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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

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Commentary on Exodus

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12.1–28 :

Preparations for the exodus. Israel is to prepare for the coming redemption with a sacrificial banquet while the final plague is occurring and is to commemorate the event in the future on its anniversary by eating unleavened bread for a week and reenacting the banquet. This banquet became the prototype of the postbiblical Seder, the festive meal at which the exodus story is retold and expounded each year to this day on the holiday of Pesaḥ (Passover), as explained below.

2 :

Since the exodus will be commemorated on its anniversary every year (vv. 6, 17–18 ), the preparatory instructions begin with the calendar. Henceforth the year will commence with the month of the exodus, and months will be referred to by ordinal numbers rather than names (see (vv. 18; 16.1; 19.1 ; Lev. 23.24 ; etc.). Since the numbers will mean essentially “in the Xth month since we gained freedom,” every reference to a month will commemorate the redemption. The first month (later called Nisan [Esth. 3.7 ; Neh. 2.1]—these later month names were borrowed from the Babylonian calendar during the exile) corresponds to March or April. In Jewish practice, this is the beginning of the liturgical year; it was also the beginning of the Babylonian year. The calendar year, starting with Rosh Ha‐Shanah (the New Year holiday, in the seventh month!), begins in Tishri (September or October). (The older, nature‐based, names of a few months are mentioned in 13.4; Deut. 16.1; 1 Kings 6.1, 37, 38; 8.2 .) Because (vv. 1–20 deal with the month in which Pesaḥ falls and with preparations for the holiday, they are read as an additional Torah portion on the Sabbath preceding the month of Nisan, or on the first of Nisan if it is a Sabbath, and that Sabbath is called Shabbat ha‐odesh, “the Sabbath of the passage beginning ‘This month.’” The rest of the ch, which includes the observance of the first Pesaḥ and the exodus, is read on the first day of Pesaḥ.

5 :

Without blemish, a standard requirement of sacrificial animals (Lev. 22.17–25; Deut. 15.21; 17.1; cf. Mal. 1.6–8 ).

6–14 :

Some of the vv. about the sacrifice reflect a different view of the tenth plague from that in the rest of the narrative. In the rest of the narrative, God Himself slays the Egyptian first‐born; no special measures are necessary to protect the Israelites ( 11.4–7; 12.29; 13.15 ). But in some of the vv. about the sacrifice God is accompanied by “the Destroyer,” an angel of death who presumably kills the Egyptians on God's command (v. 23; cf. Gen. 19.13–14; 2 Sam. 24.16; 2 Kings 18.35; 1 Chron. 21.15 ); the Israelites must apply the blood of the sacrifice to their doorways to prevent the plague from harming them (vv. 7, 13, 22 and 23 ), although no such measures were needed to protect them from the earlier plagues ( 8.18; 9.4, 6, 26 —all from J; 10.23 , E); in (vv. 22 God warns all Israelites (not just the first‐born) to remain indoors; in (vv. 23 He “protects” their houses from the Destroyer; and again in (vv. 27 He “protects” and “saves” them, presumably from the Destroyer. From these details scholars have conjectured that the sacrifice was not an original part of the narrative about the plagues but was based on an older shepherds' rite observed on a spring night (perhaps the night before they set out for summer pasture) when shepherds believed they were endangered by demons who could be warded off by remaining indoors and applying blood to their entrances. This view of the sacrifice and its blood as apotropaic (magically protective) is consistent with its Heb name, “pesaḥ,” “protection”; see v. 11 . According to this theory, the Israelites inherited this rite from their pastoral ancestors (see Gen. 46.32 ) but, because of its proximity in the calendar the time of the exodus, they reinterpreted it as a memorial of the exodus and introduced it into the narrative of the tenth plague. Gradually they abandoned its demonological‐apotropaic aspects in favor of its meaning as a commemoration of the exodus. Traces of this process are visible here: Of the vv. attributed to a source other than P, only (vv. 23 implies that the Destroyer does the killing; vv. 27 and 29 say that God did the killing, but (vv. 27 , in stating that God “protected” and “saved” the Israelites' houses, preserves a trace of the older tradition that it was the Destroyer. In vv. attributed to P ( 12–13 ), only God does the killing; the Destroyer becomes merely a destructive plague, and the blood is merely a sign to identify Israelite houses (like the red cord in Josh. 2.12, 18, 19 ), not an apotropaic substance.

6 :

Keep watch, to prevent it from becoming blemished or escaping during the interval.

8 :

Bitter herbs are pungent condiments (popular among pastoral nomads) and unleavened bread (Heb “matzah,” bread that has not risen) frequently accompanied sacrifices ( 29.2; Lev. 2.4–5; 6.9; 7.12; Judg. 6.19–21 ; etc.; leavened bread was forbidden with most sacrifices: Exod. 23.18; 34.25; Lev. 2.11; 6.10 ). Following the prescription of vv. 24–27 , this banquet is reenacted annually at the Seder, the liturgical banquet which includes the eating of unleavened bread, bitter herbs (“maror,” interpreted as recalling the bitterness of slavery; romaine lettuce or horseradish are commonly used), and other symbolic foods. A roasted shankbone is displayed as a token of the roasted meat, and the story of the exodus, accompanied by rabbinic interpretations, is expounded, based on (vv. 26–27 and 13.8 . (The provisions of vv. 10 and 11 are not reenacted.)

10 :

The sacrifice must be used only for its sacred purpose; hence no leftovers may be saved for eating later.

11 :

The Israelites are to eat while prepared to leave on a moment's notice. Passover offering, Heb “pesaḥ,” which originally referred only to the sacrifice. Later it became the name of the entire festival, including the seven days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (“ag ha‐Matzot”), originally a separate holiday. In most European languages it is also the name of Easter (as in French “Pâques”). The translation “passover” (and hence the English name of the holiday) is probably incorrect. The alternative translation “protective offering” is more likely; see v. 13 .

12 :

Mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt: This probably means that the Egyptians' idols would be destroyed in the course of the plague (Tg. Ps.‐J.; Mek.), just as the Philistine idol Dagon is smashed, and other plagues inflicted on the Philistines, in 1 Sam. ch 5 (Ibn Ezra), and just as Assyrian armies sometimes smashed the idols of conquered cities (2 Kings 19.18 ).

13 :

Pass over (Heb “pasaḥ”): The use of this verb in Isa. 31.5 , “Like the birds that fly, even so will the LORD of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting (“p‐s‐ḥ”) and rescuing,” favors the translation “protect.” So does context in (vv. 23 of the present ch.

14–20 :

The Feast of Unleavened Bread. The haste of the Israelites' departure from Egypt would leave them no time to bake leavened bread (see vv. 34, 39 ). In the future, their annual week‐long self‐deprivation of leavened bread will serve as a reminder that God so overwhelmed the Egyptians that the latter ultimately hastened the departure of the slaves they had earlier refused to free. As it does here, the Torah usually speaks of this festival as something distinct and separate from the pesaḥ sac‐ rifice rather than part of the same holiday (see vv. 24–27, 43–49; 13.3–9; 23.15; 34.18; Lev. 23.5–6; Num. 9.1–14; 28.16–17 ; see also Ezra 6.19–22; 2 Chron. 35.17; only Deut. 16.1–8, 16; Ezek. 45.21; and 2 Chron. 30.2, 5, 13, 15 describe them as a single festival). This has led to the theory that the pesaḥ sacrifice and the Feast of Unleavened Bread have separate origins, the former pastoral (see (vv. 6–14 n. ) and the latter agrarian. The avoidance of leaven in favor of unleavened bread—“bread of distress” (Deut. 16.3 )—suggests that the latter may have begun as a rite of abstinence, perhaps expressing anxiety over the success of the coming grain harvest. The two rites were eventually brought together because of their proximity in the calendar and because unleavened bread was also eaten with the pesaḥ sacrifice (v. 8 ). In this view, then, the Festival of Unleavened Bread became a commemoration of the exodus because, like the pesaḥ sacrifice, it was observed at the time of year when the exodus took place. In the Bible, any agrarian significance the festival once had has been set aside in favor of its meaning as a commemoration of the exodus.

15 :

Unleavened bread: The “matzah” was probably similar to the flat unleavened bread like pita that Bedouin still bake on embers. In earlier times it was disk‐shaped and less thin than now. Leaven refers to leavening agents, such as sourdough or yeast, while leavened bread is any food prepared from dough to which a leavening agent was added to make it rise faster. According to rabbinic halakhic exegesis the prohibition covers any leavened product of wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats; in traditional Ashkenazic practice, rice, millet, corn, and legumes are also forbidden. Remove leaven from your houses: In traditional Jewish practice, the home is cleansed of leavened products in preparation for Pesaḥ and, on the night before the Seder, a few pieces of bread or other leavened products are hidden and “found” in a ceremonial search; the next morning the pieces are burned. Halakhic exegesis construes Deut. 16.4 to mean “no leaven of yours shall be seen,” meaning that only leaven belonging to Jews must be eliminated. Leavened goods sold to non‐Jews for the duration of the festival may be kept and stored out of sight in one's home. This avoids the economic hardship that would result from the destruction of large quantities of leavened goods. Cut off: The probable meaning is that God will cut him off (see Lev. 17.10; 20.1–6; 23.29–30 ), that is, cause him to die early and childless. This is the punishment for noncircumcision and cultic and sexual sins (v. 19; 30.33, 38; 31.14; Gen. 17.14; Lev. 7.20, 21, 25, 27; 17.4, 9, 14; 18.29; 19.8; 20.1–6, 17, 18; 22.3, 29; Num. 9.13; 19.13, 20 ) that are committed “defiantly” (Num. 15.30–31 ).

16 :

The sacredness of these days is to be expressed by ceasing from work, as on the Sabbath ( 20.8–11; cf. Gen. 2.2–3 ), except that, on the festival, food may be cooked (contrast 16.23 ).

17 :

Since the text reads lit. “You shall observe the unleavened bread,” an especially stringent interpretation holds that the grain should be carefully guarded from the time it is harvested, or at least from the time it is ground into flour, to ensure that there is no fermentation. Matzah made in this way is called “matzah shemurah,” “guarded matzah.”

18 :

Since holy days begin and end in the evening (Lev. 23.32 ), the festival lasts from the evening at the end of the fourteenth day through the evening at the end of the twenty‐first day.

19 :

Stranger, a foreigner residing among the Israelites. Although strangers are not obligated to offer a pesaḥ sacrifice (v. 48 ), they may not eat leavened food during the festival. This is perhaps to prevent them from accidentally contaminating Israelites' food with leaven, since bread was sometimes baked in shared or communal ovens (Lev. 26.26; Jer. 37.21; Neh. 3.11; 12.38 ).

23 :

Pass over, rather, “protect” (see above, (vv. 13 n. ). Destroyer, see introductory comment to (vv. 6–14 . The tradition that an angelic figure served as God's agent in the exodus and subsequent events is also reflected in 14.19; 23.20–23 (see also the plan announced by God in 32.34 and 33.2 but withdrawn in 33.14; Num. 20.16; Josh. 5.13–15; Judg. 2.1–5; and Ps. 78.49 ). This tradition is rejected in other passages which hold that God was the only actor, using no intermediary (Exod. 33.14–15; Deut. 4.37; 7.1 [based on but modifying Exod. 23.20 ]; 32.12 ; see also the probably original text of Isa. 63.9 reflected in the readings of the ancient versions). This disagreement was still alive in talmudic times and led to the well‐known midrashic passage quoted in the Haggadah which declares that Israel was taken out of Egypt by God personally, “not by means of an angel.” This declaration indicates that the Rabbis, like the authors of the biblical verses denying a role to angels, considered the tradition of angelic involvement incompatible with absolute monotheism.

24 :

Observe this: According to talmudic tradition (m. Pes. 9.5) only the sacrifice itself is to be repeated annually, not the rites accompanying it in vv. 3, 7, 10–11, 23 . Ibn Ezra accepts this tradition on authority but observes that one would not infer this from the text itself.

26–27 :

Here and in 13.8, 14–15 and Deut. 6.20–25 , the Torah anticipates that children will ask what the various commemorative rites and other laws mean (see also Josh. 4.21–24 ). The Israelites are to use these questions as opportunities to teach loyalty to God by explaining what He did for them. The religious value of such lessons about the past accounts for why much of the Bible is devoted to past events and for the theological viewpoint of biblical historiography. A midrashic elaboration of these passages about children figures prominently in the Haggadah as part of the answer to the children's Four Questions about the unique procedures at the Seder banquet. It explains that the wording of the question in each passage reflects a different type of personality.

12.29–42 :

The tenth plague and the exodus.

31–33 :

Pharoah and his people press the Israelites to leave (see also v. 39). Cf. 6.1; 11.1 .

31 :

As you said, 3.18; 5.3; 7.16 . Pharaoh is granting no more than Moses asked, three days' leave for worship (only in 14.5 does he realize they mean to leave for good, though he suspected that earlier [ 8.24; 10.10 ]).

32 :

May you bring a blessing upon me also, i.e., leave with your cattle to worship the LORD (v. 31 ) with sacrifice, as you said ( 3.18; 5.3, 8, 17; 8.4, 21–25; 10.25–26 ), and when you sacrifice and ask for His blessing (see 20.21 end; Lev. 9.22 ), ask Him to bless me as well. Pharoah may have a specific blessing—cessation of the tenth plague—in mind (cf. 8.4, 24; 9.28; 10.17 ), but in any case his plea indicates that his capitulation to the LORD is complete.

35–36 :

See 3.22 .

37 :

From Rameses to Succoth: On Rameses, the capital, see 1.11 . Succoth was the name of both a place and a region in the eastern Nile delta, in or near the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived (see 8.18 and map, p. 130 ). An Egyptian letter from the period of Pharaoh Seti II (1204–1198 BCE) indicates that the place Succoth was one day's journey from the palace, which was presumably in Rameses. On the reasons for the Israelites following this route, see 13.17 n. Six hundred thousand men, a round number; see also Num. 11.21; Num. 1.46 and 2.32 give the number more precisely as 603,550 (Num. 3.39 adds 22,000 Levites). According to Exod. 38.26 and Num. 1.46–47 , these figures refer to men of military age, twenty and older. Adding women and children yields a population of at least two and a half million. Some scholars believe that in census contexts the word translated thousand (“’elef”) does not have numerical significance but means “clan” or “squad” (as in Num. 1.16; Judg. 6.15; 1 Sam. 10.19 ; and elsewhere), in which case the number of people need not be that high, but it is clear from 38.24–26 and other passages that individuals, not groups, are being counted. This number certainly accords with Exodus' assertions that the Israelites in Egypt were extraordinarily prolific ( 1.7–12 ), though the land of Goshen and later the Sinai peninsula could not have sustained such a population. The number probably originated in hyperbole, perhaps as an expansion of the common 600‐man military unit ( 14.7; Judg. 18.11; 1 Sam. 13.15; 23.13 ; etc.). Comparably, the Haggadah inflates the number of plagues from ten to fifty, and Arabian Bedouin often magnify numbers by factors of ten. Note also the thousand‐fold population growth wished for by Moses (Deut. 1.11 ) and the 3‐million‐person army attributed to Kirta, the king of the city‐state of Ugarit.

38 :

Mixed multitude, non‐Israelites, most likely members of other enslaved groups in Egypt. Egyptian texts and art show the presence of such groups, including Semites and Nubians.

39 :

In their haste, the Israelites made unleavened bread because it can be made quickly (for that reason, it is made for unexpected guests [Gen. 19.3; Judg. 6.19; 1 Sam. 28.24 ], as Arab peasants still do).

40–41 :

The figure of 430 years of Israelite residence in Egypt (P) is compatible with the 400 years of slavery and oppression predicted in Gen. 15.13 (JE or E), assuming that the oppression began thirty years after Israel arrived in Egypt. Gen. 15.16 (also JE or E), however, states that the Israelites would return in the fourth generation (of living there), a statement compatible with the fact that Moses is the great‐grandson of Levi, who went down to Egypt (Exod. 6.16–20 ). If a generation is the period between a man's birth and the birth of his first child, these two passages are hard to reconcile: Even assuming a generation of forty years (although twenty to twenty‐five is more likely), four generations would be no more than 160 years. The Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and midrashic traditions (Seder Olam 1 and 3; Mek. R. Shimon bar Yohai, p. 34 at 12.40 ; Mek. Pisḥa 14 [Horovitz p. 50 ]; Pirqe R. El. 48, p. 114a ) minimize the problem by including in these figures the time the patriarchs lived in Canaan, starting with the covenant of Gen. ch 15 or the birth of Isaac, though that is not what our v. or Gen. ch 15 says.

41 :

The ranks of the Lord: The Israelites are organized as an army, their goal being the conquest of Canaan; cf. v. 51 and 13.18 and their designation as “men on foot,” that is, infantry, in v. 37 .

42 :

Vigil, Heb “shimurim.” Although derivatives of the root “sh‐m‐r,” “watch, guard, observe” are common (they occur five other times in this ch, vv. 6, 17 twice, 24, 25 ), this form is unparalleled in the Bible. In rabbinic Heb it means “guarding, care.” If that is the meaning here, this v. may represent an interpretation of the term “pesaḥ” (see vv. 11, 13 n. ). The sense would be that God guarded the Israelites from the Destroyer on the night of the exodus and will guard them against malevolent forces on the anniversaries of this night (thus Tg. Ps.‐J. and b. Pes. 109b; in that case the v. is a vestige of a magical notion that this date is particularly dangerous, as in the presumed shepherds' belief mentioned in vv. 6–14 n. ). Possibly, the term has different nuances and different subjects in each clause; e.g., it was a night of God's protection of Israel at the exodus, so in the future it will be a night of Israel's observance of the pesaḥ sacrifice. The translation “vigil” implies that it was a night of God's vigilance, protecting Israel (or of Israel's vigilance waiting for God to deliver them [taking “for the LORD a night of vigil” as “a night of waiting for the LORD”]), and in the future it will be a night of wakefulness for Israel to offer the pesaḥ sacrifice (“a night of vigil in honor of the LORD”).

12.43–51 :

Seven supplementary rules about the pesaḥ offering (vv. 43b, 44, 45, 46a, 46b, 47, 48–49 ). V. 50 , which recapitulates v. 28 , implies that these instructions were given before the Israelites departed. They define who is eligible to take part in the pesaḥ offering and other details concerning it. Those instructions pertaining to foreigners, “strangers” (resident aliens), and slaves and employees of Israelites seem, like those in vv. 24–27 , to apply primarily to the future, after Israel settles in the promised land, rather than to their circumstances in Egypt; note particularly that once circumcised the stranger becomes “as a citizen of the country” (of Israel).

43 :

Foreigner, Heb “ben nekhar,” a non‐Israelite; normally used of foreigners living or visiting in the land of Israel temporarily, usually for business. It is contrasted with “stranger” (“ger”), which refers to a long‐term foreign resident. Here it could also refer to Egyptians or other foreigners in Egypt on friendly terms with the Israelites (cf. Isa. 56.3 ). Because the pesaḥ sacrifice is integrally connected with Israel's national experience of the exodus, those who do not identify with Israelites and their experience are ineligible to partake of it. Likewise, according to Lev. 23.42 , only native Israelites are obligated to dwell in booths, another rite that commemorates Israel's national experience.

44–45 :

The implications of the pesaḥ sacrifice being a family‐household ceremony (vv. 3, 4, 7, 27, 46 ).

44 :

Privately owned foreign slaves, as members of the household, may partake if they are circumcised in accordance with Gen. 17.12–13 .

45 :

Bound or hired laborer: This phrase (lit. “resident and hireling”) is better taken as a hendiadys meaning “resident hireling” (as in Lev. 22.10; 25.6, 40 ), a long‐term hired hand who lives on his employer's property. He is not integrated into his employer's household. If a foreigner, he is ineligible for the pesaḥ; if an Israelite, the verse seems to imply that he should partake of his own family's pesaḥ sacrifice, not that of his employer.

46 :

All those sharing the same lamb were to eat it together and to remain indoors. See vv. 4, 7, 22–23 . Break a bone of it, to eat the marrow.

47 :

Offering the pesaḥ sacrifice is incumbent on all Israelites, like the obligation to eat nothing leavened during the festival (vv. 15, 19; cf. Num. 9.11 ).

48–49 :

Resident aliens, though they must abstain from leaven (v. 19 ), are not obligated to offer a pesaḥ sacrifice but may do so voluntarily. They must first undergo circumcision. Then they may make the offering and become “as a citizen of the country,” at least for purposes of this offering. This is not a full religious conversion—the stranger's motivation is to make a pesaḥ offering, not to become an Israelite—but since circumcision is a sign of the covenant, and the sacrifice celebrates the exodus, he must first become a quasi‐Israelite in order to identify with Israel's defining national experience. If so, this ceremony is unique in the Bible; there is no other reference to a formal procedure for converting foreigners to Israelites, even quasi‐Israelites. Foreigners normally became Israelites only by marriage or the informal, generations‐long process of ethnic assimilation that resulted from living in the land. By the rabbinic period, a procedure for religious conversion, including circumcision of males, was created and the Heb word for stranger, “ger,” acquired the meaning “proselyte.” Since the idea of strangers joining Israel is explicitly mentioned in exilic or postexlic passages (Isa. 14.1; 56.3–8; Ezek. 47.22–23 ), it is possible that the present passage is also from that period.

49 :

One law for the citizen and for the stranger, see also Lev. 24.22; Num. 9.14; 15.14–16, 29 . In each of these instances strangers and Israelites follow the same specific procedure (cf. Lev. 7.7 ); it is not a general rule covering all cases. In later halakhic exegesis, when “ger” (“stranger”) is understood as “proselyte,” this v. is understood as prescribing equality between proselytes and born Jews with respect to all the laws of the Torah (Mek. Pisḥa 14, end).

51 :

This v. recapitulates v. 40 , indicating that the digression in vv. 43–49 is concluded and the narrative resumes.

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