These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem


Posted on January 20, 2012 by Barer

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This week’s parsha documents the well-known story of Moshe and Aharon repeatedly coming before Pharoah asking to go worship Hashem, only to be repeatedly rebuffed, even in the fact of nasty plagues (this week’s parsha has the first eight).  There are so many points of focus to pick from when you are dealing with the story we retell each year on Pesach (Passover), but this week what stood out for me was the Egyptian’s relationship to sheep.  As the plagues become worse, Pharaoh begins to relent (or appear to relent), and offers Moshe the opportunity to worship his god.  However, the stipulation is that they must stay in Egypt.  Moshe replies: “This is not right, as it is an abomination to Egypt for us to sacrifice to the lord our god like this, the abomination of Egypt before their very eyes; and would they not stone us?” (8:22, rough translation mine).  The commentaries agree that sheep are what Moshe is talking about, but the Rashbam disagrees with many over why sheep are considered abominable.  Rashi and many others say that the Egyptians considered sheep to be gods, and therefore sacrificing them to Hashem in Egypt would indeed be very risky.  The Rashbam says that sheep were simply considered disgusting to Egyptians, which is the pshat (literal, simple) meaning of the verse.  Each approach has a drawback: Rashi (and others) are forced to say that the word to’evah (abomination) could not have been said before Pharoah, but rather was used when writing these events down in the Torah.  The Rashbam has to explain exactly how sheep were disgusting to such a degree for Egyptians that Bnei Yisrael (The Children of Israel) risked being stoned for sacrificing them before the Egyptians.

Sheep and the cattle

For Egyptians – disgusting

But: godly or gross?