Thursday 30 January 2020

Meaning of "Mitzrayim"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                          What is the Meaning of “Mitzrayim”?

     The name “Mitzrayim” raises three questions: 1) Did the ancient Egyptians use this name as well? 2) Why the plural-style ending in the name? 3) Can we figure out what the name means?
      As to the first question, this was not the name used by the ancient Egyptians. I will discuss the names they used below. But “Mitzrayim” or some variant of it was the name used in the other Semitic languages, e.g., Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Akkadian. (Egyptian is not a Semitic language.)  In Arabic, the name is “Mitzr,” even today.
     As to the plural-style ending, a widespread suggestion is that it reflects Upper and Lower Egypt. (“Upper” is the usual term for southern Egypt and “Lower” is the usual term for northern Egypt.) But not everyone views that “yod-mem” ending as reflecting a plural.
    A few times in Tanach the country is called “Matzor.” Is this a later shortened version of Mitzrayim? a poetic form? or perhaps it is an earlier form of the name? Most sources I have seen take the position that it is a poetic form. But the Daat Mikra commentary is willing to suggest that “Matzor” reflects the original form of the name, since the Akkadian and Arabic forms of “Mitzrayim” do not have a “mem” ending. See their notes to II Kings 19:24.
     Can we explain what the name “Mitzrayim” means? Since it was not used in Egypt and was used throughout the Mideast, most likely it is a Semitic name. But there is no root M-Tz-R in Tanach. We do have roots like Tz-Vav-Resh and Tz-Resh-Resh. These roots have meanings like “besiege, confine” and “distress.” (It is widely agreed that these roots are related.) Does Mitzrayim mean a “besieged/confined” region? a “distressed” one? These seem unlikely. Both these roots also have the meaning “show hostility to.” This also seems unlikely as an explanation for “Mitzrayim.”
        There are other verses that support a meaning like “stronghold” for Tz-Vav-Resh. See Ps. 31:22 and 60:11 (“ir matzor”). Also, in Divrei Ha-Yamin we have “arei metzurot” (=strongholds) several times. Probably, the “besieged/confined” meaning expanded to an “entrenched/stronghold” meaning, i.e., able to withstand a siege. So perhaps “Mitzrayim” could mean the “entrenched” region that is able to withstand a siege. But this is just speculation.
         In his Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, Hayim Tawil points out that Akkadian has a word whose root is M-Tz-R and whose meaning is “border.” He explains many of the M-Tz-R words in Tanach in this way. They are loanwords from the Akkadian root M-Tz-R: “border.” He does not mention the place name “Mitzrayim” in this entry. But the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament mentions a possible connection between “Mitzrayim” and this Akkadian word which it says means “border, region.”
        Of course, we know the word “metzarim” from Eikhah 1:3: “The enemies of Judah reached her bein  ha-metzarim.” The Soncino commentary explains: “This might be understood literally, as referring to the actual overtaking of the fugitives in narrow defiles; but probably the figurative sense of dangers and difficulties overtaking and hemming in the people is to be preferred.” Tawil suggests that the meaning here too is “borders,” based on the above word in Akkadian.
      How did the ancient Egyptians refer to their own country? I have seen several different names that they used. One was pronounced something like “tawi.” It means the “two lands.” Most likely the reference is to Upper and Lower Egypt. Perhaps “Mitzrayim” is a translation of this, if the Akkadian word mentioned above means “region.” Another name that the ancient Egyptians used was “tamry,” meaning “land of the riverbank.” Finally, another name that the ancient Egyptians used was “Kemet” which means “black land.” This probably refers to the fertile black soil of the Nile flood plains (as distinct from the “red land” of the desert). When the Greeks referred to this name, they dropped the last T, so it became something like “kemi.”
         What is the origin of the words “chemistry” and “alchemy”? A mainstream view is that it is based on the pursuit of some such study in ancient Alexandria. The meaning would be: “the art of the black-land, Egypt.”  See the post on “alchemy” at   (The “al” is the Arabic definite article “the.” The post considers a relation to “Cham,” the father of “Mitzrayim” (Gen. 10:6) but rejects it.)
          What about the English name: “Egypt”? This is derived from the ancient Greek “Aigyptos.” The Greek is derived from the Egyptian name for the city of Memphis: Het-kau-ptah: “castle of the ka (soul) of Ptah.” There was a temple to Ptah at Memphis. (Ptah was a major Egyptian deity.)
           The word “Coptic” also derives from the ancient Greek “Aigyptos.”
           Going back to “Mitzrayim,” there is another word used for part of Egypt in Tanach: “Patros.” It appears a few times. A mainstream view is that (at least in some verses) “Mitzrayim” is used for northern Egypt and “Patros” is used for southern Egypt. (At Gen. 10:14, “Patrusim” is listed as one of the sons of “Mitzrayim.”)
           Finally, I would like to point out that our search for the meaning of “Mitzrayim” reminds me of a famous comment of R. Abraham ibn Ezra on “Tzafnat Pahneach”  (Gen. 41:45): “If the name is Egyptian, we do not know what it means. If it is a translation [into Hebrew], we do not know what Yosef was  called.”
          This would be a good place to point out a common misconception about the name “Palestine.” It is widely believed that this name originates from Roman times, in the early 2nd century C.E. The truth is that this name is already used several times by Herodotus in the 5th century B.C.E. (The use of the term “Palestine” for this area by the Greeks surely preceded him, even though we don’t have sources.) Of course, the name is related to the Philistines (“yoshvei pelashet,” Ex. 15:14.). Most likely, the Greeks named the area based on the Philistines who lived on the coast, but then gradually applied the name to the interior as well. Prior to Herodotus, we have Egyptian sources beginning around 1150 B.C.E. which use variants of the name, and Akkadian sources in the centuries thereafter.
Mitchell First recommends that you read Herodotus and see how many references to Biblical events and similarities to passages in the book of Esther that you can find there. He can be reached at Please visit his website for more articles.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

WATCH: Netanyahu Optimistic About Trump Peace Plan

From RRW

Abbas Refuses Phone Call from Trump

From RRW

Friday 24 January 2020

Did the Israelites Borrow from the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                   Did the Israelites Borrow from the Egyptians at the Time of the Exodus?

         I have read the relevant verses on this subject for decades without understanding them.   It is time to finally explore this topic.
         At Genesis 15:14, God tells Avraham that his descendants will be strangers and  slaves in a foreign land for 400 years and that the nation that they served will be judged by God and that afterwards “yeitzu be-rekhush gadol.”
        Then, at Exodus 3:21-22 we have: “I will give this people favor (chen) in the eyes of Egypt. And it shall come to pass, when you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall ask (ve-shaalah) from her neighbor… articles of silver and of gold and raiment… and you shall spoil Egypt.”   (Similar is verse 11:2 which I am omitting.)
        Finally, at Exodus 12:35-36:  “The children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they asked (va-yishalu) of Egypt articles of silver and of gold and raiment. God gave the people favor (chen) in the eyes of Egypt. They let them have what they asked (va-yashilum). They spoiled Egypt.”        
         This episode raises two fundamental questions: 1) In Rabbinic Hebrew, Sh-A-L usually means “borrow.” Is this the story of an ancient trick by the Israelites, ordered by God? 2) What was the purpose of this entire episode?
          To answer the first question, most commentaries believe that there was no deception here. The verb “Sh-A-L” has many meanings in Tanach, including “demand” and “request.” Therefore it need not mean “borrow” here. In fact,  “borrow” is a rare meaning of this verb in Tanach.
          Regarding the second question, on the simplest level, the purpose of the episode was to fulfill God’s promise to Avraham.  God was merely constructing a situation that enabled Him to fulfill it. I would be satisfied with this answer. But the commentators write much more. For example:
            -Several point to Devarim 15:13-14 which records that after an “eved ivri” works for six years and is freed, he should not be freed empty-handed. Rather, he is to be supplied liberally from his owner’s flock, threshing-floor and winepress. Perhaps this was not a new law instituted in Devarim, but was a common practice at the time of the Exodus or even earlier in the time of Avraham. As one source (U. Cassuto) explains, this bounty to the freed slaves was required for absolute justice to be done. Although no earthly court could compel the king of Egypt to fulfill this obligation, the Heavenly court saw to it that this requirement of justice was carried out and directed the course of events to this end. (See Torat Chayim on Ex. 11:2, in the name of R. Chananel and R. Bachya, and Hizzkeuni to Ex. 3:21 and most elaborately, U. Cassuto.)
           -Rav S.R. Hirsch writes that during the three days of darkness, the Egyptians were completely helpless but no Israelite took the slightest advantage of their persons or possessions. When this plague ended and they found all their possessions untouched, God made their recognition of the moral nobility of the Israelites overcome their antipathy to them. They even gave the Israelites these gifts before the Israelites asked. God also wanted the first foundation stone of the prosperity of His people to be acquired through recognition of their moral greatness by those who had hitherto despised them.
             (Regarding the last three words of 12:36, he suggests they mean that the Egyptians stripped themselves of their own treasures and gave them to the Israelites.)
            -Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz writes that the Torah commands us not to abhor an Egyptian (Deut. 23:8). He takes the position that the purpose of this entire episode was to ensure that there would be a friendly parting so we could end up being able to observe this commandment. The Israelites would come to see that the oppressors were Pharaoh and his courtiers, and not the Egyptian people. (Rabbi Hertz is here following the approach of the scholar Benno Jacob. In this approach, the suggestion is made that the last three words of 3:22 mean “and you shall save Egypt.”  I.e., the name of the Egyptians will be cleared and their humanity vindicated.”)
              -Nechama Leibowitz and others before her suggest that there is no unfairness here because the Israelites may have left property behind in Egypt. Nechama writes: “This loss of possessions has been a blight that has dogged Jews throughout their expulsions, from Spain in 1492 to Iraq in the first years of the State of Israel. But in all these cases, their neighbors were not so kind as to let them have silver and gold articles in return for the wealth they had left behind, and not even on loan, at that.”
              Most interesting however is the view of S. D. Luzzatto who believes that the Israelites did trick the Egyptians here at God’s command. The root Sh-A-L certainly means “borrow” some times in Tanach, so it can have this meaning here. The Israelites had never told the Egyptians that they were not coming back. Moses had only requested a three day trip to worship the Israelite God (5:3).   As late as Exodus 10:26 (between the ninth and tenth plagues), it seems that Moses is still only requesting permission for a temporary departure to worship the Israelite God.
             But what about the moral questions: How could God command such an act of trickery? Would not the Israelites be learning a lesson that trickery is something to be encouraged? On the contrary! Luzzatto writes that what was impressed upon them was that God despises evildoers and favors those who are crushed in spirit. What the Israelites would be learning is that if they themselves were to oppress others, God would avenge them and transfer their wealth to those others! The whole episode strengthened their hearts with reverence for God and love of justice.
           The whole idea of Moses’ request for only a temporary departure deserves a separate column. (I  forget if such a request was made at any time by Charlton Heston. But there is an interesting post by R. Menachem Leibtag on this topic at “Let My People Go- A Hoax or a Mission.”)  In any event, one can respond to Luzzatto that the Egyptian people were not privy to the exact words of the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. And at 12:33, just prior to the transfer of items to the Israelites at 12:35-36, the verse tells us: “va-techezak Mitzrayim al ha-am le-maher le-shalcham min ha-aretz, ki amru kulanu meitim.” On the simplest level, this sounds like the Egyptian people were desirous of sending the Israelites off permanently, and they still gave them the various items.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. As a scholar, he does not practice deceit. But as an attorney… He can be reached at Please visit his website for more of his articles.