and he saw the staff and the letters which were upon it, and he desired it in his heart, and he took it and brought it, and planted it in the midst of the garden of his house. No one was able to approach it any more.

When Moses came to his house, he went into Jethro’s garden, and saw the staff and read the letters which were upon it, and he put forth his hand and took it. Jethro watched Moses, and said: “This one in the future will redeem Israel from Egypt.” Therefore, he gave him Tzipporah his daughter to be his wife…

God gave the staff to Adam, who gave it to Enoch (Hanokh)—who, according to tradition, later transformed into the angel Metatron—and Enoch passed it on further until it got to Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh confiscated it after Joseph’s death. The passage then alludes to another Midrashic teaching that Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ future father-in-law, was once an advisor to Pharaoh, along with Job and Bila’am (see Sanhedrin 106a). The wicked Bila’am was the one who advised Pharaoh to drown the Israelite male-born in the Nile. While Job remained silent (for which he was so severely punished later), Jethro protested the cruel decree, and was forced to resign and flee because of it. As he fled, he grabbed the divine staff with him. Arriving in Midian, his new home, Jethro stuck the staff in the earth, at which point it seemingly gave forth deep roots and was immovable.

A related Midrash states that all the suitors that sought the hand of his wise and beautiful Tzipporah were asked to take the staff out of the earth, and should they succeed, could marry Jethro’s daughter. None were worthy. (Not surprisingly, some believe that this Midrash may have been the source for the Arthurian legend of the sword Excalibur.) Ultimately, Moses arrived and effortlessly pulled the staff out of the ground.

The passage above states that Moses was mesmerized by the letters engraved upon the staff, as was Jethro before him. What were these letters?

The 72 Names

Targum Yonatan (on Exodus 4:20) explains:

And Moses took the rod which he had brought away from the chamber of his father-in-law, made from the sapphire Throne of Glory; its weight forty se’ah; and upon it was engraved and set forth the Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought before Hashem by his hand…

God’s Ineffable Name was engraved upon the sapphire staff, which was itself carved out of God’s Heavenly Throne. The staff weighed a whopping 40 se’ah, equivalent to the minimum volume of a kosher mikveh, which is roughly 575 litres of water, or 575 kilograms. (This would explain why none could dislodge the staff, except he who had God’s favour.)

A parallel Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 8:3) also confirms that the staff was of pure sapphire, weighing forty se’ah, but says it was engraved with the letters that stand for the Ten Plagues, as we recite at the Passover seder: datzach, adash, b’achav (דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב).

A final possibility is that the “Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought” refers to the mystical 216-letter Name of God (or 72-word Name of God). This Name is actually 72 linked names, each composed of three letters. The names are derived from the three verses Exodus 14:19-21:

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet it gave light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and Hashem caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided.

The 72 Three-Letter Names of God

Each of these verses has exactly 72 letters. Hidden within them is this esoteric Name of God, the most powerful, through which came about the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea as the verses themselves describe. The Name (or 72 Names) is derived by combining the first letter of the first verse, then the last letter of the second verse, and then the first letter of the third verse. The same is done for the next letter, and so on, for all 72 Names.

Since the Splitting of the Sea and the plagues were brought about through these Names, the Midrash above may be referring not to the Ineffable Name, but to these 72 Names as being engraved upon the Staff. In fact, it may be both.

Staff from Atzilut

The 72 Names are alluded to by another mystical 72-Name of God. The Arizal taught that God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in four ways. This refers to a practice called milui,* where the letters of each word are themselves spelled out to express the inner value and meaning of the word. God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in these ways, with the corresponding values:

יוד הא ואו הא = 45

יוד הה וו הה = 52

יוד הי ואו הי = 63

יוד הי ויו הי = 72

The Name with the 72 value is the highest, not just numerically, but according to the sefirot, partzufim, and universes laid out in Kabbalah. The 52-Name corresponds to Malkhut and the world of Asiyah; the 45-Name to Zeir Anpin (the six “masculine” sefirot) and the world of Yetzirah; and the 63-Name to Binah and the world of Beriah. The 72-Name—which is, of course, tied to the above 72 Names of God—corresponds to the highest universe, Atzilut, the level of God’s Throne, where there is nothing but His Emanation and Pure Light. Here we come full circle, for the Midrash states that the Staff of Moses was itself carved out of God’s Throne. This otherworldly staff came down to this world from the highest Heavenly realm!

Where is the Staff Today?

What happened to Moses’ staff after his passing? Another Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 869) answers:

…the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It is likewise the holy staff with which Moses worked, and with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh, and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath. David left it to his descendants, and the Davidic kings used it as a sceptre until the destruction of the Temple, when it miraculously disappeared. When the Messiah comes it will be given to him for a sceptre as a sign of his authority over the heathens.

This incredible passage contains a great deal of novel insight. Firstly, Jacob used this divine staff to split the Jordan and allow his large family to safely cross back to Israel, just as the Israelites would later cross the Jordan in miraculous fashion under the leadership of Joshua. It seems Joshua himself, as Moses’ rightful successor, held on to the staff, and passed it down through the Judges and Prophets until it came to the hand of David. Unlike the traditional account of David slaying Goliath with the giant’s own sword, the Midrash here says he slew Goliath with the staff!

The staff remained in the Davidic dynasty until the kingdom’s end with the destruction of the First Temple. At this point a lot of things mysteriously disappeared, most famously the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed that the Ark was hidden in a special chamber built for it by Solomon, who envisioned the day that the Temple would be destroyed. It is likely that the staff is there, too, alongside it.

Mashiach will restore both of these, and will once again wield the sceptre of the Davidic dynasty. As the staff is forged from God’s own Heavenly Throne, it is fitting that Mashiach—God’s appointed representative, who sits on His corresponding earthly throne—should hold a piece of it. And this symbol, the Midrash concludes, will be what makes even the heathens accept Mashiach’s—and God’s—authority. Jacob prophesied this on his deathbed (Genesis 49:10), in his blessing to Judah:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the coming of Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of all the peoples be.

Shiloh is one of the titles for Mashiach (see Sanhedrin 98b), and his wielding of the staff will bring about the obedience of all the world’s people to God’s law. We can now also solve a classic problem with the above verse:

The verse states that the sceptre will not depart from Judah until the coming of Mashiach, as if it will depart from Judah when Mashiach comes. This makes no sense, since Mashiach is a descendent of Judah! It should have simply said that the sceptre shall never depart from Judah, from whom the messiah will come. Rather, Jacob is hinting that the Staff will one day be hidden in the land of Judah, deep below “between his feet”, and won’t budge from there for millennia until Mashiach comes and finally restores it.

May we merit to see it soon.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Interestingly, using the same milui method, one can expand the word staff (מטה) like this: מאם טאת הה, which is 501, equivalent to דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב, the acronym for the Ten Plagues which the Staff brought about!