Shemos: Prophets and Visionaries ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

When G-d appoints Moshe as His emissary to redeem the Jewish People from their Egyptian bondage, He splits the leadership position into two by saying that Moshe will speak whatever G-d commands of him, and Aharon will relay those messages to the Pharaoh. In doing so, G-d says to Moshe, “Aharon your brother will be your navi” (Ex. 7:1). We generally take the word navi to mean “prophet” and neviim to mean “prophets”, but in what way can Aharon be said to be Moshe’s “prophet”? Moreover, the Bible has another two words which also mean “prophet”, namely chozeh and roeh (see Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch. 34). Do those words differ in meaning from navi, and if so, how?

Both Rashi (to Exodus 7:1 and Nech. 6:7) and his grandson Rashbam (to Gen. 20:7) connect the word navi with the word niv (NUN-YUD-BET), based on the appearance of the phrase niv sefatayim (Isa. 57:19), which roughly means “the fruit of the lips”. Rashbam further defines whom G-d calls a navi as somebody “who is regularly with Me, and he speaks My words, and I love his words and listen to his prayers.” According to this, the word navi denotes he who has fruitful lips (in terms of prophecies and successfully prayers).

Nonetheless, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), in his commentary to Ex. 7:1, rejects this understanding. He explains that it untenable to claim that the root of navi is NUN-YUD-BET because, as he notes, every time the word navi and its cognates appear in the Bible there is always an ALEPH. This suggests that the ALEPH is part of the root, such that navi’s root is actually NUN-BET-ALEPH. Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach and Radak in their respective lexicons (both entitled Sefer HaShorashim) also adopt this approach. [I do not know how this jibes with Radak’s comment elsewhere (to I Sam. 9:9) that navi is related to niv sefatayim, which is in consonance with Rashi and Rashbam’s explanation.]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 20:7) also accepts NUN-BET-ALEPH as the root of navi. He deduces its meaning by extrapolating from a similar root: NUN-BET-AYIN, which means “to flow from” or “to become the source of.” Rabbi Hirsch thus concludes that a navi is the source from whence the word of G-d issues, the vehicle through which His spirit speaks to man.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1714-1814) maintains that the root of the word navi is the biliteral combination BET-ALEPH, which means “come” or “bring”, because it is the prophet’s job to “bring” the word of G-d to its intended audience. In the context of Moshe and Aharon, Aharon was Moshe’s navi because his role was that of a spokesman to “bring” Moshe’s words to the Pharaoh.

Way back in the year 2018, archeologists found a seal with the name Yishaya (Isaiah) inscribed on it, followed by the letters NUN-BET-YUD. Could this seal be that of Isaiah the Prophet? It could be that this depends on how one understands the root of the word navi. If the letter ALEPH is part of the word’s root, then the absence of an ALEPH on this seal would suggest that the word after Yishaya does not read navi, but reads something else (such as “Nobite”). But if the letter ALEPH is not part of the root of navi, then it is possible that this seal actually belonged to Isaiah the Prophet.

The Bible explicitly tells (I Sam. 9:9) that what was called a navi in later times was the same role as what used to be called a roeh in earlier times. The Malbim explains that in earlier times a prophet was called a roeh because the main function of the prophet was to “see” with his Divine Inspiration, and use that to help individuals discover that which was hidden from them (whether in terms of lost items or self-improvement). For example, when Shaul lost his father’s donkeys, he sought out the prophet Samuel to either help him find them or figure out what sin he had committed which led to this loss (I Sam. 9). In essence, a roeh was sought out by those wished to consult with them.

In later generations Jewish society degenerated, and a new type of prophet emerged: A navi was G-d’s messenger sent to rebuke the nation for their sins, and bring them back to the proper path. The navi did not generally speak to the individual, but to the public at large. As opposed to the roeh who was sought out, the navi was a feared character, from whom people tended to run away.

The Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 22:12, Isa. 1:1) explains that the terms navi and roeh/chozeh focus on different aspects of a prophet’s function. The word navi, as we mentioned above, is related to the word niv which refers to the prophet’s mouth. That word focuses on the prophet’s role in relaying with his mouth G-d’s message.

However, the words roeh and chozeh refer to the prophet “seeing” a certain vision which he is to convey to others. Within this role of the prophet, the Vilna Gaon explains, there are two types of Seers: One is called a roeh,which is the Hebrew word for “he who sees”, and was the term used for the earliest prophets, whose clarity in the visions they saw was quite sharp. A later prophet, by contrast, is called a chozeh, the Aramaic word for “he who sees”. Because Hebrew is considered a more spiritually-attuned language than Aramaic, later prophets are referred to by an Aramaic term for “Seer”. This shows that those prophets were not as clear on the meaning of their visions as the earlier prophets were. For this reason, a later prophet is called a chozeh (and his vision a chazon/machaze), and an earlier prophet, a roeh (and his vision is called a mareh).

Indeed, machaze denotes a lower level of prophecy. As Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) points out, this is the type of prophecy experienced by Abraham before his circumcision (Gen. 15:1), and later by the heathen prophet Bilaam (Num. 24:4; 24:16).

Okay, so now we understand how, in general, the word navi refers to a “prophet”. But in the context of Moshe and Aharon, G-d tells Moshe that Aharon will be “your [i.e. Moshe’s] navi.” This navi does not seem to mean “prophet”, but something else. Targum Onkelos (to Ex. 7:1) and Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (there) explain that when G‑d tells Moshe that Aharon will be his navi, this means that Aharon was to serve as Moshe’s meturgaman (“interpreter”, “translator”, “spokesman”) before Pharaoh. Interestingly, the root of the word meturgaman/targum seems to be REISH-GIMMEL-MEM, a root which has no other cognates in Hebrew, but in Ugaritic means “saying”. So there you have it. The Hebrew word for “translating” from/to another language is actually derived from the word for “saying” in a different language!




Shemos: Hashem’s Treasure ~ Tzvi Abrahams

For the illui neshamahof my mother, Chaya Rachel basMordechai, on her yahrtzeit, the

17th of Teves, תש”ע

Parshasשְׁמוֹת

Hashem’s Treasure

עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת: storehouses, treasury

הַסוֹכֵן: treasurer, benefactor

סַכָּנָה: danger

סַכִּין: knife

מִסְכֵּן: poor

עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת: Storehouses, Treasury

וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס
And they built storehouses for Pharaoh — Pisom and Ramses.1

הַסוֹכֵן: Treasurer, Benefactor

He is the one in charge of distributing the king’s wealth.

סַכָּנָה: Danger

The Gemara in Brachoslists a number of people who need שְׁמִירָה/protection. Among those mentioned are someone who is sick and a woman in childbirth, whose lives may be in danger.2Every person has a malach/guardian angel who watches over him. However, in a time of danger, the strength of the guardian angel is weakened, and he is therefore unable to give protection. He is in effect cut off from his mazal,מִשׁוּם הַמַזָל שֶׁל אָדָם הוּא הַמַלְאַךְ שֶׁלוֹ/because the mazalof a person is his guardian angel.3

סַכִּין: Knife

One of my favorite expressions to my kids when they pick up a sharp knife is: סַכִּין מְסוּכַּן/a knife is dangerous. No further explanation is necessary.

מִסְכֵּן: Poor

Someone who is cut off from his source of protection is in danger. Likewise, someone who is cut off from his סוֹכֵן/benefactor, his source of wealth, is considered to be a מִסְכַּן/poor.

טוֹב יֶלֶד מִסְכֵּן וְחָכָם מִמֶּלֶךְ זָקֵן וּכְסִיל

Better to be a poor wise youth than an old foolish king.4

Invariably, money spoils a person’s values. Therefore, a king who has all the money in the world yet spends it on temporary pleasures, is considered an old fool. One is much better off being poor than being tainted by money, leaving one free to pursue a life of wisdom.

Diamonds in the Street

There is a well-known parable about a very poor man who was told about a faraway land where the streets were filled with diamonds. His situation was so needy that he reached the point where he was no longer able to support his wife and kids. With nothing to lose, he decided to set off in search of this distant land paved with diamonds. He managed to scrape enough money together to pay for his sea voyage. 

After many weary days of travel, he finally reached his destination. Upon disembarking, he reached the main town, and sure enough the roads were paved with diamonds. There were diamonds everywhere. He quickly filled up his coat pockets and trouser pockets with as many diamonds as possible. He then made his way into the town in search of a place to stay and found the local inn. When the innkeeper asked him how he was going to pay, the poor man took out a diamond from his pocket. The innkeeper proceeded to laugh, saying that diamonds were so common that they were as worthless as stones.

In order to pay his way, he managed to find work in a factory that made industrial fats and oils. He became very good at making these fats and oils that in a relatively short time he started to make his own. Since in this place there was much demand for industrial fats and oils, he quickly became very rich. When it was time to return home, he hired space in the hold of the ship to take back his fortune: barrels upon barrels of oily fats. On the return voyage he felt very satisfied with what he had achieved — having amassed all this wealth — that he completely forgot about his real reason for going — to collect diamonds. 

Halfway through the journey, a terrible smell started to spread throughout the ship. It was soon discovered that the cause of the stench was coming from the hold in the ship where all of the oils and fats had spoiled due to the heat and the confined quarters. The smell had become so unbearable that the captain gave orders to throw the whole cargo overboard.

The poor מִסְכֵּן/nebachreturned home the same way as he had departed — penniless. As he made his way back home to his wife and kids, he felt like such a failure. The physical exertion from the trip, coupled with his low self-esteem, took their toll on the poor man, who, when reaching home, collapsed on the floor and was taken to bed. His wife cleaned his clothes and found a few diamonds in his pocket and was overcome with joy to know that her husband’s trip had proven successful. When he woke up still feeling depressed, his wife couldn’t understand why he was so miserable; after all, he did bring back a few valuable diamonds.

Thenimshalis clear. We are in this world to collect mitzvos and good deeds, which are the diamonds. The gold and silver, the “fats” of this world, we cannot take with us; they are not the currency back home in Hashem’s world.

We come down to this world…kicking and screaming, “I want to break free…I want to break free!” And when it comes time to go, we also kick and scream, but this time we say: “Don’t stop me now…I’m having such a good time…I’m having a ball!”

We get so caught up in the vanities of this world — wealth, houses, cars — that we forget who we are and what we are here for. So when the boat comes to take us back home, we are not ready to go; we’re having such a good time, we’re having a ball. But in the end, it is a ball of nothing! We are nothing but the old foolish king who in the next world is the real מִסְכֵּן/poor man, whereas the poor wise youth, who with his wisdom collects diamonds, goes from rags to riches.

Rashi brings down the Midrash that compares the Jewish Nation to the stars and the twelve shevatimto the twelve constellations.5This fits nicely with what we said above regarding הַמַזָל שֶׁל אָדָם הוּא הַמַלְאַךְ שֶׁלוֹ/that the mazalof a person is his guardian angel, because Hashem directs everything through the mazalos, the flow of divine energy that is channelled through the stars.

The World is a Stage

We are all actors in Hashem’s play.

Now, every stage needs good lighting. Hashem is the sun and the Jewish People are the moon. We are all individually compared to stars, and each one of us reflects Hashem’s light onto the stage.

The script of the play is the Torah. 

All the characters’ names in the play signify their individual roles. They are not just names picked out a hat, but rather the names in the Torah are significant and describe their bearers’ individual essences.

Pharoah: from the root “to pay.” He is first to scheme and is first to receive retribution.
Moshe: “drawn from the waters.” Water stands for Torah, and the waters of a mikvehsignify purity. Moshe’s spiritual level lit up the house when he was born.
Churvah: referring to Har Sinai, because it was three-day journey from Egypt, in particular the Nile, the nearest water source, and was so named because it was a dry desolate place.

אַסְפַּקְלַרִיָה: Rebbi Nachman tells a story about a king who wishes for a special room in his palace to be painted and decorated. He gives the job to two people and splits up the room in the palace into two equal sections. One works extremely hard and does some amazing designs, while the other idly passes the time. As the deadline approaches, the second guy starts to panic and then has a brilliant idea. He paints his side of the room with a special reflective material. At the appointed time, the king reviewed their craftsmanship and was extremely happy with the first man. However, when the king saw himself reflected in the room through the mirrors of the second guy, he was extremely happy. Why? Because Hashem wants us to reflect his light in the world, and when we do so, we become His stars. 

We shine His light by connecting to the mitzvos, which are like diamonds that far outweigh all the gold and silver in the world, because diamonds have the potential to reflect. If we want to be stars, we have to be able to reflect.

Stars on Broadway

This world is not about having fun or having a good time, but rather it’s about happiness. True, lasting happiness can only be achieved if one has a deep relationship with the Director.

Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein was once asked why Jews have so many mitzvos, so many restrictions — can’t do this, can’t eat that — whereas the goyimonly have seven. It’s just not fair! He gave a great answer, comparing it to two girls auditioning for a play on Broadway. One was not such a great dancer while the other one was superb. It was therefore obvious to the director which one would play the lead role. He told the first girl that she would have a role in the chorus, requiring her to learn seven different movements, whereas he told the second girl that to be the lead she would have to learn 613 different movements! To be the star role in a play on Broadway, she was certainly willing to perform all 613 movements.

So too, we are Hashem’s star players in His special play. We are the central role and we have 613 different movements.

In the Noam Elimelech, it says that there is a higher self and a lower self. The higher self is in the upper worlds, and connects us to higher spiritual matters. We are in essence all shining at the moments we are connected to Hashem, shining and reflecting His beautiful light on the heavenly stage. Hashem counts each and every one of us; each one of us is precious to Him. He gives each one of us names, and so really our names are lit up in stars.

When we connect ourselves through our mazalto our סוֹכֵן/benefactor, i.e., to Hashem, our lives are no longer בְּסַכָנָה/in danger and we are no longer מִסְכֵּן/poor, because we are truly His servants building עִרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת/treasure houses for the King.

1Shemos 1:11.

2Brachos 54b.

3Rashi; Shabbos 53b.

4Koheles 4:13.

5Shemos Rabbah 1:3.




Shemos: The Pharaoh and The King ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

ancient blur close up egyptian
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Pharaoh and the King

I still remember my fifth grade Rebbe, Rabbi A. Y. Berman, asking the one hundred-dollar question: Why does the Torah sometimes refer to the Egyptian monarch as Melech Mitzrayim (“the King of Egypt”) and sometimes as Pharaoh (“the Pharaoh”)? The term Melech Mitzrayim appears in the Bible close to fifty times, while the word Pharaoh appears a whopping 274 times! In six cases, both names are used together: Pharaoh Melech Mitzrayim (Ex. 6:11; 6:13; 6:29; 14:8, I Kgs. 3:1, and Ezek. 29:2). Why does the Bible sometimes use one term; sometimes, the other; and sometimes, both?

As you might know, Pharaoh is not a personal name, rather it is a title held by the King of Egypt. Rashi (to Ps. 34:1 and Ezra 6:14) writes that every king of Egypt is called Pharaoh (in contrast, Radak (to Gen. 26:9) writes that most kings of Egypt were named/called Pharaoh). When the Pharaoh’s butler spoke up to recommend Yosef as a dream-interpreter, the butler began his speech by saying, “I shall mention my sin today: Pharaoh became angry at his servant [i.e. me] and he put me in detention…” (Gen. 41:10). In some versions of Rashi’s commentary, here he again comments that every king of Egypt is called Pharaoh. R. Ovadia of Bartenura (1440–1500) points out that Rashi proffered that explanation because one might otherwise think that Pharaoh was the king’s name and the butler acted disrespectfully by referring to the king by his personal name. To preclude that understanding, Rashi explained that all Egyptian kings are called Pharaoh, so Pharaoh is a title and not a name. Ibn Ezra (there) makes a similar point.

Nonetheless, the Bible does gives us the personal names of three different Egyptian kings. Firstly, the Egyptian king during the reigns of King Solomon and his son Rehoboam was named Shishak (interestingly, the Bible never describes him as Pharaoh, but only as Melech Mitzrayim). Shishak is commonly identified by archeologists as Pharaoh Shoshenq I. Secondly, the Egyptian king during the reign of King Josiah was Pharaoh Necho (“lame” or “handicap” Pharoah). According to the Midrash, he was called such because he was partially paralyzed. When Necho killed Josiah in battle, he captured King Solomon’s Throne and when he dared sit on it, one of the lions on the throne struck him, rendering him partially paralyzed. The third king mentioned by name is in the generation after Josiah. When Jeremiah foretells the downfall of Egypt, he mentions its leader by name: Pharaoh Chafra, king of Egypt (Jer. 44:30).

The Apocryphal Midrash Sefer HaYashar gives us the personal names of some more kings of Egypt. According that source, Severus, son of Anam (see Gen. 10:13 which lists the Anamites as descendants of Ham’s son Mitzrayim—the progenitor of the Egyptians) was the king of Egypt when a man from Babylon named Rakayon impressed the king and his nation with his great wisdom. In the end, Severus renamed Rakayon “Pharaoh” and appointed him the day-to-day ruler of Egypt, while Severus himself remained the ultimate king of Egypt (who would appear in public only once a year). The Egyptians paid special homage to Rakayon by decreeing that all future kings of Egypt should be named Pharaoh.

According to Sefer HaYashar, the Pharaoh in the generation after Yosef’s death was Pharaoh Melol. He ruled for ninety-four years. Instead of calling him Melol, Melech Mitzrayim, the Jews called him Maror Melech Mitzrayim because he made the lives of the Jews bitter (maror) by enslaving them. Interestingly, Egyptologists have discovered that in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the same glyph was used for the r-sound and the l-sound. Even more interestingly, some scholars identify Pharaoh Melol with Pharaoh Pepi II, whose alternate name was Merire.

Sefer HaYashar relates that Melol’s successor was his son Pharaoh Adikam. He was also known as Adikam Achuz because achuz means “short” in Egyptian and Adikam was only one amah (cubit) tall (see also Moed Katan 18a). Adikam was a short, ugly fellow whose beard reached to his ankles. It was during Adikam’s reign that the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt happened.

According to Sefer HaYashar, Pharaoh and Melech Mitzrayim were originally two different titles held by different people, but eventually, it seems, those two offices were merged. This, however, does not explain why the Bible sometimes uses one title, sometimes the other, and sometimes both.

The Zohar (Shemot 17a; 19b) explains that in most of the opening story of the Book of Exodus, the Bible mentions Melech Mitzrayim. This refers to the angelic minister who represents the Egyptian nation in the Heavens. On the other hand, when the Torah refers to Pharaoh or Pharaoh Melech Mitzrayim, this refers to the human king of the Egyptians. Following this approach, the Zohar explains that when the Torah reports, “…And Melech Mitzrayim died…” (Exodus 2:23) this does not refer to the death of the Earthly King of Egypt, but to the removal of the Egyptians’ Heavenly minister from its prominence. Only once G-d demoted the Egyptians’ Heavenly representative did He begin to listen to the Jews’ prayers for redemption.

  1. Bachaya (to Gen. 41:1) writes that throughout the story of Yosef interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, the king is only referred to as Pharaoh and not Melech Mitzrayim because that story was the beginning of Pharaoh’s personal downfall, which culminates in the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea. The only exception to this is that when mentioning Yosef standing in front of Pharaoh, he is called Pharaoh Melech Mitzrayim (Gen. 41:46) in order to stress that he was only able to remain king because he listened to Yosef’s sagely advice. The drawback of R. Bachaya’s explanation is that he does not offer an all-encompassing theory as to when the Bible uses Pharaoh and when it uses Melech Mitzrayim and when it uses both.

Partially basing himself on R. Bachaya, R. Chaim Kanievsky offers a comprehensive discussion about the three different ways in which the Bible refers to the Pharaoh. He explains that when the Pharaoh was acting on behalf of national interests, then he is referred to as Melech Mitzrayim. In contrast, when Pharaoh’s actions are motivated by his own, selfish interests (be that his self-aggrandization or simply his pathological stubbornness), then he is called Pharaoh. When both of these factors played a role, then the king is known as Pharaoh Melech Mitzrayim.

What does the word Pharaoh mean? R. Yitzchok Abarbanel (1437–1508) and R. Avraham Menachem Rappaport (1520–1596) explain that Pharaoh is a term the Bible uses to illustrate the Egyptian king’s depravity and is either a contraction of the Hebrew phrase poel ra (“doer of evil”) or peh ra (“bad mouth”). Rabbi Eliezer ben Eliyahu Ashkenazi (1515–1585) claims in his work Ma’ase Hashem that the Egyptians spoke Latin/Italian. He uses that notion to explain the meaning of the name Pharaoh by arguing that “Pharaoh” means “master” in Italian (after consulting with experts, we remain unable to confirm this). Nonetheless, it is virtually a historical fact that the Egyptians spoke Egyptian, not Latin. Academia tends to explain that Pharaoh means “the great house”.