Bo: The Tongue of a Dog teaches all of Egypt

“The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world” – Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits

The Exodus from Egypt, wrought through the ten plagues, served the twofold purpose of delivering the Jews from their oppression as well as introducing a clear knowledge of God as involved in the affairs of man.  The process climaxes with the tenth plague – death of the firstborn – which ultimately effects God’s objectives.

Reference to the first objective, release of the people, is made clearly when God tells Moses, “Yet one plague more will I bring upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence …” (Exodus 11:1).  The second objective, however, demonstrating God’s involvement to all Egypt, is found enigmatically couched in Moses’ declaration of the plague to Pharaoh:

Thus saith the Lord: About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there hath been none like it, nor shall be like it any more. But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue (lo yeheratz kelev leshono), against man or beast; that ye may know that the Lord distinguishes between Egypt and Israel. And all these thy servants shall come down unto me, and bow down unto me, saying: Get thee out, and all the people that follow thee; and after that I will go out.’ And he went out from Pharaoh in hot anger. (11:4-8).

Through the tenth plague all of Egypt became painfully aware not only of an all powerful God but one eminently concerned for the welfare of His people.  Strangely, a close reading of the text indicates that God’s involved nature was made manifest not by the death of the firstborn but by the tongue of a dog!

This anomaly did not go unnoticed by the commentators who offer various solutions.[1]  Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir (Rashbam) attempts to deal with the incongruence by adding the word “even”, such that, “while the angel kills the Egyptian firstborn not even the bark of a dog will disturb the Jews.”  Rashbam thus acknowledges that the efficacy of the tenth plague lies in the fact that the firstborn of Egypt died while the firstborn of Israel remained alive – the reference to the dogs simply magnifying the miracle.

Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar (Ohr HaChayim) similarly recognizes the essence of the tenth plague to devolve upon the distinction between the firstborn of Egypt versus the firstborn of Israel.  He explains, however, that this distinction was made manifest by the dogs not “screaming” around the Jews because, according to the Talmud (Baba Kamma 60b), “dogs scream when the angel of death is present.”  In this manner Rabbi Ben Attar avoids amending the text in any way; explaining that by dogs not crying around the Jews all of Egypt became aware that no Jews died.

While these explanations solve our initial quandary, they leave unanswered a critical anomaly in the text: the expression “lo yeheratz kelev leshono”, translated by Rashi to mean that a dog shall not “whet” its tongue.  One could argue, as does Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, that “whetting its tongue” implies an intent to attack that would presumably be attended by barks, cries, or screams.  However, this is reading a lot into a very rare word.  That is, if the intent is barks, cries, or screams, why not say so explicitly instead of using a word that appears only once in the entire Torah!  As such, Ibn Ezra provides the alterative translation of “determining judgment” based on the word’s use in Kings I (20:40): “… And the king of Israel said unto him: So shall thy judgment be; thyself hast determined it (haratzta).”  This translation of the term, strange as it may seem, hints at a rather elegant interpretation.

To understand, reference to ancient Egyptian culture is in order.  Ancient Egypt has been written about since Herodotus and included in Greek and Roman writings thereafter, yet the wealth of information afforded the field of Egyptology did not become available until the beginning of the nineteenth century as a result of Napoleon’s expedition of Egypt.  The reason that Napoleon is so credited is because included as part of his entourage was a group of scholars, referred to as “savants”, who performed great research and subsequently published their findings in a multi-volume work called the “Description de l’Egypte” (1809-1829).

Among the finds documented was an Egyptian funerary text which has come to be known as “The Book of the Dead”.  In it, Spell 125 depicts how a new arrival to the netherworld would be escorted to a chamber wherein his heart would be weighed on a scale against the feather of truth (maat).  This procedure served to determine if the individual was worthy of passage to eternal reward or, alternatively, that his iniquitous life had earned him immediate extinction.  The god in charge of determining the judgment was none other than the dog[2] headed Anubis.

Anubis determines judgment
Anubis determines judgment

Returning to the text in Exodus, by employing Ibn Ezra’s translation of “yeheratz” as “determine judgment”, we see a strong correlation to the Anubis scene.  Furthermore, the actual phrase “yeheratz leshono” takes on great significance, for the “lashon” or “tongue” of judgment is used throughout Judaic literature to refer to the central element of the scale by which the judgment of the scale is determined.  Rashi (Hulin 137a, ve’ha’amar) explains that a scale is used such that the weight of one side “forces the tongue of the scale”.  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (on Sefer Yetzirah 2:1) writes: “There is a pan of merit and a pan of liability…. In the center is the fulcrum and pointer … which is the ‘tongue of decree’.”

Given this understanding, the phrase “lo yeheratz kelev leshono” translates to the “dog will not determine judgment with his tongue” – be it the tongue on Anubis’ scale from which he reads the judgment or the tongue in Anubis’ mouth with which he pronounces the judgment.

And so the answer as to why the text, which sought to convey the devastating distinction made in the tenth plague, wherein the Egyptian firstborn were killed while the Jewish firstborn were not, employed the seemingly unrelated issue of the tongue of a dog is now clear.  The text tells us exactly what we expected; it simply does so in the idiom of Egyptian culture, thus further discrediting their belief system.  That is, instead of stating the obvious – “the Jews will not die” – Moses in effect said: “The Jews will not come under the power of your god of the afterlife.  The Jews will never enter that chamber of judgment of your dog-god.  The dog will neither determine the judgment shown on the tongue of the scale, nor will his tongue pronounce judgment on a single Jew.”

In conclusion, by employing a deep understanding of ancient Egyptian culture we have remained true to the text, both literally and philosophically.  The great message of the tenth plague, meant to bring the knowledge of an involved creator to all Egypt was told in the language of the people in was meant to effect.  And so the tenth plague, which culminated in the salvation of the people of Israel from the brutal tyranny that was Egypt, also brought the profound recognition “not simply that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world.”

[1] A broad review of various solutions is provided byE. Greenstein, (“Lo Yeheratz Kelev Leshono”, HaMikra BeRe’ee Mefarshav, [Jer.: Magnes, 5754], pp.587-600), who then offers a solution based on what he calls the literary approach (see esp. p.597).  Without disagreeing with his approach, I suggest that including a sociological element yields a more comprehensive solution.

[2] There is a discussion as to whether the head of this god was a jackal or a dog – in either case they are both in the Canidae family and it is reasonable to assume that the Torah would refer to either with the general term “dog”.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at