Friday, April 15, 2022

Etzba Elohim: The Finger of WHICH God?

The content on this podcast has been sponsored by my Patrons on Patreon. The total cost of maintaining my five podcasts in 2021 amounted to over $2000 - all of which would have come out of my own pocket were it not for your generosity. Thank you for helping me make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone!

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article, and click here for an audio version.

Photo: Hubble image of a Bok globule in the Carina Nebula nicknamed "The Finger of God"





Etzba Elohim: The Finger of Which God?

The first miraculous sign that Moshe performed before Paroh was the transformation of Aharon’s staff into a snake. This sign was replicated by Paroh’s sorcerers (Shemos 7:11). The first (ibid. 7:22) and second (ibid. 8:3) of the Ten Plagues were also replicated by the sorcerers, but not the third: “The sorcerers did the same with their magic, to draw forth the lice, but they could not … The sorcerers said to Paroh, ‘It is the finger of God!’ Paroh’s heart was strong, and he did not heed them, as Hashem had spoken” (ibid. 8:15).

The phrase exclaimed by the sorcerers was “etzba Elohim.” This is commonly understood to be a concession on their part, and an acknowledgment that this was from Hashem. Rashi, for instance, interprets their words to mean: “this plague was not done with magic; it is from Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu” (Rashi on Shemos 8:15).

There is a glaring problem with this explanation: the Divine name used by the sorcerers is “Elohim,” but this whole time, Moshe has been speaking in the name of Hashem (i.e. the Tetragrammaton). Indeed, when Moshe first approached Paroh in the name of Hashem, Paroh responded: “Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Israel” (ibid. 5:2). But during the second plague, Paroh was already sufficiently familiar with Hashem to the point where he said: “Entreat Hashem that He remove the tzfarde’a from me and my people, and I shall send out the people that they may bring offerings to Hashem” (ibid. 8:4). If the sorcerers intended to admit to Paroh that this was Hashem – the Deity Whom Paroh, himself, had just acknowledged by name in the last plague – why would they say “etzba Elohim? Why not “etzba Hashem?

In light of these difficulties, the Ibn Ezra (ibid. 8:15) concludes that “etzba Elohim” was not an acknowledgment on the sorcerers’ part that the plague was sent by Hashem. Rather:

They said to Paroh: “This plague did not come via Aharon on behalf of Israel to send [Israel] forth; rather, it was a plague of Elohim, in accordance with the arrangement of stars over the mazal (Zodiac sign) of Egypt.” I have already explained that Paroh did not deny the Creator, but only [the deity] “Hashem” that Moshe mentioned to him.

Malbim (ibid.) sides with the Ibn Ezra on this matter and explains the pesukim in an even more radical way:

When you look through all these parshiyos you will never find Paroh or the Egyptians calling Hashem by the name “Elokim” but only by the Tetragrammaton. The name “Elohim” was, for them, a reference to the celestial order or to their gods – not to the God of Israel Who was called by the Tetragrammaton. [The only time] they used the name [Elokim] is when they said, “go and offer sacrifices to your Elokim” (ibid. 8:21) – meaning “Elokei Yisrael” (the God of Israel), and not simply “Elohim.” Thus, it is clear that when they said, “etzba Elohim,” they were not referring to the God of Israel, [for if they were,] they should have said “etzba Hashem hu” or “etzba Elokei Yisrael.” Since this plague came without warning, they thought that it didn’t come from the God of Israel for the sake of Israel, because if so, Moshe would have been informed of it [by God] and he would have warned [Paroh] in advance. [Rather,] they said that this plague was sent to them by the God of Egypt, whom they referred to by the unqualified name “Elohim” (lit. “God”) … It is for this reason [that the pasuk subsequently says,] “Paroh’s heart was strong and he did not heed them,” because there was no need to be afraid anymore, for his fear had passed [in light of the sorcerers’ words].

According to this interpretation, there is no indication in the pesukim that any faction of Egypt – neither the sorcerers nor Paroh – acknowledged Hashem’s miraculous intervention until the fourth plague, when Hashem informed Paroh in advance: “I will make a distinction between My people and your people” (ibid. 8:19). It was only after the fourth plague that Paroh said: “Go, bring offerings to your God … entreat for me!” (ibid. 8:24). The fourth plague was Egypt’s first acknowledgment “that I am Hashem in the midst of the land” (ibid. 8:18).

___________________________________________________________________________________

If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Tzfarde’a: The Plague That Lasted Forever

The content on this podcast has been sponsored by my Patrons on Patreon. The total cost of maintaining my five podcasts in 2021 amounted to over $2000 - all of which would have come out of my own pocket were it not for your generosity. Thank you for helping me make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone!

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article, and click here for an audio version.
 
Artwork: Lurking Crocodile, by Donato Giancola

Tzfarde’a: The Plague That Lasted Forever

Ask the average Jew to identify the species involved in the second of the ten plagues, and they’ll likely answer “frogs.” However, a few commentators interpret the word “tzfarde’a” to mean “crocodiles.” Saadia Gaon bases his interpretation on the account of the plagues in Sefer Tehilim: “He sent wild beasts into them which devoured them, and tzfarde’a which destroyed them” (Tehilim 78:45). He explains: “I interpret tzfarde’a as crocodiles because frogs don’t kill, whereas this [tzfarde’a mentioned in the pasuk] kills.” Ramban (Shemos 10:14) cites this opinion in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel. Ibn Ezra (ibid. 7:27, Second Commentary) brings it up as a possibility which he ultimately rejects. Rabbeinu Bachya (ibid. 10:19) also mentions this view.

The most emphatic crocodile advocate is the Abravanel, who marshals a number of proofs – too many to paraphrase in a 1-page article. His main argument is based on Moshe’s statement: “The crocodiles will depart from you and from your houses, and from your servants and your people; only in the River will they remain” (ibid. 8:7). The Abravanel writes: “How could [Moshe] say ‘only in the River will they remain,’ which indicates that they would remain exclusively in the Nile, when croaking frogs are found throughout all the rivers of Egypt, and also in all the streams and ponds in the world?” He acknowledges that crocodiles eventually made their way outside of the borders of Egypt, but staunchly maintains that prior to the plague of tzfarde’a, crocodiles were not present in the Nile, and were only brought there by the plague. He then goes on to spell out the implications of the pasuk:

Moshe said, "only in the River will they remain" because he saw that Paroh suffered greatly from the crocodiles, and therefore, in order to intimidate him, he said, "only in the River will they remain" – in other words, so that they will occasionally come up by the will of the Creator (blessed is He) as a reminder that the great crocodiles came into the Nile River by the decree of Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu as a punishment for the Egyptians; for this reason, He wanted the crocodiles to remain in the river of Egypt as a reminder, so that the offspring born to the later generations would know that this is the tzfarde'a that Hashem (blessed is He) brought to the Nile to destroy the Egyptians. This is why Moshe repeated, "only in the River shall they remain," for this was a new phenomenon, that the crocodiles would remain perpetually in the river of Egypt, in the manner of, "a memorial He made for His wonders" (Tehilim 111:4).

We Jews memorialize the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim through the laws of the Torah: Pesach, matzah, maror, and sippur (telling the story). According to the Abravanel, the Egyptians also received a memorial – one that was preserved in the laws of nature: the perpetual presence of crocodiles in the Nile. This stands to reason: we were one intended audience of the plagues: “in order that you recount in the ears of your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of Egypt, and the signs that I placed in their midst, and you shall know that I am Hashem” (Shemos 10:2). Egypt was the other audience: “in order to show you My power, and in order that My Name should be proclaimed throughout all the land” (ibid. 9:14). We received reminders for all generations in the form of mitzvos; so too, Egypt received a reminder for all generations in the form of a lasting plague.

Sforno (ibid. 8:6) also holds by the crocodile theory, but offers a different explanation as to why they remained in the Nile after the plague was removed from Paroh and his people:

in order that you know that there is none like Hashem, our God – for there is no power that can introduce a new change in nature except for a limited time, but the crocodiles which [remained] in the River [resulted from] a [permanent] change in the nature of the River.

In short, the Abravanel held that the purpose of this everlasting plague was for future generations – to preserve the fear of Hashem, and to remind them of the plagues. Sforno held that the purpose of this perpetual plague was for the present – to demonstrate that only the Creator can introduce a permanent change in a natural entity.

___________________________________________________________________________________

If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Even If We Are All Wise, Understanding, Elders, Those Who Know Torah

The content on this podcast has been sponsored by my Patrons on Patreon. The total cost of maintaining my five podcasts in 2021 amounted to over $2000 - all of which would have come out of my own pocket were it not for your generosity. Thank you for helping me make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone!

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article, and click here for an audio version. Note that there are hyperlinks to PDFs of the two essays referenced in the article.

Cairo Geniza manuscript, date unknown

Even if We Are All Wise, Understanding, Elders, Those Who Know Torah

In the Avadim Hayinu section of the Haggadah we say: “Even if we are all chachamim (wise), all nevonim (understanding), all zekeinim (elders), all yod’im es ha’Torah (knowers of the Torah), we are commanded to recount Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt).” What do each of these terms mean? Moreover, what is the hava amina? In other words, what might we have otherwise assumed if the Haggadah did not include this statement? The Rashbatz (R’ Shlomo ben Tzemach Duran, 1361-1444) answers both questions:

Lest you [erroneously] say that this mitzvah is only for the tinokos (kids), to teach them what they don’t know, but this telling is unnecessary for one who knows this – therefore we say: “even if we are all chachamim,” who have heard this from our fathers; “even if we are all nevonim,” who can understand (i.e. derive or infer) one principle from another; “even if we are all zekeinim,” who have known this for many years; “even if we are all yod’im es ha’Torah,” who think deeply into Torah every day, and from our reading of the Torah, we recount Yetzias Mitzrayim – even with all this, we are obligated in this telling on this night.

According to the Rashbatz, people can be classified into five levels based on their knowledge of Yetzias Mitzrayim:

1) tinok: one who is utterly ignorant of and unacquainted with the basic facts of Yetzias Mitzrayim

2) chacham: one who has been taught ideas about Yetzias Mitzrayim; this person is a dependent learner

3) navon: one who is capable of going beyond the level of chochmah (i.e. received knowledge) by deriving chidushim (novel insights) on their own; this person is an independent learner, or a creative thinker

4) zakein: one who has engaged in these ideas on the level of chochmah and tevunah for many years; this person has internalized these ideas, and made them real by “living” them

5) yode’a es ha’Torah: one whose knowledge of these ideas is so thorough and so deep that even their daily Torah study connects back to the principles of Yetzias Mitzrayim

Of these five, the last is the hardest to grasp. What does this type of Torah study look like? Thankfully, I have learned Torah from two individuals who exemplify this level, and they’re both named Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The first Rabbi Sacks (a.k.a. Rabbi Yoni Sacks) was my Chumash rebbi in yeshiva. His approach to Torah is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He approaches Torah as a unified system, with the Rambam’s Thirteen Ikkarim as the foundation and the Mishneh Torah as an organized Torah regimen. His “Level 5 Torah” can best be seen in his essay, Torah’s Place in Redemption and the Quest for Malchus Shamayim. There he explains how Chazal’s injunction “in each and every generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he left Egypt” applies not only on the night of the seder, but to the way we conceive of ourselves year-round. Rabbi Sacks endeavors to show how the entire Torah system, in all its manifold detail, connects back to the first principles embedded in the Yetzias Mitzrayim narrative, as part of the ongoing mission to redeem ourselves from Egypt in every generation.

The second Rabbi Sacks (a.k.a. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l) served as the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 1993 to 2013. He has published dozens of books, written hundreds of articles, and given countless shiurim. His unique approach to Torah, which he refers to as Torah v’Chochmah, seeks to harmonize the teachings of the God-given Torah with human wisdom – “the universals of man’s intellectual quest” – using our God-given intellect. His “Level 5 Torah” is best exemplified in The Jonathan Sacks Haggada: Collected Essays on PesaŠł•. In each of these essays, Rabbi Sacks explains how the principles of Yetzias Mitzrayim shaped the Western World throughout history, and how its ideas continue to be relevant today. My favorite of these essays is Building a Society of Freedom.

These are but two examples of what it means to be yode’a es ha’Torah. The challenge posed by this line in Avadim Hayinu is to develop our own way of seeing the ideas of Yetzias Mitzrayim in our daily Torah study.

___________________________________________________________________________________

If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Chad Gadya: A New Song with an Ancient Theme

The content on this podcast has been sponsored by my Patrons on Patreon. The total cost of maintaining my five podcasts in 2021 amounted to over $2000 - all of which would have come out of my own pocket were it not for your generosity. Thank you for helping me make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone! 

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article, and click here for an audio version.

Artwork: Cloudgoat Ranger, by Adam Rex




Chad Gadya: A New Song with an Ancient Theme

The author of Chad Gadya is unknown, as is the date of its composition. The first verified publication of this song was in a haggadah printed in Prague in 1590. An earlier handwritten version was found in the back of a 1526 haggadah, also printed in Prague. An even earlier version was reported by Rabbi Yedidiyah Weill (1721-1805) in a now lost siddur manuscript dating back to 1406 in Worms. He “heard” that it was found “hidden in the walls of the Beis Midrash” of Rokeach (1176-1238) who established that it “be sung on Pesach night for all generations.”

Many interpretations of Chad Gadya have been offered over the centuries. One of the more popular explanations is that each figure in the song represents one of the regimes that oppressed us throughout our long history. The goat is the Jewish people. The cat is Assyria. The dog is Babylon. And so on. I would like to suggest a different interpretation – one based on an older and inarguably greater song whose theme is central to Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Shiras ha’Yam opens with the verse: “I will sing to Hashem, ki gaoh gaah; horse and rider He cast into the sea” (Shemos 15:1). It is difficult to translate “ki gaoh gaah” in a manner which captures the nuances of the Hebrew. The root G.A.H. denotes “greatness,” “grandeur,” or “exaltedness.” Therefore, it would be accurate to translate the phrase as: “for He is exceedingly great.” However, G.A.H. also carries a connotation of “proud,” “haughty,” and “boastful,” and the terms “gaavah” and “gaon” are used in Biblical Hebrew to mean “arrogance” and “pride.” As odd as it sounds, it would be equally correct to render “ki gaoh gaah” as “for He is exceedingly haughty.” What does the verse mean? How can we make sense of this strange ambiguity?

R’ Yosef Albo (Sefer ha’Ikkarim 2:14) proposes a solution, which he supports with Targum Onkelos’s non-literal translation of our verse: “We will sing and give thanks before Hashem, for He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him; horse and rider He cast into the sea.” R’ Yosef Albo writes:

Indeed, we find Scripture ascribing gaavah (pride) to Him, even though this is a despicable character trait in man, as it is stated: “every haughty heart is an abomination to Hashem” (Mishlei 16:5). The reason for this is that it is not proper for man to take pride in any perfection or in any superiority, for everything comes from Hashem, and it is not fitting for man to take pride in anything that does not [truly] belong to him … Therefore, gaavah is only fitting for Hashem, since everything comes from Him and not from anyone else. It is for this reason that Scripture ascribes it to Him, saying: “Hashem reigns; He dons geius (pride)” (Tehilim 93:1), and Moshe said: “I will sing to Hashem, ki gaoh gaah,” which Onkelos translates as, “for He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him.” Therefore, if someone prides himself on that which does not belong to him, it is proper that that superiority be removed from him in order to demonstrate that glory and superiority do not belong to that person himself, but are from Hashem, by His will.

When Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian charioteers at Yam Suf, they were afraid. Even after witnessing Hashem’s omnipotence as displayed in the Ten Plagues, they still regarded their former masters as powerful beings worthy of fear. It was only after Hashem drowned the Egyptian army in the sea that Bnei Yisrael acknowledged the truth of Hashem’s supremacy – that “He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him.”

Perhaps this is the central idea of Chad Gadya. Each stanza introduces a more powerful entity. This powerful entity appears to be a genuine threat until it is defeated by an even greater one. Ultimately, we arrive at the recognition that Hashem is more powerful than all of them. “Who is like You among the powers, Hashem?” (Shemos 15:11). Not only is this a major theme of Yetzias Mitzrayim, but it also pairs well with the symbolic interpretation mentioned above. When we, the Jewish people, are faced with fearsome oppressors, it can be easy to feel that the situation is hopeless. But we must remember our relationship with the True Power, and turn to Him, believing: “God is my strength and my salvation … Hashem will reign forever and ever” (ibid. 15:2,18).

___________________________________________________________________________________

If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here