Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Pharaoh and the Pressures of Slavery

An Egyptian taskmaster oppressing a vulnerable Jew (illustrative). Source: Generated by Bing Image Creator.

The Torah commands that when presenting bikkurim (“first fruits”) to the Kohen in the Temple, one must make a verbal declaration, affirming the history of the Jewish People and encapsulating the Exodus story: “An Aramean [tried to] destroy my father, and he descended to Egypt… and the Egyptians did evil to us and they afflicted us, and they placed upon us hard labor. And we cried out to Hashem, G-d of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our voice, and He saw our affliction and our toiling and our pressure (lachatz). And Hashem took us out of Egypt…” (Deut. 26:7). The Haggadah Shel Pesach expounds on this verse by explaining that the aforementioned lachatz (“pressure”) refers to d’chak (“pressure”), and proceeds to cite another Biblical passage concerning the Exodus, wherein G-d again mentions this “pressure”: “And now — behold! — the crying out of the Children of Israel has come to Me, and I saw the pressure (lachatz) that the Egyptians were pressuring (lochatzim) them” (Ex. 3:9).

This exegesis in the Haggadah Shel Pesach begs for a deeper explanation, because it defines the term lachatz in Deuteronomy 26:7 as referring to d’chak, and then proceeds to adduce this explanation by simply citing another verse wherein a cognate of lachatz appears! What is the difference between lachatz and d’chak, and how does Exodus 3:9 show that the lachatz mentioned in Deuteronomy 26:7 really refers to d’chak?

In trying to explain this passage in the Haggadah Shel Pesach, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512-1585) in Maase Hashem stipulates that the term lachatz does not necessarily imply anything nefarious on the part of whoever is applying pressure. Rather, that term typically connotes somebody applying pressure in an effort to extract some sort of benefit from the one being pressured. However, when the Haggadah explains that the lachatz referenced here is actually d’chak, this means that the Egyptians did not simply pressurize the Jews in order to reap the benefits of their work, but that they had negative, malevolent intentions in enslaving the Jews and causing them harm.

Conversely, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) differentiates between the Biblical terms lachatz and d’chak (see Judges 2:18, Yoel 2:8) by explaining that lachatz refers to pressuring somebody chiefly as a means of causing that person to suffer or to otherwise negatively affect that person, while d’chak primarily refers to one who pressures another for one’s own benefit (even if it might come at a loss to the one is put under pressure). In its crudest sense, d’chak refers to “pushing” somebody out of his spot with the intention that somebody else would take his position. In that case, the main intention is not to hurt the one who is pushed away, per se, but to benefit the one who replaces him.

In line with this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that even though the Bible characterizes the pressure that the Egyptians exerted over the enslaved Jews as lachatz, this does not mean that their primary objective was to hurt the Jews. Instead, he argues that the Egyptians’ primary goal was to benefit themselves, and the fact that the Jews had to suffer discrimination was merely collateral damage. Thus, by defining lachatz as d’chak, the Haggadah Shel Pesach means to stress that only in situations when the Jews’ interests conflicted with the Egyptians’ were the Jews “pushed away” in deference to the Egyptians, but in general, the Jews in Egypt were granted the same rights and privileges given Egyptian citizens.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) offers a fascinating explanation that sheds light on the exegesis under discussion. He posits that the word lachatz focuses on the party who is applying pressure on another, while d’chak implies pressure that is strong enough to actually force the hand of the one upon whom the pressure is applied. In some situations, one under pressure might be resilient enough to withstand the pressure placed upon him, and the pressure will not affect him, while, in other situations one might be too weak to bear the pressure and will be forced into submission. Both of those possibilities are included in the term lachatz because that term focuses on the one applying the pressure, not the one who might yield to such pressure.

In other words, Rabbi Schwab explains that d’chak refers specifically to the sort of lachatz (“pressure”) that is enough to push the other party into doing what it is being pressured to do. In this case, Deuteronomy 26:7 simply states that the Egyptian applied lachatz upon the Jews, but says nothing about whether that lachatz ultimately affected the Jews and pushed them into doing what the Egyptians wanted. As a way of clarifying what that verse means, the Haggadah Shel Pesach explains that the lachatz the Egyptians applied could also be termed d’chak because it indeed succeeded in pushing the Jews into doing the Egyptians’ bidding.

As Rabbi Schwab puts it, this notion is seen from Yechezkel 3:9, which uses a verb cognate of the word lachatz, with the Egyptians being the subject of the verb and the Jews being the object. That syntax implies that the lachatz in question was not merely applied from the perspective of the Egyptians (who put pressure on the Jews), but also affected the Jews who became subject to that lachatz and were affected by it.

Rabbi Dr. Refael Binyamin Posen (1942-2016) argues that the Biblical Hebrew lachatz can refer to two different types of “pressure” — physical pressure and psychological pressure. Accordingly, he notes that when the Bible refers to lachatz in the sense of “physical pressure,” Targum Onkelos renders that term in Aramaic as a cognate of d’chak. For example, when Balaam’s donkey caused Balaam’s foot to “press” against the wall (Num. 22:25), the Bible uses a cognate of lachatz and Targum Onkelos uses a cognate of d’chak. However, when the Bible uses the term lachatz in reference to “psychological pressure,” Targum Onkelos renders the term into cognates of the root AYIN-VAV-KUF, which refer to such tensions (as in Yechezkel 22:20, which forbids exerting lachatz on the stranger). In the case of the lachatz mentioned in Deuteronomy 26:7, Targum Onkelos translates the term as d’chak. Based on this, Rabbi Posen argues that when the Haggadah Shel Pesach claims that the lachatz that Hashem saw, in the lead-up to the Exodus, means d’chak, it means to explain that Hashem not only pitied the Jews because of the “psychological pressures” they endured in Egypt, but that even the mere “physical pressures” (d’chak) were enough to sway His decision to release them from bondage.

Visit Rabbi Klein’s Amazon Author Page to find more about his works and their availability.

In response to Moses’ early attempts to release the Jews from their bondage, Pharaoh decreed that he would no longer supply his Jewish slaves with straw, but would still demand that they continue to meet the same quota they had filled before. As the Bible states, “The taskmasters (nogsim) pressured (atzim)” the Jews to continue working as though they were still supplied with straw (Ex. 5:13). In this passage we encounter two more terms that refer to “pressure” — negisah (from where nogsim derives) and atz (from where atzim derives).

Indeed, Targum Neofiti (to Ex. 5:14) translates nogsei as dachkoi, thus cementing the connection between negisah and d’chak. Similarly, when forbidding a lender from collecting his debts after the Sabbatical year, the Torah says, “He (the lender) shall not press (yigos) his fellow” (Deut. 15:2), and the Targum known as Yonatan translates the word yigos (a cognate of negisah) into a cognate of d’chak.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim traces the term negisah to the biliteral root GIMMEL-SHIN (even though negisah is spelled with a SIN), which he defines as “closeness.” Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from this root include gishah (“nearing as close as possible”), gush (“clump/cluster” of closely-packed contents), and geshem (“rain,” which falls from rain clouds comprised of highly-concentrated vapor). Rabbi Pappenheim even suggests that the Land of Goshen (the only area in Egypt where the Jews were allowed to settle) got its name from the fact that that fertile area had much “compact dirt” (as opposed to the rest of Egypt, which was apparently sandier). Thus, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that negisah is characterized by multiple, repeated encounters between the one placing the pressure and the one he is pressuring, as though the two parties were very “close” to each. In idiomatic English, we might say that the former was so close to the latter that “he didn’t give him space to breathe” or was “breathing down his neck.” The Malbim to Yeshayahu 3:5 writes that negisah refers to pressuring somebody to pay up money he does not actually owe, while nosheh refers to pressuring somebody to pay money that he is already otherwise obligated to pay.

When the angels pressured Lot to flee the city of Sodom before it was destroyed, the Bible uses the word vaya’itzu (Gen. 19:9), a cognate of atz. Targum Onkelos translates this term into a cognate of d’chak. Based on this translation, Rabbi Dr. Posen argues that the angels did not just verbally try to convince Lot to leave, but actually physically “pushed” him in order to encourage his exit.

However, Rabbi Pappenheim takes a different approach in understanding the term atz. He traces it to the biliteral root ALEPH-TZADI and ultimately to the monoliteral root TZADI, which he defines as “exiting” or “going out.” Consequently, Rabbi Pappenheim explains atz as encouraging somebody to do something “faster” (thus, the angels encouraged Lot to leave Sodom faster, and the nogsim in Egypt pressured the Jews to work faster). He connects this understanding back to the core meaning of TZADI by explaining that one who is pressed into doing something “faster” does not have the patience to slowly get to the next stage, but rather feels compelled to “go out” of his current situation forthwith.

When the Bible reports that Delilah exerted “pressure” (alatz) on her husband Samson to divulge the secret behind his super-human strength, the Bible (Judges 16:16) uses a cognate of the triliteral root ALEPH-LAMMED-TZADI to denote the pressure she applied. As Rashi (there) and Machberet Menachem point out, this is the only appearance of that root in the Bible, thus making it a hapax legomenon.

Click here to find out more about Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein’s book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew published by Mosaica Press.

The Targum (to Judges 16:16) translates alatz as d’chak. Similarly, Nachmanides (to Gen. 32:25) sees the ALEPH of alatz as interchangeable with the CHET of chalatz, which he understands as a metathesized permutation of lachatz. Radak in Sefer HaShorashim also associates alatz with lachatz. (Interestingly, Ibn Janach explains the verb alatz as “making him angry,” as opposed to “putting pressure on him.”)

Rabbi Pappenheim traces alatz to the biliteral root LAMMED-TZADI (“logical verbalizations”). In that sense he explains that alatz refers to adeptly using words to cajole and convince somebody into doing something. Other words derived from this root include melitzah (“verbal justification/defense” or “translation”) and leitzanut (“scorn” or “mockery”).

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Weiser (1809-1879), better known as the Malbim, seems to somewhat contradict himself in how he differentiates between the terms in question:

  • In his commentary to Judges 2:18, the Malbim writes that lachatz refers to financial pressure (i.e., taxes) and forced labor, while d’chak refers to spatial limitations on where one was allowed to settle.
  • In his commentary to Exodus 3:9, the Malbim writes that negisah refers to financial pressure and forced labor, while lachatz refers to spatial limitations on where one was allowed to settle.
  • In his commentary to Yeshayahu 3:5, the Malbim again repeats that negisah refers to applying pressure on somebody in order to extract from them money or free labor, while d’chack and lachatz do not imply trying to take something from the person under pressure.
  • In his commentary Midrash Haggadah to the Haggadah Shel Pesach, the Malbim explains that lachatz can mean “pressure” that results from a lack of basic provisions (see I Kings 22:27, Isa. 30:20, II Chron. 18:26) or “pressure” that results from physical constriction. Based on that, he explains that when the Haggadah Shel Pesach explicates lachatz as referring to d’chak, it means that in the context of the Jewish enslavement the lachatz in question refers to the second sort of lachatz — which was the result of the Egyptians placing limitations on where in the country the Jews may live, thereby causing physical constriction and cramped conditions.
About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
Related Topics
Related Posts