Exploring Egypt

Each year, looking over my Pesach shopping list I chuckle as I read “toothbrushes and toothpaste.” An essential purchase before Chag, and funnily enough it was the ancient Egyptians who invented the toothbrush and toothpaste…

So many aspects of sippur yetsiat mizraim have become more meaningful to me as I have discovered some history of ancient Egypt. On the very first Pesach, God commanded the Israelites to take a lamb into their homes then 4 days later to sacrifice it as the Korban Pesach. Many of us are familiar with the concept that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the lamb. In taking in and sacrificing this lamb, the Israelites were taking a first step to freedom and distancing themselves from Egyptian beliefs. Recently, on seeing a statue of a lamb representing an Egyptian god at the British museum on a tour with Rebbetzin Shoshana Tugendhaft, I learnt that the lamb is also the astrological sign for the month of Nissan, Aries. The Egyptians saw this as a time of favour and power for their gods, a fortuitous month for victory against the Israelite nation. By sacrificing the lamb in the middle of the month, when the astral sign and the power of their god was meant to be at the height of its power, it showed the Egyptians and the Israelites who was really in control. 

On my visit to the Tutankhamun exhibition in the Saatchi gallery in London, over and over again I read quotes from the Book of The Dead about the importance of names for the ancient Egyptians. They endeavored to have their names written wherever they could and their names spoken by various people after their death. The priests had a daily routine of uttering the names of the deceased and the dead were considered alive for as long as their name was still uttered. Without knowing that, it is difficult to fully appreciate that the whole book of Exodus is actually called Shemot, the hebrew word for “Names.” Yet we don’t even know which Pharaoh was the one involved in enslaving the Israelite nation- he has been written out of history, his name forgotten, ensuring that he would not live on in the afterlife. 

Another interesting insight gained from that exhibition related to the plague of wild animals. Tutankhamun was described as a “lion tamer,” since having mastery over wild animals was a sign to his people that the Pharaoh was able to maintain order in Egypt. Therefore, having animals running riot and causing chaos in Egyptian society would not just have been a danger to the nation, but it also carried clear political implications questioning his leadership. 

The first mitzvah the Jewish people received as a nation was to sanctify the new moon. When you know that the calendar was invented by the ancient Egyptians, you understand that this was another way of God telling the Israelites to distance themselves from the culture of the ancient Egyptians. Rather than following the Egyptian calendar of 10 day-long weeks, with 36 weeks in a year, instead they should follow their own Jewish practices. 

So too the idea of matzah, of not having leavened bread is another distinct break from an integral part of Egyptian culture. Bread, and beer, were a staple part of Egyptian society partaken at every meal, as well as used for payment of workers. It was such an important part of their culture – perhaps nowadays a partial comparison would be to pizza or pasta in Italy – that it signified a clear separation therefrom. 

So, if you get a chance – in between cleaning for Pesach, or during Pesach – do some research of ancient Egypt with your kids. Perhaps take a virtual tour of the ancient Egypt exhibit in the British museum, Israel Museum or The Metropolitan Museum, or a virtual tour of the pyramids. It is sure to add an extra dimension to your Pesach. 


About the Author
Ilana Harris is a teacher, educator, writer and blogger. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four kids.
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